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Friday 11th November, 2005

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A great teacher and a literary genius

Novelist John Fowles
HAMPSTEAD played a remarkable role in the life of writer John Fowles, author of bestselling novels The French Lieutenant’s Woman and The Collector, who died on Saturday at his beloved Lyme Regis in Dorset, aged 79.
It was to Hampstead that he came first in 1954 – to make love to his abiding muse, Elizabeth Christy, and to remain with her after she deserted her husband and daughter to be with him.
And it was in Hampstead that he wrote his two best-known novels, both of which were filmed, while teaching English to foreign students at St Godric’s College in Arkwright Road, Hampstead.
He described it as “a seedy, mediocre institution”, where after nine years as head of the English department he earned just £1,445 a year. It closed in 1993.
He and Elizabeth lived nearby in Prince Arthur Road before moving to Frognal, then on to Church Row, where he used a rooftop telescope to spy on his neighbours.
He recalled in his diaries: “Happy times on a Sunday lunch, steak, wine, raspberries, sunlight and the Schubert great ninth on the wireless; the trees alight with green flames, the buildings soft slate-blue, spring and spring-music. We made love most of the afternoon, in the warm sunlight, crisscross shadows across our baked bodies.”
He and Eizabeth wandered hand in hand on the Heath on chilly evenings – “the trees dancing, St Elmo’s fire, with green shoots... willow warblers sung liquidly from each small copse” – and ended up either in Jack Straw’s Castle or the Everyman cinema.
And from there they lived in Hampstead High Street before buying a “peasant’s cottage” in Southwood Lane, Highgate, then, with the dollars earned from his early success, he headed off to Dorset.
The French Lieutenant’s Woman, created, literally, out of a dream, fixed his name in the literary firmament, but it was The Collector, his first novel published in 1963, that brought about his instant recognition and fame.
It was the story of a butterfly collector called Clegg who ended up imprisoning in his basement a young woman he abducted on the steps of Hampstead Town Hall. Samantha Eggar and Terence Stamp took the star roles in the William Wyler movie.
Sir John Loveridge, former principal of St Godric’s, still lives in Hampstead, and remembers the young Fowles well.
“He gave me a copy of that first novel, The Collector, and I still have it,” he said. “We were delighted at his success when he was at St Godric’s. He was a good head of department. And a great teacher.”
He was in fact a man touched with true literary genius.


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