According to the Virago Books website, Pamela Frankau’s The Willow Cabin, A Wreath for the Enemy, and The Winged Horse are back in print. I made a point of buying these novels some years ago (well, at the beginning of this century) and am very pleased they’re more widely available now. Frankau (1908-1967) is one of those lost writers whose books I read with enthusiasm when I got my first adult library card. I was bringing home an amazing collection of books, chosen at random: Angela Carter’s The Magic Toyshop (I can only suppose I thought this was about toys), Shena Mackay’s Old Crow, and the novels of Pamela Frankau. Although all of these books are available at a university library two hours away, my public library has none of them. And–though this makes me sound cranky–I do believe these stylish, lively writers could influence readers in a good way: their style is more individualistic, fuller, and more varied than that of the millions who have been taught that identical pared-down prose is good writing. A teacher of mine–a writer–once told me he could tell which manuscripts were written on computer and which on typewriter. It’s not that I suggest we go back to the pre-computer age, but we all know what he means.
Frankau’s Sing for Your Supper, the first in a trilogy, Clothes of a King’s Son, is a vivid, compelling, beautifully written novel. Set in 1926, it begins and ends with Blanche Briggs, called Brigstock, a middle-aged nanny who is needed only in summers now. Briggs’ life still revolves around the itinerant Weston children, who follow their father, Philip, the director of a troupe of Pierrots, to a different boarding house in a different seaside town every summer.
The three children are more sophisticated than most of their peers, because of their roving theater background. Gerald, a charming, urbane 16-year-old, who rarely acts boyish, banters with Brigstock and tries to hide his obsession with saving money (obviously traced back to his father’s poverty). Fourteen-year-old Sarah, an imaginative, witty girl, temporarily the product of a girls’ school, develops a crush on Shirley Ormonde, one of the actresses in the troupe. Entranced by her own reflection, Sarah daydreams about herself in the third person, as though she is the heroine of a romantic novel.
“That’s the girl I want for the part,” said the great actor to the great actress, “that girl over there, do you see? Wait till you hear her read. Voice like a cello. She could be another Meggie Albanesi.”
The youngest, Thomas, age 10, is kind, absent-minded, and easy-going,. But he is the champion of the weak, the sad, and the abandoned, and can be pushed to fury when they are attacked. He is also psychic, like his grandmother. This is a talent ignored by his family, who like to think it is simply “tricks.” When he shows up a magician at the Moonrakers’ show, the magician knows Thomas’s magic is for real.
In the following paragraph, Frankau deftly describes the writerly Sarah’s perceptions of the three children’s differences.
“She can see how maddening it is when Thomas does that, thought Sarah; now he doesn’t bawl any more, she takes his side. The thought of Thomas bawling led to the Moonrakers because of the fat, jelly-wobbling Pierette called Maisie Something who had made them choke with giggles at Eastbourne three summers ago. They had behaved quite badly and Thomas had bawled afterwards and kicked Gerald and said, ‘I liked her the best’ all the way home. He was only seven; it was the first time he had seen the show. (Not the Moonrakers, then, of course: not their father’s own company, but Philip Adair had written many of the songs; old numbers from Hi Jinks or The Gay Cavaliers were still inclined to show up in the Moonrakers program. By special request, Philip Adair will sing…)”
It’s a fascinating novel–not exactly a theater novel–but it centers on the children, who grow up early because of their experiences, connections to the theater, and knowledge of what goes on behind-the-scenes. Philip, their father, is also a fascinating character, doomed to be unsuccessful, but suddenly come into money–and the secret reason introduces some other unusual characters.
Next up: Slaves of the Lamp, set 10 years later, when the children are grown up, the second in the trilogy. After rereading SOTL last winter, I decided to go back and reread the books in order. It certainly enhances the pleasure!
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