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John Fowles and Paul Scott: The Initial Image

by John Cobley

Saturday May 12th, 2018




It’s striking that two of the best English novels from the 1960’s both evolved initially from an image that came to the authors as a vision. Novelists generally begin with a concept, a situation, or a core narrative idea, but John Fowles and Paul Scott developed their novels from an initial image. The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969) evolved from the image of a woman standing at the end of a long quay, The Jewel in the Crown (1964) from the image of a girl running.


Both novelists have described how their initial image developed into a novel: Fowles in “Notes on an Unfinished Novel”  (Harper’s Magazine,1968; Wormholes, 1998); Scott in “Method: The Mystery and the Mechanics,” My Appointment with the Muse (1986).


There are more similarities. First, obviously, both images are of a female. And then there is a bizarre similarity in the location where our two novelists “received” their images. Both were in bed! Fowles received his image in the early morning: “It started four or five months ago as a visual image. A woman stands at the end of a deserted quay and stares out to sea. That was all. The image rose in my mind on morning when I was still in bed half asleep.” (p. 13) Scott’s image came during a bout of insomnia: “My image came—as images always do, apparently by chance, unexpectedly—in the dark of a restless, sleepless night…. And there she was, my prime mystery, a girl, in the dark, running, exhausted, hurt in someway, yet strangely of good heart—tough, resilient, her face and figure a sense rather than an observed condition. But she runs.” (p. 60)


The two novelists reacted quite differently to the arrival of their vision. Fowles purposely ignored his image—he called it a “mythopoeic still”—and waited to see if it visited him again, “since that is the best way of finding whether they [images] really are the door into a new world.” (p. 13) Scott immediately saw his kinetic image as both the “seeds” of his novel and as “a mine whose veins could be explored and exploited.” Rather than ignoring it like Fowles, he immediately “bombarded” it in the hope of getting a “beautiful explosion.” (61)


When the image of a woman on a quay came to Fowles, he was in the middle of writing another novel. But once it had “recurred,” spontaneously, he began to recall it deliberately “to try to analyze and hypothesize why it held some sort of immanent power.”  It seemed mysterious, “vaguely romantic” and  “not to belong to today.” The woman on the quay still had no face but she was Victorian and an outcast: “I didn’t know her crime, but I wished to protect her. That is I began to fall in love with her. Or with her stance. I didn’t know which.” (13-14) At this stage he abandoned his half-written novel and focused on writing The French Lieutenant’s Woman.


Scott went through a similar process with his image: “With knowledge, experience, imagination and creative impulse, I bombarded the image of a girl running.” Through this process he recalled a “big, husky, not awfully attractive” girl he had met briefly in Calcutta: “My imagination fined her down, but at the point where the resilience of the girl in the image matched that of the girl in Calcutta, the fining-down process stopped—and Daphne Manners was born as tall and gangling—rather awkward.” (62) Now that he had established the physical features of the running girl, he started to work on her emotional background. With that done, he moved to the historical and social context, “bombarding the image with facts.”


As his novel took shape, Scott would still return to his girl-running image. This time his aim was no longer to develop his main character. Rather, he used his image to develop secondary characters. He called this  process “reverse exploration.”


Thus two novels began. And of course the images of the standing woman and the running girl appeared in the novels, though with some surprises.


In the very first sentence of The Jewel in the Crown Scott begins with his image: “Imagine, then, a flat landscape, dark for the moment, but even so conveying to a girl running in the still deeper shadow cast by the wall of Bibighar Gardens an idea of immensity of distance….” Not until 140 pages later does he bring up his image again when describing the distance between two places as “only one mile distant. Not far, but far enough for a girl running at night.” (147) And then, three pages later, Scott writes of the route between two locations “taken by the a girl running from one to the other.” (150) But the reader must wait until the end of the novel to understand the full significance of the girl running. Only near the end of the last section of his novel does Scott give, in the words of the running girl herself, the full explanation of his image. She is running away from the scene of her gang-rape that her lover had been forced to witness: “For an instant I held him [her lover] close—it was the last time I touched him—and then I broke free again and was out of the gateway and running; running in and out of the light of the street lamp opposite, running into the dark and grateful for the dark, going without any understanding of direction.” (436)


Fowles also introduces his image at the start of his novel, though not in the first sentence like Scott. He begins with a description of the quay, the Cobb in Lyme Bay, and of a couple walking down the quay. After a description of the Cobb (four paragraphs) and of the fashionably dressed couple (two paragraphs), he finally gets to the woman of his image in the last short paragraph of the first chapter. She is “the other figure” on the quay, but at this stage we are not told her gender as the figure is referred to only by the neuter pronoun. Here is the full last paragraph: “But where the telescopist would have been at sea himself was with the other figure on that sombre, curving mole. It stood right at the seawardmost end, apparently leaning against an old cannon-barrel up-ended as a bollard. Its clothes were black. The wind moved them, but the figure stood motionless, staring, staring out to sea, more like a living memorial to the drowned, a figure from myth, than any proper fragment of the petty provincial day.” (11) Clearly Fowles intentionally withheld the figure’s gender; I am not sure why.



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