British novelists, probably more than those of any other country in the world, seem obsessed with class structure. They frequently portray individuals struggling to rise to a class higher than the one into which they were born, or struggling to avoid falling into a class lower than the one they inherited, or struggling to maintain the appearance of what—below titular prestige—lacks substance and is morally bankrupt. Beginning with Daniel Defoe’s The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders (1722), British novelists have created a definite continuity, or tradition, centered on essentially negative artistic portrayals of the various tensions and conflict which exist between the classes. Examples are plentiful: Samuel Richardson’s Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded (1740-1741), Henry Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling (1749), William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair: A Novel Without a Hero (1847-1848), Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847), Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield (1849-1850), George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871-1872), Virginia Woolf’s Orlando: A Biography (1928), Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim (1954), Allan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, and Margaret Drabble’s The Needle’s Eye (1972), to name only the most obvious.
Not before Fowles’s The Collector, however, does the reader of British fiction encounter a character who is as duplicitously cunning in his narrative as Clegg is, or who is as murderously spiteful in his envy of those who—whether by breeding or hard work or both—hold a position higher in society than Clegg himself does or ever will. (Joyce Kilman, in Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, 1925, might certainly be seen as a distant “cousin” to Clegg in her capacity to hate and envy people who are better off than she is.) The Collector, however, is more than another example of a British literary tradition where theme is concerned; it is a masterfully written novel, composed as it is of two vital narrative voices, Clegg’s and Miranda’s. Although Miranda’s semi-epistolary narrative is thoroughly convincing, poignantly honest, and intimate, Fowles’s greater achievement is the creation of Clegg, an unreliable narrator as subtle and duplicitously persuasive as that of Andre Gide’s L’lmmoraliste (1902; The Immoralist, 1930) or Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier (1915).