Many readers of John Fowles's remarkable novels have wondered what their author is really like. A few facts have been known but not many. Finally, a biography has appeared that will more than satisfy these readers’ curiosity.
In Fowles's novel The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969), the narrator remarks that everyone fictionalizes their autobiographies. That is, one edits one's stories about the past to make them more flattering or more significant. Biographer Eileen Warburton must face the fact that when Fowles speaks of his own past, he also fictionalizes. He does not necessarily tell the literal truth. As a result, his biographer must compare Fowles's remarks (and she has interviewed him at length) with his extensive diaries and with all sorts of other evidence. She has done a fine job.
John Fowles was born on March 31, 1926, at Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex, a town on the north bank of the Thames estuary. Although his family home was soon reassigned to the old port of Leigh-on-Sea, it was essentially part of suburban London. His father was a businessman, his mother a housewife. The boy Warburton describes is in many ways quite normal, doing well in the local school, especially in French. He was a fine athlete. Even in those days, Warburton sees him as trying to escape his humdrum suburban life. His Uncle Stanley introduced him to nature studies and to drawing and painting. Fowles also loved reading, especially Kiplingesque boyish fantasies.
In 1939, he entered the Bedford School, northwest of London. At first, he was unhappy and later claimed he had a mental breakdown; really he suffered only a series of illnesses. Eventually, he did well in his studies and especially well on the cricket pitch. He was named Head of School, a boy who helped discipline younger boys. Although punishment at Bedford was in reality rather mild, Fowles would later deplore the great amount of flogging he administered. He spent his school vacations with his parents, who had moved to Devon. Rural Devon was the Eden he had dreamed about: He wandered in the woods and kept a detailed nature journal. When he turned eighteen, he entered the Royal Marines and became a lieutenant. At the end of World War II, he considered remaining in the Marines. Instead, he opted for Oxford University.
Fowles's Oxford career was not spectacular. He read French at New College and wrote and translated poetry. He left with a second-class degree. His vacations and private life were more important. When he was not at home despising middle-class suburban life, he was traveling on the Continent. In France, he learned about such new existentialist authors as Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre—and he lost his virginity. A trip to northern Finland gave him an image of bleak isolation which, after reading more Camus, resonated with his view of the human condition.
When he left Oxford in 1950, he taught for a year at the University of Poitiers in France. His next job was to prove more significant: he taught at a school on the Greek island of Spetsai. There he met Elizabeth Christy (born Betty Whitton), the wife of another teacher, Roy Christy. Roy was a loud, destructive drunk, and soon his excesses allowed Fowles and Elizabeth to spend time together. They fell in love. When both men were fired, all three returned to England in 1953. For a year, while Fowles taught at the Ashridge College of Citizenship just outside London, the men were tugging Elizabeth in opposite directions. She had to choose between her daughter and Fowles; she chose Fowles. When he got a new job at St. Godric's Secretarial College in Hampstead, a north London district, Elizabeth moved in with him. Fowles liked his new job and rose to be head of the English Department. Elizabeth obtained a divorce, and she and Fowles were married on April 2, 1957.
The following twelve years were a rich mixture of work and travel. Fowles was always writing something: stories, poems, dramas, film scripts. His efforts paid off with his first published novel,The Collector (1963), and a collection of philosophical aphorisms, The Aristos (1964). His next major novel was The Magus (1966). He and Elizabeth moved from Hampstead to nearby Highgate. They traveled to Greece and the United States and hobnobbed with literary and film celebrities.
Fowles, however, was not happy with his frantic London life. He and Elizabeth found a place miles away: Underhill Farm in the Dorset seaside town of Lyme Regis. There he wrote The French Lieutenant's Woman, weaving the farm and the town into the novel's action. When the edge of their property crumbled into the sea, the Fowleses moved to Belmont House, a more formal residence not far away. There Fowles was to continue to live until the last years...
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