The French Lieutenant’s Woman was one of my HSC texts – all those years ago – and though I enjoyed it, I have not gone back to Fowles since. Fun fact for the day – Fowles died four days after my last high school exam (It wasn’t English. It was Ancient History.) But look! Vintage Classics have reissued his list in pretty covers! And they’re so cheap! How can I say no?! And how can I stop using exclamation marks?!
When Frederick Clegg decides to kidnap the girl of his dreams, Miranda Grey, neither of them knows what the end game is. As Miranda tries to come to grips with her new way of life, having been stolen by a man she barely knows, Frederick, too, is having to struggle with some important life questions. Now that he has her, what will he do with her? What does he want out of this? What does she need? And will he ever let her go?
We rattle along the first twenty pages or so, patiently waiting for Frederick to do something of any interest. He seems to be a perfectly gentle young man, if a little odd. It’s amazing just how easily this is conveyed by Fowles by internal monologue alone. It’s not the situations in which he finds himself, but the tone and vocabulary of his monologue are calm and somehow detached from the rest of the world. It is clear he doesn’t fit in, but there’s no real sense of what he is about to do. There are about a billion young men like him lusting after a girl far, far out of their reach.
So when the deed does indeed occur, it is something of a shock. Once again, the matter of fact tone of his retelling of his kidnapping of Miranda is laid out like a recipe. Or perhaps more aptly, recalling a surgery. In many ways, it is his refusal to acknowledge the possible consequences of his actions that make him so weird. I didn’t find him terrifying – this isn’t some Scandinavian slasher novel. So no, not terrifying. But creepy? Yes. Unnerving? Yes. Do I want to share a beer with him? Nope. But he is fascinating, and you can’t help but feel unclean at the fact that you want to find out more about him.
The shift into Miranda’s point of view is, therefore, a pleasant change. She is very, very human, and in many ways, kind of an annoying toff. She is completely oblivious to this fact, though, and she does mean well. That, and she’s been kidnapped by a crazy man, so you can forgive a young lady a few foibles. They’re not even bad faults – she wants everyone to be better. As an art student, she is caught up in the 1960s art scene, when theory and practice were rapidly changing, and people were asking more questions about their paintings. Miranda, so caught up in this, cannot see that other people might not have any interest or desire in the minutiae of this world, and she just wants everyone to be a bit nicer, a bit more educated, a bit better.
Sexuality is at the heart of this novel. We all know people like Frederick, and it’s not entirely surprising to find out that he has absolutely no idea what to do with Miranda once he has her. We never really discover what it is about him that has made him quite so repressed. I suppose, in a way, it’s gentlemanly not to rape the girl you’ve kidnapped? I’m not really sure. Miranda herself veers wildly between making her own advances, in an attempt to try and bribe her way out of the situation, and being repulsed at the thought of bedding him.
Her running hot and cold with him sexually is almost directly related to her own feelings about her predicament. She is, at first, and quite understandably, angry, scared and petrified. She tries to escape, but with inevitable failure, she becomes resigned to her fate, and is willing to play the model prisoner for a while. Inevitably, this never lasts, and she tries again and again to escape, the cycle of anger, horror and sympathy for Frederick doomed to repeat itself ad infinitum. There are echoes of Stockholm Syndrome, but Miranda sees Frederick more of a kind of project, a puzzle to work out and solve, rather than a man she would like to date.
Miranda’s fate seems inevitable when you read it, but for a long time, I was hoping she would get out of her imprisonment unscathed. Alas, it was not to be. What is more terrifying, though, is what Frederick decides to do next. I won’t spoil it for you, but it really drives home his mental instability.
The Collector betrays only a few hints of the intellectually heavy work for which Fowles would later become famous. It is, however, a deeply unnerving book that explores a short, intense relationship that inadvertently bares naked two people to each other, and allows us inside.