Thursday, 12 July 2012

The Collector by John Fowles

Lonely and socially inept, Frederick Clegg works as a clerk in a town hall and collects butterflies as a hobby. Relieved off his life of drudgery by a huge win on the football pools, Fred decides to collect another specimen, young art student Miranda, whom he has obsessed about for years.

Locking her up in the cellar of his new home deep in the Sussex countryside, Frederick thinks that she will fall in love with him and be his wife, but the plan quickly unravels as the unfortunate object of his desire finds him brutal, boring and a raging philistine to boot. She doesn’t even like his collection of butterflies, finding them macabre and anti-life.

Fowles divides the book into two parts, the first half portraying Frederick’s painful self-justification as he asserts, quite reasonably (at least to himself), that he has done the right thing in capturing his ideal woman. To the reader, it is obvious that Miranda is desperate to escape, and will try anything to get him to let her go, even seduction:

Well she went up to her bath and it was all like as usual. When she came out I did her hands, no gag, and I followed her downstairs. I noticed she had a lot of her French scent on, she’d done her hair up the way she did it before, and she was wearing a purple and white housecoat I bought her. She wanted some of the sherry we never finished (there was still half a bottle there) and I poured it out and she stood by the log fire looking down into it, holding out her bare feet turn by turn to warm them. We stood there drinking; we didn’t say anything but she gave me one or two funny looks, like she knew something I didn’t and that made me nervous. Well she had another glass, and drank it off in a minute and then wanted another. “Sit down,” she said, so I sat down on the sofa where she pointed. For a moment she watched me sitting there. Then she stood in front of me, very funny, looking down at me, moving from foot to foot. The she came, twist, bang she sat on my knees. It took me right by surprise. Somehow she got her arms right round my head and the next thing she was kissing me at the mouth. Then laying her head on my shoulder.

Despite the fortifying effects of fortified wine, Miranda is on a hiding to nothing. Fred’s interests are more voyeuristic than physical, and the plan doesn’t come off. The second half of the book collects a rough diary that Miranda makes of her imprisonment. She dubs Frederick Caliban, (he in turn renames himself Ferdinand, although he is completely unaware of the allusions to The Tempest), and the sheer cruelty of what he has done to her is shown here in much sharper relief. Her attempt at seduction is clearly a desperate act:

I dolled myself up after the bath. Oceans of Mitsouko. I stood in front of the fire, showing my bare feet for his benefit. I was nervous. I didn’t know if I could go through with it. and having my hands bound. But I had three glasses of sherry quickly. I shut my eyes and went to work. I made him sit down and then I sat down on his lap. He was so stiff, so shocked, that I had to go on. If he’d clutched at me, perhaps I’d have stopped. I let the housecoat fall open, but he just sat there with me on his lap. As if we had never met before and this was some silly party game. Two strangers at a party, who didn’t much like each other. In a nasty perverted way it was exciting. A woman-in-me reaching to the man-in-him. I can’t explain, it was also the feeling that he didn’t know what to do. That he was a sheer virgin. There was an old lady of Cork who took a young priest for a walk. I must have been drunk.

Fowles was a master of psychological suspense (his novel The Magus is equally powerful and disturbing) but it’s clear from the start that this isn’t going to end well.

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