The Collector, Miranda Grey drawn by illustrator Kate Willis Crowley
This summer it was the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of John Fowles’ The Collector. I first read the novel in 2005, when I was twenty, the same age as Miranda Grey, the protagonist, a beautiful art student who is kidnapped and kept in a cellar by Frederick Clegg, a socially alienated young man who collects butterflies.
The story is horrible – with Fred’s nasty, twisted voice telling the first half, attempting to justify his actions whilst stirring the readers disgust and pity.
What makes the book live is the voice of Miranda; fresh, young, idealistic and desperate to survive. Without her The Collector would be unbearable, a straight forward horror story with no light, as stuffy as the crypt-room in which Miranda is kept. It is Miranda’s voice which gives air, light and life to the novel. She is desperately, vibrantly alive and she fights against the injustice of her captivity at every moment.
‘It’s the seventh night, I keep thinking if only they knew, if only they knew.’
‘Share the outrage’
And we do share the outrage. Rereading the book I was struck by how horrific the events actually are – had I missed this at twenty or had I simply forgotten? I don’t know, but like Miranda I hate Fred – or Cailban as she calls him. I hate his petty selfishness, his meanness, his deep seated misogyny which leads him to hate and objectify all women. He disgusts me, but I am compelled to pity him, as Miranda is.
Yet what really strikes me about the book is how young Miranda is, how innocent and maybe even slightly naive and how full of ideas. Reading The Collector as a twenty year old I didn’t see this. I admired, and still do admire Miranda, but at twenty I wanted to be like her – to share her clear views about everything being real, and true and not for show.
At one point in the book she writes a list of things which George Pastor, an older artist who she may be in love with, has taught her about life. I copied this list down and kept it folded in the book –
‘1) if you are a real artist you give your whole being to your art. Anything short of that, then you are not an artist, not what GP calls a ‘maker.’
2) You don’t gush. You don’t have little set-pieces or set-ideas that you gush out to impress people with.
3) You have to be left politically because the Socialists are the only people who care, for all of their mistakes. They feel, they want to better the world.
4) You must make, always. You must act, if you believe something. Talking about acting is like boasting about pictures you’re going to paint. The most terrible bad form.
5) If you feel something deeply, you’re not ashamed to show your feeling.
6) You accept that you are English. You don’t pretend that you’d rather be French or Italian or something else. (Piers always talks about his American grandmother.)
7) But you don’t compromise with your background. You cut off all the old you that gets in the way of the maker you. If you’re suburban (as I realise D and M are – their laughing at suburbia is just a blind), you throw away (cauterize) the suburbs. If you’re working class you cauterize the working class in you. And the same, whatever class you are, because class is primitive and silly.
8) You hate the political business of nationality. You hate everything, in politics and art and everything else, that is not genuine and deep and necessary. You don’t have any time for silly, trivial things. You live seriously, you don’t go to silly films, even if you want to, you don’t read cheap newspapers, you don’t listen to trash on the wireless or the telly, you don’t waste time talking about nothing. You use your life.’
In 2005 Facebook was just taking off in a huge way at my university, and so much was be about impressing people – rehearsing new and interesting things to say so you could sound clever at parties or the pub. Wearing a hat, ironically. Smoking cigars, not because you liked them, but because a small girl smoking a cigar looked interesting and artsy.
It all felt very false, which is perhaps why Miranda’s list chimed with me so much. It felt wrong to share it with too many people as then it would have just been for effect and that would have cancelled itself out, by becoming something hip, different and ironic.
So I kept it i the book, and once asked a boyfriend who was a writer what he thought of this list. He looked at it for a long time and then said – ‘I mean she’s lovely, but I do think she’s a bit of a prig.’ He too had read the novel and it hurt me that this was what he saw in the list – but I, like Miranda was twenty, and wanted to embrace all the dreams, hopes and convictions which, for me, came with that age.
Reading the book again as a twenty eight year old I feel sad for Miranda – she was never able to grow, never able to be twenty eight, or older. If she was not fictional, and had survived, she would be seventy by now – how would she have changed, how would she have grown? She says she is madly curious to see how she will grow, how she and the world will change. This is desperately cruel but necessary for us to feel the pain of her situation. Fowles wants to show us a girl who is living – who will never be understood by her petty and delusional captor.
Maybe Miranda is a prig, but she is twenty and at least she has convictions and ideas, strong passionate ones.
Looking back I feel sad not only for Miranda but for the twenty year old me who devoured her list and ideals. Who consulted them, and tried so hard to not be silly and gushing, and often failed and ended up reading the cheap newspapers which Miranda would reject, and watching the crappy tv programmes to chill out in the evening, and hating myself for it. For not being a proper ‘maker.’
When did I stop thinking about Miranda’s list? When did I discard it, if ever? And are the points she makes still relevant? I feel I have grown up and left Miranda behind, but this makes me really sad – I want to cling to the ideals Miranda had, I want to be a maker, I want to not believe that she was, like my old boyfriend said ‘a bit of a prig.’ I want to remember Miranda when I write – but I do wish that she had lived, that I could have seen what would happen to an older, less naive Miranda.