For what had crossed her mind... was a sexual thought.... It was not only her profound ignorance of the reality of copulation that frightened her; it was the aura of pain and brutality that the act seemed to require....
Thus she had evolved a kind of private commandment—those inaudible words were simply “I must not”—whenever the physical female implications of her body, sexual, menstrual, parturitional, tried to force and entry into her consciousness. But though one may keep the wolves from one’s door, they still howl out there in the darkness. Ernestina wanted a husband, wanted Charles to be that husband, wanted children; but the payment she vaguely divined she would have to make for them seemed excessive.
[H]e saw in the strata an immensely reassuring orderliness in existence. He might perhaps have seen a very contemporary social symbolism in the way these gray-blue ledges were crumbling; but what he did see was a kind of edificiality of time, in which inexorable laws... very conveniently arranged themselves for the survival of the fittest and best, exemplia gratia Charles Smithson, this fine spring day, alone, eager and inquiring, understanding, accepting, noting and grateful. What was lacking, of course, was the corollary of the collapse of the ladder of nature: that if new species can come into being, old species very often have to make way for them.
Charles did not know it, but in those brief poised seconds above the waiting sea, in that luminous evening silence broken only by the waves’ quiet wash, the whole Victorian Age was lost. And I do not mean that he had taken the wrong path.
This story I am telling is all imagination. These characters I create never existed outside my own mind. If I have pretended until now to know my characters’ minds and innermost thoughts, it is because I am writing in (just as I have assumed some of the vocabulary and the “voice” of) a convention universally accepted at the time of my story: that the novelist stands next to God. He may not know all, yet he tries to pretend that he does.
In other words, to be free myself, I must give him [Charles], and Tina, and Sarah, even the abominable Mrs. Poulteney, their freedoms as well. There is only one good definition of God: the freedom that allows other freedoms to exist. And I must conform to that definition.
The novelist is still a god, since he creates...; what has changed is that we are no longer the gods of the Victorian image, omniscient and decreeing; but in the new theological image, with freedom our first principle, not authority.
But this is preposterous? A character is either “real” or “imaginary”? If you think that, hypocrite lecteur, I can only smile. You do not even think of your own past as quite real; you dress it up, you gild it or blacken it, censor it, tinker with it... fictionalize it, in a word, and put it away on a shelf—your book, your romanced autobiography. We are all in flight from the real reality. That is a basic definition of Homo sapiens.
Darwinism, as its shrewder opponents realized, let open the floodgates to something far more serious than the undermining of the Biblical account of the origins of man; its deepest implications lay in the direction of determinism and behaviorism, that is, towards philosophies that reduce morality to a hypocrisy and duty to a straw hut in a hurricane.
Charles, as you will have noticed, had more than one vocabulary. With Sam in the morning, with Ernestina across a gay lunch, and here in the role of Alarmed Propriety... he was almost three different men.... We may explain it biologically by Darwin’s phrase: cryptic coloration, survival by learning to blend with one’s surroundings—with the unquestioned assumptions of one’s age or social caste. Or we can explain this flight to formality sociologically. When one was skating over so much thin ice—ubiquitous economic oppression, terror of sexuality, the flood of mechanistic science—the ability to close one’s eyes to one’s own absurd stiffness was essential. Very few Victorians chose to question the virtues of such cryptic coloration, but there was that in Sarah’s look which did.
It was as if the woman had become addicted to melancholia as one becomes addicted to opium. Now do you see how it is? Her sadness becomes her happiness. She wants to be a sacrificial victim, Smithson. Where you and I flinch back, she leaps forward. She is possessed, you see.... Dark indeed. Very dark.
[T]hose visions of the contented country laborer and his brood made so fashionable by George Morland and his kind... were as stupid and pernicious a sentimentalization, therefore a suppression of reality, as that in our own Hollywood films of “real” life. One look at Millie and her ten miserable siblings should have scorched the myth of the Happy Swain into ashes; but so few gave that look. Each age, each guilty age, builds high walls round its Versailles; and personally I hate those walls most when they are made by literature and art.
...“You cannot, Mr. Smithson. Because you are not a woman. Because you are not a woman who was born to be a farmer’s wife but educated to be something... better.... You were not born a woman with a natural respect, a love of intelligence, beauty, learning... I don’t know how to say it, I have no right to desire these things, but my heart craves them and I cannot believe it is all vanity.”
I did it so that people should point at me, should say, there walks the French Lieutenant’s Whore.... So that they should know I have suffered, and suffer, as others suffer in every town and village in this land. I could not marry that man. So I married shame.... It seemed to me then as if I threw myself off a precipice or plunged a knife into my heart. It was a kind of suicide. An act of despair, Mr. Smithson. I know it was wicked... blasphemous, but I knew no other way to break out of what I was.... What has kept me alive is my shame, my knowing that I am truly not like other women.... Sometimes I almost pity them. I think I have a freedom they cannot understand. No insult, no blame, can touch me. Because I have set myself beyond the pale. I am nothing, I am hardly human any more. I am the French Lieutenant’s Whore.
A remarkable young woman, a remarkable young woman. And baffling. He decided that that was—had been, rather—her attraction: her unpredictability. He did not realize that she had two qualities as typical of the English as his own admixture of irony and convention. I speak of passion and imagination. The first quality Charles perhaps began dimly to perceive; the second he did not. He could not, for those two qualities of Sarah’s were banned by the epoch, equated in the first case with sensuality and in the second with the merely fanciful. This dismissive double equation was Charles’s greatest defect—and here he stands truly for his age.
The master went back into his room; and there entered his mind a brief image of that ancient disaster he had found recorded in the blue lias and brought back to Ernestina—the ammonites caught in some recession of water, a micro-catastrophe of ninety million years ago. In a vivid insight, a flash of black lightning, he saw that all life was parallel: that evolution was not vertical, ascending to a perfection, but horizontal. Time was the great fallacy; existence was without history, was always now, was always this being caught in the same fiendish machine. All those painted screens erected by man to shut out reality—history, religion, duty, social position, all were illusions, mere opium fantasies.
[The Victorians] were quite as highly sexed as our own century—and, in spite of the fact that we have sex thrown at us night and day (as the Victorians had religion), far more preoccupied with it than we really are. They were certainly preoccupied by love, and devoted far more of their arts to it than we do ours. Nor can Malthus and the lack of birth-control appliances quite account for the fact that they bred like rabbits and worshiped fertility far more ardently than we do.... I have seen the Naughty Nineties represented as a reaction to many decades of abstinence; I believe it was merely the publication of what had hitherto been private, and I suspect we are in reality dealing with a human constant: the difference is a vocabulary, a degree of metaphor.
To be sure there was something base in his rejection—a mere snobbism, a letting himself be judged and swayed by an audience of ancestors....
But there was one noble element in his rejection: a sense that the pursuit of money was an insufficient purpose in life. He would never be a Darwin or a Dickens, a great artist or scientist; he would at worst be a dilettante, a drone, a what-you-will that lets others work and contributes nothing. But he gained a queer sort of momentary self-respect in his nothingness, a sense that choosing to be nothing... was the last saving grace of a gentleman; his last freedom, almost.
In looking down as he dressed he perceived a red stain on the front tails of his shirt.
He had forced a virgin.
...She had not given herself to Varguennes. She had lied. All her conduct, all her motives in Lyme Regis had been based on a lie. But for what purpose. Why? Why? Why?
To put him totally in her power!
And all those loathsome succubi of the male mind, their fat fears of a great feminine conspiracy to suck the virility from their veins, to prey upon their idealism, melt them into wax and mold them to their evil fancies... filled Charles’s mind with an apocalyptic horror.
...She was mad, evil, enlacing him in the strangest of nets... but why?
In a sudden flash of illumination Charles saw the right purpose of Christianity; it was not to celebrate this barbarous image, not to maintain it on high because there was a useful profit—the redemption of sins—to be derived from so doing, but to bring about a world in which the hanging man could be descended, could be seen not with the rictus of agony on his face, but the smiling peace of a victory brought about by, and in, living men and women.
He seemed as he stood there to see all his age... as the great hidden enemy of all his deepest yearnings. That was what had deceived him... the deception was in its very nature; and it was not human, but a machine.
And Charles thought: if they were truly dead, if there were no afterlife, what should I care of their view of me? They would not know, they could not judge.
Then he made the great leap: They do not know, they cannot judge.
Now what he was throwing off haunted, and profoundly damaged, his age. It is stated very clearly by Tennyson in In Memoriam.... There must be wisdom with great Death; the dead shall look me thro’ and thro’. Charles’s whole being rose up against those two foul propositions; against this macabre desire to go backwards into the future, mesmerized eyes on one’s dead fathers instead of on one’s unborn sons. It was as if his previous belief in the ghostly presence of the past had condemned him, without his ever realizing it, to a life in the grave.
This—the fact that every Victorian had two minds—is the one piece of equipment we must always take with us on our travels back to the nineteenth century. It is a schizophrenia seen at its clearest, its most notorious, in the poets I have quoted from so often—in Tennyson, Clough, Arnold, Hardy... transparent also in the mania for editing and revising, so that if we want to know the real Mill or the real Hardy we can learn far more from the deletions and alterations of their autobiographies than from the published versions... more from correspondence that somehow escaped burning, from private diaries, from the petty detritus of the concealment operation. Never was the record so completely confused, never a public façade so successfully passed off as the truth on a gullible posterity....
Fiction usually pretends to conform to the reality: the writer puts the conflicting wants in the ring and then describes the fight—but in fact fixes the fight, letting that want he himself favors win. And we judge writers of fiction both by the skill they show in fixing the fights (in other words, in persuading us that they were not fixed) and by the kind of fighter they fix in favor of: the good one, the tragic one, the evil one, the funny one, and so on.
But the chief argument for fight-fixing is to show one’s readers what one thinks of the world around one—whether one is a pessimist, an optimist, what you will. I have pretended to slip back into 1867; but of course that year is in reality a century past. It is futile to show optimism, or pessimism, or anything else about it, because we know what has happened since.
When he had had his great vision of himself freed from his age, his ancestry and class and country, he had not realized how much the freedom was embodied in Sarah; in the assumption of a shared exile. He no longer much believed in that freedom; he felt he had merely changed traps, or prisons. But yet there was something in his isolation that he could cling to; he was the outcast, the not like other men, the result of a decision few could have taken, no matter whether it was ultimately foolish or wise.
“You do not understand. It is not your fault. You are very kind. But I am not to be understood.”
“You forget you have said that to me before. I think you make it a matter of pride.”
“I meant that I am not to be understood even by myself. And I can’t tell you why, but I believe my happiness depends on my not understanding.”
Charles smiled, in spite of himself. “This is absurdity. You refuse to entertain my proposal because I might bring you to understand yourself.”
“I refuse, as I refused the other gentleman, because you cannot understand that to me it is not an absurdity.”
And perhaps he did at last begin to grasp her mystery. Some terrible perversion of human sexual destiny had begun; he was no more than a footsoldier, a pawn in a far vaster battle; and like all battles it was not about love, but about possession and territory. He saw deeper: it was not that she hated man, not that she materially despised him more than other men, but that her maneuvers were simply a part of her armory, mere instruments to a greater end.
He... has already begun... to realize that life, however advantageously Sarah may in some way seem to fit the role of Sphinx, is not a symbol, is not one riddle and one failure to guess it, is not to inhabit one face alone or to be given up after one losing throw of the dice; but is to be, however inadequately, emptily, hopelessly into the city’s iron heart, endured. And out again, upon the unplumb’d, salt, estranging sea.