Back in 2020 I re-read John Fowles’ most famous work “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” (1969). It was a book I’d remembered with great affection but wondered on this re-reading whether “it does occasionally seem a little clever for its own good” and pondered if this might be one of the reasons why Fowles’ reputation has faded somewhat in the twenty-first century. Nevertheless, it ended up at #8 in my Best Books of 2020 list. At the same time I mentioned I should get round to re-reading his debut “The Collector” to see how it holds up.
I first came to this via the 1965 film adaptation I remember watching on a Monday night BBC1 9.30 film slot. It was a school night and I remember my mum saying “don’t tell anyone we let you stay up late to watch it.” It starred Terence Stamp and Samantha Eggar and made a strong enough impression on me to virtually lift the plot for my mock English O-Level. I don’t remember seeing it since this late 1970s showing. The book I read during my first term at college and moving house recently unearthed a box from the loft where the extended essay I produced on “The artist is always under the control of his ideas” based on this book, “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” and the short story collection “The Ebony Tower” saw me sitting pretty much on the fence but gaining an A grade (I didn’t get that many of these).
Basically, the plot of “The Collector” runs along the same lines as a myriad of psychological thrillers produced since but must have seemed extremely disturbing back in 1963. Frederick Clegg, a lonely lepidopterist wins the football pools and decides to spend his money on a rare specimen- not one of his usual butterflies but an Art student, Miranda, whom he abducts and keeps in a house near Lewes. Disproving what I said recently about “TFL’sW” and accessibility this is a very accessible (and chilling) work. Spread over four sections, three being a first-person narrative from the abductor and section 2 Miranda’s hidden diary. Fowles is doing more than an abduction thriller within Miranda’s section as she explores her relationship with Art and her own obsession for a fairly odious, older, established artist. Fowles challenges the reader by making his victim seem unsympathetic at times and his pathetic abductor, however heinous his actions, has the ability to pull on the heartstrings somewhat. I think this makes for a controversial read, perhaps even more so in the twenty first century but as we are dealing with larger themes than a straightforward kidnap caper this novel does still resonate and seems to have a place in our modern world.
I think, nowadays, we will be more gripped by Frederick’s words than Miranda’s diary which feels more time specific and thus dated. I read a Vintage Classics edition from 2004. It does still seem to be in print in a 2010 edition suggesting that there is a continuing readership for his work. I didn’t absolutely love it this time round as I obviously did as a teenager but it kept me with it throughout and I think I might not have finished my rediscovery of the work of John Fowles just yet.
The Collector was first published by Jonathan Cape in 1963.