In the course of one week in 1977, the writer John Fowles received a total of half a million dollars as an advance for his novel Daniel Martin and in option money for the film version of his 1969 best-seller The French Lieutenant's Woman. His two previous best-sellers, The Collector and The Magus, had already been Hollywood films (both terrible, alas). For two decades, Fowles was unique among English writers in combining literary sensibility with mass popularity.
He was born in 1926, at Leigh-on-Sea, in Essex. His father, Robert, had trained as a solicitor before the First World War but had been obliged to enter the family tobacco-shop business. His mother, Gladys, was a schoolteacher. Robert Fowles commuted to London each day in bowler hat and suit to run the shops, but he also had a passion for philosophy - the great German and American pragmatists - and some poetry. He had written his own novel about his Great War experiences - in later years he asked his son if it might be publishable. It wasn't, but John Fowles used fragments of his father's battlefield descriptions in a passage of The Magus.
However, Fowles was scornful of his parents and his suburban upbringing, of "This so dull life, mingled with hate and annoyance and pity", as he wrote in his journal when he was 23 and still living at home. He fervently disliked the "nullity" and "dwarfed existence" of his parents. "Their crassness horrified me," he said.
Fowles was educated at Alleyn Court School and Bedford School. Although he later complained about the brutality of the latter, he was apparently a model pupil and an outstanding cricketer. During the school holidays, Fowles joined his parents in Devon, to which the family had been evacuated. (He later recreated his time there in passages of Daniel Martin.) There he could express his passion for the natural world. This enthusiasm for natural history had been nurtured early, thanks to an uncle who was an entomologist and two cousins, one of whom was an authority on ants.
For the last year of the Second World War Fowles attended Edinburgh University, then did 18 months' military service as a lieutenant in the Royal Marines, an experience he loathed. It was there that he began keeping a journal. In 1947 he resumed his studies at New College, Oxford, where he read German and French. Here he dreamed of "enduring literary fame" and showed himself to be both an intellectual snob and a Francophile. He spent his university vacations in the South of France and after graduation taught at the university of Poitiers.
Then, late in 1951, fatefully, he took up a teaching job for two years at the Anargyrios College on the Greek island of Spetsai. The experience changed his life. There he fell for Elizabeth Christy, the wife of a fellow teacher.
Back in London in 1953, Elizabeth left her husband and, reluctantly, her two-year-old daughter, Anna, for Fowles. However, whilst she was living in poverty in London, Fowles was working at a finishing school in Hertfordshire where, over the next year, he had relationships with two pupils in quick succession (one of whom became the model for Lily in The Magus). At the same time, he was telling Elizabeth that, though he wanted a relationship with her, he did not want to be responsible for her daughter. "It would not even be enough to leave Anna," he said. "You would have to leave the guilt behind as well."
John Fowles and Elizabeth Christy married in April 1954. Anna stayed with her father. The loss to Elizabeth was made more poignant by the fact that she and Fowles could not have children of their own. Over the years that followed, mother and daughter did meet on occasion and eventually forged a meaningful relationship.
Fowles continued his teaching career in north London at St Godric's College. He taught there until 1963, ultimately as head of department, but was writing all the time. In 1953 he had submitted a novel about Greece - "An Island and Greece" - to an agent (Paul Scott, later a successful novelist himself), but it had been rejected. This was not a prototype for The Magus. He had been working on that, too, as an overtly supernatural work in the style of The Turn of the Screw.
The Magus was first called "The Godgame". Both narrative and mood, as Fowles later wrote "went through countless transformations" over the years. All versions shared the same basic plot, however, in which a young English schoolmaster, Nicholas Urfe, ditches his girlfriend (based on Elizabeth) and goes to teach on a lonely Greek island. There he meets the wealthy, mysterious Maurice Conchis and is drawn into the old man's Godgames through his infatuation with an alluring girl. (Originally, he had intended to make Conchis a woman, but had a failure of nerve.) Fowles was strongly influenced when writing The Magus by a now little-known novel, Richard Jefferies's Bevis (1882), and, more overtly, by Alain-Fournier's Le Grand Meaulnes (1913) - its sadness for a lost magical world chimed in with his own feelings about leaving Spetsai.
Fowles had put "The Godgame" to one side and was working on "Tessera", a novel about two people who have fallen in love with Greece and are living in permanent exile from it, when he had the idea for a short potboiler. (He had about nine other unpublished novels in his drawer by this time too.)
He wrote the first draft of The Collector, in which a clerk with a passion for collecting butterflies kidnaps an art student he desires, in four weeks. (Fowles later confessed that a favourite fantasy of his involved "imprisoning women underground".) It was published in 1963 to almost unanimous critical acclaim and turned two years later into a commercially successful film starring Terence Stamp. Fowles's experiences when he went briefly to Hollywood to work on the script later formed part of the background to Daniel Martin.
Fowles was catapulted to fame and fortune - the film rights to The Magus were sold before he had even finished it. In 1964 he began collating and rewriting all the previous drafts of The Magus. A virtuoso piece of storytelling, it was published in 1965 and, despite critical reservations, was an immediate popular success, especially with students. He wrote in the foreword to a revised version published in 1977:
I now know the generation whose mind it most attracts. And that it must always substantially remain a novel of adolescence written by a retarded adolescent.
The film that followed, in 1968, starring Michael Caine and Anthony Quinn, was notoriously bad and rendered even more infamous by a Woody Allen joke: "If I had to live my life again, I'd do everything the same, except that I wouldn't see The Magus."
By then Fowles and his wife were living in Dorset, first at Underhill Farm, a mile and a half along the coast from Lyme Regis, with a spectacular view out to sea. Returning from a trip to London one day, they found that one of their fields and a number of trees had disappeared; they had slipped into the sea. Elizabeth hated Dorset - she was lonely and depressed in the winters. Fowles had wanted to move to France - his study of French had helped form him and he always thought of himself as a European rather than an English novelist - but instead they bought Bunter's Castle, a roomy house in Lyme Regis with a late 18th-century façade, dubious past reputation and an enormous walled, wooded garden. They moved there in 1968.
Fowles later said of Elizabeth: "She was working-class, really, the intelligent, emancipated working class," he once explained:
I'm a middle-class child. I was brought up under all the wrong lights and all the wrong principles and it was Elizabeth who taught me what nonsense all that is.
She was also his muse - the inspiration for pretty much all the unknowable, enigmatic women in his fiction - and a ruthless editor of his work. She made cuts and drastic changes, was derisive of his attempts at playwriting and changed the endings of his novels. On one occasion she said he had a "Woman's Own style". For better or worse, it was she who insisted on the two alternative endings for Fowles's most successful novel, The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969).
That novel started with a dream - Fowles firmly believed in the power of the writer's unconscious for creating fiction: "You should give yourself to your imagination." He often recorded his dreams. A recurring one he had on the threshold of sleep was that of a woman standing on the Cobb (Lyme's vast manmade breakwater which could be clearly seen from his garden). He didn't know why she was there so he wrote the novel to find out. She became the anti-heroine Sarah Woodruff, a governess isolated by the local community for her rumoured former liaison with a French naval officer. The French Lieutenant's Woman did as well as its predecessor, a success compounded three years later by an accomplished film version, starring Meryl Streep, scripted by Harold Pinter and nominated for five Oscars.
Fowles's confounding of normal narrative expectations at the ending of The Magus, The French Lieutenant's Woman and, later, A Maggot, frustrated readers but excited critics. However, it might well have had less to do with critical theory or Elizabeth's interventions than with indecisiveness. He told me cheerfully several years ago,
I've never been able to finish a novel in my life. I always have ideas for endings, think I've got the whole thing locked up, then - bugger me - along comes some last-minute idea.
As a result, Fowles was famously reluctant to let go of his novels at all. One of his publishers suggested he was like a miser, counting over his gold.
By 1970, Elizabeth had become so forceful in her criticisms - particularly of a thriller, The Devices, that Fowles had just written - that her husband never invited her to comment on his work in progress again. Over the next two decades Fowles published only four works of fiction: The Ebony Tower (1974), Daniel Martin (1977), Mantissa (1982), and A Maggot (1985). He used to talk of novels being "brewed":
It means you write the idea or the main part of it in a given period. Then you have to let it lie, like a good beer, and it gathers strength, gathers flavour, all the rest of it, over time.
The title story of the short-story collection The Ebony Tower was later, in 1984, filmed for television starring Laurence Olivier and Greta Scacchi. Daniel Martin, his semi-autobiographical novel covering 40 years in the life of a screenwriter, had mixed reviews, while Mantissa got a very rocky ride. He wrote this fable about a novelist's struggle with his muse as a squib against the "gods" of postmodernism. The muse was, of course, his wife Elizabeth. "Muse is rather a silly word," he said. "But Elizabeth was behind all my female characters and she was my muse in the sense of a complement, a kind of counterpart."
In Daniel Martin, the central character is involved with two women, one young, one old. The older woman was Elizabeth, although she didn't realise it. "When Elizabeth first read it, she said she hated that woman," he recalled.
A Maggot was seen as a triumphant return to form. An odd combination of an 18th-century mystery, science fiction and history that transmutes into a religious tract, it too came from a single image of travellers riding along a skyline. In addition to these published works of fiction, he was, however, writing much else. Fowles also translated Don Juan, Lorenzaccio, The Lottery of Love and Martine from the French for the National Theatre. He wrote a number of screenplays, including one for an Ira Levin thriller, Dr Cook's Garden (1971). He wrote the text for several photographic compilations, including Shipwreck (1975), Islands (1978) and The Tree (1979).
In 1984 he had the idea for "In Hellugula", about a woman who at the start of the novel is trapped in a foreign country when the Second World War breaks out. "I've never been able to work out what my female characters are likely to do," he said later. He worked on the novel on and off - he admitted he was "atrociously lazy" - until, in 1989, he suffered a stroke that left him frail and slow in speech. The novel has never been published.
His wife, meanwhile, was suffering frequent bouts of depression and escaping to London with increasing frequency. Then, in 1990, Elizabeth died of cancer only a week after it had been diagnosed. Her death left him bereft. Fowles didn't write for a year. Ill-health dogged him thereafter, although, with the help of his stepdaughter and several other women whose presence inspired him, he was able eventually to resume writing.
In the early Nineties Paramount asked him to write a script for Le Grand Meaulnes. He also began working again on his early novel "Tessera", hoping to ready it for publication four decades after he began it. However, because he had written it in "a Joycean frame of mind", there was no clear narrative development. Again, the book never appeared.
In 1998 he published a collection of essays, Wormholes. For the previous eight years he had engaged in a number of relationships with much younger women but that year he married a family friend, Sarah Smith, daughter of Major Peter Smith, founder Secretary of the Jockeys Association. She took charge of him, breaking contact for him with some of his women friends and caring for him through illness. "I never thought I would find someone who weighed as much with me as my first wife."
Early in 1999 another producer tried to bring Daniel Martin into production. Rose Tremain was commissioned to write a script and Anthony Hopkins was approached to play the eponymous central character.
Fowles was becoming increasingly frail - he had had a stroke in 1988 and heart surgery. Almost since his move to Lyme Regis, he had been reclusive, at odds with the modern world and jealous of his privacy. It seems ironic then that his last work to appear was the most private - his Journals, the first volume published in 2003, the second last week. He said:
I just hope they give a detailed picture of what I have been . . . I do not begin to understand my own personality myself.
Peter GuttridgeReuse content