Christopher Strong by Gilbert Frankau (1931)

We’ve had one review of a Gilbert Frankau novel on here before, and let’s just say that it wouldn’t tempt many people to read him. The full hatchet job on Peter Jackson, Cigar Merchant is here. However, our new recruit Daniel is made of stern stuff, and he has found things to enjoy in Christopher Strong. Before I hand over to Daniel for his review, I’d like to mention the film adaptation made in 1933. Isn’t Katharine Hepburn gorgeous?

Review by Daniel Grieve:

After reading a review of one of Gilbert Frankau’s other novels, Peter Jackson, Cigar Merchant, I was not expecting great things of the chosen novel; Christopher Strong (1931) but I can say I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the book.

The opening chapters are easy to get into and the character of Christopher Strong becomes immediately likable as we are told how successful he has been at everything from business and Parliament, to being a good husband and a brilliant father. The only criticism of him could be that it appears to have all come too easy to him as he inherits his father’s multi-million pound business, but as the novel progresses we soon see how hard he actually works to maintain the business. A car crash brings about his meeting with Felicity Harrington to whom it becomes immediately apparent, although not so evident to himself, that Strong adores such a powerful and youthful woman. At this point I thought it was inevitable what will happen but I was still drawn in to find out how it would happen. Because of this the novel becomes one not of great surprise, but rather of intrigue and it is this which kept me engaged.

Although generally easy to read, there are parts that become quite laborious to get through such as the chapters describing Felicity’s motor-sporting races. In these Frankau’s writing becomes hard to take in as I found great difficulty keeping track of who’s who in the race, what position they were in, and who was over taking whom etc. and I felt I did not enjoy these chapters, wanting to get past them rather than savour them. In contrast to this there are other chapters in which Frankau becomes extremely eloquent with his description of scenery and the passionate events between Christopher and Felicity. Indeed one of my favorite passages comes from Chapter 11 in which the two lovers are out at sea and kiss for the first time. Here I thought Frankau’s description of how

“The music which had followed them across the water was growing fainter now – the steady pulse of their engines, the steady beat of the propeller, drowning it. And all the water was quicksilver – molten quicksilver save where their lights stabbed it ruby, stabbed it emerald, under the moon” (page 143)

was beautifully fluent and created a picturesque scene of the two out at sea. It was passages like this which kept me engrossed in the book.

During his affair Christopher begins to ask why he can’t be truly happy in love and why he must adhere to social conventions when his brother, who rejected his inheritance of the father’s business choosing to live a life less wealthy instead, can do as he pleases and appears happier about it. Along with this he looks to his mother, sister, children, friends and colleagues who all have different types of love and questions if there is one true, correct type. I appreciated how Frankau used a number of different characters to portray the different ways people engage in relationships. I especially liked the character of Marty, Christopher’s brother, who appeared to do as he pleased, still without offending anyone, and was happier because of it.

A lot of the novel is told in retrospect and the narrative time jumps around a lot which at times can become frustrating. For example just as an event is becoming interesting, such as Christopher and Felicity’s first moments of kissing, the chapter will end and the next chapter will have jumped forward a number of months and proceed to tell the past month’s event in retrospect. Although at times I found this frustrating I thought it was an effective way to keep the reader engaged and was fruitful in building suspense within the story. Although I have read novels which have been told in retrospect before, I have never read one which jumps around in narrative time so much and came to enjoy the use of this technique as the novel progressed.

Overall I enjoyed this book a great deal more than I had expected and I would consider reading some more of Frankau’s works, although maybe not his earlier ones such as Peter Jackson, Cigar Merchant. And, although at times a struggle to read, I would recommend this book to others as, thanks to the beautifully written moments, which outweighed the difficult to read motor-sport passages, I thoroughly enjoyed the book as a whole.

Erica’s note: I wonder if motor-racing was changed to flying in the film because motor-racing is inherently dull? Though Evelyn Waugh made a pretty good job of making it fun to read in the contemporaneous Vile Bodies (1930)!

5 thoughts on “Christopher Strong by Gilbert Frankau (1931)

  1. The movie, I think, is very much a vehicle for Katharine Hepburn (who indeed looks fabulous) and has interesting credentials, being directed by Dorothy Arzner and written by Zoe Akins in days when women were before, not behind, the camera. Daniel doesn’t give away the plot but I wonder how different it is from the movie (a good description is here – Movie adaptations of novels – there must be many a PhD thesis in this topic.

  2. After reading the wikipedia entry for the plot of the film I can say that it sounds like is follows plot of the novel rather accurately, apart from a few changes in character’s names, right up until the ending which appears to offer a different scope to the novel on the same event – setting an altitude record in her airplane. Whereas in the novel the plane merely malfunctions and crashes, the only fault of Darrington being sheer determination to set the record, the plot to the film adaptation states she commits suicide. I think that would offer a very different viewpoint to the character and somewhat change the feel of the ending of the story.
    I would like to watch the film adaptation of this novel and truly compare how it differs from the original story and will definitely seek it out in the near future to watch and compare.

  3. Pingback: Frankau month at the special collection | Reading 1900-1950

  4. Pingback: Christopher Strong by Gilbert Frankau (1931) | Reading 1900-1950

  5. Pingback: Christopher Strong – the movie, not the novel | Reading 1900-1950

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