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John Fowles

John Fowles

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2008


Fowles, John Robert (1926–2005), author and museum curator, was born on 31 March 1926 at Waygate, 37 Fillebrook Avenue, Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex, the only son and elder child of Robert John Fowles and his wife, Gladys May, née Richards. While his father commuted into London, where he managed the family tobacco firm, Allen and Wright, his mother cheerfully assumed the traditional role of housewife, looking after their small but comfortable semi-detached home and the son who would remain their only child until the late arrival of a daughter, Hazel, in 1942. 

Fowles enjoyed a conventional middle-class childhood, attending Alleyn Court preparatory school in Westcliff-on-Sea, where he demonstrated an aptitude for both learning and sports. Among the teachers at the school was his mother's brother Stanley, who took his nephew on nature expeditions into the countryside, hunting for caterpillars and lappet-moths on the Thames estuary marshes. The experience helped to develop a lifelong interest that equalled if not surpassed his passion for literature. Indeed, the two pursuits would often coincide: his first published essay, ‘Entomology for a schoolboy’, which appeared in the Alleyn Court school magazine in 1938, offered an obvious foreshadowing of his first novel, The Collector, and through his life he regularly found opportunities to write about the nature that he loved. 

In 1939 Fowles won an exhibition to Bedford School. Having enjoyed an unusually sheltered and serene childhood, he found the experience of being a boarder at public school a shock. After enduring a year of homesickness and bullying, he was withdrawn from the school for a term, which coincided with his family evacuating to Ipplepen, a village halfway between Newton Abot and Totnes in Devon. It was a sudden, dramatic change in his circumstances that reinforced his sense of nature as a restorative refuge and also marked the beginning of a strong identification with the West Country, from where his mother's family had come. He returned to Bedford for the spring term of 1941 with a new-found resilience that enabled him to resume his school career with considerable success. He eventually became captain of cricket and head of school. Responsible for imposing discipline on 500 boys, he carried out his duties with an outward seriousness and respect for the rules of the school, but this display of conformity and convention hid a more sensitive and dissenting side. He would later compare his character in these years to a caddis-fly larva, which builds around itself a tough protective casing out of whatever surrounding material happens to be available.

In 1944 Fowles left Bedford to join the Royal Marines. After completing his officer training, he was posted to Okehampton camp on Dartmoor as an instructor in charge of training commando units. Prizing the opportunity that the post offered to explore the natural world he loved, he considered continuing his military career into peacetime, but was persuaded by a visit from the mayor of Plymouth, Isaac Foot, to take up a place at Oxford. In 1947 he began at New College, where he read French and German, although he soon dropped German to focus on French language and literature; in later years he would cite his dislike of the Lieder evenings of the German department as the reason. His time at Oxford was a period of significant self-discovery, in which a thirst for adventure caused him, once and for all, to cast off the skin of the rather conservative-seeming public school boy and Marine officer. A friendship with a fellow student and committed Marxist, Fred (Podge) Porter, caused him to challenge many of his previous preconceptions, laying the ground for views that would mature into a radical socialist outlook. 

As transforming an experience was a visit to the south of France during the long vacation of 1948. Befriending an elderly French millionaire, Monsieur Jullié, and his young companion, Micheline Gilbert, Fowles was invited to join the crew of their yacht, as it travelled along France's Mediterranean coast. Confiding details of a past in the resistance and a present divided between her rich lover and a husband in Paris, Micheline provided the young Oxford student with an insight into the complexities of grown-up life. Fowles would later confess a ‘calf love’ for Micheline; there was no prospect of his feelings being returned, but another lesson in his sentimental education quickly followed when he began an affair with the yacht's young Danish cook, Kaja Juhl, thus completing a memorable summer. During the long vacation of the following year Fowles joined an ornithological trip to the Finnmark region of Norway, which had been organized by the naturalist Peter Scott's Severn Wildfowl Trust. Journeying to the Artic tundra and fir forests, Fowles encountered a northern landscape of spectacular solitude that, as much as his Mediterranean sojourn, helped to stir the imagination of the future novelist. 


At Oxford Fowles found himself free to think about, and to engage with, the world around him. The desire to express this new independence of thought tilted him decisively into becoming a writer. The journal that he began to keep consistently from this time marked the beginning of a long and determined literary apprenticeship, which also expressed itself in a continuous output of short stories, poems, plays, ideas for film scripts, and various other fragments of writing. 


After graduating with a second-class degree in 1950, Fowles, with the help of his tutor at New College, Merlin Thomas, secured a year-long post as a lecteur at Poitiers University. While becoming a published writer had emerged as his chief ambition, entries in his journal for this period reveal the exacting standards that would put off his début for many years: ‘At twenty-five I have created nothing that I can venture to publish. All of it is derivative, or faulty in technique or conception’ (Journals, 1.108). Arriving in Greece the following year to teach English at the Anargyrios and Korgialeneios school on the island of Spetses, Fowles set to work on a novel, ‘Journey to Athens’. In his own words ‘a jewel, a Treasure Island, a paradise’ (Journals, 1.150), Spetses would play a critical role in determining both his career and his life. It introduced him to his future wife Elizabeth, née Whitton (d. 1990), who arrived on the island with her husband Roy Christy and their young daughter Anna. It also helped him to break away from the impasse of ‘derivative’ writing: the unpublished ‘Journey to Athens’ itself may have marked only one more stage in his apprenticeship, but what he saw, found, and did in Greece provided him with the inspiration for the novel that would, after many mutations, eventually be published as The Magus (1965). If falling in love with Elizabeth in such an idyllic setting made the period in Spetses a highly romantic, fulfilling time for Fowles, it was also an extremely painful one, with the blossoming of their relationship involving the break-up of another. Fowles eventually married Elizabeth in April 1957, but there was a heavy cost as Elizabeth struggled through a difficult divorce and separation from her daughter. 

Having returned with Elizabeth to England in July 1953, Fowles taught for a year at Ashridge College in Hertfordshire, and then, in 1954, became a teacher of English at St Godric's secretarial and language college in Hampstead, London. There he would remain until the successful publication of his first novel, The Collector, in 1963. Turned into a Hollywood film, starring Terence Stamp and directed by William Wyler, the recipient of three academy awards, the novel instantly established Fowles as a leading novelist on both sides of the Atlantic. Although over the course of his career Fowles would enjoy a huge worldwide audience, such fame was not something that he had consciously courted. His second book, The Aristos (1964), a collection of numbered philosophical observations after the manner of Pascal's Pensées, was an example of how he would always follow his own instinct as a serious writer rather than the market. It was this uncompromising attitude that would help him over the next twenty years to push forward the boundaries of modern fiction in a series of works that were never content to repeat past success but always sought to experiment with the narrative form. 

Embracing his new career as a best-selling author, Fowles in 1965 left London with Elizabeth to live near the town of Lyme Regis on the Dorset coast. The move provided him with easy access to the nature and wildlife he loved, but also encouraged a new passion for local history. He referred to the collection of his different selves as the John Fowles Club, but whether writer, naturalist, or historian, those selves all found a common source in an extreme sensitivity to environment and a flair for describing it. Another way Fowles would explain this was to speak of ‘the domain’—the garden, literal or figurative, where one was free to wander. This sense of domain accounted for the often strong autobiographical vein in his novels. Just as The Magus drew on his experience as a teacher on Spetses, The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969) explored the past of the town in which he lived, and the eponymous hero of Daniel Martin (1977), who is a screenwriter, provided another obvious alter ego. 

For the first few years of life in Dorset the domain was to be found at Underhill Farm. The house stood to the west of Lyme, on a geologically unstable stretch of coast known as the Undercliff. Overlooking the coast, the fields of the farm ran down to the cliff's edge. The sea's expanse complemented a rugged landscape that, inaccessible to human habitation, gave the impression of having been made over entirely to nature. Fowles derived a profound contentment from this setting, in his journals describing it as ‘a huge, complex poem’ (Journals, 1.646). But the taste of paradise would be short-lived. When in February 1968 a large area of the farm slid into the sea, Fowles and his wife, Elizabeth, were forced to leave. Moving to Lyme Regis, they made their new home in Belmont House. A large Georgian property situated high above the town, it overlooked the Cobb, the harbour that Fowles's novel The French Lieutenant's Woman would make famous. 

Published in 1969, The French Lieutenant's Woman, which won the W. H. Smith award, was a huge critical and commercial success, remaining on The New York Times best-seller list for over a year. But although it firmly established its author as one of Britain's most important novelists, Fowles himself felt increasingly remote from what he regarded to be the narrow concerns of the literary world, with the often restrictive criteria that it applied to writers. After the appearance of a volume of poems in 1973 offered some defiance of this tendency to pigeonhole, Fowles published a collection of long stories, The Ebony Tower, in 1974, and then the novel Daniel Martin in 1977, but through the decade his fiction writing formed an increasingly intermittent part of a literary output that, in such works as Shipwrecks (1974), Islands (1978), and The Tree (1979), was as notable for its engagement with the natural world. 


In 1978 Fowles was appointed curator of Lyme Regis's local museum, the Philpot. Although the position was intended to be honorary, he made of it a full-time occupation, as he set about organizing repairs to the dilapidated building and cataloguing a rich and varied collection of fossils, local artefacts, and old photographs. His work as local historian and naturalist was interspersed with long trips to Greece or France, which had remained continuing sources of inspiration since his first discovery of them as a young man. Although Fowles published only two more novels, Mantissa (1982) and A Maggot (1985), he remained as industrious a writer as ever, producing a steady stream of essays, translations, reviews, forewords, and introductions. Gathered together in the collection Wormholes (1998), they formed a mosaic of varied but passionately pursued interests that reflected a wilfully eclectic cast of mind. 

In 1988 Fowles suffered a serious stroke and two years later his wife, Elizabeth, died. But over time he rediscovered an equilibrium, which was greatly aided by his marriage on 3 September 1998 to his second wife, Sarah Smith (b. 1944), advertising director, and daughter of Peter Smith, farmer. In the last years of his life Fowles prepared for publication two remarkable volumes of journals (2003 and 2006). Forthright and uncompromising, they were highly controversial, but, in the words of one reviewer, amounted to ‘what may come to be seen as one of the very best of his works’ (Literary Review, Oct 2003). After many years of poor health he died of heart failure at Axminster Hospital, Devon, on 5 November 2005. He was survived by his second wife, Sarah. He did not believe in an afterlife. Thirty years earlier, he had named his new home, Underhill Farm, Nil manet, ‘Nothing remains’, aware of what lay in store for this house on a cliff-face even as he took possession of it. Careless of his fame and reputation, he would undoubtedly have taken the same attitude to his place in posterity, although the quality of his work will ensure that his name lasts longer than most.

© Charles Drazin, 2008.

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