Mothers and Children by Frank Danby (1918)

Continuing our reading of novels by the Frankau family, this is the first review of a novel by Frank Danby, the pseudonym of Julia Frankau (1859-1916). Julia can be considered the beginning of this literary family: she was a successful novelist, who also wrote scholarly books about eighteenth-century engraving, and had a circle of artistic friends including Oscar Wilde and George Moore. This was a creative and bohemian home for her children: Gilbert Frankau, the novelist; Ronald Frankau, a music hall comedian; and Joan, who became a Cambridge academic.

Frank Danby is not in print at the moment. However, she is one of 24 bestselling Victorian novelists who contributed a chapter to the sensational 1892 novel  The Fate of Fenella, published by the splendid Valancourt Books.

Review by Helen C:

This book is a compilation of 14 very short stories – vignettes, rather – each one only about 4 pages long, in which the author brings to life a variety of aspects of motherhood; as the author’s son, Gilbert Frankau, writes in his Preface – “ In ARTHUR, ambition; in MARGUERITE, pity;  sacrifice, as in DOUGLAS; or just sheer love as in MY CHARLIE.” This moving Preface, for the book’s publication after the author’s death, extols his mother’s achievements both as a writer and a mother, claiming that she was torn between these two passions.  He writes that she had “a genius for motherhood” and this book reveals the enormous value she placed on the bond between a mother and her child.

She manages to create a character in about four sentences, and to provide a plot and denouement so swiftly that each tale has an impact, and all are different.  The focus of most stories is the all-consuming passion and fulfilment of maternal love – often outweighing the value of marital love.  In the first tale,  ARTHUR “ has the whole of his mother’s heart… he represents love to her, and ambition and every earthly passion”. In MAUD, the mother “has no wish for other love-words than Maud’s, no thought for other lovers than the baby lover who clambered on her knees.”  PHI-PHI, who was a late and much-desired child, turns out to be ‘retarded’ but this only increases his mother’s devotion: “In some way that only mothers know, the very wants of him solace her.  He is hers wholly.  His dumb animal fondling is more to her than Eric’s” – her husband – “sad kisses.”  This mother-love is often described with delightful sensuality: “how unutterably sweet to her – those thin, soft baby-lips that cooled themselves on Mummy’s cheek, that tired baby-head that rested on Mummy’s breast” (BOBBY);  and in PHI-PHI, “a baby, soft and warm, nestled against her.  A flesh-and-blood baby that cried…”

To most of these mothers, motherhood brings total fulfilment: “All the mystery of maternity filled her and thrilled her.  She had been hungry and she had been filled …” (PHI-PHI)  and  NORMAN  has a poor heartbroken mother, who had experienced  “that strange sweet gush of overwhelming joy which only maternity brings”.   But this isn’t the case if you are the mother of an adopted child, as in DOUGLAS, since nothing can make him really yours and “the possessive pronoun is but a mockery”.  And the child can never be to her what he is to his own grieving mother who sacrificed him for his sake.

A mother’s love is an echo of divinity – MY CHARLIE,  who had taken over his late father’s business at too young an age and gambled away the family fortune, can still do no wrong in his mother’s eyes: ”Oh, this divine sweet blindness of mothers, what a foretaste it is of that divine mercy and forgiveness, the heritage of Christianity!” And this love, the author maintains, can even redeem a degraded, ruined son because “Mother’s love, stronger than death, is stronger than the spirit of evil” and Charlie still has a “hold on humanity; he has a MOTHER!” Mothers can even work magic!  EILEEN  was saved from a disastrous marriage because of her dead mother’s voice in a dream – or, as the author thinks, “perhaps even from Heaven our mothers see us and protect us still.”

But not everything is sweetness and light:  some stories have tragic twists – MARGUERITE, fair, sweet and lovely turns out to be retarded “quite a little Dumbie”, though this does not lessen her mother’s love.  JESSIE, bright and lively, is pronounced an invalid by the doctor (simply to show that he was earning his fee) and ends up bedbound and bitter.  GERALD, so quick and clever he even won a scholarship to Eton, to the pride of his parents, had an accident at school and would never recover his abilities. And PHI-PHI turned out to be an ‘idiot’, a terror to his father.  But some children give as much to their mothers as they receive:  MAUD had a charmed girlhood, but denied herself a happy married future to care for her ageing, blind mother; GERALD, after his accident, turned selflessly to comfort his mother;  NORMAN became his mother’s comfort, and a reminder to her of a divine “Mercy boundless and inexhaustible”.

But there are mothers who hate, rather than love, their children:  JANEY’s  mother despised her husband and felt Janey was “a legacy of sin and hate” and only did her duty by her, with the result that Janey grew up dreaming of a happy life with her departed father;   DERRICK’s mother  who was a “fin de siècle, electric woman” who lived for ‘amusement’ and disliked her son, was repaid by his hatred.  GLADYS is so spoiled by her mother (who married a husband who, though wealthy, is “uncouth, unrefined and of ungentle birth”) that she grows up conceited and arrogant “without love, without reverence – a modern child in a modern age” – the author clearly believes that the Old Days are the best.

That the book is of its period, a century ago, is clear in statements such as GERALD’S father joking that “a carriage and four” would be needed to take home his son’s school prizes; GLADYS has governesses, while her brother attends school;  DERRICK’s mother suffered from such boredom when not partaking in ‘amusements’ that she went to bed and “solaced herself with chloral until the next excitement”.  And, as well as the links made between mother-love and divine love/Christianity, which might ring more true to the contemporary reader than to the modern one, there are examples of the period’s morality, e.g. MAUD, who had not been spoilt by her mother’s love, which had instead “taught her … both duty and happiness”, enabling her to care selflessly for her mother in her infirmity.

From the viewpoint of the modern reader,  some passages do come across as sentimental – the gushing expression of maternal love, the idolising of offspring, sometimes seeming ‘over the top’, even a little nauseating  – but maybe this can be accounted for by the valued ‘sensibility’ of the period and the obvious sincerity and passion of the writer?   Modern mothers, who must also feel similar love for their children, surely would not express their feelings so extravagantly?  Perhaps because they (unlike the author and her generation, who relied on servants, governesses, nannies to produce the children, neat and tidy, at teatime)  have to deal with the whole range of childcare tasks, nice or nasty, and therefore have a more realistic, less idealised  view of their offspring?

Yes, there is melodrama in the suddenness of the tragedy in some tales – the realisation that MARGUERITE is deaf and dumb, that PHI-PHI turns out to be a “half-witted, heavy-headed idiot”; that NORMAN’s mad and drunken father choked two baby sons to death – but such tragedies do happen, and a story in four pages does not allow for much unfolding of a plot! One big change since the early 1900’s is the attitude to disability, something which in these tales is disastrous, to be hidden or denied, marking the end of the road for a child;  although still assuredly disastrous for mothers now, disability is, hopefully, not quite so stigmatised and need not always  mean the loss of a worthwhile future (some turn out to be paralympians!)

The vividness of the writing, the humour of some of the descriptions (JESSIE’s father is a “fat little man who waddles, and Mrs. Wyvern a flat-footed woman who flumps”), the author’s genuine feeling (and surely no reader could believe this author is male?) make these stories fascinating to read, in the context of their period and for their ingenuity in covering so many aspects of the mother-child relationship, often with great poignancy.  The author must deserve credit for painting so many contrasting pictures in so short a space, but I did not find them memorable.   As the Preface suggests, they are “little more than raw material – unpolished studies for some great picture she conceived but was not allowed to execute”.

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4 thoughts on “Mothers and Children by Frank Danby (1918)

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

    • It has been a pleasure! It feels like a genuine bit of literary archeology – as I was saying to Helen, the reviewer of this book, this might be the first time in 50 years that anyone has read this book! (Or more, now I think about it…)

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

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