Six Degrees of Separation: from The French Lieutenant’s Woman to The Essex Serpent

 

Happy New Year everyone. I’m starting my 2019 blogs with the January Six Degrees meme, sticking with my tradition of being slightly late. (Resolutions to do better are pointless, don’t you think?) This month we’re starting with The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles.

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It has been many years since I read this novel. I remember it being atmospheric and moody. It quite possibly ignited my love of historical fiction that is set in that great century of upheaval and social change, the 19th century. The novel concerns the romance between a respectable gentleman, already engaged to be married, and a woman cast out by society because of a scandalous previous relationship. The story is narrated by someone uninvolved in the tale, who sits outside proceedings and presents the reader with three different possible endings.

One of the most re-read books that I own is A S Byatt’s Possession, another novel that features an illicit romance that is examined by characters from another era.

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Rather than a narrator objectively commenting on the story, as in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Possession sees two 20th century academics pursuing the scandal of an extramarital affair between two Victorian poets. Like the titular character in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, the female poet is disgraced, largely because she is trying to live an independent life on her own terms, something Victorian society at large wasn’t keen on. There is also a subplot involving the unrequited love of the female poet’s companion for the female poet. This novel isn’t based on a true story, but Byatt’s telling of it was so convincing for one of my friends that she went into a bookshop and asked for a copy of one of the poets’ works.

Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey features the angrily independent Lucinda Leplastrier who is wildly impulsive, largely due to her traumatic childhood.

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Lucinda represents the first generation of white Australians, forged like iron in that unaccommodating environment. After buying a glass factory, she meets the vicar Oscar Hopkins who is heading to New South Wales from Devon to follow God’s calling. Oscar, too, has had a traumatic childhood. Lucinda challenges Oscar to transport a chapel made of glass from Sydney to a remote settlement further up the New South Wales coast. The incipient romance between the pair isn’t illicit, but instead never gets off the ground because of Oscar’s religiosity throwing up unnecessary obstacles. Apparently, Carey based his novel in part on the true story of an English poet, Edmund Gosse.

Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace isn’t my favourite of her books. It’s based on a true crime and features a narrator who is researching that crime, a combination of the structure of The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Possession.

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Hired out from prison to work as a domestic servant, Grace is a disgraced woman. Through the interventions of the members of the Methodist church who want to redeem her, we learn that she suffered an abusive childhood in Ireland. She moved with her family to Canada and ended up living and working among the poor and disadvantaged, giving Atwood the opportunity to examine the underbelly of Victorian society in Canada.

Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites also features a Victorian murderess, this one Icelandic.

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Like Alias Grace, it’s based on a true story, this one involving the last woman to suffer the death penalty in Iceland. Although not directly narrated by the District Commissioner investigating the murders of which Agnes Magnúsdóttir is accused, the novel features correspondence between the District Commissioner and the vicar charged with administering spiritual guidance to Agnes. This correspondence acts as a form of narration of the facts of the case, alongside excerpts from evidence in the official record. Nor does Agnes directly narrate her own story, she is mute for most of the book, but we do hear her voice in segments of text that express what she is experiencing. Agnes is yet another in a line of women who are taken advantage of because of their social status and who suffer at the hands of men.

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters is narrated in turn by each of the female protagonists. Both have had unhappy childhoods.

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Sue is an orphan who might be described as a female Jack Dawkins, for she is raised as part of a criminal gang in 19th century England, while Maud grew up in an asylum before being sent to work for her uncle, who is compiling a compendium of pornography. Sue and Maud become connected through a plot hatched by a man known as Gentleman, a plot which gradually unravels through a series of twists that illustrate the convolutions of life for those born within what Charles Booth termed the vicious, semi-criminal class of Victorian London. The two women also fall in love, another form of illicit romance that Victorian society didn’t believe existed, because sex is only possible if a penis is involved.

My final book in the chain is The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry, which is another novel featuring an illicit romance, between a wealthy woman released from a loveless marriage by the death of her abusive husband and a vicar whose beliefs threaten to be overturned through his encounter with her intelligence and independent spirit.

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Cora Seaborne is a magnificent woman who wrests independence and a devil-may-care attitude to Victorian mores from her experience in marriage. She is moral in a different way to the people around her. As with Cristabel Lamotte and her companion in Possession, Cora’s companion Martha is in love with her. And so is the doctor who treated her husband in his final illness, a storyline that illustrates the presumptions of men in Victorian England, that a woman unmarried is fair game.

So here we have a sequence of novels that explore womanhood, independence and love during the Victorian era, featuring outsiders and men hamstrung by religion, but what else connects these books? Kent’s and Perry’s books aside, they have each been adapted for the screen, either as films or as TV mini series. (Burial Rites, according to a report from a year ago, is slated to become a film starring Jennifer Lawrence.) Four of the novels feature in Boxall’s list of 1001 books, another is a Booker winner. The remaining two deserve better recognition in my opinion, although both featured on Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlists.

If my list of books has made you curious about this meme, why not pop over to Books Are My Favourite and Best and follow the links to other people’s lists. Better still, why not put together one of your own?

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5 thoughts on “Six Degrees of Separation: from The French Lieutenant’s Woman to The Essex Serpent

  1. I love your chain. Beautifully described. Kamouraska is a very interesting novel, written mainly through the dreams and thoughts of Elizabeth. It was written in French but the translation is excellent.

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  2. Great chain Jan. I particularly loved your link from Fowles to Byatt. I also love that your chain contains more books that I’ve read than many have (which means I can properly rather than superficially understand your links) – Byatt, Carey (which I frequently feel I want to re-read), Atwood, Kent. And I have seen the Waters.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Love how you pulled Alias Grace and Burial Rites in.
    Burial Rites was my favourite book the year I read it – feel nervous about the movie as not sure it can match Kent’s superb writing.

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    1. Thanks, Kate! I had a good old think about my books this time and enjoyed putting the chain together.

      I know what you mean about an adaptation of Burial Rites. As much as I love Jennifer Lawrence, I feel nervous about her as Agnes.

      Liked by 1 person

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