Fowles’s The Ebony Tower bears the imprint of Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe. Though we’ll never know what Manet’s picnickers are discussing, Fowles provides some context and conversation
Like Manet’s picnickers, Fowles’s men are clothed, and the women undressed; one nude, the other bathing wrapped in a gauzy chemise. Fowles’ men are painters talking art; Henry Breasley (72), a romantic figurative painter, and David Williams (30), a modernist abstract painter. Williams has come to Breasley’s farmhouse in Brittany to interview the older man about his upcoming retrospective in London.
It’s a tough assignment, and Breasley’s gruff and goatish demeanor puts off Williams. He’s surprised by his manage-á-trios with two muses, Diana (called the Mouse) and Anne (The Freak), both twenty-ish and sensual. He’s unprepared for Breasely’s habit of speaking, not speaking in whole sentences but can express himself seamlessly in paint on canvas. “Don’t hate,” says Breasley, “can’t love, Can’t love, can’t paint.”
Breasley broaches the idea of a picnic sideways, “Gels suggest a little déjeuner sur l’herbe,” Breasley announces, “Good idea, what? Picnic?” Williams has no choice.
Though it’s a familiar activity and a short walk from the house through a wood to a secluded pond when Breasley is not arguing with the woman about the right path, he leads Williams in a discussion of Medieval literature—Chretien de Troyes, Tristan, Merlin, Lancelot, and especially Eliduc, the story of a knight slandered by his contemporaries (think an artist illtreated by the critics). Williams listens but constantly shifts his attention to the sensuality of the women, particularly Diana.
When they arrive at the edge of a pond and settle in, the older man peremptorily insists the girls take off their clothes and go swimming. As they comply, the two men watch. “Pity you’re married,” Breasley says ruefully, “They need a good fuck.”
But there isn’t any debauchery. While the women swim, Breasley talks about art, literature, and Williams’s career. Upon returning, the “gels” (as Breasley calls them) remain naked. At first, Williams is uncomfortable, but soon he finds the women’s nakedness natural and the old man’s “quiet pagan contentment” almost ordinary.
Manet’s picnic includes fruits, bread, wine, and oysters. (Surprisingly, there is no wine, everyone is a hung-over from dinner the night before.) Fowles’ picnic is vague: a baguette, little cartons of goodies (whatever they are), Vichy water for Beasley beer for Williams, and milk for the women.
When Beasley sleeps, Diana and Anne tell Williams about their lives and relationship with the older man. Williams is attentive. When invited for a swim, he wears his briefs. Then, reluctantly, he takes them off. “We shan’t look,” The Freak says.
The Freak attempts to broker a romance between Williams and Diana. She likes you,” The Freak says. But Williams’s resolve fizzles.
Featured Image: The Freak (Toyah Willcox), Breasley (Laurence Olivier), The Mouse (Great Scacchi), and Williams (Roger Rees)
See John Fowles. The Ebony Tower. Boston: Little Brown, 1974; Robert Knights. The Ebony Tower (1984). Screenplay by John Mortimer based on Fowles’ novel.