It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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The Bridge, Pamela Frankau

All too often, male authors are praised for their depiction of female characters, even though female writers often write male characters – especially in science fiction, in which it seems nearly 80% of protagonists are men. (And there are women sf authors whose most famous creations are male characters.) Yet no one praises female writers for their depiction of men. So let’s get that out of the way first – Pamela Frankau’s The Bridge (1957) is about a man called David Nielson, and he is drawn sensitively and plausibly.

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Pamela Frankau was published between 1927 and 1968. Her first novel, Marriage of Harlequin, saw print when she was only nineteen. She also seems to have led a somewhat… complicated life. She apparently had a long, and I’m assuming, public affair with a married man, the poet Humbert Wolfe, which ended with his death in 1940. She served in the ATS during World War II, where she had a lesbian affair with a fellow officer. After the war, she married an American Navy officer and decamped with him to the US. They divorced in 1951, and she returned to the UK and picked up her writing career, and proved even more successful than before. During the mid-1950s, she entered in a long relationship with theatre director Margaret Webster. Frankau died of cancer in 1967. Wikipedia lists 37 books by her, including three collections, an autobiography, and several works that appear to be non-fiction. Her best known novel is A Wreath For The Enemy (1954), which is still in print – it, The Winged Horse (1953) and The Willow Cabin (1949) are still available in Virago Modern Classics editions.

The novel opens with a man on a bridge. He doesn’t know where the bridge is, how he got there, what he’s doing there, or even who he is. It’s explained to him that he will witness a series of events, because there is something he must either learn or decide. The first such event takes place in 1913. A young boy in Cornwall is friends with the sons of a holidaying family. But when one of the sons decides the two of them should go swimming on their own – to prove they have courage after the holidaying father mocked them for not going into a rough seas- one of the boys slips on the rocks and is injured. The other boy, the one who lives in Cornwall, with his mother, Aunt Rachel, is David. And though he heard his friend scream as he fell, he ignored it.

In 1929, David is now living in London. He meets a young America woman, Linda, and invites her back to his digs. Aunt Rachel, who also lives in London, comes calling while David is trying to charm Linda. So he pretends to be out. The story skips ahead to 1939. David and Linda are now married, and live on a farm with Ricky and Madeleine. David is a reasonably successful writer and playwright (as is Ricky). After a trip into London, David stops off in the local pub to unwind, and gets into an argument with the racist barman. Then, after the war, in 1950, David and Linda, and their teenage daughter Anne, are living in southern France, in a cottage they owned before WWII. One night David wins big at roulette. A couple of days later, Anne is killed in a car crash. David and Linda move to California, where, in 1955, both teach at university. But Linda is cold and distant with David, and he has not written anything since Anne died. Linda walks out on him, and he runs away to rural New England, and begins writing again. Linda finds herself in New York, is “cured” by some sort of self-help guru and goes to work with him. She is supported by Ricky, who has divorced Madeleine, and is now a very rich and successful author.  In 1956, David and Linda begin to circle back toward each other… but it does not end well.

Interspersed between these various excerpts from David’s life (some are written from Linda’s point of view, but the story is mostly David’s) are more scenes set on the bridge. It quickly becomes clear it is a sort of limbo, and that David must do something if he is to “move on”. Although these scenes provide the novel’s title, and a framework of sorts, they actually get in the way of what is a readable, engaging and well-written story about David Nielson, his life, marriage and career. There’s some very nice writing in the book, and although a little slow to start, the story does draw the reader in. One of the novel’s strengths is that it’s never quite clear where it’s going, or what it’s actually about. If anything, the scenes on the bridge tend to obscure this aspect of the story, hinting either that some moral is waiting to be revealed or that the whole thing is just one long shaggy allegory. In point of fact, it’s neither, and the bridge scenes serve only to underscore one particular element of the story before and after – when there’s actually lots more worth noting in those sections.

Prior to embarking on this “project”, I’d never heard of Pamela Frankau. These days, she’s all but forgotten, despite having three books still in print (they’re dated 2008, so you’re unlikely to find them in your local Waterstone’s, however). But then I did embark on this project to find writers new to me. When I started The Bridge, I didn’t find it all that impressive, but it slowly won me over. David and Linda Nielson are both well-drawn characters, and if some of the details ring a little false (that self-help guru, for example), there’s still much to like in the book. I’m glad I read it and, yes, I think I’ll track down something else by Frankau to read.

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Devices & Desires, Susan Ertz

You won’t find any of Susan Ertz’s books in print these days – in fact, a quick search on Amazon returns only secondhand copies, the most recent of which was published in 1985. She was actively writing between 1923 and 1976, which is an impressively long career, and one of her books was adapted for the cinema, In The Cool of the Day, in 1960, starring Peter Finch and Jane Fonda. She also wrote a science fiction novel in 1935, Woman Alive, but I’m not aware of it being claimed by the genre. I’ve yet to find a full bibliography online – the one on Ertz’s entry on Wikipedia lists twenty-two books but doesn’t include the one I read, Devices & Desires, which was published in 1972.

To be honest, on the strength of Devices & Desires, I doubt I’ll be exploring Ertz’s oeuvre any further. While I had a positive experience with my first Storm Jameson (see here), I can’t say the same for my first Susan Ertz. It’s not that Devices & Desires is a bad book, or a badly-written book. But it’s set in the early 1970s – there’s even a mention of the Apollo 11 lunar landing – and feels like it’s set in the 1930s. It makes for a disconnect that completely spoils the reading experience.

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The Gorlans – Professor, his mother, young nanny Stephanie, and three young boys – are travelling from the US to the UK for a well-earned holiday. They are travelling by ship – did people still do that in 1970? And they will be staying in a rented country house near Oxford. Also aboard the same liner is John Van Bolen, the young son of an American millionaire whose estranged British wife owns the house the Gorlands have rented. John is accompanied by Robinson, Van Bolen’s African-American chauffeur. The two groups become aware of each other during the voyage, and once ensconced in their holiday home the Gorlands continue to seem more of the Van Bolens. John’s mother, Rachel, is in a relationship with French expat architect Marcel, but the two cannot marry because Rachel’s husband won’t give her a divorce. Also, young John doesn’t like Marcel and refuses to be the son of divorced parents. Stephanie has fallen in love with Professor Gorland, but he doesn’t return the sentiment – in fact, he’s attracted to Rachel. And Robinson has fallen in love with Oriana, the West Indian maid of the local vicar and his wife.

Then, as usually seems the case in such stories, tragedy strikes. John and the oldest Gorlan boy plot a swimming race across the lake. Since they’ve been told not to do this, they drug Robinson, who is minding them. But the youngest Gorlan boy escapes his grandmother’s care, wanders down to the lake and falls in. And nearly drowns. But Robinson, knowing that John will be blamed for the near-death as it was John who drugged Robinson, commits suicide in order to take the blame himself.

Devices & Desires really is horribly old-fashioned. Robinson reads like a stereotypical African-American from the first half of the twentieth century. The American characters come across as somewhat less-wealthy Rockefellers, and the English characters are all terribly upper class. They talk about “fetching the car”, everyone has servants, and one character even has a small flat filled with expensive paintings in a chic area of London. You could move the entire story forward in time fifty years and the only thing that would need changing is the reference to men landing on the Moon.

Devices & Desires‘s prose is by no means bad. On the contrary, it’s a good deal better than you’ll find in most twenty-first century commercial fiction. And it’s clearly the product of an established writer with a decades-long career. But it also seems to be the product of a writer who is decades out of touch. And that, for me, completely ruined my enjoyment of the book.


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A Month Soon Goes, Storm Jameson

This is is the first book in my informal project to read as many postwar British women writers as I can, particularly ones that appear to have been forgotten. Storm Jameson was prolific and successful, writing around sixty books between 1919 and 1976 – fiction, criticism, biography and history. None of her books appear to be in print now. At least two of her novels, In the Second Year (1936), set in a fascist Britain, and Then We Shall Hear Singing (1942), about a Nazi invasion of an invented country, qualify as science fiction although I’m not aware of them being claimed by the genre. A Month Soon Goes (1962), however, is pure mainstream and, I believe, fairly typical of her oeuvre – though, of course, I will have to read more to say for certain.

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Storm Jameson

Sarah Faulkner is a celebrated diseuse – ie, a female artiste who entertains with spoken monologues – famous on both sides of the Atlantic. Her husband, Edward, is around twenty years older than her, so close to seventy when the novel opens. He lives in a ramshackle manor near the village of Callisfont, which is where Angry Young Man playwright Mark Smith is trying to write a follow-up to his successful debut. He chose the village because his grandmother was born there. Mark meets Edward, and is invited up to Callisfont House for dinner the following day. There, he meets Edward’s daughter, Harriet, who has just turned eighteen, Edward’s secretary, Medbourne, and a close friend of the family, the writer Arnold Hudson, who has not had a novel published in eight years. Mark holds all these in contempt – except Harriet, whom he considers little more than a child – but he becomes a frequent visitor to the manor, not just because the food is better than at the village inn but also because he gets on quite well with Edward. Mark’s complaints also sound somewhat familiar:

“Certain things are better. But nothing is changed. There are still nauseatingly rich people and poor people; power is still in a few hands, class is still a stumbling block, education crazily unequal, social equality a myth.” (p 13)

And then Sarah Faulkner turns up.

She has returned home after four years of touring, and it’s made clear she has been an absentee wife and mother for pretty much her entire adult life. She’s also been having an on-and-off affair with Arnold – and many other men. She brings two staff with her, a masseuse and a personal assistant. Sarah is quite a creation: charismatic, gloriously selfish, and completely aware of the power she has over people and unafraid to use it. She immediately begins making promises to Harriet, which she then later blithely goes back on – eventually deciding Harriet should be married off to a neighbour, a bluff and somewhat dim-witted member of the landed gentry in his forties. Harriet, of course, doesn’t want this. It is soon revealed that Sarah’s visit home has been prompted by her finances – she is notoriously bad at keeping the fortune her act earns her, and wants Edward to sell of a piece off his land to a developer. He refuses to do so. Meanwhile, Mark finds her compelling, Arnold comes to the conclusion he has been used, much like every man in Sarah’s life, and Harriet tries to get either her mother or Mark to take her away from Callisfont…

And then Edward dies in his sleep.

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A Month Soon Goes is definitely the product of a writer with years, if not decades, of career behind them. The prose is polished to a fine gloss, the characters are drawn sharply, and the setting is equally well mapped out. The book does feel most like, however, a BBC Play for Today from the 1960s and 1970s, where every line of dialogue is a barbed insult or a put-down. Though it is set in 1958 – May and June 1958, to be precise, as the jacket copy states – a lot of the commentary still holds true today. Not just Mark’s complaint, mentioned above, of the corruption of the rich and entitled (the complicity of our political masters with corporation seems to be a twenty-first century development; but then the multinationals are the new aristocratic houses), but also some of Sarah’s comments on the role of women in society. While she recognises her lifestyle would be considerably more acceptable had she been a man, she’s also quite hypocritical and happy to marry Harriet off to a local squire (and only so she no longer has to take responsibility for her daughter). But then Sarah’s selfishness really is quite astonishing – she only gets away with because she’s so charming. Jameson, incidentally, doesn’t have to tell us this, it’s there in the way Sarah talks and behaves.

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when I started A Month Soon Goes. Something like Olivia Manning or Elizabeth Taylor, I thought. If this novel is any indication, then yes, Jameson is indeed a similar writer… although perhaps a tad more commercial than them. I certainly plan to read more Jameson – in fact, I’ve already ordered a copy of The Road from the Monument, also published in 1962, from eBay. Well, it was only 99p for a first edition…