Fifty-fifty by Pamela Frankau (1936)

Having made the decision to have ‘Frankau month’ at the special collection, I really hoped that some of the novels would be good – I am relieved to be able to report that Fifty-fifty is good. Phew! It is a collection of short stories; some are better than others, but the best have an oddness, and a sting in the tale that reminded me of Roald Dahl. The first story is particularly odd. Called ‘X equals ?’, it describes that beginning of the new religion, Cervanism, started by a Mr Samuel Cervin.

Over his morning tea, he had been reading a newspaper article that commented on the growth of scepticism. And suddenly Mr Cervin had seen the need for a new religion. The world, he thought, was restless. The old gods and the old doctrines hampered the feet, like a fall of great useless rocks in a green valley.

Mr. Cervin had said, being accustomed to judge character when deciding upon salary, “The average man cannot believe what he cannot see. He mistrusts the name of God. It is cluttered with centuries of association, swathed in legend, the clear image blurred by mawkish beauty. And the average man is right. […] Religion is the strongest and cleverest of lies. At last, men are recognising the lie.

“Yet, if a man of the people challenged their hearts, asking them honestly and simply whether they did not need a god, they would, I think, answer Yes. A new god, without impossible fairy-tales clotting his creed. A simple god, unknown, unknowable, a symbol of all the things they cannot have in life, a promise that those things shall await them after death. But a god who commands no obligation, who offers no fee for faith, whose worship is subconscious, effortless. If they could have their god through me,” he said, soaping himself, “I should call him X.” (6-7)

After five years, half the country are Cervinists. In order to enlist the remaining half, Mr Cervin commissions an advertising agency. The story seems to be a satire both on religion, and on advertising. Is advertising the new religion? As Mr Cervin says, “I only wish to point out that so simple a truth can be handled simply, through the strongest force of all – advertisement’ (4). I’m reminded of George Orwell’s 1930s novels Coming Up For Air and Keep the Aspidistra Flying, which are scathing about advertising. Clearly the advertising industry existed before the 1930s, but is it in the 1930s that it became as powerful and omnipresent as it is now? Orwell’s anti-hero in Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Gordon Comstock, leaves his job at the New Albion publicity agency to break free of the ‘money-god’:

The interesting thing about the New Albion was that it was so completely modern in spirit.  There was hardly a soul in the firm who was not perfectly well aware that publicity–advertising–is the dirtiest ramp that capitalism has yet produced.  In the red lead firm there had still lingered certain notions of commercial honour and usefulness.  But such things would have been laughed at in the New Albion.  Most of the employees were the hard-boiled, Americanized, go-getting type to whom nothing in the world is sacred, except money.  They had their cynical code worked out.  The public are swine; advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill-bucket.  And yet beneath their cynicism there was the final naivete, the blind worship of the money-god.

Advertising seems to be a symptom of the moral bankruptcy and decline of the modern world. Another story in Pamela Frankau’s Fifty-fifty,  ‘The Last of Mrs Close’, also appears to be satirising what passes for modern philosophy or religion. The rather ghastly Eva Close has founded an organisation called the ‘World Society of Thought’. The rationale is utterly banal: “Art – Philosophy – Politics – Literature – the Drama – the Dance. After all, every worth-while activity is the result of thought.”

There are some excellent twists at the end of some of these stories, but if I have a complaint about Fifty-fifty is that rather too many of the stories end with a death! If you keep doing it, it does rather lessen the impact… However, I would happily read another Pamela Frankau.

The Pamela Frankau papers are held in the Burns library in Boston, USA. There’s a useful article by an archivist here.

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4 thoughts on “Fifty-fifty by Pamela Frankau (1936)

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

  2. I can’t say that the quotes here encourage me to read this book! How about comparing it with Dorothy L Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise (1933), which shows the cynicism of advertising from the other side and makes it funny?

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