Archives Diary: Pamela Frankau Papers

Pamela Frankau by Pamela Chandler.  Pamela Frankau (3 January 1908 - 9 June 1967) was a popular British novelist.

Pamela Frankau by Pamela Chandler. Pamela Frankau (3 January 1908 – 9 June 1967) was a popular British novelist.

Many of the author manuscript collections in the Burns Library are those of writers who need little introduction. Well-known examples include Rex Stout, Hilaire Belloc, Graham Greene, Francis Thompson, Thomas Merton, Samuel Beckett, Flann O’Brien, William Butler Yeats, among many others. In addition, Burns houses the papers of numerous authors who though important for a variety of reasons are perhaps less well-known. English author Pamela Frankau (3 January, 1908 – 9 June, 1967) certainly fits in this latter category. Frankau, author of over thirty novels as well as newspaper and magazine articles, short stories, an autobiography, and plays for stage and radio, though extremely popular before and after World War Two, is now rarely read and largely forgotten.

The box containing the manuscript of Shaken in the Wind by Pamela Frankau, part of the Burns Library’s collection of her papers.

The box containing the manuscript of Shaken in the Wind by Pamela Frankau, part of the Burns Library’s collection of her papers, Box 2, Pamela Frankau Papers, MS.1995.006, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

The Burns Library holds a sizable collection of the Pamela Frankau Papers – 3.25 linear feet or ten boxes. The collection is mainly composed of correspondence, a typed short story, biographical material and the hand-written manuscripts of eight novels as well as that of Frankau’s 1961 Pen to Paper, her views on writing and her advice to aspiring authors. Particularly interesting is an unpublished 10 page typed introduction by Rebecca West to Frankau’s novel Colonel Blessington that was left unfinished at Frankau’s death. This introduction provides a fascinating account by West, who had a somewhat erratic friendship with Frankau for many years, of Frankau’s life, her novels, her views on love, her adopted and staunch Catholicism, her sexuality, among other topics. The titles of the eight novels in manuscript, heavily corrected and revised, are Shaken in the Wind, 1948; The Winged Horse, 1953; A Wreath for the Enemy, 1954; Ask Me No More, 1958; Road Through the Woods, 1960; Sing For Your Supper, 1963; Slaves of the Lamp, 1965; Over the Mountains, 1967.

Pamela Frankau, born in London in 1908, was Jewish on her father’s side. Her family was a literary one. Her father was the novelist Gilbert Frankau. Her paternal grandmother, Julia Frankau (pseudonym Frank Danby), also wrote novels, the best known being Pigs in Clover. Her grandaunt was the journalist Mrs. Aria. Pamela was prolific from a young age. She produced her well received first novel, The Marriage of Harlequin, in 1927 at the age of nineteen. By twenty-three she had published five novels and two books of short stories. By thirty the number of her novels was up to twenty. Pamela spent some time as a journalist, being a feature writer for The Mirror and The Daily Sketch. During the Second World War she worked in the Ministry of Food and then served in the Auxiliary Territorial Service. She had an affair with the married poet Humbert Wolfe, arguably the love of her life, who died in 1940. Though she had been raised an Anglican by her Jewish father, she converted to Catholicism in her mid-thirties, in 1942. It is interesting that her father, shortly before his death in 1952, and his third wife also became Catholics. Rebecca West in her unpublished typescript in Burns stresses the significance of Pamela’s adoption of Catholicism: “[her] conversion which was an astounding act of faith, of persistence in believing that, in spite of everything, the universe had a beneficent explanation. For to Pamela ‘everything’ included much that might have been taken as evidence to the contrary. Her only child died in infancy, the man she most loved and her two closest women friends died prematurely, and she herself was in ill-health for some long time before she died.”

Manuscript pages of Frankau's novel Shaken in the Wind, Pamela Frankau Papers, MS1995-06, Box 2, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Manuscript pages of Frankau’s novel Shaken in the Wind, Box 2, Pamela Frankau Papers, MS.1995.006, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

After Humbert Wolfe’s death, Frankau spent much time in the United States. In 1945 she married Marshall Dill. A year later she gave birth to a son who died in infancy. The marriage was dissolved in 1951. Frankau wrote little during the 1940s. However, in 1949 she published The Willow Cabin, probably her most successful and popular novel. In the 1950s she had a long relationship with Margaret Webster, a theatrical director. On 8 June, 1967 Frankau died of breast cancer. She is buried in Hampstead cemetery, London.

In her obituary of Frankau in The Times Rebecca West while observing that some of Frankau’s novels are compared to those of Galsworthy was herself somewhat cool to them: “none of her novels, though they are better than most, was as good as she was.” Still, in her day many of Frankau’s novels sold very well. Some received high critical acclaim. Noël Coward wrote highly of her 1958 novel Ask Me No More. Compton Mackenzie praised the passion of her writing. Of Frankau’s Road Through the Woods Isabelle Mallet wrote: “Miss Frankau has written a tightly knit novel, with fine characterizations and moments of real beauty.” (New York Times, 22 Jan., 1961). Ann Schakne in 1949 observed that in The Willow Cabin Frankau “achieved a remarkable fusion of wit, character and craftsmanship. … It has precision of phrase, unobtrusive economy of style and genuine passion; she has handled her difficult plot extremely well. … ‘The Willow Cabin’ is an outstanding novel.” (New York Times, 21 Aug, 1949). Leanne Zugsmith described her 1935 novel Fly Now, Falcon as “almost constantly entertaining” (New York Times, 11 Aug., 1935). Orville Prescott was Frankau’s greatest champion. In a 1958 review of Ask Me No More he writes that “ … no one, I am convinced, could read this book without admiration for Miss Frankau’s dazzling skill. No woman now writing novels has a greater command of the craft of fiction. … But she has not yet received the literary recognition she deserves. In an era such as ours, when inept, clumsy and pretentiously muddled novels are acclaimed, it is all the more regrettable that an accomplished novelist with a personal vision of life and love like Miss Frankau is not taken more seriously. After all, she is just as clever as Evelyn Waugh and a lot more emotionally powerful” (New York Times, 10 Nov, 1958).

Title page of the Willow Cabin by Pamela Frankau

Title page of the Willow Cabin by Pamela Frankau

Though Virago has reprinted several of Frankau’s novels in recent years, she no longer receives much attention from readers and even less from modern critics. This is odd as a strong case can be made that she is entitled to the same critical stature as some other twentieth century female writers such as Mary Renault, Naomi Mitchison, Rosamund Lehmann, Stella Gibbons. As Elizabeth Maslen observed in her 2001 book Political and Social Issues in British Women’s Fiction, 1928-1968: “The considerable contemporary critical acclaim which consistently greeted the publication of works by Storm Jameson, Phyllis Bottome, Pamela Frankau, and Susan Ertz, to name only a few, invites investigation as to why so few, if any, of their works are still remembered.” If anyone is looking for an under-researched literary figure for a term paper, thesis, dissertation, journal article or indeed a book topic, Pamela Frankau, her life and writings, are certainly worthy of consideration. And an excellent start would be to wander over to Burns Library and consult the Frankau Papers.

  • Brendan Rapple, Collection Development, O’Neill Library

About John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College

The University’s special collections, including the University’s Archives, are housed in the Honorable John J. Burns Library, located in the Bapst Library Building, north entrance. Burns Library staff work with students and faculty to support learning and teaching at Boston College, offering access to unique primary sources through instruction sessions, exhibits, and programming. The Burns Library also serves the research needs of external scholars, hosting researchers from around the globe interested in using the collections. The Burns Library is home to more than 200,000 volumes and over 700 manuscript collections, including holdings of music, photographic materials, art and artifacts, and ephemera. Though its collections cover virtually the entire spectrum of human knowledge, the Burns Library has achieved international recognition in several specific areas of research, most notably: Irish studies; British Catholic authors; Jesuitica; Fine printing; Catholic liturgy and life in America, 1925-1975; Boston history; the Caribbean, especially Jamaica; Nursing; and Congressional archives.
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2 Responses to Archives Diary: Pamela Frankau Papers

  1. gold price says:

    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.

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