Posts Tagged ‘Pamela Frankau’


Some of you may remember reading my previous reviews of Pamela Frankau novels, for me she became one of those novelists you discover by chance and then want to read everything they wrote. I was given The Willow Cabin as part of a gift – the author was a new name to me – but The Willow Cabin become one of my favourite Virago titles ever. A Wreath for the Enemy is the fourth Pamela Frankau that I have read, prompted by Simon’s recent post about it.

It is a novel told in three sections, characters moving in and out of view – with some brilliantly plotted connections which make this a wonderfully clever novel. The opening is immediately captivating – Pamela Frankau knows how to get her readers hooked.

“There had been two crises already that day before the cook’s husband called to assassinate the cook. The stove caught fire in my presence; the postman had fallen off his bicycle at the gate and been bitten by Charlemagne, our sheepdog, whose policy it was to attack people only when they were down.
Whenever there were two crises my stepmother Jeanne said ‘Jamais deux sans trois.’ This morning she and Francis (my father) had debated whether the two things happening to the postman could be counted as two separate crises and might therefore be said to have cleared matters up. I thought that they were wasting their time. In our household things went on and on happening. It was an hotel, which made the doom worse: it would have been remarkable to have two days without a crisis and even if we did, I doubted whether the rule would apply in reverse, so that we could augur a third. I was very fond of the word augur.”

Our narrator is Penelope Wells, one of several voices that tell this story of non-conformity, friendship and family. As the novel opens Penelope is a precocious fourteen-year-old compiling an anthology of hates (this alone made me love her). She lives in a small hotel on the French Riviera with her poet, father and her stepmother. The hotel is often empty, Francis Wells having a somewhat relaxed attitude to business he is as likely to refuse entry to his establishment as he is to welcome visitors. The walls of the bar are adorned with the photographs of famous guests, and those guests who do arrive are generally eccentric, bohemian types.

Penelope; who calls her father and stepmother by their first name, – has this wonderfully unique way of speaking – her conversation is a delight. Quite obviously, a child who grew up surrounded by adults and her nose in a book – she speaks like the characters she has come up against in fiction. With her powers of imagination and observation, Penelope is ripe to be swept up in a childish infatuation for an English family staying next door to the hotel. The Bradleys are middle-class well behaved, conventional, their meal times run to a predictable timetable – their lives are ordered, unlike Penelope’s life at the hotel. It seems – from a distance to be an ideal life. Francis – much to Penelope’s irritation calls them The Smugs – it’s a pretty perfect name.

“They laughed when I shook hands with them, and Don made me an elaborate bow after the handshake. Then they laughed again.
‘Are you French or English?’
That saddened me. I said, ‘I am English, but I live here because my stepmother is a Frenchwoman and my father likes the Riviera.’
‘We know that,’ said Don quickly. ‘He was shot down and taken prisoner by the Germans and escaped and fought with the Resistance, didn’t he?’
‘Yes. That is how he met Jeanne.’
‘And he’s Francis Wells, the poet?’
‘And the hotel is quite mad, isn’t it?’
‘Indubitably,’ I said. It was another of my favourite words. Eva doubled up with laughter. ‘Oh, that’s wonderful! I’m always going to say indubitably.’

It is the Bradley children; Don and his sister Eva, thirteen, who Penelope is particularly charmed by. Their lives are so well ordered that Penelope is able to predict exactly when they will appear in the garden. It isn’t long before the three meet – and Penelope delights Don and Eva with her unusual conversation, and tantalising tales of the hotel. Just as Penelope starts to get to know her new friends, the hotel welcomes one of its most colourful and frequent guests; the Duchess – who Penelope doesn’t much like – though the Duchess seems to adore her.

French riverieraHowever, childhood, as we know is full of small betrayals, and Penelope’s fledgling friendship is doomed when the Bradley parents declare the hotel to be an unsuitable place for Don and Eva – who are not so used to such grown up surroundings. The disappointments and betrayals of childhood and adolescence are so formative, they direct so much of what comes next – and how we build relationships.

In the second and third parts of the novel we move forward four and five years respectively, and hear from Don Bradley in England, and other characters. At seventeen, at boarding school, Don is straining against his father’s rigid conventionality – his greatest friend a middle-aged man in a wheelchair who owns the estate where Don goes to ride and mess around happily with horses. Deeply affected by events in France four years earlier, Don is in need of counsel, and in this most unlikely of friends Don had found the friend he lacks in his own father. Crusoe is a straight-talking breath of fresh air to Don – his easy unconventional way of life is attractive. Crusoe challenges Don’s way of thinking – and so there’s bound to be tensions when Don’s parents meet Crusoe.

In the final section of the novel, another year has passed, and we’re are back with Penelope – among others. I’m certainly not going to say too much about this section – but here we meet Cara – another superb creation from Pamela Frankau, brittle, damaged and potentially damaging – whose life is destined to collide with that of Penelope’s.

I still have two other Pamela Frankau novels waiting to be read – but she was pretty prolific – and although out of print – some of her books are available – and I have two more winging their way to me from a rash ebay purchase the other day.

pamela frankau

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Having recently read and loved The Winged Horse by Pamela Frankau I was determined to read more by this once popular and prolific writer. The Willow Cabin remains one of my favourite ever Virago reads. A commenter on that previous post recommended Sing for Your Supper to me – and I immediately went in search of a copy, I was rather delighted with the edition which arrived.

Spending a few days away with family in Devon – this novel seemed a great companion with its Devonshire setting. Sing for Your Supper is the first book in the Clothes of a King’s Son, trilogy  – and I already have the third, and just ordered the second.

The summer of 1926 and as the novel opens Blanche Briggs is preparing to rejoin her beloved Weston children. Fourteen years earlier Blanche was employed as the family Nanny, now Blanche exists looking after wealthy London ladies in between summer seasons when the children return from school. The three children, Gerald (15) Sarah (13) and Thomas (10) are the children of Phillip Weston a widowed gentleman Pierrot star and owner of the Moonrakers troupe; who do the summer seasons in Devon and elsewhere, with diminishing success. The children are well aware of their father’s hopelessness with business, resigned to fairly constant genteel poverty. Even poor Blanche is not paid for her much longed for summers. Gerald is particularly obsessed by the question of money.

“Money, money, money. Without it the world was against you. He seemed to have known this for a long time, to have been making  – for years – a cold, practical assessment of the family fortunes. Misfortunes rather. He saw them now with his routine mixture of pity and scorn. The struggle had endured since he could remember: even in his mother’s lifetime.”

Blanche’s excitement at the prospect of another summer with her children is infectious, leaving her sister’s house earlier than she need clutching a string bag containing presents for the children.

” As she walked to the barrier at the head of Number Three platform she was looking out for Gerald. There he was. No, he wasn’t. Another boy in grey flannels, with something of Gerald’s look, a neat dark- haired boy walking with a swagger: a forecast of Gerald . ‘Mind your back miss…’ A porter pushing a barrow with a mountainous load: there was a new spade and bucket perched on top: an iron spade, bluish- black, with a white wooden handle: the bucket was red with a gold band round it. Gerald and Sarah and Thomas were too big to care for spades and buckets anymore. But these things were still stamped with a trademark of rightness; she smiled upon them.”

Blanche can’t help but be astounded by the first class ticket sent by Philip Weston for her and the children, something which has never happened before. The children are equally surprised, travelling first class with their darling Brigstock, they each – unknown to Blanche – have their own secrets and concerns as they contemplate the summer with their father and the Moonrakers. The family will be occupying Roseclay, a large Edwardian house they’ve taken before, it’s like going home, though this time without the presence of ‘the grandmother’ and aunt and uncle who usually make up the household. Roseclay, first class train travel suggest to the children that their father is again living outside his means. Either that, or he has suddenly come into money.

Upon arrival, there are signs of a new prosperity, and both the elder children begin to suspect their father has a secret, or at the very least something to tell them. Sarah suffering from neuralgia headaches, fancies herself a great actress, Gerald is carrying his carefully hoarded secret stash of money and Thomas is the subject of a letter sent by his headmaster which speaks of his ungovernable rages. Thomas is a wonderful character, loyal, vague and loving, he will fly into  rage if someone he loves is threatened. It would also appear he has inherited his grandmother’s clairvoyance, though none of his family believe it to be anything other than a trick.

They all love Nanny, who runs a pretty tight ship. Blanche has her way of doing things which until now has always gone unchallenged. She knows swimming can bring on Sarah’s headaches, and has a particularly close relationship with Thomas, understands Thomas, defends him and loves him best. Gerald meanwhile seems headed for his own special brand of trouble. This summer change will come to the Weston family, changes which Blanche might not be ready for.

Everywhere there are posters advertising the new show; Moonrakers 1926, and the two elder children are expected to see the show on their first evening in Devon, Thomas will attend the matinée the following day. Other members of the Moonrakers troupe are frequently at the house, late night parties and behavior resulting in what Thomas thinks of as Brigstock’s Sunday face. Gwen, Philip’s long time co-star is sporting a flashy ring,  everyone else is much the same, and Gerald finds he still dislikes Leo Clyde.

Before the show the next day Thomas meets Rab, an American girl, a little older than himself, a bit of a tomby with whom he immediately allies himself. Rab is  installed at a local hotel; unusually in the care of her chauffeur Miles, her mother Paula is in Paris and will soon be arriving. Rab tells Thomas all about Martha’s Vineyard, the home she is nostalgic for. Rab it appears already knows all about the Weston family, viewing Gerald and Sarah as little gods, is delighted to find Thomas quite ready and wiling to do her bidding. They become fast friends. Rab is keen to be drawn into the heart of the Weston family, cared for by Nanny with a more regular routine. Unknown to his own children, Philip is already very familiar with Rab – she worries him a little.

” A child of twelve, who had never been to school; who was a world- traveller and could mix a dry Martini: a child of divorce: a child who had, despite these dooms, no appearance of sophistication and few graces. A wild one: farouche was the word that came to his mind. The worry-tune skirled and screamed  ‘what will Nanny think?’ He turned it off. Rab was a darling and all would be well.”

I thoroughly enjoyed Sing for your Supper and can’t wait to read the rest of the trilogy. Pamela Frankau is a superb novelist, there is great interplay between the characters, fabulous storytelling from multiple perspectives and in this novel a quite marvellous ending.


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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.

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the willow cabin

“Make me a willow cabin at your gate,
And call upon my soul within the house;
Write loyal cantons of contemned love,
And sing them loud even in the dead of night;
Halloo your name to the reverberate hills,
And make the babbling gossip of the air
Cry out ‘Olivia!’ O, you should not rest
Between the elements of air and earth,
But you should pity me…”
(Twelfth Night – William Shakespeare)

I saw a madcap production of Twelfth Night just recently, and yet in the midst of the madcap nature of the production those beautiful words rang out, and reminded me of a book I had waiting. – Fleur in her world had sent me this lovely copy of The Willow Cabin last Christmas as part of the Librarything secret Santa Virago gift exchange.

It’s not often I get book hangover – usually no matter how wonderful a book – or how terrible, I find myself able to move on fairly happily to the next book. The Willow Cabin may turn out to be one of my favourite Viragoes ever and I think affected my enjoyment quite adversely, of the two books I read just after it. I also find it particularly hard sometimes to write about a book I loved as much as I did The Willow Cabin – it’s almost as if I have a strange mixture of too much to say and not quite enough. I know I can’t adequately describe the true wonder of this novel, but Frankau’s characters, are beautifully explored, the women particularly, her London of the 1930’s and 40’s becoming fabulously real. The final section of the novel entitled Time Harvested, I found exceptionally poignant. Frankau builds a picture slowly of the lives of these people, as the final pieces of the puzzle are slotted together at the end of the novel, the lives of these people are revealed entirely and the reader only then understands these exceptionally drawn characters.

He came over to the chair, pulled her out of it and stood holding her hands. ‘If I were really grown-up now, I should say good-bye to you and walk out of your life. And yet I cannot bear to go. And Oh Caroline, I would give my soul to be twenty-two again, d’you see?’

The novel opens in 1936; Caroline Seward is a twenty-two year old actress whose talent shows great promise. Living in London with her mother and prosperous step-father; the-spoilers-of the-fun as she calls them – Caroline is ripe for escape. At an after show party Catherine meets Michael Knowle a surgeon in his late thirties, married, though estranged from his wife, and almost instantly Michael becomes the entire focus of her life. Caroline leaves home, moving to a small hotel, and embarks on a relationship with Michael – who is unable to get a divorce – that will last years. Caroline loves Michael completely; Michael is Caroline’s whole world. Deliberately allowing her career to take a back seat to her relationship, Caroline’s other friends and colleagues are frustrated at this throwing away of her talent, especially Dennis Brookfield who is a friend of Michael and his wife Mercedes and loves Caroline himself. Mercedes, living in France throws a shadow over Caroline’s happiness; Caroline silently calls her names, and is forever trying to understand the motivations of this woman she has never met. Mercedes as much of an obsession for Caroline at times as the man she loves.

In the years before the war, Caroline and Michael slip into an easy rhythm of life, Caroline residing in the hotel, living for the next brief meeting with Michael, half-heartedly taking a few small theatrical roles. The couple have to content themselves with carefully orchestrated midnight meetings at Michael’s London home, and the anonymity of foreign places, as Michael himself continues his brilliant work at the hospital. Their relationship appears almost legitimised on a trip to America, meeting with some friends of Michael and Mercedes Knowle – who instantly understand how matters stand between Michael and Caroline. Later Caroline meets Dorothy, Michael’s sister, who hadn’t got along with Mercedes, but who likes Caroline. However, always in the background is Mercedes, and then war comes. War brings the pain of separation, as Michael is stationed abroad, and Caroline in the A.T.S lives only to hear from him. War brings change and upheaval for many people, including Caroline.

“Now she saw that the look of Michael stopped short below the temples; the woman had large dark eyes, a short nose and a small chin. For a moment her expression did not change; the whole face seemed stony and vigilant. Then she smiled.”

In 1948 Caroline travels to America again, this time as a successful actress on tour with a play nearing the end of its long run. Still needing answers, Caroline decides to meet with Mercedes Knowle, the woman who had so obsessed her years earlier. At the home of Lee Adams – whom Caroline had met before the war with Michael, she finally encounters Mercedes, and discovers an unexpected bond with her, and begins to understand her own misinterpretations of the past.


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