Sergeant Farthing

D.A.N. Jones

  • A Maggot by John Fowles
    Cape, 460 pp, £9.95, September 1985, ISBN 0 224 02806 5
  • The Romances of John Fowles by Simon Loveday
    Macmillan, 164 pp, £25.00, August 1985, ISBN 0 333 31518 9

A girl and three men are riding westward from London when a fifth rider joins them, a man in a red coat and dragoon’s hat. The year is 1736 and they are on horseback. Arriving at a Devonshire country inn, they tell the innkeeper and an intrusive parson about themselves and the purpose of their journey, but we suspect them of lying. They are an odd set, by the standards of both 1736 and 1985.

The leader of the party calls himself Mr Bartholomew, but later in the story we shall find him described as ‘his Lordship’. In his room at the inn, this young man fills his glass from a blue-and-white decanter of madeira and then puts on ‘a damask night-gown (at that period a loose informal coat, not what it means today) over his long waistcoat and breeches. He has also taken his wig off, revealing that he is shaven-headed to the apparent point, in the poor light, of baldness; and indeed looks like nothing so much as a modern skinhead, did not his clothes deny it.’ That quotation well illustrates the style in which John Fowles begins this historical novel, or mystery story, lingering over his descriptions. The reviewer-like use of the present tense, the schoolmasterly ‘not what it means today’, and the reference to ‘a modern skinhead’, invite readers to visualise the scene, like a motion picture in full colour, without ‘losing ourselves’ in the period. The author and his readers are together in 1985, looking back over two centuries and making comparisons with the present, much as we might if we were watching a fifty-year-old screenplay.

We wonder, like hooked viewers, what these shadowy people are up to. Mr Bartholomew is talking strangely to the young woman he calls ‘Fanny’, while others call her ‘Louise’. If we are to believe them, she is Fanny, a London whore, posing as a respectable maidservant, and she was brought up as a Quaker in Bristol. Fanny is stranger still when she is talking to Mr Bartholomew’s manservant, a handsome deaf-mute, who kneels by her bed at the inn. She murmurs ‘Oh my poor Dick, poor Dick’ and smoothes his hair while he displays his ‘large, naked and erect penis. The young woman shows no shock or outrage when she realises this obscenity, though her hands are arrested in their smoothing.’ As for the other two riders, one of them purports to be ‘Mr Brown’, the uncle of Mr Bartholomew, and the man in the dragoon’s hat calls himself ‘Sergeant Farthing’, Mr Brown’s manservant, a sort of ‘minder’ against highwaymen. John Fowles interposes, in his century-vaulting way, that Farthing seems like what ‘the Roman comedians dubbed the miles gloriosus, the military boaster or eternal bag of bullshit’. So he might seem, but readers may feel that this Farthing is no soldier and that Mr Brown is surely a professional actor. We turn the page, expecting them to be exposed as liars.

Then the style changes. We are surprised by a genuine page of news items reproduced from the Gentleman’s Magazine, under the heading ‘Historical Chronicle, 1736 – April’. This historical document is followed by a fictional news-cutting attributed to the Western Gazette, 1736, announcing that a man has been found, apparently ‘hang’d by his own Hand, or so adjudg’d by the Coroner’, and that he is believed to have been ‘Manservant, tho’ deaf and dumb, to a Gentleman named Bartholomew’. This must be Fanny’s poor Dick.

The Western Gazette is surprised that the rest of Mr Bartholomew’s party has disappeared, leaving but this one hanged manservant – and it is ‘the more to be wonder’d that to this Present no Inquiry is made by Mr Bartholomew’s friends.’ That is the mystery then. The news-cutting is followed by the first of what might be called, in Dorothy Sayers’s style, ‘the documents in the case’. These are reports of an inquiry into the death of the servant and the disappearance of his master. Some authoritative London person is in Devonshire questioning the innkeeper while a clerk takes it all down in shorthand.

Q. When came they?

A. The last day of April past …

Q. Five in all?

A. The uncle and the nephew. The two men and the maid.

Q. Mr Brown and Mr Bartholomew, they so gave themselves?

A. That they did, sir.

After six pages of this Q.-and-A. script we get another extract from the genuine ‘Historical Chronicle, 1736’ (for May, this time) and then more Q.-and-A. pages as the investigator examines a maidservant from the inn. There are six other witnesses to be examined and the Q.-and-A. pages, 245 of them, make up more than half the book.

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