John Fowles: A Life in Two Worlds

9780099273981: John Fowles: A Life in Two Worlds

Although John Fowles's novels - among them The Magus and The French Lieutenant's Woman - have enjoyed huge critical and popular success around the world, little is known of Fowles himself. In Eileen Warburton he has at last found the capable biographer he has long deserved. Eileen Warburton provides a richly detailed portrait that emphasizes his emergence as one of the twentieth century's most important writers. She chronicles his prewar childhood in the Essex town of Leigh-on-Sea and in wartime rural England, his Oxford education, and his apprentice years in Europe and London. From a lifetime of intimate correspondence, she narrates Fowles's thirty-seven-year love affair with his wife Elizabeth, the woman who inspired his most memorable female characters. And she follows the astonishing trajectory of Fowles's long writing career - from his spectacular debut novel, The Collector, to the haunting The French Lieutenant's Woman, through his later fiction, poems, essays and translations. Based on exclusive access to the journal that Fowles has kept for fifty years, to personal letters, interviews and unpublished works, this searching biography will give readers a long-overdue look at this extraordinary writer.

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About the Author:

Eileen Warburton lives in Newport, Rhode Island. This is her first book.

From The Washington Post:

"Perhaps it is that I am hunting the woman archetype," the novelist John Fowles wrote in his diary in 1954, several years before he began work on The Collector, the book that brought him worldwide fame when it was published 41 years ago. Indeed, John Fowles's entire career seems aimed at giving chase to this elusive figure, as he did in his other best-known novels (The Magus and The French Lieutenant's Woman), his later works (Daniel Martin, Mantissa, A Maggot) and the stories collected in The Ebony Tower. Fowles himself has remained even more difficult to pin down. Now Eileen Warburton has brought him to ground in her exhilarating, exhaustive and entertaining biography John Fowles: A Life in Two Worlds.

Reams of criticism and a library's worth of doctoral dissertations have been devoted to Fowles's oeuvre, but Warburton's biography is the first, and it was written with Fowles's full cooperation. "There's only one way that you could do it," he told her. "Tell the truth. Tell the truth."

To that end, he gave Warburton access to all of his papers, published and unpublished; cleared the way for interviews with friends, family members and colleagues, and allowed her to read the surviving letters of his great muse, his late wife Elizabeth.

Warburton has in particular drawn heavily from Fowles's journals -- Volume 1 (which I have read in the UK edition) will be published in a revised edition in the United States later this year. The resulting portrait is not necessarily a pretty one, but the narrative Warburton makes of this prickly author's life is riveting and, in its final depiction of a literary lion in winter -- the 78-year-old Fowles continues to live in Lyme Regis, the setting for The French Lieutenant's Woman -- very moving.

Fowles was born in 1926, to middle-class parents. A fine athlete and a good student, the reserved young man was most absorbed by long solitary rambles in the countryside, recording what he saw in a series of journals. According to Warburton, "He began to feel that he had a special 'touch' with wild things. 'The secret [Fowles wrote] is . . . the cultivation of an intuitive sense. . . . Not just at odd times, but always.' He returned over and over to the same places, exulting in 'the pleasure of knowing a place intimately,' and listed, among other pleasures and details, 'the places to hide.' " This "nearly mystical identification" with the natural world grew over time into his fictional obsession with what Warburton describes as "an inexplicable conversion experience, a moment of transformation and emotional comprehension of the possibilities of all life. Some sort of similar mystical, deeply irrational, highly personal confrontation with the mystery of the universe became an experience common to many of Fowles's protagonists." Yet even while Fowles was observing wood pigeons and chipping sparrows, the moths and dragonflies he so loved, he was also hunting them: putting butterflies in a killing jar with cyanide, holding a wounded curlew under a stream to "dispassionately" watch it drown. In light of Fowles's later writerly concerns, this seems less the hunter's detached cruelty than an eerie distillation of one artist's creative process: the ceaseless effort to capture a moment of transcendence, or the being who embodies its mystery, then to relentlessly observe and absorb it and finally transform it into fiction.

In 1944, at 18, Fowles left school for an officers' training program, finishing his training just weeks after the war in Europe ended. In 1947, after debating whether to pursue a regular officer's commission or a university degree, he chose the latter. At Oxford he read Modern Languages, specializing in French. As an undergrad, he enjoyed several rapturous sojourns in France, falling in love with various women as well as with the French existentialists whose works were to inform so much of his own writing.

After receiving his degree, in 1950 he took a position at the University of Poitiers. He seems to have been a lackluster teacher, but he wrote furiously -- plays, filmscripts, short stories, dozens of poems, in addition to the voluminous journals (he calls them "disjoints") he kept for most of his life. He was not asked to return to the University after the spring term, but by the end of 1951 he was already on his way to a new position, as English master at a boys' school on the island of Spetsai, Greece.

At this point real life begins to dovetail with fiction, specifically the imaginary Greek island of The Magus, where the callow young Nicholas Urfe meets a Prospero-like figure whose complex "godgames" interweave strands of Mythos and Eros involving Nicholas's various romantic entanglements. Fowles was enchanted by Spetsai's natural history and its inhabitants. And in 1953 he met its Circe -- Elizabeth Christy (née Betty Whitton), the 28-year-old wife of Roy Christy, a published writer who arrived on Spetsai to take a position at the same school where Fowles taught. The three almost immediately fell into a pattern of drinking and traveling together, with Fowles usually picking up the tab for the impecunious Roy, a feckless husband and alcoholic. Within a few months, Fowles and Elizabeth were involved in a passionate relationship that scandalized the islanders, even as Elizabeth galvanized Fowles's imagination. She became his once and future muse, and would continue to be so until her death, 37 years later. He did not so much write about her, as through her: She was the prism that refracted his longings for transcendence, the erotic and transformative mystery that was at the center of his work. She was also often his best reader and editor -- it was Elizabeth who pointed out the weaknesses in the original final chapter of The French Lieutenant's Woman, and her insight seems to have inspired the now-famous double endings to that novel.

Warburton's account of the couple's early years together itself reads like a novel -- the loss of the island paradise followed by Dickensian poverty in gray London, the years of waiting for the Christys' divorce to become final. Most heartbreaking is the sad figure of Elizabeth's tiny daughter, Anna, whom Fowles referred to as "it," "an abstract something to be pushed aside." Shuttled among her parents, grandparents, various convent schools and caregivers, the child was a haunting presence -- Anna was 9 or 10 before she knew that the pretty lady who visited her was in fact her mother. Elizabeth remained anguished and guilt-ridden until, as years passed, Fowles grudgingly, then with growing affection, welcomed the girl into the household.

Somehow, within this romantic and domestic maelstrom, Fowles wrote the bestselling, mostly well-received books that in many ways became templates for so much late-century fiction. The deranged, obsessed narrator of The Collector kidnaps and imprisons a young woman in his basement, prefiguring more serial-killer protagonists than one can count. The interplay of myth, sex, faux-magic and conspiracy in The Magus laid the groundwork for books as varied as Donna Tartt's The Secret History, John Crowley's Aegypt sequence, and Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson's The Illuminatus! Trilogy, among numerous others. The French Lieutenant's Woman, with its twinned endings and sly postmodern take on Victorian sexual mores, begat A.S. Byatt's Possession and launched a thousand graduate careers in English Lit. Mantissa puts us inside a bedridden writer's head, a la Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective, and A Maggot can be read as a subtle first-alien-contact novel, like Karen Joy Fowler's Sarah Canary. Do all of Fowles's books stand the test of time? Probably not, but The Collector and The French Lieutenant's Woman remain enthralling and rewarding even now, and the essays collected in Wormholes are marvelous.

Fowles survived his early success. He and Elizabeth moved to the West Country, where he became increasingly involved in preserving Lyme Regis's museum and history, even as Elizabeth fell prey to crippling seasonal depression exacerbated by loneliness and isolation from their London friends. In addition to his fiction, essays and translations of French drama, Fowles wrote a number of unpublished and unpublishable works; it's to Warburton's (and Fowles's) credit that she doesn't whitewash these displays of bad will and bad writing, which include a vituperative and sometimes anti-Semitic rant against the United States, inexplicable in light of Fowles's many Jewish and American friends and colleagues.

In 1988, Fowles suffered a stroke. He made a partial recovery but believed it destroyed his ability to write imaginative fiction. Early in 1990 Elizabeth was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Nine days later she was dead.

Fowles never wrote another novel. He developed a December-May relationship with an Oxford undergraduate who sounds like a nasty bit of work; but this muse manqué generated no fiction, only 600 pages of obsessive writing in Fowles's journals. In 1998 he married a longtime friend and neighbor, Sarah Smith. The final image in Warburton's book is of Fowles and Anna Christy, Elizabeth's daughter, scattering Elizabeth's ashes over the garden in Lyme Regis, 10 years after her death. It's an elegiac ending to a biography that treats a writer's muse with as much honesty and intelligence as it does the writer himself.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Hand

Copyright 2004, The Washington Post Co. All Rights Reserved.

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