The Governor’s Lady – Norman Collins (1968)

Books by British author Norman Collins (1907-82) are now hard to find, which is a great shame as the two I have read by him, “London Belongs To Me” (1945) and “Bond Street Story” (1958) have both ended up in my end of year Top 10s.  I was delighted to spot a hardback Book Club edition from around the time of publication in a vintage book section of a charity shop.  Doubly delighted because Christopher Fowler in his “Book Of Forgotten Authors” (2017) who reminded me of this author said this was his favourite describing it as “ a colonial story of secrets, lies and endless ineptitude among Africans and the English.”

Although I was thrilled to find this to be honest I wasn’t convinced I was going to like it when I began it.  Largely set in the 1930s in the fictional colonial nation of Amimbo my hackles were very much raised as to how this would read in 2022.  It begins and ends with an epilogue set probably close to the time when it was published but travels back to the early 1930s for the bulk of the narrative.

It is the tale of Harold Stebbs who begins working as part of the Governor Sir Gardnor Hackforth’s team.  The Governor is a man tolerated by the locals but holding out for the Viceroy of India post.  His wife, of the title, is bored, drinks heavily and seeks lovers to pass the time and to get away from her companion Sybil who is unhealthily devoted to her.  The action moves to a safari trip, where Hackforth becomes obsessed with hunting a leopard, in a section which I was also sure I wasn’t going to like but tragedy strikes more than once which takes the book into an unexpected direction.

There was something about reading this matt covered hardback from a Book Club of the late 60’s that I found reassuringly nostalgic and that probably had me more invested than if I had read an e-book edition.  There’s definitely something about Collins’ writing style which I find so appealing.  The richness of detail, as I have mentioned in reviews of his other books, can be almost Dickensian but there’s a delicious irony in the narrative voice which suggests he isn’t always taking things too seriously.  This book which I wasn’t expecting to enjoy that much due to its settings and what I perceived its values would be ended up being thoroughly enjoyable and kept me involved until the end.  Collins was a man very involved with the early days of commercial television and there’s a very visual, observational element to his work which is also quite splendid.  That’s three out of three five star ratings for him and now I am going to have to do some hunting around to source other out of print titles.  (He wrote 16 novels in a long career which spanned from 1932-81).

The Governor’s Lady was first published in 1968 by Collins in the UK.  I read a hardbook Book Club edition.

The Collector – John Fowles (1963)

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.