Review by Sylvia D:
Pamela Frankau, the younger daughter of Dorothea and Gilbert Frankau, published over thirty novels and books of short stories. Her most successful novel, The Willow Cabin, was published in 1949 and her A Wreath for the Enemy (1954) is still in print on both sides of the Atlantic.
The Foolish Apprentices (1933) was one of her earlier books. It struck me as very slight; very little happens although it is quite timeless in its exploration of the nature of love. Its strength really lies in the quality of Frankau’s writing, not least her powers of description and her imaginative use of language which sometimes brings the reader up short – “The bus went slowly, the dingy pictures of London in August shuffled past its windows” – p.231.
The narrative covers the years 1928-1932 and moves between Stoke Poges, the South of France and London. The main male character, Oxford graduate Waldo Brooke, is a rather obnoxious young man and he evokes little sympathy. The most important person in his life is Waldo Brooke and his attitude towards young women is amply summed up by his comment that “It’s extraordinarily good fun to know that one can – get people” (p 121). He sees getting young women to fall in love with him as a game or a trade – hence his reference to “The Man Who Would Woo a Fair Maid Must Apprentice Himself to his Trade” from the Yeoman of the Guard – p 94.
His treatment of Pat Innis, a local girl who lives near his parents’ home in Stoke Poges, and falls in love with him is insensitive as is his treatment of his writer friend, Helen, who invites him to stay with her and her husband at their villa in the South of France. Similar treatment is meted out to other young girls when he moves to live in a flat in London, his father having secured him a position as a sub-editor at the Mercury Press which publishes women’s magazines. His attitude to his work neatly reflects his patronising view of women: when he contemplates leaving the Mercury, he muses, “I shall stop writing sympathetic captions about cutlets and crochet and cami-knickers and country houses. I shall forego the exquisite pleasure of cutting two columns out of a short story to make room for a knitting-article” – p.215.
Waldo only meets his match when he falls in love with Miranda Vernon, the daughter of a director of the Mercury Press who, bored with her marriage, has recently divorced and has almost as cynical an attitude towards relationships as Waldo. Their courtship is mercurial to say the least.
One suspects that Frankau may have worked on a women’s magazine herself as her description of the offices of the Mercury Press is very detailed and closely observed. One also wonders if Helen’s musings on being a novelist were also prompted by Frankau’s personal experience – “To be called a novelist in these days was very nearly a term of abuse. A person who wrote fiction was the target for those who read fiction; and though they were themselves the market, they would look a little suspiciously upon the purveyors… Novelists were criticized alike because they wrote for money, because they did not write for money, because they studied their public, because they wrote to please themselves, because their stories were sad, because they were frivolous, because they wrote books of a sameness, because they broke away from their usual style, because they were rich, because they could not make a living . . . [Other] professions were respected. Becoming a novelist one became mysterious, slightly immoral, and the signal for indulgent smiles“ – pp 243-44.
Food for thought here for the Readerships and Literary Cultures reading group?