Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 963
John Robert Fowles (fowlz) was probably the most cerebral of contemporary popular novelists. He lived in his birthplace of Leigh-on-Sea until he and his parents, Robert Fowles and the former Gladys Richards, were evacuated to the village of Ippeplen, South Devon, with the coming of war. He studied German and French literature at the Bedford School, where he rose to the position of “head boy.” After completing school, Fowles entered the merchant marine. He spent six months at the University of Edinburgh and attained the rank of lieutenant as World War II came to a close.
After the war Fowles became a student at New College of the University of Oxford, where he continued his work in German and French literature, with particular emphasis in the latter. In 1950 he took the B.A. degree with honors. He taught English at the University of Poitiers for a year and then took a teaching job on the island of Spetsai in the Aegean Sea. His residence on Spetsai influenced his life in two ways. First, living on that island provided him with material for his fiction: A young English schoolteacher is the protagonist and Greece the setting for Fowles’s early novel The Magus. Second, on Spetsai he met his future wife, Elizabeth Whitton. Fowles returned to England and taught in and around London until 1963. The publication in that year of The Collector met with extraordinary success for a first novel, thus allowing him to abandon teaching and pursue a full-time writing career. This tale of a butterfly collector who kidnaps a beautiful young woman, making her his prize specimen, was adapted as a film, as most of Fowles’s novels have been.
Aristos—first published in 1964 as The Aristos: A Self-Portrait in Ideas and subsequently revised in 1966, 1968, and 1970—is a collection of philosophical notes styled in the manner of Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher of the fifth century b.c.e. In his preface Fowles writes that he has been warned against publication of the book on the grounds that it will damage his image as a novelist. He maintains that just as a plumber is much more than a plumber, a novelist is much more than a novelist; Fowles refuses to be imprisoned by the term. The Magus was published in 1965, some twelve years after Fowles had begun to write it. The novel is filled with exoticism, mystery, and a lush romantic atmosphere. Dissatisfied with parts of the novel, Fowles revised it in 1977, but most critics agree that differences between the two versions are minimal. In 1966 Fowles and his wife moved to Lyme Regis in Dorset where Fowles would live until his death on November 5, 2005. This small seaside town and the area surrounding it provide the setting for Fowles’s third novel, The French Lieutenant’s Woman.
The French Lieutenant’s Woman is the best single example of Fowles’s literary method. It is a mock-Victorian novel both in its setting and in its lengthy, heavily detailed narrative. The style, as is customary with Fowles, is realistic. He has stated his intense admiration for the narrative abilities of Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene, both masters of the traditional novel form. This typical Fowles story is rich in incident and features two lovers, lovers in the romantic as well as the erotic sense. Fowles’s work shows two strong influences from his long study of French literature: an existentialist philosophy and a fascination with the Celtic romance (especially the literary motif of the quest). These are combined in The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Charles Smithson, the protagonist, loses the beautiful and mysterious Sarah when he clings for too long to Victorian respectability. He sets out on a quest to find her again and, along the way, finds himself. Within the bounds of the traditional novel, Fowles experiments modestly but effectively. The French Lieutenant’s Woman has alternate endings, and the author makes occasional appearances as a minor character.
The collection The Ebony Tower takes its title from the novella (later adapted as a film for television) that is its first selection. It also includes three short stories and Fowles’s translation of a French medieval romance. In Daniel Martin the title character is a successful but unhappy screenwriter and former novelist. His quest is to find himself both as an artist and as a man. The novel contains multiple points of view: Parts are told by Daniel, other parts by a secondary character and the omniscient narrator. A Maggot met with a mixed critical reception, whereas Fowles’s earlier novels had been almost universally praised; the tale is as strange as its title. A young Englishman, after an unaccountable change in personality, undertakes a curious journey toward Stonehenge; the time is the eighteenth century. He disappears, and much of the book is devoted to the family solicitor’s efforts to solve the mystery of his disappearance. A Maggot mixes the Doppelgänger motif and flights of religious ecstasy with the supernatural and, perhaps, a visitation by extraterrestrial beings. Again, Fowles dramatizes the unhealthy effects of what he considers a repressive society. As he mimics the form of the Victorian novel in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, he writes much of A Maggot in epistolary form, one of the more popular devices in eighteenth century fiction.
Fowles is a popular novelist whose works have been best-sellers from the beginning. He was also a novelist of ideas. As he sought to entertain with his strong plots, glamorous settings, and lush prose, he remained essentially a serious writer. In a 1977 television interview, Fowles explained why he enjoys visiting with American writers. They are eager, he said, to talk about their technical and intellectual objectives, while British writers tend to limit discussion to the size of advances and royalties.
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