John Fowles (born 1926) was an award winning post World War II novelist of major importance. While his works are reflective of literary tradition reaching back to Greek philosophy and Celtic romance, he was very much a contemporary existentialist, and his writings received both popular and critical acclaim.
John Fowles was born on March 31, 1926, to middle-class parents living in a small London suburb. He attended a London preparatory school, the Bedford School, between the ages of 14 and 18. 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," and it was during this time that he was exposed to the Celtic romances and the existential works of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. 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, allowed him to retire with his wife and her daughter to Lyme Regis in Dorset. He continued to live in this quiet sea-coast town—intentionally isolated from English literary circles—where he wrote, gardened, and pursued his interests in natural and local history.
It was not until Fowles was in his early 20s that he began his writing career. After translating a poem by Pierre de Ronsard he was able to overcome that fear of self expression that he once suggested is common to all Englishmen. Fowles' first serious attempts at writing took place on Spetsai, amidst 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, a work that would obsess the writer for many years. Leaving Greece was a painful experience for Fowles, but one that he saw as having been 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."
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 Collector is the story of Frederick Clegg, a poorly educated clerk of the lower-class and an amateur lepidopterist, who 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 narrative shifts, with the first part of the book told from Clegg's point of view and the second recounting the imprisoned Miranda's perspective. The characters of Miranda and Clegg, set in opposition, embody the conflict that Fowles, reaching back to Heraclitus, finds central to mankind—the few versus the many, the artistic versus the conventional, the aristoi versus hoi polloi. As Fowles noted, "My purpose in The Collector was to analyse, 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."
The commercial success of The Collector enabled Fowles next to publish The Aristos: A Self-Portrait in Ideas. 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' next published work, The Magus, 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 quay 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 and mores, but contemporary and existential in viewpoint. Fowles' rejection of the posture of omniscient narrator exhorted both characters and readers to grapple with possibilities and to grow through the pursuance of mystery which "pours energy into whoever seeks the answer to it." 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 10 years later. The title story is a concise re-evocation of the confrontation between the pseudosophisticated man of the world with the reclusive shaman who shatters his poorly conceived notions of reality, a theme more broadly enacted in The Magus. This volume contains a translation of a 12th-century romance written by Marie de France, and in a personal note preceding this translation Fowles paid tribute to the Celtic romance, stating that in the reading of these tales the modern writer is "watching his own birth." Fowles' 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, of mystery, and of a desire for growth.
Daniel Martin, perhaps the most autobiographical of Fowles' novels, draws upon his early experiences of the Devonshire countryside as well as his later involvement in the Hollywood film industry. It appeared in 1974 to mixed 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. Mantissa (1982) though more cerebral, demonstrated a continuing concern with the artist's intrapersonal conflicts.
In 1996, a new edition of Fowles' essay The Tree was published, and along with it the essay The Nature of Nature, written some 15 years later when the author was approaching 70, 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."
While Fowles' 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. While his roots in Western culture were broad and deep, he earned a reputation as an innovator in the evolution of the contemporary novel. He was a spokesperson for modern man, steeped in science, yet ever aware that what he more deeply needs is "the existence of mysteries. Not their solutions."
Further Reading on John Fowles
Non-fiction works by John Fowles included Shipwreck (1974); Islands (1978); The Tree (1979); and The Enigma of Stonehenge (1980). For further insights into the life and works of John Fowles see H. W. Fawkner, The Timescapes of John Fowles (1984), which contains a forward by Fowles himself; Robert Huffaker, John Fowles (1980); Barry Olshen, John Fowles (1978); and Peter Wolfe, John Fowles (1976).
Additional Biography Sources
Loveday, Simon, The Romances of John Fowles, St. Martin's Press, 1985.
Pifer, Ellen, Critical Essays of John Fowles, G.K. Hall, 1986.
Tarbox, Katherine, The Art of John Fowles, University of Georgia Press, c1988.
Salami, Mahmoud, John Fowles' Fiction and the Poetics of Post-modernism, Associated University Presses, c1992.
Aubrey, James R., John Fowles: A Reference Companion, Greenwood Press, 1991.
Foster, Thomas C., Understanding John Fowles, University of South Carolina Press, c1994.