Frankau month at the special collection

This month at the special collection reading group we are all reading a novel by a member of the Frankau family. Thanks to a donation from the grandson of Gilbert Frankau, Timothy Smith, we now have novels in the collection by:

  • Julia Frankau (writing under the pseudonym Frank Danby, 1859-1916)
  • Her son, Gilbert Frankau (1884-1952)
  • Gilbert’s daughters Pamela Frankau (1908-1967) and Ursula Frankau (pseudonym Mary Nicholson, 1906-1980)

It was quite the literary family – for more details see this presentation that Daniel Grieve kindly put together: Family tree presentation. Two of Gilbert’s siblings were also public figures – his brother Ronald Frankau was a comedian, and his sister Joan Bennett was a Cambridge academic who spoke for the defence in the trial of D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

Gilbert Frankau is probably the best-known today, though even he is largely forgotten. Academics come across his name in the pages of a book by Q. D. Leavis called Fiction and the Reading Public (1932). This highly influential polemic (based on Leavis’s PhD thesis) sought to examine public taste in reading through an in-depth study of the production of books – from the advice of editors, the machinations of promotion, to the recommendations of the assistant on the book shop-floor. Leavis aimed to be ‘anthropological’, but she brought to bear on her study the full weight of an increasing pessimism and paranoia among the cultural elite she aimed to be part of: she believed that literary culture was in a process of disintegration, soon to be dominated by the lowbrow pulp, and more threateningly, the middlebrow.

Ironically, Leavis’s book offers rare critical traces of the authors, such as Gilbert Frankau, that she sought to demonstrate were unworthy of attention. She gives quotations from Frankau’s novels Gerald Cranston’s Lady and Life-and Erica, and from Warwick Deeping’s Sorrell and Son, to argue that they ‘touch grossly on fine issues’:

This for the sensitive minority is no laughing matter: these novelists are read by the governing classes as well as by the masses, and they impinge directly on the world of the minority, menacing the standards by which they live. And whereas their forerunners were innocent of malice, devoting themselves to assuring their readers of ‘the beauty of human affection and the goodness of God,’ these writers are using the technique of Marie Corelli and Mrs. Barclay to work upon and solidify herd prejudice and to debase the emotional currency by touching grossly on fine issues. (67)

The point seems to be that these novels are not worthy to examine the important emotional issues of the day. They are, by their own admission, not intellectual: Leavis seizes upon Frankau’s declaration that ‘Authorship is not so much a function of the brain as it is of the heart. And the heart is a universal organ’ (68). But this is simply ‘herd prejudice’ rather than universal emotions, in Leavis’s view.  The reader of best-sellers, Leavis argues, goes to them ‘to be confirmed in his prejudices’ (69). However, you get the sense from Leavis that this would be okay if it were just the reading of the masses – the problem is that the ‘governing classes’ read them too, and thus these novels and their reading culture impinges on the ‘sensitive minority’ – ie the intellectual.

The thing that really upset Leavis is that these novelists were not trying to emulate ‘good’ or ‘highbrow’ literature, instead they are openly hostile to it, and value the ‘heart’ over the ‘brain’. Pamela Frankau wrote an account of her father’s approach to writing in Pen to Paper (1961):

In Gilbert’s view, he was a paid entertainer, who must never for a minute lose sight of his public.  It was, he admitted, as difficult as shooting on a moving target.  ‘Unlike your highbrow friends I don’t regard myself as a hothouse-blooming genius.’ He wrote for housewives and ex-soldiers and tired business-men and what he still called ‘flappers’. A novel’s first duty was to be long. I have seen him pick up a short one with the disgust of somebody who found something nasty in the salad: ‘Call that a novel – look at it . . . can’t be more than sixty thousand words at the outside.’ The public deserved their money’s worth.  Length, sex, colour, pace, action; and – most importantly – life-size characters: to which I would retort that some of his he-men were rather more than life size. […] ‘Why do I write about millionaires?’ he asked an audience in my hearing:- ‘because I consider my readers’ feelings. [A typical housewife is] probably worrying about a gas-bill for two pounds.  So she can’t be depressed by my hero losing fifty thousand on the stock-market.’ (186-7)

So, how do they go down today?

Here are the Gilbert Frankau reviews: One of Us: A Novel in Verse (1912); Christopher Strong (1931); a second review of Christopher Strong; Peter Jackson, Cigar Merchant (1919); The Dangerous Years (1937).

Pamela Frankau: Fifty-fifty (1936); The Foolish Apprentices (1933); Some New Planet (1937); The Bridge (1957)

Frank Danby (Julia Frankau): Mothers and Children (1918)

6 thoughts on “Frankau month at the special collection

  1. Intriguing – and a tricky question! Because nowadays you only have to walk into any mainstream bookstore or supermarket to see heaps and heaps of ‘pulp’ novels which will soon end up remaindered in The Works or Poundland. And I’m not particularly highbrow, but I couldn’t read them – they are mainly junk. I wish *everybody* was more discerning about what they read but unfortunately the masses are so eagerly suckered in by tripe – just look at how 50 shades took off 😦

    I know not everyone will want to read the same thing and that it’s maybe a bit snobbish to look down on the mass produced books – but at least we could aspire a bit…..

    • It is difficult isn’t it? It’s easy to say that Leavis was being appallingly snobbish and superior – she, of course, is part of the ‘sensitive minority’ – but do we feel the same today?

    • I don’t think it’s very useful just looking down on books that we might consider inferior. It’s much more interesting to start thinking about the popular ones more positively. What pleasures do they offer their readers? What needs do they fulfil?
      It’s easy to assume that the mass of readers are less intelligent and sensitive than ourselves – but are they? Or are they just intelligent people looking for something else when they read a book? Especially when the books have obvious flaws, like improbable plots or stereotyped characters, shouldn’t we be considering the strengths that make readers overlook such limitations?

      • I think that’s right. The question we keep asking when we read the books from the collection is *why* were they so popular?

  2. I might be able to think about the popular books more positively if I felt they weren’t so badly written, lacking in characterisation and poor on plot! I try and read modern novels but I have been known to guess the culprit on page 1 (The Lake of Dead Languages)! As I said, I am no highbrow but I like to try and challenge myself and aspire with my reading – current I am tackling Anthony Powell’s “Dance to the Music of Time” sequence and it *is* hard as the language is complex and I have to go back and read bits sometimes to make sure I really understand what he is saying. And it’s rewarding so I am happy to be doing this when I could just go for a cosy mystery or something. I *do* enjoy a cosy mystery to relax with but I think just reading pap doesn’t do anything for the brain and reinforces the stereotypes of the characters in the reader. I’m not implying necessarily that readers are less intelligent or sensitive than I am, but just that they should not accept a badly-written option. Even my cosy reading is well-written and the quality of prose is one of my concerns.

    It’s a complex subject and any response is going to be a personal one – and my personal view is that if I was faced with the choice of one classic or a table full of the mainstream novels in e.g. The Works, I’d take the classic!

  3. Pingback: Concert Pitch by Frank Danby (1913) | Reading 1900-1950

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