John Fowles
Permission Granted by Copyright Owner for Use on Book DrumJohn Fowles - Credit: Carolyn Djanodly

John Fowles was born in 1926 to a middle class family in Essex.  His childhood was spent in an "intensely conventional suburb" and he recalled being horrified by the crassness of his parents, who mocked Picasso as "the fellow who couldn't draw".

He was educated at private boys schools, eventually becoming head boy.  In an interview Fowles described this as being like "appointed heads of Gestapo, with a body of lesser prefects to help us spy on and patrol, cow and bully, the several hundred other boys".  He was ashamed and embarassed in later years at his conduct, and his experiences of the abuses of arbitrary power inspired a hatred of all forms of public authority.

After school, Fowles served two years of military service in the Marines and then attended Oxford University, where he studied French and, briefly, German.  It was in this period of his life that Fowles started to rebel against the orthodoxy of his upbringing and, in his own words, "decided instead to become a sort of anarchist". At Oxford, Fowles was first exposed to the French existentialist literature that was to prove so influential on his own work.

A harbour on Spetses
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeA harbour on Spetses - Credit: Fugue

After graduating in 1950, Fowles taught at the University of Poitiers in France and at a boys' school on the Greek island of Spetses (Spetsai).  His experiences on the island were to form the germ of his enigmatic, multi-layered novel The Magus.  Fowles began to write this novel on Spetses and continued it after returning to England, where he married and took a post teaching English to foreign students. 

In 1960, Fowles set aside The Magus and in the hiatus wrote The Collector.  This novel was his first to be published and it was quickly adapted into a film. The money Fowles earned from book sales and the film rights allowed him to quit his teaching job and devote himself to writing full-time.  His next published work was The Aristos, a collection of essays, then the reworked manuscript of The Magus in 1965.

Around this time Fowles moved from London to Dorset, finally settling in Lyme in 1968.  He lived in Lyme for the rest of his life, where he was for some time the curator of the Lyme museum.

John Fowles' former home in Lyme
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeJohn Fowles' former home in Lyme - Credit: David

The French Lieutenant's Woman was published shortly after Fowles' move to Lyme, and was followed by four more novels over the following 20 years: The Ebony Tower (1974), Daniel Martin (1977), Mantissa (1981) and A Maggot (1985).  Film adaptations were made of The Magus and The French Lieutenant's Woman, garnering criticism in the first case and, in the second, widespread praise and an Oscar nomination.

Fowles died in 2005, after several years of ill health.  He wrote no further novels in his last 20 years, but published a volume of essays and two volumes of the diaries he kept for most of his life. 

I am a great believer in diaries, if only in the sense that bar exercises are good for ballet dancers: it's often through personal diaries - however embarrassing they are to read now - that the novelist discovers his true bent - that he can narrate real events and distort them to please himself, describe character, observe other human beings, hypothesize, invent, all the rest.  I think that is how I became a novelist, eventually.

Fowles is now regarded as one of the 20th century's most important writers in the English language.  He was selected as one of the 50 greatest post-war writers by The Times, and four of his novels appear in the book 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.

Fan site

BBC interview from 1977

Audio interview from 1985

Long, in-depth interview in The Paris Review (1989)

Guardian interview from 2003

Obituaries from the BBC, The Independent, The Guardian, The Times and The New York Times