The Collector by John Fowles

What makes a book a ‘classic’? What makes it last, what makes publishers choose to reprint it for years? Popularity is certainly a huge factor; but what about ‘cult classics’ or those that are a little under the radar? Take for instance The Collector by John Fowles – what made Vintage reprint it in 2004 in their classic red spine model? The Vintage website states that upon publication of The Collector, his first novel, in 1963, Fowles “was immediately acclaimed as an outstandingly innovative writer of exceptional imaginative power.” I can see why he was “acclaimed” as such, but I cannot say that I like his writing. I cannot say that I like The Collector.

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Reading about the novel before I bought it, the story seemed interesting and a lot of people recommended it, and for some reason I expected it to be Victorian-ish, Romantic and strange, with a feel similar to Angels and Insects by A. S. Byatt. I don’t know what in particular it was that gave me this impression, maybe that’s just how I hoped it would be. I can say now with absolute confidence that it was nothing like that at all.

Perhaps my expectations ruined it for me. I’m not sure. But I do think that even if I had gone into it without any expectations, I still would not have enjoyed it. It is a strange book, fine, but it is also quite unlikeable – but at the same time interesting. Fred is a collector of butterflies. He works for the council and keeps mainly to himself; he doesn’t seem to get on with other people. Something that begins to come through in his narration, and is discussed in the section narrated by Miranda, is that he has very set ideas about what is right and good, and particularly what is “nice”. He is very formal and disapproves of any rude language or behaviour, and seems unduly horrified by his colleagues flirting with each other or making naughty jokes. Even from his own narration we can see that he is not comfortable with anything suggestive or sexual.

He watches Miranda, an art student who lives in his village. Even when she moves to London to go to college he knows where she is. He admires her and thinks her beautiful, loving her from a distance. Initially it is pleasant to read about how beautiful he thinks she is, and how her hair looks like a mermaid’s; but there is also an undercurrent of unease, a stalker-ish quality to the way he watches her, and yet never speaks to her. Living in the same village as her and her family allows him to know some facts about her life, such as her family’s money and the fact that they are middle class. Now – class becomes a very important issue in The Collector. From the beginning it is bubbling away, and once Fred and Miranda’s relationship develops it becomes ever more important and ever more influential. He has a bit of a chip on his shoulder about her being middle class and his not – while he often doesn’t approve of other people’s behaviour, he doesn’t seem to like himself that much either – and this, coupled with Miranda studying art, draws him to the conclusion that she is ‘better’ than him. Or at least that she must think herself to be. This difference between them reinforces his dreamlike idea of her as an unattainable object, and reduces any idea he might have of her as a real person.

Before reading I had no idea how he managed to keep Miranda as his “guest”, and so I was horrified to read about his methodical, logical, and very detailed plans for having her at his house for a long period of time – and how to get her there. His house in Sussex is purchased purely because it is isolated and has a big basement, and even that is enough to make you feel queasy, let alone his conversion of that basement into living quarters – with plenty of locks – and his purchase of a van with, perhaps worst of all, a mattress in the back. It is all too real, too believable, but also too raw and unromantic, too cunning and cold.

From the moment he starts following Miranda in his van, I wasn’t 100% sure I wanted to go on. But I did, largely because the middle section of the book is narrated by Miranda, and I was intrigued to see things from her point of view. It is written as a diary, kept while she is in the basement. I can see why Fowles chose to include this, to see the class issues between them from both sides and get a wider perspective on Fred’s personality, as well as making Miranda into a fully realised character. But the diary adds little to the story, only facts about Miranda’s life, her tempestuous relationship with an older man (that she goes on and on about, to no conclusion), and her feelings about Fred. It is not very illuminating, and rehashes scenes we have already seen from Fred’s perspective. Miranda’s point of view adds very little to them, and I found myself skipping or skimming pages. Fred sums up at the end in the grimmest of ways, and there is the sense that he has learned nothing from the experience, only that Miranda was too clever and he should find someone ‘simpler’. I was left feeling queasy, repelled by the whole thing, and wishing I hadn’t read it. Unless you like those feelings, I wouldn’t bother if I were you. Also, according to Wikipedia, several serial killers have used it as inspiration. Nice!

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Originally published by Jonathon Cape in 1963. I read the 2009 Vintage Classics edition.

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6 thoughts on “The Collector by John Fowles”

  1. It’s a shame this book didn’t work for you, Lizzi. I agree with a lot of the points you’ve made – just reading your review has reminded me of scenes in the book or brought back emotions I had while reading – particularly about feeling uneasy and horrified. I found Fred to be quietly terrifying throughout the whole novel, but I did find the book compelling. I think, though, that Fowles is a very skilled writer to have evoked those strong feelings of uneasiness in readers. Have you read any of Fowles’ other novels? I haven’t, but I’d be interested to see how he deals with other subjects.

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    1. I agree that Fowles’ skill as a writer is displayed – I just wish he’d chosen a different story! I haven’t read his other work, and unfortunately I have to say that I don’t feel compelled to. But I’m glad that I read this, at least to see what it’s like.

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  2. It is many years since i read The Collector, I remember thinking it uncomfortable and chilling, but ultimately brilliantly written and enormously memorable. I don’t have a copy of it any longer, but I think I would like to re-read it one day. I do understand your reservations about the novel though.

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  3. I also read it quite a while ago, in my student days, and yes, it made for pretty grim reading, but at the same time it felt quite different from a ‘crime’ novel, say. I interpreted it at the time as the artist/writer who tries to ‘pin things down’ with words or colours or shapes, but the work of art always somehow evades him. Perhaps a bit fanciful? And perhaps an extreme way of conveying this message, but it made me stick with a story that I would otherwise have found too disturbing.

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  4. Thanks for this post. I read the Collector a couple of months back and I agree with many of your comments. In particular, the second half of the novel I also found myself skipping sections because the pace was too slow for me.

    That said I would still classify this novel in the ‘classic’ category. I think he really gets into the minds of these characters and shows how we all go about justifying our decisions to ourselves no matter how trivial or heinous our actions may be. In this sense the book is skillfully written.

    I think this also brings up an in interesting point of whether or not classic novels need to be somewhat flawless or whether classic is merely a title for when a popular novel ages.

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