BORN: 1926, Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, England
DIED: 2005, Lyme Regis, England
GENRE: Fiction, poetry, drama, nonfiction
The Collector (1963)
The French Lieutenant”s Woman (1969)
The Ebony Tower: Collected Novellas (1974)
A Maggot (1985)
John Fowles. Fowles, John, photograph. The Library of Congress.
While John Fowles's reputation was based mainly on his novels and their film versions, he demonstrated expertise in the fields of nature, art, science, and natural history as reflected in a body of non-fictional writings. Throughout his career, Fowles committed himself to a scholarly exploration of the place of the artist in contemporary society and sought the personal isolation and exile that he felt essential to such a search.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Intellectual “Heaven” at Oxford. John Fowles was born on March 31, 1926, to middle-class parents Robert John and Gladys Richards Fowles. He attended a London preparatory school, the Bedford School, between the ages of fourteen and eighteen. He then served as a lieutenant in the Royal Marines for two years, but World War II ended before he saw actual combat.
Following the war, Fowles studied French and German at New College, Oxford. He later referred to this period as ‘‘three years of heaven in an intellectual sense.’’ After graduating from Oxford, Fowles began a teaching career that took him first to France, where he taught English at the University of Poiters, and then to Spetsai, a Greek island, where he taught at Anorgyrios College. It was on Spetsai that Fowles met Elizabeth Whitton. Three years later, on April 2, 1954, they were married in England.
Fowles continued to earn a living through a variety of teaching assignments until the success of his first published work, The Collector (1963), allowed him to move with his wife and her daughter to Lyme Regis in Dorset. He continued to live in this quiet seacoast town—intentionally isolated from English literary circles—where he wrote, gardened, and pursued his interests in natural and local history.
Writing Career Begins. It was not until Fowles was in his early twenties that he began his writing career. After translating a poem by Pierre de Ronsard he was able to overcome a fear of self-expression that he once suggested is common to all Englishmen. Fowles’s first serious attempts at writing took place on Spetsai, amid the natural splendors of the Greek landscape. His experience of the mystery and majesty of this island was a powerful influence. Not only did he write poetry, which appeared later in his collection Poems, but this setting also provided the inspiration for The Magus (1965), a work that would obsess the writer for many years. Leaving Greece was a painful experience for Fowles, but he felt the move was necessary to his artistic growth. ‘‘I had not then realized that loss is essential for the novelist, immensely fertile for his books, however painful to his private being.’’
Submission Delayed. While back in England and teaching in a variety of positions in the London area, Fowles worked on several manuscripts but was dissatisfied with his efforts and submitted none for publication until 1963, when The Collector appeared.
The commercial success of The Collector enabled Fowles to publish The Aristos: A Self-Portrait in Ideas the following year. As the title suggests, this volume consists of a collection of philosophical statements covering diverse areas but aimed at proposing a new, ideal man for our times—the Aristos. The publication of this book at that time probably owed something to the fact that The Collector, in spite of its popular reception, was denied critical consideration by many who failed to look past its thriller format.
Fowles’s next published work, The Magus, published in 1965, was, according to its author, ‘‘in every way except that of mere publishing date...a first novel.’’ Using Spetsai as his model, Fowles created the island of Phraxos where Nicholas Urfe, a young English schoolmaster, meets Maurice Conchis, the enigmatic master of an island estate. Through a series of bizarre ‘‘godgames,’’ Conchis engineers the destruction of Nicholas’ perception of reality, a necessary step in the achievement of a true understanding of his being in the world. While The Magus was first published in 1965, Fowles issued a revised edition in 1977 in which he had rewritten numerous scenes in an attempt to purify the work he called an ‘‘endlessly tortured and recast cripple’’ which had, nonetheless, ‘‘aroused more interest than anything else I have written.’’
Fowles was at work on a new manuscript when in 1966 he envisioned a woman in black Victorian garb standing on a wharf and staring out at the sea. She ‘‘was Victorian; and since I always saw her in the same static long shot, with her back turned, she represented a reproach on the Victorian Age. An outcast. I didn’t know her crime, but I wished to protect her.’’ The vision recurred, became an obsession, and led eventually to The French Lieutenant’s Woman, a Victorian novel in manner, but contemporary and existential in viewpoint. The novel was made into a popular film of the same name in 1981.
In 1974 Ebony Tower, a collection of stories, appeared. The work was televised ten years later. The title story focuses on a confrontation between a pseudosophisticated man of the world with a reclusive shaman who shatters his poorly conceived notions of reality, a theme explored more broadly in The Magus. This volume contains a translation of a twelfth-century romance written by Marie de France. Fowles’s original title for this collection was Variations. While these stories are original and unique, they are connected to each other and to the earlier works by an underlying sense of loss, mystery, and desire for growth.
Daniel Martin (1977), perhaps the most autobiographical of Fowles’s novels, draws upon his early memories of the Devonshire countryside as well as his later involvement in the Hollywood film industry. Mantissa (1982), though more cerebral, demonstrates a continuing concern with the artist’s intrapersonal conflicts.
In 1996, a new edition of Fowles’s essay ‘‘The Tree’’ was published, and along with it the essay ‘‘The Nature of Nature,’’ written some fifteen years later when the author was approaching seventy years of age, suffering from a crippling illness, and taking what one reviewer described as ‘‘a more immediate look at last things.’’ In The Nature of Nature, Fowles wrote, ‘‘Illness has kept me even more alone than usual these last two years and brought me closer to being, though that hasn’t always been very pleasant for my body. What has struck me about the acutely rich sensation of beingness is how fleeting its apprehension ... the more you would capture it, the less likely that you will.’’
Freedom. Fowles’s roots in Western culture were broad and deep, and he earned a reputation as an innovator in the evolution of the contemporary novel. He was a spokesperson for modern humanity, steeped in science, yet ever aware that what it more deeply needs is ‘‘the existence of mysteries. Not their solutions.’’ In contrast to his public success as a popular and serious ‘‘literary’’ writer, Fowles consistently distanced himself from the middle-class English society that was his familial lot and a source of much resentment toward his father. By the time he died in his home in Lyme Regis, Dorset, Fowles was living a sort of self-imposed exile. His focus in naturalistic writing was combined with his interest in exploring and challenging the traditional devices of storytelling to explore themes related to his alienation. Such themes and concepts as freedom reflect his personal attitude and play a significant role in his public writing. Not only did he refuse to be put into a ‘‘cage labeled ‘novelist’’’ as he stated in The Aristos: A Self-Portrait in Ideas, but he also rejected any label limiting him to a particular kind of writing. Fowles wrote fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and drama, and also edited, translated, and explored many other forms of writing. This intellectual innovator of style continues to sell millions of copies of his novels, making a number of them bestsellers.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Fowles's famous contemporaries include:
Richard Burton (1925-1984): Welsh actor known for, among other things, being outspoken, being the highest paid actor in Hollywood (at one time), and for marrying actress Elizabeth Taylor twice.
Peter Matthiessen (1927-): American naturalist, Zen Buddhist, and historical fiction and nonfiction author.
Peter Sellers (1925-1980): British comic actor best known for the movies Pink Panther and Being There.
John Updike (1932-): Award-winning American writer of small town, Protestant, white middle-class subjects who has twice won the Pulitzer Prize.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
In The Collector, Fowles contemplates the theme of confrontation between the few versus the many, the artistic versus the conventional. This theme, as well as a concern with freedom, authenticity, and parallel realities, appears in several of his novels. By giving characters their freedom, Fowles liberates himself from the tyranny of rigid planning.
Here are a few works by writers who also produced similar themes or offered similar innovative styles:
City of Glass (1986), a novel by Paul Auster. In this, one of the earliest postmodern novels, Auster plays with language, scene, and structure in a combination of detective fiction, existentialism, and intellectual literature.
If on a Winter's Night a Traveler (1981), a novel by Italo Calvino. A comedy, a tragedy, a thoughtful and thought-provoking experience.
In the Labyrinth (1959), a novel by Alain Robbe-Grillet. An existential detective novel for the postmodern culture.
Works in Literary Context
Influences. In his years of study at New College, Fowles was exposed to the Celtic romances and the existential works of Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Franz Kafka, and several others. In a personal note in The Magus, Fowles paid tribute to the Celtic romance, and in The Godgame, he pointed out the influence on his novel by psychologist Carl Jung, author Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw and writer Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. He was also inspired by French literature, the discipline of psychology, and several other areas of study that lent themselves to his intellectualism and writing.
At the same time, Fowles had a profound effect on serious readers, mainstream readers, and his many students who would consult him for reading lists. He never had one, but his followers would read whatever he would mention or recommend.
The Artistic Versus the Conventional. One of Fowles’s signature themes is represented in his novel The Collector. In the book, Frederick Clegg, a poorly educated clerk of the lower class and an amateur lepidopterist—a scientist who studies butterflies and moths— becomes obsessed with a beautiful young art student, Miranda Grey. Clegg wins a large sum of money in a football pool, enabling him to carry out a plan of kidnap and imprisonment. The first part of the book is told from Clegg’s point of view and the second is told from the imprisoned Miranda’s perspective. The characters of Miranda and Clegg embody the conflict that Fowles, reaching back to Greek philosopher Heracleitus, finds central to mankind—the few versus the many, the artistic versus the conventional. As Fowles noted, ‘‘My purpose in The Collector was to analyze, through a parable, some of the results of this confrontation.’’ This theme, as well as a concern with freedom and authenticity and parallel realities, recurred in later novels. Miranda, according to Fowles, ‘‘is an existential heroine although she doesn’t know it. She’s groping for her own authenticity.’’
Works in Critical Context
At times Fowles gained mixed attention for his work. For instance, Daniel Martin appeared in 1977 to uneven reviews. While some critics faulted its rambling structure and lack of narrative suspense, others regarded it as a more honest, straightforward recounting of personal confrontation with one’s own history. In the same respect, several of his works have earned much positive acclaim, including The French Lieutenant’s Woman.
The French Lieutenant’s Woman. When The French Lieutenant’s Woman was published in 1969, it met with critical and popular success. James Aronson, in the Antioch Review, stated that with this novel, Fowles showed himself to be ‘‘a novelist as great as [Joyce] Carey and [E. M.] Forster.’’ Paul Edward Gray of the Yale Review called it ‘‘a modishly-framed imitation of Victorian fiction’’ that was nonetheless ‘‘remarkably satisfying.’’ Not all reviewers were as pleased. Jonathan Keates of The New Review, after reading the work, felt ‘‘irritated at having to endure a drenching from a mixture of archly self-conscious detachment, toe-curling patronage, and a set of opinions, stated or implied, on the Victorians which I didn’t share.’’ Some critics saw the virtues of the book in comparison to his later works. Denis Donoghue, in a negative review of Daniel Martin for the New York Review of Books, notes that ‘‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman is Fowles’s best work because he found for that occasion a major theme of great historical and personal importance, and he commanded a language at least adequate.’’
Responses to Literature
1. Read The French Lieutenant’s Woman. What are the gender role expectations for Victorian women? What are the gender role expectations for Victorian men?
2. Besides using narrative shifts in many of his novels, such as in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Fowles offers multiple endings. Based on what you discovered about the roles of Victorian men and women, which ending would be most accepted by readers during Victorian times? Which ending do you think would be best received by audiences today? Can you think of an even more updated ending? If the book were updated, what would Sarah’s role be as a woman? Would she still be a nanny? Would she take on a secretarial (or administrative assistant) role? Would she be more like a tutor? Why? What would Charles’s role be? Why?
‘‘John Fowles (1926-).’’ Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Carolyn Riley. vol. 1. Detroit: Gale Research, 1973. p. 109.
‘‘John Fowles (1926-).’’ Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Dedria Bryfonski. vol. 10. Detroit: Gale Research, 1979. pp. 183-191.
Loveday, Simon. The Romances of John Fowles. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985.
Tarbox, Katherine. The Art of John Fowles. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1988.
Foster, Thomas C. Understanding John Fowles. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1994.
Baker, James R. Interview, ‘‘John Fowles: The Art of Fiction No.109.’’ The Paris Review (Summer, 1989).
‘‘The Fifty Greatest Postwar Writers: 30 John Fowles.’’ (London) Times Online (January 5, 2008).
Lee-Potter, Adam. Interview, ‘‘Fair or Fowles?’’ (London) Guardian (October 12, 2003).
Fowles, John. John Fowles: The Web Site. Retrieved February 7, 2008, from http://www.fowlesbooks.com.
Scriptmania. Interview with John Fowles. Retrieved February 7, 2008, from http://lidiavianu.scriptmania.com/ john_fowles.htm.