Fowles’s macabre notion of wrecking pleasure is an aborted picnic on the River Cherwell. Daniel Martin and Jane Mallory, two Oxford undergraduates, set out for a pleasant outing. They are punting and chatting, not knowing that this day is the beginning of a very long love affair ending 30 years later. Like most happenings in Daniel Martin’s life, happenstance forces events to unfold in unanticipated ways.
It’s intended as an innocent date because Daniel is dating Mallory’s sister Nell and Jane is engaged to Martin’s best friend, Anthony.
Martin, who is standing, says: “I say, Jane, I’m getting hellish shagged. And starving. “When Mallory agrees and says, “Let’s tie-up here. I don’t mind.”
“There’s a cut just ahead. We could go up there a bit. Be out of the wind.”
As they pull into a cut in the reeds, Mallory calls out, “Go back, go back.” When Martin keeps punting, she covers her nose and says, “Oh, I can smell it. Please go back.” By the time they stop moving, the corpse is visible: “Just beneath the surface of the water, pushed down by the punt’s nose, a naked human buttock, grayish-white. There is an opening in the reeds where the back and head must be. The bottoms of the legs are in the water, invisible beneath the punt.”
The awful “It” is the decomposing corpse of a murdered woman. However, instead of being repulsed, Martin and Mallory’s erotic feelings are triggered. It’s low-key but real. Impulsively, Jane throws a champagne bottle into the river. “Why did you throw that champagne in the river?” Martin asks. Mallory answers, “It just felt right.” Then Martin “puts his arms around her shoulders and kisses the side of her head. She remains staring at the grass. “Why did you do that?” He smiles .” For the same reason.”
Numbed by the afternoon, Daniel and Jane return to Oxford. But that evening, Jane appears at Daniel’s flat, and they make love. Afterward, they go their separate ways. The residual consequence of the aborted picnic and their single night of passion animates the rest of the narrative, all 600 pages until somewhere in Egypt, Daniel and Jane make love again.
See John Fowles. Daniel Martin. Boston: Little Brown, 1977