Pamela Frankau is the author of one of my favourite ever Virago books – The Willow Cabin. I have been meaning to read more of her novels for ages, but only recently managed to acquire a couple. Pamela Frankau was a popular and prolific writer once upon a time, and I find it sad that she is read so much less now, her novels out of print (except for a few POD VMC editions two of which I snapped up the other week). I wasn’t sure which of the two to read first – so I went for the fattest.
The Winged Horse – like The Willow Cabin, takes place in both America and England, it is a brilliantly Compelling novel of power, truth and dishonesty.
It is 1949 and English newspaper tycoon J. G Baron is a tough no nonsense, charismatic businessman with interests on both sides of the Atlantic. His adult children appear to lead charmed lives at the family house in the English countryside. Favoured employees get invited for weekends, and J.G absolutely believes in the perfect world he has created there with his family. However, while his son Tobias is conscious of never quite measuring up, and his youngest daughter Liz is young, unsure and often afraid, it is only Celia his eldest daughter who recognises J.G for what he is. For J.G is something of a tyrant – his hypocrisy and self-deceit know no bounds. His power is not the bellowing, red faced bully-boy type – but of a quieter more insidious kind that casts a long, dark shadow.
“ ‘My daughter, the late Mrs. Valentine West,’ Baron said. Baron’s family jokes did not vary, they were the clichés of a lifetime; they could be distinguished sharply from his public words, his coarse or his agile phrases; they were stock, paterfamilias stuff, oddly out of date. She could remember his using this worn example when her mother was unpunctual.’ “
As the novel opens, Celia is in the process of separating from her American husband, and travelling by ship with J.G and his entourage back to England, with her young son. J.G has just enticed cartoonist Harry Levitt away from his employers, to work for him, and Harry is aboard ship too. Levitt is drawn to Celia, but Harry is a practised dissembler, and despite connecting briefly, Celia recognising him as such is more interested in going home, seeing her brother and sister again. Harry was stationed in England during the war, and carries a dream of a life there with him, his main reason for accepting J. G’s offer.
Back home at Carlington, Celia sets about settling herself and her son into the newly refurbished nursery wing. Levitt is drawn further into the circle which includes family friend and neighbour; Anthony Carey for who Liz harbours deep feelings. Tobias loves to fly, has been hanging around in France with a much older married actress – much to J.G’s disapproval, his happy go lucky attitude hides his sense of never making his father happy. It is Anthony Carey – sometimes called ‘thank God for Anthony’ or ‘that poor Carey’ by Celia, Liz and Tobias – who J.G favours.
“Downstairs in the green library, Tobias glanced at his watch; it was worn on the right wrist, face inwards, so that he could look at it unobserved. Many people, he reflected, wore their watches this way; there was no need to feel that it was a special anti-J.G device.”
When a tragedy rips through the family, Harry Levitt is on hand to help, and while J. G’s most audacious self-deceit conceals his pain – other members of the family struggle to cope. Traumatised, Celia decides to take a house in London, and her father goes on a trip. Harry Levitt continues to draw cartoons for J.G’s newspapers, spending more and more time at Carlington, seeing Celia in London rarely, he begins to get closer to Liz.
When Harry is sent back to America by J.G for ‘a couple of months’, he understands that it is the beginning of the end for his association with the Baron organisation. He leaves a much sadder man than he arrived. What he unwittingly leaves behind will inspire a betrayal and lead to the slow destruction of a once happy man. Around the same time Celia gets word that her estranged husband has helped himself to some of her money, and travels back to New York to sort it out. Finally, here, Celia and Harry come together again, Celia makes Harry a better man, but J.G does not approve. Stuck in the States trying to sort out the financial mess her estranged husband has caused her, it is not long before J.G turns up like the bad penny he is, and offers to sort everything, as long as she ditches Harry. Celia is not that kind of girl – and so she and Harry resign themselves to having no money (luckily she does still have a small house on Martha’s Vineyard – like you do).
“Celia carried the toy aeroplane out on to the rough lawn and pointed it into the wind. It was a fragile hollow thing of aluminium, attached to a rod and a reel; now the wings revolved frantically, with a spinning, humming noise; they turned into two blurred lines and she could let it fly. The wind took it; she reeled out the line and let it go.”
The title of the book comes from a song, a song the siblings sang as children and particularly associate with Tobias. It is a song to be bellowed, a song of happiness and that feeling of running down a hill with the wind at your back. It is also the name of a piece of art work, which is inspired by a lie, one lie leading to another as they always do.
I’m conscious, that in trying to avoid spoilers, I’m perhaps not making The Winged Horse sound as good as it is, but it really is excellent. Frankau is superb at building relationships between her characters, her characters are not all perfect, they are real people, living within a recognisable world, even if it is one of sixty pus years ago. There is compassion and understanding in her writing, and even J.G Baron is dealt with, with some sympathy.
So this is the second novel by Pamela Frankau that I have loved, I have a third; A Wreath for the Enemy waiting to read, but Frankau was the author of something like thirty novels. I came across one in a second hand bookshop recently – the third in a series, it was a first edition priced at £25 – I had to sadly walk away.