Throughout the 20th century, English writers achieved success in the US by selling an elite image of the country based on Oxbridge and public schools. Can any other vision of English life strike a chord with Americans?by Benjamin Markovits / January 14, 2007 / Leave a comment
In 1963, a thirtysomething Oxford-educated schoolmaster, teaching at a girls’ college in Hampstead, sold his first novel. Its hero is a butterfly-collecting young clerk named Clegg, who kidnaps and imprisons a pretty girl he picks up outside Hampstead town hall. Jonathan Cape published the book in England and Pan Books bought the American rights for £3,500: a record for an English first novel. The publishers flew the author over for a publicity tour. He had never been to America. “Somehow I have to explain how I came back a week later still a socialist (in my fashion) but also hopelessly in love” with the country, he recorded in his diary. It is not surprising he had his head turned a little. His novel had become a “sort of ‘in’ book in New York. Everywhere I went I met people who wanted to argue about it… It obsesses people because it is about power and impotence… ‘All American women want to be locked up underground,’ said one lady. ‘We’re all in love with that monster of yours.'” No doubt the fact that Clegg was English softened the cruelty of his treatment of the girl a little. The initial American print run of The Collector was to be 20,000—the biggest, John Fowles wrote in his diary, since Goodbye, Mr Chips.
What Fowles felt towards the brave new world suggests both sides of the relation between Clegg and his imprisoned schoolgirl: “But I know now, deeply, that I need openness, I need space… To say that the English are living in and on their history is a cliché; but this is what I felt intensely coming back.”
Fowles’s feelings have been so widely shared, and also so bitterly disagreed with, in the four decades since, that they have become a part of the “cliché” that the “English are living in.” When Martin Amis, in his 1986 collection The Moronic Inferno and other visits to America, praised Saul Bellow for his “high style,” he had in mind something of what Fowles was aiming at several decades before: “To evolve an exalted voice appropriate to the 20th century has been the self-imposed challenge of his work.” Amis, in praising Bellow, was also reacting against what he considered to be the influence on English literary ambition of the empire’s decline, as he described it elsewhere in 1990: “In its current form, the typical English novel is…