I walked the first half of the Undercliff last week, from Lyme through to Pinhay Bay. The terrain becomes very difficult to navigate, especially after several days of rain. Avoiding the protruding tree roots becomes a full-time occupation, climbing up and down and trying to keep an eye on the path becomes tricky. It’s tick season – I’ve already removed two this summer and with each soggy frond I pass back the score might increase. There’s no one about early on a Sunday morning.
The Undercliff is literally that. However many hundreds of years ago there was a great avalanche of rock and when it had finished the cliff edge sat at an irregular angle to the sun. The weather conditions on the Undercliff are almost tropical, the sun gleams through the undergrowth like it’s a jungle. It is here that Charles Smithson, adventuring off the path in his linen suit first saw Sarah Woodruff stretched out under a tree below. She was the French Lieutenant’s Woman. She was off-road, her splendour in the grass. She was before the fall to him. Smithson was Darwin and science, she was an outcast and thus in 1867 she was something you would never find in Victorian England – a youngish woman lying alone beneath a tree in the heady muss of a sun-drenched jungle.
The start of the Undercliff is signalled by Underhill Farm. I was unprepared for it. Here was where John Fowles wrote the book in the late 1960s. I hadn’t realised quite how isolated it was. Of course this isn’t the farm as Fowles knew it. That long ago subsided down the hill towards the sea. But, nevertheless, here it was. I stood there in the silence. Whoever owned it now was not in, I could see that, but still I paused. I debated walking onto the property. Instead I stood there. I remembered reading The French Lieutenant’s Woman for A-Level English. It had started, like so many of the books I was asked to read at school, in the hypotaxis of the 19th century, characters full of manners and the problems of propriety. I always looked at reading as a solitary activity, perhaps even talking about books was something you did with only one other. I always thought the content of books was my secret, as if talking about them, especially talking about them in groups, somehow destroyed the world I had elaborately concocted with the help of the author. I think I’d not done much of the reading I was supposed to do – the exams may have been approaching. I took the book into the gazebo that was quite some way from the house. It was a sunny day. As anyone who has read the book will know, at some point Fowles confesses: It is not 1867, it’s 1967 and I am writing a book. None of these characters exist. It was to a teenager a thrillingly moment – daring and brilliant and totally undermining what I had thought literature was up to that point. It was like that moment in The Truman Show when Truman reaches the edge of his world on a boat. Not lost in all of this literary dexterity is a wonderful central story; Sarah Woodruff remains my favourite character in literature.
So, it was quite a moment standing there at Underhill Farm in the quiet. I may even have shed a tear. When I got home I immediately went to Fowles’s Journals,published posthumously in two volumes. That is, two books the size of the Bible full of complaints, snobby asides and catty biographies of contemporaries, over the course of which the author comes across as thoroughly dislikeable. And, in that spirit, the entry for the week in which he and his wife and daughter had first moved to the farm:
The silence here at night. The house creaks and murmurs in it. No cars, no passers, nothing.
Depression. Reading an article on subsidence. The whole farm may slip into the sea. And then those constant joys, because the place is like a huge, complex poem. The impossibility of it, and the poetry of it.