Commentary Magazine

The English Sickness

If one reflects on “the great tradition” of the English novel (using F. R. Leavis’s term more generously than he would approve), it is evident that the quality of British fiction in the I970’s has deteriorated into the great traduction. Even if one limits the range of critical reference to the post-Lawrence generations, it is dismally clear that the extraordinary mine of wit, intelligence, and stylistic command that enriched the English novel from the mid-1930’s until about a decade after World War II—the flourishing years of Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Joyce Cary, Christopher Isherwood, George Orwell, Anthony Powell, and the young Kingsley Amis who wrote Lucky Jim—is by now more exhausted than the British Treasury. The best, as Yeats wrote, lack all conviction, and the worst are full of passionate intensity.

It is a curious and piquant fact, not easily explained, that the dominant, and certainly the most prolific, writers of fiction in Britain today are women. But this cannot be attributed simply to the new feminism. Iris Murdoch, Margaret Drabble, Doris Lessing, Beryl Bain-bridge, Fay Weldon, et al. are not just the British opposite numbers of Lois Gould, Erica Jong, and the rest of that busy battalion of American women novelists who have been flooding the market with their crudely polemical morality tales of liberation. For one thing, these industrious Englishwomen are more subtle and cultivated, and they are not aggressively committed to a collective feminist ideology, though feminist attitudes and anxieties have certainly had a crucial influence on their work. Yet it is also true that they seem unwilling or unable to confront that formidable subject, society, which engaged the epic energy of most Victorian and Edwardian novelists, including women like Mrs. Gaskell and, at a much higher level, George Eliot.

In the 20th century, women novelists have on the whole been reluctant to address themselves to the bewildering chaos of contemporary social experience and political disorder, and have been more exclusively preoccupied with the psychological intricacies of individual temperament and behavior. If it is permissible to say that this preference for the private and the singular over the public and the social has traditionally been characteristic of women novelists, and if writers of both sexes today feel that public upheaval is oppressive, confusing, and unmanageable as a subject of literature, then the ascendancy of female novelists is not surprising. But this endemic disaffection of novelists with the texture and tensions of the large-scale social condition has seriously impoverished British fiction. Though Leavis’s criteria of intellectual weight and moral earnestness are too stern and exclude too much from the great tradition, it is nonetheless true that a wholesale indifference to the moral interplay of man and society can lead to a self-ordained narrowness of perspective, interest, and observation. All those elegantly shaped but essentially trivial intuitions and insights just do not amount to much in the way of art or thought.



Two new novels, by Margaret Drabble and John Fowles, seem to promise a renewed determination on the part of British writers to expand their constricted horizons. Margaret Drabble plainly feels dissatisfied with the kind of narrow-gauge scrutiny that has pervaded most of her seven previous novels. In her new book, The Ice Age,1 she has finally wriggled out of that tight corset of female self-absorption, and boldly undertaken a sober diagnosis of le mal anglais, that seemingly mysterious illness which obsesses and frightens not only its victims but the rest of the Western world as well.

How could England have got itself into such an unholy mess, she asks, “sliding, sinking, shabby, dirty, lazy, inefficient, dangerous, in its death-throes, worn out, clapped out, occasionally lashing out”? Miss Drabble announces her purpose with unmistakable clarity by coupling two famous visions of Britain as the novel’s epigraph—Milton’s proudly magisterial description of Puritan England, in the Areopagitica, as “a noble and puissant Nation rousing herself like a strong man after sleep, and shaking her invincible locks,” and Wordsworth’s bitter invocation of Milton, a century and a half later: “Thou shouldst be living at this hour/England hath need of thee: she is a fen/Of stagnant waters. . . .” To these contrasting historical images, Margaret Drabble, almost two centuries after Wordsworth, now adds her lamentation upon the 1970’s. “Terrible things” are happening to England, the spirit has gone out of the country, and it is poisoned with “alarm, panic, and despondency.”

In order to give strong dramatic weight to her sense of the way public disaster and private woe feed parasitically upon each other in England today, Miss Drabble assembles a multiple portrait of pain, loss, and catastrophe. And, defying the persuasions of fashion, she centers her story upon a likable and decent man, not upon an aggrieved woman ticking off her complaints against unlikable and indecent men. At the forefront is Anthony Keating, the son of an Anglican vicar, an Oxford graduate with a wasted gift for songwriting. Divorced, the father of four children, Keating had worked for some discontented years in BBC television, but he hungered for bigger and more exciting game. When the chance arose through the Old Boy network, he plunged into the high-rolling and corrupt world of speculative real estate that was booming in the 1960’s. But now the bottom has dropped out of the market, he has only barely recovered from a heart attack, and he is in danger of losing the beautiful old house he recently acquired—mortgaged to the hilt—in the Yorkshire countryside.

His mistress, Alison Murray, who gave up a successful career as an actress to care for a daughter born with cerebral palsy, has flown to a Balkan Communist backwater, where an older daughter, a flower-child radical and surly bitch, has been jailed for killing two people in an automobile accident. One of Keating’s business partners, convicted of fraud, is also in jail, and Alison’s old friend Kitty Friedmann has lost her husband and her right foot because the IRA tossed a bomb into a Mayfair restaurant. Since no social portrait of England is complete without its dogs, Miss Drabble includes a few pointedly symbolic mutts: one mangy creature is abandoned, another shot, and a third, its side ripped away by a car, lopes stoically toward its death through the insane traffic in a newly modernized Yorkshire town.

Like an ambitious student who has swotted hard for her grades, Miss Drabble indulges in some strenuous demonstrations of how well prepared she is to analyze the getting and spending that has laid waste England’s powers, how much she has managed to learn about economics, real-estate law, banking, property rights, inheritance and wills, leaseholds and freeholds. Unfortunately, she has not absorbed all this technical stuff well enough to use it clearly and easily. Exactly what caused Keating’s business fiasco, for example, remains fuzzy, and one suspects that either she read the wrong texts or failed to master the right ones.

Despite her creditable ambitions in The Ice Age, Miss Drabble does not appear to have made up her mind about what she feels or finally means to say, cannot decide whether England will live or die, and as a result, soon loses control of the book altogether. Toward the end, she suddenly contravenes her grim vision of Britain “sliding into the shit” by dissolving all the evidence she has accumulated in a syrup of instant religion and ersatz hope. Keating, trapped in a web of accident and coincidence that even the most flagrant spinners of Victorian melodrama might have scorned, is sentenced to a long term in a Balkan prison camp, where he reads Boethius, looks out for rare birds, and, the vicar’s son come full circle, undertakes to write a book about his rediscovery of God. (Miss Drabble’s epigraph might have come from that familiar Anglican hymn: “Change and decay in all around I see;/ Oh Thou, who changest not, abide with me!”) Keating’s trial by fire and his religious revival, Miss Drabble would aparently have us believe, confirm some sort of faith that “Britain will recover.” I have no doubt that it will. But if many English men and women confront their present danger in the irresolute manner of The Ice Age, the thaw is a long way off.



Though Margaret Drabble fails to accomplish what she set out to do in The Ice Age, she should be given credit for a quality entirely absent from John Fowles’s Daniel Martin2—A healthy respect for one’s limitations. Fowles has all along been one of the most cunning artificers in the business, and his contrived fiction so closely resembles the real thing that it has fooled many ordinarily cautious and serious critics into granting him the seal of incontestable authenticity. To be sure, The French Lieutenant’s Woman was an ingeniously clever and sometimes amusing sport, a “Victorian” novel that could be written only in the 1960’s. But it was hardly the profound exploration of Victorian sex or the psychology of fictional character or the theoretical foundations of the novel form that many reviewers claimed it to be. Now, in Daniel Martin, the brilliant counterfeiter who could make fictional pinchbeck glitter like the crown jewels has become recklessly overconfident that his public will take anything he dishes out.

Nothing that has swum into his ken during Fowles’s fifty-one years on this earth—no book, man, poem, animal; no blade of grass, girl, country; no woman, art, bird, bee, or flower; no film or political notion—is in this book granted the civility of silence, and nothing is allowed to remain unmentioned, unrepeated, unvindicated or unassaulted, unburdened with a mountain of significance and implication. (“Words are like leaves,” Pope warned, “and where they most abound,/Much fruit of sense beneath is rarely found.”) Fowles is immensely well-read and much-traveled, but a lot of miscellaneous learning can be a dangerous thing. It does not take a gimlet eye to see that Daniel Martin, underneath its uncountable layers of quasi-philosophy and erudition, is no more than a thin and conventional reprise of the old story: boy-meets-loses-gets-girl. Since Fowles makes so many leisurely and inordinately discursive stops along the rocky road to love, both boy and girl are somewhat long in the tooth by the time Daniel Martin and Jane Mallory at long last join lives forever, but the happy ending is hardly worth the wait.

Fowles’s eponymous hero, like Miss Drabble’s Keating, is the son of an Anglican vicar, and grew up in the shadow of a church. There are other parallels: postwar Oxford, a youthful talent for songwriting, marriage to the wrong woman, and an addiction to portentous declaration. Both men feel dislocated and adrift in the contemporary world, and think of themselves self-pityingly as members of that unlucky Oxford generation which, Fowles writes, was “fatally undercut and isolated by the whole working-class, anti-university shift in the English theater and the novel. . . . All this reduced us to watching and bitching . . . to climbing on whatever cultural or professional bandwagon came to hand, accepting the fool’s gold of instant success.” Keating has found (and lost) his gold in property; Dan Martin—though a cloudy sense of failure and loss hovers permanently over his head, and he feels out of touch with his “real” self, his roots, his past—has found his as a rich and famous screenwriter.

This career is interrupted, however, when Dan is abruptly summoned home from Hollywood by an old friend, a philosophy don at Oxford, from whom he has long been estranged. Because Anthony Mallory, married to the sister of Dan’s former wife, is dying of cancer and wants to wipe the moral slate clean before he goes, Dan reluctantly returns to Oxford, which he has not seen since New College days, and where he quickly feels stifled by “the claustrophobia of academic life . . . privileged, unhardened by the realities of the world outside.” Since Fowles must inflate every faint thought into a resounding apothegm, he adds: “That also stood for the whole of England.”

There is worse to come. Jane Mallory, a troubled woman, tells Dan, in the first of some five thousand long, deep, very literary, humbly sincere and earnest conversations, that she has been unhappy in her marriage, and that something has gone very wrong with their lives, their generation, their age, century, world, values, England. Can it be, Dan muses, that he married the wrong sister all those years ago? Since Fowles has a romantic story to unfold, and cannot let his star-crossed lovers do nothing but natter for over six hundred pages, he has a lot of space to fill, and fill it he does: with country weekends, three-hour meals in London restaurants, a ten-day cruise along the Nile that seems longer than the Trans-Siberian railroad. But most of the filler is Fowles expounding his sententious opinions in an encyclopedic stream of causeries: on the art of film and the nature of screen-writing, the horrors of Los Angeles, the qualities, of “English-ness,” the fragmented consciousness of modern man, the joys and sorrows of sex, the secret of British imperialism, the landscape of New Mexico, the Latin names of orchids, the taste of apples, and so on.

The most “humane” cities in America, our indefatigable anthologist confides, are San Francisco, New Orleans, and Santa Fe. The English language is poetic, but the American language is just “a tool.” The mediocre quality of most English and American films can be blamed on “the forced marriage between the Jewish and the Anglo-Saxon race-minds that generated so much corrupt shimmer.” (This is only one instance of the covert and elaborately intellectualized anti-Semitism that crops up more than once, though of course some of Dan Martin’s best friends in America are Jews.)



In to this omnium-gatherum Fowles also tosses some big thoughts he has been thinking about Marxism and revolution. Jane, it seems, has been reading the newly resurrected hero of the European Left intelligentsia, Antonio Gramsci (who provides Fowles with his modish epigraph—“the old is dying and the new cannot be born”—as if Matthew Arnold had not said the same thing better in “Dover Beach”); she is planning to join the Communist party because university life is so smug, capitalism is so unfair, and surely it can’t be wrong to dream of “an intelligent Marxist society . . . what Mao’s done for China.” Dan, as ever, is on the one hand skeptical and on the other sympathetic, since “I have read Marcuse.” This launches the lovers into some heady dialogues about cultural hegemony, the history of Leninism, the role of the intellectual elite in Gramsci’s thought, and other sexy matters, but Gramsci proves a poor aphrodisiac and the informal seminars end with nothing more than sighs and whispers.

Jane’s reading includes not only Gramsci but Georg Lukács, and here the author really founders. Since Dan has not read him, Jane helpfully explains that Lukács “was a very great humanist. . . . Not very brave when the Stalinist screws were put on. Not a mad martyr á la Solzhenitsyn. Like most of us, really. Just wanting something better . . . inside the system. . . . I think you’d like him. He’s very intelligent. Behind all the -isms.”

In a less meretricious novel, one would take this cozy English domestication of Lukács as a shrewd device of characterization, but Fowles makes it plain that this is his view of “the great humanist.” Smitten with Lukács’s essays on Scott and Thomas Mann, Dan ruminates on “the great Hungarian critic’s . . . humanist, Erasmic side . . . that current that runs through Western history as the Nile itself through Africa.” This simile—an incredible vulgarization of a complex mind and political career—is followed a bit later with some anxious backtracking by Fowles’s perpetual man-in-the-middle about “the cost of suppressing inequality in Eastern Europe and elsewhere.”

The author’s moralist-hero seems unperturbed by—or insensible to—the semantic and political oxymoron “suppressing inequality.” Fowles, however, is more than pretentious and ignorant in his misrepresentation of Lukács, the tormented Hungarian aesthetician who had, until the very week before the Béla Kun revolution, opposed Bolshevism. Lukács had felt that no good could arise from an agency of evil. But in an electric moment of conversion, he made his pact with the devil and found it possible to accept the necessity of evil, even of murder, in the name of Marxism. As Franz Borkenau revealed in his book World Communism (1939), Lukács told a former comrade in 1921 that

. . . lying and cheating of party members by their own leaders were admissible because Communist ethics make it the highest duty to accept the necessity of acting wickedly. This was the greatest sacrifice the revolution demanded from us. The conviction of the true Communist is that evil transforms itself into bliss through the dialectics of historical evolution.

This view of the “two truths” Lukács held to the end of his agonized life.

Even stranger, Fowles does not seem to know that in The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann used Lukács as the model for the Jewish-born Jesuit Naphta, the sinister casuist defending both Marx and the Church, who tells the genuine humanist, Settembrini:

The dictatorship of the proletariat, the politico-economic means of salvation demanded by our age . . . [is a means] of overcoming the world by mastering it. . . . The proletariat has taken up the task of Gregory the Great, his religious zeal burns within it, and, as little as he, may it withhold its hand from the shedding of blood. Its task is to strike terror into the world for the healing of the world, that man may finally achieve salvation and deliverance, and win back at length, to freedom from law and from distinction of classes, his original status as child of God.

How could Fowles have missed all this? The psychologists have a term for it—“selective inattention.”

That the noble and puissant art of the English novel can sink to this level of pompous naiveté and bluster would normally be no cause for alarm—there has never been a shortage of big, bad, confused, pretentious, boring novels. But in a review of Daniel Martin John Gardner, a novelist who is also a literary scholar, has solemnly proclaimed that John Fowles is “the only novelist now writing in English whose works are likely to stand as literary classics—the only writer in English who has the power, range, knowledge, and wisdom of a Tolstoy or James.” To equate Fowles with Tolstoy travesties the very idea of literary tradition, and only hastens the collapse of intellectual and critical responsibility.

In the fiction that deserves to be placed in the great tradition, not only is a moral and philosophical position embodied in the novel, it is its body, the bones and brain and heart and blood of the characters, of the story they enact, of the time and place we are told that they inhabit. This is gravely different from a novel with “a point of view”—something the writer tacks on to his invented persons and events and places in the futile hope that his label will endow them with the elusive vitality they can never possess. Trust the tale, not the teller, Lawrence wisely advised. What Margaret Drabble and John Fowles ask us to take on faith is themselves, the tellers, toying with points of view. How can we do this when their tales are dead?


1 Knopf, 295 pp., $8.95.

2 Atlantic-Little, Brown, 629 pp., $12.95.

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