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 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 Particularly interesting is an unpublished 10 page typed introduction by Rebecca West to Frankau’s novel Colonel Blessington that was left unfinished at Frankau’s death.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.”
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).
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.