British author John Fowles, a loner and middle-class rebel who questioned marriage, domesticity and the very bonds of society in such novels as “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” and “The Collector” has died. He was 79.
Fowles died Saturday at his home in Lyme Regis, Dorset, southwest England, after a long illness, according to his publisher, Random House. The publisher said Fowles’ wife, Sarah, was by his side at the time of his death. He had a stroke in 1988 and suffered from heart problems.
Fowles’ writing career spanned more than 40 years and his most famous work — “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” — was made into the Oscar-nominated film starring Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons. His books have sold millions of copies worldwide, but the author hated fame and complained of feeling persecuted by his readers.
“They want to see you and talk to you. And they don’t realize that very often that gets on one’s nerves,” he once said.
He was a former English teacher whose first novel “The Collector” — about a butterfly collector who imprisons a woman in his basement — was published in 1963 and became an immediate hit. Two years later, it was made into a film, starring Terence Stamp and directed by William Wyler.
“The French Lieutenant’s Woman,” concerning a 19th century affair between a paleontologist and a mysterious Englishwoman, was published in 1969 and became the most commercially successful of Fowles’ novels.
It also was a highly unconventional narrative, with its self-conscious author intrusions, multiple endings and jumps back and forth in time, as if the constraints of the Victorian era were no less valid in the present.
“An outcast,” was how Fowles would describe the novel’s title character. “I didn’t know her crime, but I wished to protect her.”
“The Magus,” written in 1965, was inspired by Fowles’ brief time on the Greek island of Spetsai. It’s the story of Englishman Nicholas Urfe, who takes a teaching post on a remote Greek island when his affair with an Australian woman becomes too serious. The novel’s inconclusive ending is typical of Fowles’ work.
Loved nature, not peopleHis other works include “Daniel Martin” (1977); “Mantissa” (1982) and “A Maggot” (1985), as well as a collection of short stories, poetry and works of nonfiction.
Dan Franklin of the publishing company Jonathan Cape, part of Random House, said Fowles was an “extraordinary writer with an extraordinary range” but shunned the literary world.
“He hated playing the game of the famous writer. He just wanted to be in his garden in Lyme Regis. What he loved was nature, birds and flowers. Not people,” he said. “’The Magus’ arguably changed the lives of every 18-year-old who read it, and ’The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ changed British fiction with its post modernist tricks.”
Fowles was born March 31, 1926, in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, in eastern England to a cigar importer and teacher. Solitude was natural for him, as his only sibling, Hazel, was 15 years older. “I was brought up in an intensely conventional suburb not far from London by, in social terms, conventional parents,” he would recall. “I have tried to escape ever since.”
He studied at Bedford School, but returned home in the early 1940s, later attributing his departure from school as a “a sort of nervous breakdown at the age of 15.” He briefly attended Edinburgh University before entering into compulsory military service from 1945 to 1947.
Fowles then received a degree in French from Oxford University, where he was influenced by the existential writers of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, and began a career as an English teacher.
While in Spetsai, he met his first wife, Elizabeth Whitton, who had been married to a fellow teacher at the time. She died in 1990.