Skip to content

John Fowles, Gent.


NO MENTION IS made of Ford Madox Ford in Eileen Warburton’s substantial biography of John Fowles1 . His name is absent from the condensed version of Fowles’ Journals, edited in two volumes by Charles Drazin.2  (I don’t know if the same is true of the original diaries — some two million words — housed in the Harry Ransom Humanities Center at the University of Texas.) The only evidence I know of linking Fowles (1926-2005) and Ford (1873-1939) comes from a letter to the editor of the Times Literary Supplement written by Bernard Richards. Fowles accepted an invitation issued by Richards to speak to undergraduates at Brasenose College Oxford in early 1991. Richards reports that Fowles “said many incidental interesting things — recommending Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End, for instance, and saying ‘shame on you!’ when it turned out that almost no one in the audience had heard of it.”3

Fowles doubtless had many reasons to think well of Parade’s End.4. Not least of these, I suggest, is the value Ford vests in his protagonist, Christopher Tietjens, regarded by Sir Vincent Macmaster, who was Tietjens’ colleague in the Imperial Department of Statistics, as “the most brilliant man in England.” More to the point, for my ends, is the presentation of Tietjens as the exemplar of a dying species, the English gentleman. Intelligent enough to know he was not the most brilliant man in the England of Darwin and Mill, Charles Smithson, the central character of Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman,5 does consider himself a gentleman. “The excellence of a gentleman,” says Shirley Letwin in her superb The Gentleman in Trollope, “depends on the ‘manner’ in which he conducts himself.”6 Like Ford, Fowles displays an acute interest in the conduct enjoined by a gentlemanly identity.

The principal determinants of gentlemanly status in mid-Victorian England were birth, education, and occupation.

The principal determinants of gentlemanly status in mid-Victorian England were birth, education, and occupation. The aristocracy and gentry had no difficulty engaging in gentlemanly relations with individuals from the higher ranks of the established professions, which included the church, the law, medicine, and the officer corps of the army and navy. These professions had traditionally maintained close ties with the landed classes. Younger sons from the landed elite often pursued a livelihood in one of these occupations, and the most successful professionals sometimes ended up with their own country estates. Debt-burdened members of landed society found it in their interest to accord gentlemanly recognition to Victorian England’s richest bankers, some of whom became major landowners in their own right. The astute application of patience and a deep purse could get a family of entrepreneurial origins over the finish line.

Matthew Boulton, business partner of James Watt and pioneer manufacturer of steam engines, had one son, Matthew Robinson Boulton. Together with James Watt Jr., Robinson Boulton took over the running of the business in 1800. After his father’s death, Boulton fils purchased an Oxfordshire estate of 8,000 acres. His sons, Matthew and Montagu, were educated at Eton and Trinity College Cambridge. The former inherited the estate, Tew Park, in 1842, married the daughter of an old, well-heeled, and influential Northamptonshire gentry family three years later, and soon thereafter became a Justice of the Peace and High Sheriff. F.M.L. Thompson, the premier historian of English landed society in the nineteenth century, notes the saying, “the third generation makes the gentleman.”7 Individuals of dubious pedigree possessing exceptional talent and outsized ambition destabilize the category. Benjamin Disraeli, novelist, political adventurer, and the son of a Jewish man of letters, eventually became Queen Victoria’s favorite Prime Minister and a peer of the realm. Like Disraeli, Joseph Chamberlain had no university education. The son of a shoe manufacturer, and part of the same generation as the fictional Charles Smithson, Chamberlain accrued a lot of wealth from manufacturing screws. A leading Radical in the 1870s and early 1880s, he became an ardent imperialist in the 1890s, when he served in a ministry headed by the 3rd Marquess of Salisbury. Chamberlain (whose image incidentally decorates the banner atop this page) contributed to the break-up of the Liberal party in the mid-1880s. Less than twenty years later he visited a similar misfortune on the Unionist coalition. Denied office by Sir Robert Peel in 1841, an insurgent Disraeli had helped destroy Peel’s government in 1846. Such slippery characters signal a slipperiness in the very notion of the gentleman.

The 32-year-old Charles Smithson takes his membership of England’s gentlemen’s club for granted. His grandfather had been a baronet who had bestowed land and money on his younger son, Charles’s father. Although he had squandered much of his capital at the gaming table, Charles’s father had nonetheless seen to it that his son was adequately provided for. Educated at Cambridge and in receipt of an income sufficient to keep comfortably a bachelor of his station, Charles, when we first encounter him, expects to become a man of sizeable fortune upon the death of his unmarried uncle (his father’s older brother), whose estate will then pass to Charles.

The English aristocracy did not confuse the vulgar way some people went about getting money with the pleasure of having it.

But what of Charles’s fiancée, Ernestina? Tina is the only child of a wealthy merchant. Fowles makes it clear that the money she will bring into the marriage, together with her non-monetary assets, make her worthy of the attention Charles pays her. The English aristocracy did not confuse the vulgar way some people went about getting money with the pleasure of having it. Tina’s father, Mr. Freeman, is in “trade,” and therefore not quite a gentleman. This proves no bar to Charles’s pursuit of Tina, who, unlike her father, can easily enough be raised to the rank and distinction Charles had always enjoyed.

Charles’s brilliant prospects are dashed, however, when he learns from his uncle of the latter’s intention to marry a widow of child-bearing age. That marriage would probably produce an heir, thereby depriving Charles of his uncle’s landed estate. Understandably dismayed by this development, Charles still is able to muster the stoicism and self-control needed to respond with courtesy and grace to his uncle’s unwelcome news. The code of conduct governing the affairs of gentlemen required no less.

Tina’s reception of the news is rather different.  She throws a tantrum, protesting against the injustice of it all and ridiculing the uncle’s infatuation with a woman “young enough to be his granddaughter.”8 Her behavior on this occasion disappoints Charles and leads him to wonder if Tina, because of her upbringing, lacked the capacity to see how a gentleman ought to act. To Charles “there seemed … something only too reminiscent of the draper’s daughter in her during those first minutes; of one who had been worsted in a business deal, who lacked a traditional imperturbability, that fine aristocratic refusal to allow the setbacks of life ever to ruffle one’s style” (162).

Worse was yet to come. Having told Ernestina of his altered prospects, Charles now has to inform her father. Mr. Freeman, despite “his secret feeling about the aristocracy – that they were so many drones” (222), believes that his daughter had made an advantageous match. As Fowles tells us, Freeman deemed himself “a perfect gentleman; and perhaps it was only in his obsessive determination to appear one that we can detect a certain inner doubt” (222). Validation of this self-image by Charles, indisputably a gentleman, mattered to Mr. Freeman. His visceral reaction on hearing of Charles’s misfortune, however, was that of a businessman, not a gentleman: “the thought which had flashed immediately through his mind was that Charles had come to ask for an increase in the marriage portion. That he could easily afford; but a terrible possibility had simultaneously occurred to him – that Charles had known all along of his uncle’s probable marriage. The one thing he loathed was to be worsted in an important business deal – and this, after all, was one that concerned the object he most cherished” (223-4). Yet Mr. Freeman does not allow these suspicions to get the better of his wish to be seen as a gentleman. He accepts Charles’s version of what had happened and declares: “No stranger to your moral rectitude could possibly impute to you an ignoble motive” (224). The marriage should go forth as planned, notwithstanding Charles’s diminished expectations.

If Charles’s morale has taken a beating from his uncle’s nuptial intentions, the proposal that follows sends him reeling. Tina’s father suggests that Charles consider entering the business as a partner. That such a proposition could seriously be put to him gravely unsettles Charles’s sense of himself, for “he was a gentleman; and gentlemen cannot go into trade”. Charles felt “obscurely debased; a lion caged” (228).

The economic power and social ambitions of the rising bourgeoisie here confront the staying power of a value system that could not easily reconcile gentlemanly status with the direct and active pursuit of commercial gain.

The economic power and social ambitions of the rising bourgeoisie here confront the staying power of a value system that could not easily reconcile gentlemanly status with the direct and active pursuit of commercial gain. Charles’s economic vulnerability moves Mr. Freeman to offer partnership in a business of which the latter is justly proud. If accepted, the prosperous enterprise he has built could be perpetuated within the family and permanence be given to his achievement. Charles’s acceptance would also imply establishment embrace of the economic pursuits to which Mr. Freeman had devoted his working life, and give social recognition to the contribution people like himself had made to the power and greatness of the nation. Deeply shaken by the proposal, which threatens a view of himself never before challenged, Charles resolves to reject it. To do otherwise would be to subvert the gentlemanly precepts that gave structural meaning to Charles’s existence and also made England something better than a grasping commercial power. And Fowles plainly approves of Charles’s decision: “there was one noble element in his rejection: a sense that the pursuit of money was an insufficient purpose in life … he gained a queer sort of momentary self-respect in his nothingness, a sense that choosing to be nothing – to have nothing but prickles – was the last saving grace of a gentleman.” Fowles then goes on to say: “every culture, however undemocratic, or however egalitarian, needs a kind of self-questioning, ethical elite, and one that is bound by certain rules of conduct, some of which may be very unethical, and so account for the eventual death of the form, though their hidden purpose is good: to brace or act as structure for the better effects of their function in history” (233).

As personalities, Charles Smithson and Christopher Tietjens have little in common. Indeed, the latter seems to have little in common with anyone. Smithson thinks himself a man of his time, a “Darwinist” among other things; Tietjens, by his own estimate, is a throwback to the eighteenth century, a man profoundly at odds with his early-twentieth-century world. His status and abilities, however, give him some latitude to please himself. “The youngest son of a Yorkshire country gentleman, Tietjens … was entitled to the best – the best that first-class public offices and first-class people could afford. He was without ambition, but these things would come to him as they do in England. So he could afford to be negligent of his attire, of the company he kept, of the opinions he uttered”9. His older brother Mark says Christopher “never told a lie or did a dishonourable thing in his life” (242).

OVER THE COURSE of the four novels that together make up Parade’s End, a despairingly toxic marriage (Christopher’s wife Sylvia is a woman of demonic ill will) and the insidious working of sundry malign forces conspire to bring him low. Despite his wife’s animus and adultery, Christopher won’t initiate divorce proceedings. (Sylvia, a Roman Catholic, is not of a mind to do so.) His harrowing experiences on the Western Front underscore his selflessness and courage. As for money, he had a “mechanical impulse to divest himself” of the stuff. “Gentlemen don’t earn money. Gentlemen, as a matter of fact, don’t do anything. They exist. Perfuming the air like Madonna lilies. Money comes into them as air through petals and foliage. Thus the world is made better and brighter” (637). In straitened circumstances himself, Christopher refuses financial help from Mark, with whom he fabricates a quarrel so that Christopher can live with his mistress, Valentine Wannop, a course of action he judges incompatible with fulfilling the responsibilities of a country squire (he is in line to inherit Groby, the family estate, from the childless Mark). Christopher believes “you had to set to the tenantry an example of chastity, sobriety, probity, or you could not take their beastly money” (686). There is nothing wicked in Christopher’s wanting to make a life with Valentine. The quarrel he invents tells us that situations arise in which truthfulness must defer to something better. Tietjens, like Smithson, would choose “to be nothing – to have nothing but prickles.” Such men, Fowles avers, were needed “to brace or act as structure for the better effects of their function in history.”

John Fowles’ feelings about the culture in which he lived were akin to Christopher Tietjens’ feelings about a world whose terms he was so ill-equipped to meet. (Unlike Tietjens, however, Fowles’ deep discontent with himself commingled with this sense of cultural alienation.) The quotations that follow derive from Fowles’ published Journals. In December 1969, he remarked: “I’ve been reading the miserable Times Literary Supplement this last few months. It is like some freak group therapy unit: where the English literary and academic ‘establishment’ go to pretend to rape one another in the dark.”10 (At that time it was still the case that reviews in the TLS were unsigned.) In 1970 The French Lieutenant’s Woman won the W.H. Smith prize. Fowles wrote: “I should have refused the prize. I don’t believe in prizes … I think I must give the money away, but I loathe the vanity of the grand public gesture of charity.”11 The reviews greeting the book moved him to write: “I know that good or bad they’re irrelevant; praise or damnation in this poor sick culture – they alter nothing.”12 After a three-week American tour promoting the release of The French Lieutenant’s Woman in North America, Fowles noted: “I have been writing on the United States. I call it: America, I Weep for Thee.”13 When at work on the novel that became Daniel Martin, he wrote: “I think I’ll call it Futility.”14  A pronounced cultural pessimism pervades Fowles’ Journals.

We have reason to suppose mid-Victorian England took little notice of Charles Smithson. The notice early-twentieth-century England took of Christopher Tietjens brought him condemnation and misery. John Fowles secured treasure and fame. Within a week of the American release of The French Lieutenant’s Woman a hundred thousand copies were in print. For over a year the novel held a spot on the best-seller list of the New York Times and Time magazine. Each of his first three novels, The Collector (1963), The Magus (1966), and The French Lieutenant’s Woman was made into a feature film. In 1949 a young John Fowles told himself: “Must strive [Fowles’ emphasis] after living glory; it is unnatural to push, but it is necessary.”15 He lived the glory, and felt the force of its cost. Never did he suffer from a deficit of prickles.

Bruce Kinzer is Emeritus Professor of History at Kenyon College. His books include: The Ballot Question in Nineteenth-Century English PoliticsA Moralist In and Out of Parliament: John Stuart Mill at Westminster, 1865-1868 (co-authored); England’s Disgrace?: J.S. Mill and the Irish Question; and J.S. Mill Revisited: Biographical and Political Explorations. He also edited The Gladstonian Turn of Mind: Essays Presented to J.B. Conacher. 


  1. John Fowles: A Life in Two Worlds, London: Cape 2004.
  2. John Fowles, The Journals, ed. Charles Drazin (New York: Vintage, 2004)
  3. TLS, 12 July 2019, 6.
  4. Parade’s End, 1924-28; Vintage Classics, 2012.
  5. The French Lieutenant’s Woman, London: Cape, 1969
  6. Shirley Letwin, The Gentleman in Trollope: Individuality and Moral Conduct (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982), 89.
  7. F.M.L. Thompson, English Landed Society in the Nineteenth Century (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963), 129.
  8. Signet Books paperback edition, New York, 1970, 161.
  9. Vintage Classics paperback edition, New York, 2012, 5.
  10. John Fowles, The Journals: Volume Two, 1966-1990, ed. Charles Drazin (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press Paperback Edition, 2008), 76.
  11. Fowles, Journals. Volume Two, 99
  12. ibid., 60.
  13. ibid., 77.
  14. ibid.,61
  15. Fowles, The Journals. Volume One, 1949-1965, 8.
Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x