This is our second review of Christopher Strong by Gilbert Frankau (compare with the first here).
Review by a Reading Group Member:
Plot Summary: Sir Christopher Strong is a wealthy, Conservative member of Parliament, the Controlling Partner in the ‘John Strong, Grocer’ chain of shops & a middle-aged family man. He finds himself irresistibly attracted to the vitality of the young adventurous Lady Felicity Darrington, a celebrated racing car driver. Catalysed by a motor race, Christopher & Felicity finally acknowledge their love for each other. Although both share a commitment to single-minded endeavour, she serves to free the long repressed youth in his personality whilst he appears to fulfil her need for secure love & nurture. The resulting extramarital affair destabilises not only Christopher’s ordered business-driven respectability but also the singularity of Felicity’s risk-driven life style. This progressively threatens both their careers & Christopher’s marriage. However, what remains of paramount importance to both is the sparing of any distress to Deirdre, Christopher’s wife. Meanwhile Deirdre, having been aware of their love for each other from the start, silently struggles with jealousy & feelings of abandonment through self-sacrifice & prayer. The ramifications of this romantic entanglement are examined against a background of the variety of approaches taken by Christopher’s family & colleagues to life & love.
The book is a straightforward romance written in clear & easy to read prose. Though a popular ‘page-turner’ following publication it is presently out of print. It is remembered primarily because of the film of the same name that it inspired, directed by Dorothy Arzner in 1933 & featuring Katherine Hepburn in her second major role.
The novel, about a 44 year old business man & Member of Parliament, was written when Frankau was 48 years of age. Moreover, following an early career as a managing director [in the family cigar business] Frankau’s right wing parliamentary ambitions were side-lined by his divorcee status. At that time the Conservative Party did not regard divorce as acceptable & Frankau had married 3 times. Thus it may well be that this book was earthed in Frankau’s own life, possibly in terms of the way his life might have been.
The book works well for the first 11 chapters [to page 147]. It moves tautly & briskly through a series of informative transitions to establish Christopher Strong’s ‘rock-like’ character for whom business is more important than leisure. Without loss of forward momentum an attraction to Felicity develops through a slow drift of associations making inroads into the single focus of his one-dimensional existence. This carries with it an increasing awareness of the ‘feeling’ world, e.g. sunlight; nostalgia; restlessness; imaginative flight. Increasingly synchronising with such ‘drift’, Felicity’s single-minded approach to sporting endeavour is being eroded by thoughts of Christopher. Interestingly, though Felicity is clearly his female counterpart, Christopher’s creed of avoidance of risk is in direct opposition to risk being Felicity’s reason for existence. Yet watching her exploits in the car race brings a realisation of the life he has lost in the living of it & the onset of a mid-life crisis. In effect, Felicity offers access to youthful vigour & a ‘May-December’ romance is in the offing. Only Felicity’s late awareness of ‘the name of Deirdre’ amidst a meltdown into all consuming passion stops the relationship being consummated. She flatly refuses to resort to deception or to be a cause of Deirdre’s distress. They return to their respective lives.
Up to this point the book has been working well at the level of a testosterone-fuelled saga culminating in a ‘Top Gear’ approach to car racing & romance. For example, the fraught urgent bouts of prolonged kissing which almost drown out conscious control [till Felicity remembers Deirdre] takes place on Christopher’s boat, on the shifting sea, away from the safety of a harbour [to which they make their chastened return]. Admittedly the text is circumscribed by the vague language of sex which would allow publication at that time. Moreover, psychological profiles of the characters are sacrificed to the gender stereotypes of ‘no-nonsense man’ & ‘stubborn action woman’ supported by passive, hesitant, crying, unsure women. However, it still compares favourably with, say, the work of Georgette Heyer, up to this point. Indeed, given a revised & less densely detailed motor race, a more explicit sex scene on the boat & an amplification of the retreat to the ‘safety of the harbour’ in terms of a rapprochement with Deirdre [& a compensatory new world record for Felicity] it could pass muster as a contemporary novella in, say, the ‘Bloke-Lit.’ genre.
Regretfully, Frankau subsequently becomes increasingly wayward in a detailing of a middle-aged man’s meandering search for meaning in life. Though the clarity of presentation remains, momentum increasingly flags amidst leisurely, mannered & over-plotted sequences. Without going into its somewhat Wagnerian ending, it ranges over a visit to his brother’s rustic cottage to witness his alternative lifestyle; a revival of his affair with Felicity [curbed by his ‘protectiveness’]; marital deceit & loss of enthusiasm for married life [along with work, parliamentary methodology, Deirdre’s church-going & even physical exercise]; a male-centred approach to childbirth & heirs; the perils of flying too near the sun; a pro-British approach to commerce & the extended lampooning of a Swedish business competitor in terms of the mangled English he speaks.
What remains largely undeveloped is an opening out of the polarities Frankau creates. For instance, Christopher’s increasingly controlling drive to ensure Felicity’s safety is undercut by Felicity veiling her sporting adventures. This ‘inner emigration’, in parallel to Deirdre’s ‘placid’ servitude, opens the domain of rebellion or deception-the deceit within the deceit. However, more central to the story is the polarity between Christopher & his older brother, Mortimer. This offers avenues of psychological amplification in terms of ,say, Parker [of the Yard] & Lord Peter Wimsey in the detective fiction of D.L.Sayers or the Ondt [industrious insect] & the Gracehoper [irresponsible artist] in James Joyce’s embellishment of Aesop’s Fable in Finnegan’s Wake [or foveal & peripheral vision; signified & signifier; & so on]. In other words, the subject emerges as more dynamically split. Thus, on the ‘right’, there is Christopher as initially presented, viz. unified, solid, single-voiced with authoritative definition & presenting a full precise presence predicated on a fixed point of view. On the ‘left’ is Morty. He is disconnected [in exile, cut off from the action], volatile, disseminated & given to a medley of discourses [peasant/farmer; artist; idealist; aristocrat…..] but open to intuition & relational thinking. Both are footnoted by women offering different forms of rebirth. However, Morty is far less well presented than Christopher [possibly due to him being more remote from Frankau’s positionality] & there is little movement towards some synthesis of Morty & Christopher’s subjectivities. Indeed, their rare encounters tend to be wary affairs which going nowhere reinforces occupation of their respective margins.
Thus, in spite of its potential, ‘Christopher Strong’ remains a somewhat staid story of how the wealthy & powerful deal with a male mid-life crisis. At its centre is a self-indulgent middle-aged man who is used to getting his own way. When he tries to add ‘youth’, in the form of a young woman, to his collection he finds his outlook being subjected to ‘change’. Eventually & painfully slowly Christopher Strong’s road to redemption promotes a more mature awareness of the needs of others. It left this older-than-middle-aged reader……exhausted.