Book Review by George S: This is Pamela Frankau’s autobiography, a version of her life so far, published in 1935, when she was twenty-seven. (I read a Penguin edition, which came in 1938.) The four people that she finds are her former selves. Each section recounts the adventures of one of these, in the third person. The first part, ‘School Breakfast’, is about P. Frankau, a girl at odds with her boarding school. The second, ‘Hereinafter called the Author’, is about ‘Miss Frankau’, a teenager who has left school and combines working for a Fleet Street magazine with writing her first novel. The novel is a remarkable success, and the third section, ‘Oysters and Champagne’ is about a self referred to as ‘the Author’. This person gets used to living well, but discovers that literary success is not something that can be relied on to continue. In Section Four, ‘End of Act One’, she is ‘the copywriter’, supplementing earnings from her writing with a job in an advertising agency.
The school section shows her as an outsider, laughed at by the other girls, especially after an incident where she claimed to be able to ride a bicycle, and proved the claim dramatically wrong. The girls also mutter about her parents being divorced. P. Frankau has problems with the women who run her boarding house. When she has thoughtlessly drawn on the windowsill with a blue crayon, she is told that drawing on the windowsill is unChristlike. (‘Here P. Frankau agreed, for how, she wondered, could our Lord have managed, seeing that in His time there were no blue crayons and probably no windowsills?’) She knows she is clever, but under-achieves, not believing that she will get a good enough School Certificate to take her to University. She lazes while the others swot. In the event she gets a first-class pass.
Then in the second section everything comes easily to her. Though her sister Ursula had been job-hunting unsuccessfully for a while, Miss Frankau’s first application letter gets her a post at Amalgamated Press, the largest of the magazine publishers. While she is working there, she writes novels. Her first two attempts are abandoned, but The Marriage of Harlequin is enthusiastically grabbed by publishers. American rights are sold, and the book earns her £1000. This section also shows her taking her first tentative steps into a romantic life. She has a crush on an unnamed playwright who enjoys her company but is frustratingly unwilling to kiss her. Not that she is sure she would enjoy kisses, anyway.
The third section shows ‘the author’, spending money as though she could be confident every novel would earn her £1000. She becomes adept in the literary marketplace, making good money from short stories. She is offered £400 for what seems easy work – writing a series of twelve Letters from a Modern Daughter for a magazine. The magazine folds, however, and it seems she will be left out of pocket, though she does manage to negotiate payment of part of her fee. When the letters are eventually published in book form, they are something of an embarrassment to her.
She mixes with high literary society, goes to the South of France and has some unsatisfactory affairs with men who are allergic to marriage. Her debts mount and she comes to realise that relying on her earnings form fiction is not working.
Section Four sees her installed as a copywriter in an advertising agency, quite enjoying the work but continuing to write fiction. Her love life continues to be problematic.
The past selves of Pamela Frankau are observed sardonically by her later self (who refers to herself as ‘one’ rather than ‘I’. ) There are also glimpses of other writers and celebrities.
Gilbert Frankau, the father who had deserted her as the family when she was a child, and who never remembered her birthdays, pops up occasionally, giving worldly-wise advice and cheerful encouragement. The author tells us that one part of the book has been censored at his request – the story of his setting up the magazine Brittannia, highly ambitious but a financial fiasco. The description of the incident in Gilbert’s own sort-of-autobiography Self-Portrait is farcical enough. I’d like to read what Pamela made of it.
Another member of the Frankau family who figures considerably is her Aunt Eliza, Mrs Aria, whose journalism had gained her fame and respect in the nineties and even in old age is consistently entertaining and active.
She was never idle for an instant. No kitten had so great a zest for life. No kitten of the most Persian kind made so unerring a pounce for luxury.
Aunt Eliza disapproves when Pamela gives up trying to live on her novels by becoming a copywriter. ‘You are a tradesman, she says loudly in a crowded theatre foyer, ‘and I despise you.’
Arnold Bennett makes a very brief appearance in the book, coming to Aunt Eliza’s box at the opera, to pay homage to her. there are other cameo appearances too, often vividly described:
‘H.G. Wells, who looked like a tired mole with blue eyes and large whiskers.’
William Gerhardi appears briefly, ‘looking like a white plaster mask of himself.’
Rebecca West plays a larger part in the memoir. She is described thus:
She was smaller than The Author; her voice, light and full and urgent, was the first distinctive voice, other than her own growl, that The Author had heard. She wore a grey frock patterned with a map of Paris. Her eyes glistened like prune jelly, and the lines of her face ran upward, suiting the cariage of her head. She walked with still, square shoulders. The memory of that walk and that voice were to last.
Even Berta Ruck has a bit part, summoning the author to Hampstead one day, though we’re not told what for.
Some striking non-literary characters also make brief appearances. For example, someone called Brian Thynne, who gave a certain amount of trouble to his bank by writing his cheques in annoying ways: ‘on toilet paper, on Ryvita (using a mapping-pen) and once on the back of a twopenny stamp.’
The book is interesting on the details of literary life. We learn what Pamela Frankau earned for her books, and how she was looked after by agents and publishers.
One interesting sidelight was of something I’d seen mentioned elsewhere: the collapse of the short story market after 1929. Following the Wall Street Crash many magazines folded, and what had been an easy market for writers of fiction became a difficult one. Pamela Frankau was not the only author to suffer.
In short – a very well-written, consistently entertaining book, which gives a very good picture of literary life during the twenties. One suspects that some stories are not being told, however. I have ordered her later memoir, Pen to Paper, which I gather has much more to say about her father, Gilbert.