Middlebrow Psychology in Gilbert Frankau’s novels of the 1930s.
Dr Victoria Stewart
University of Leicester
The disturbing influence of new sciences of the mind was a central force behind the stylistic and formal experiments that are characteristic of now canonical post-First World War literature. As Kylie Valentine notes, ‘the aesthetic practices and thematic concerns critically important to modernism – decentring of the subject, crises in narratives of the self, biological and scientific knowledges, classicism, sexuality, embodiment – are also those of psychoanalysis’ (31). The relationship between the two fields was not a straightforward, consistent or unproblematic one, however, with writers including Virginia Woolf and T. S. Eliot eschewing the type of explicit engagement with these new ideas that others, such as May Sinclair and H. D., embraced. It would also be misleading to suggest that the rise of new explanatory models, such as psychoanalysis, and new branches of psychology, such as Behaviourism, meant that existing paradigms were completely abandoned; for example, David Bradshaw has shown how an engagement with eugenics persisted in some modernist writing into the 1930s (34-55).
However, perhaps a better index of the extent to which ideas from Freud, psychoanalysis more generally, and the developing fields of psychiatry and psychology, were circulating in society at large in this period, are the works of popular and middlebrow writers. One of the key factors influencing the spread of psychological and psychoanalytic ideas in popular discourse was their use in the treatment of cases of war neurosis, and, as Rosa Maria Bracco has suggested, the depiction of the psychological after-effects of the war was neither the sole preserve of ‘highbrow’ authors, nor confined to the immediate post-war years (92-4). Ideas from the emerging disciplines of psychology and psychoanalysis also entered popular consciousness and popular literature through other channels, such as childcare advice, as Nicola Humble has shown (224-5). Thus, whilst the disjunctions and fragmentation of modernist narrative might appear to be best suited to exploring the newly strange, de-centred and unstable subjectivity that these sciences of the mind reveal, writers working in a realist idiom were also incorporating them into the characterisation of their protagonists. This often required an emphasis on the normative and normalising aspects of what could seem to be an unfamiliar new conception of the individual; for example, Alison Light argues that in the novels of Agatha Christie, psychological explanations of criminal behaviour are presented as ‘a form of common sense’ (103).
In what follows I will examine selected novels by Gilbert Frankau, a largely forgotten but once widely read author, who first came to prominence with Peter Jackson, Cigar Merchant (1920), which focuses in part on its protagonist’s experience of shell shock. The First World War cast a long shadow over Frankau’s writing career, and its after effects, both psychological and social, were still a concern during the 1930s, the decade that will be my focus here. However, whilst Frankau works to refashion realism in order to depict a modern sensibility, as in modernist writing there is no clean break from existing conceptions of subjectivity. What emerges in Frankau’s novels is not just the ‘Freudianism without Freud’ that Humble (228) has identified as characteristic of middlebrow writers, but a kind of psychological syncretism in which ideas from earlier attempts to explain human behaviour exist alongside newer insights.
Like the modernist writers identified by Bradshaw, Frankau often uses the vocabulary of eugenics, and the language of other nineteenth century disciplines such as heredity and faculty psychology also leaves its mark in his writing, as I will show. In common with both his naturalist predecessors and his modernist contemporaries, Frankau worries about the relationship between the forces of instinct and the apparently civilizing powers of reason, a relationship which also concerned psychologists both pre- and post-Freud. In the late nineteenth century, social Darwinism had mapped evolution onto class relations, and Frankau’s work shows him attempting to bring such essentially hierarchized views into play with a contemporary view of individual autonomy and self-determination, reflecting both renewed social mobility in the post-First World War period and an interest, shared with modernism, in how individuals might accommodate themselves in new social and material conditions. In Frankau’s writing, however, these social conditions, as represented by the particular contemporary milieus in which his protagonists are located, are themselves the focus of scrutiny, as they are in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century realist fiction. I will begin by examining one of the few extended contemporary critiques of Frankau’s work, which is to be found in Q. D. Leavis’s Fiction and the Reading Public (1932). Leavis’s objections to Frankau’s novels reveal as much about her own predilections as they do about his qualities as a writer, but I will suggest, through the examination of a number of key examples, that what Leavis identifies as problems and flaws in Frankau’s novels are in fact symptomatic of his attempt to refashion realism in a rapidly changing intellectual climate.
Frankau, Leavis and the Reading Public
Frankau’s daughter Pamela, who also made a career as a writer, has left an account of her father’s writing practice that can help explain Q. D. Leavis’s particular animus towards him. In Pen to Paper (1961), a book combining autobiographical reflections with advice to aspirant authors, Pamela Frankau comments:
There are a number of points to be drawn from Pamela Frankau’s observations. Frankau evidently takes a pragmatic attitude towards literary production, writing with one eye on his projected audience and taking value for money into consideration. For Frankau, writing is a profession, and his remark about the ‘hothouse-blooming genius’ implies that conceptions of art based on ‘inspiration’ or on sequestration from the harsh realities of everyday life are alien to him. Frankau’s characterisation of his audience indicates that he is tailoring his work for both male and female readers. A number of his novels are subtitled ‘A Romance’, and Frankau combines plots charting the difficulties of marital relationships or forbidden liaisons with the depiction of business dealings that often end up in the law courts.
Whilst realistically represented, inasmuch as, according to Pamela Frankau, its depiction was based on research (Pen to Paper 187), this business world would evidently be less familiar to some of his readers than to others. Frankau will occasionally make asides about, for instance, the workings of the Stock Exchange, that appear to be aimed at those with a professional involvement in this world, rather than, for instance, the housewife. This is not to imply that Frankau includes love affairs for the benefit of his female readers and business dealings for the men; within a single narrative, Frankau will often switch between male and female focalising characters, attempting to depict the emotional crises of both men and women. The domestic scene, which both Humble (13) and Alison Light (211) have identified as an important aspect of female middlebrow writing, is always shored up, in Frankau’s world, by commercial endeavour and in this regard he harks back to predecessors such as Galsworthy or Trollope. But his, like theirs, is a world in which stock market crashes and wars can threaten the most carefully laid plans.
Clearly, setting out to provide escapism for down-trodden housewives and tired business men is unlikely to endear a writer to Q. D. Leavis, but her objections to Frankau, which recur throughout Fiction and the Reading Public, run deeper than this and are worth considering further. Leavis traces a line of development from Bulwer Lytton to Marie Corelli and through to Frankau (164-5) but whereas Corelli’s religious beliefs are seen by Leavis as a mitigating factor behind her literary effusions, Frankau is attributed more cynical motives. Leavis seizes on Frankau’s comment that, ‘Authorship is not so much a function of the brain as it is of the heart. And the heart is a universal organ’ (qtd in Leavis 68). For Leavis, this is an indication of the extent to which a writer such as Frankau confirms his readers’ existing prejudices rather than challenging them intellectually. T. S. Eliot argued that poetry should not be a ‘turning loose of emotion but an escape from emotion’ (30), and Leavis here seems to express similar views in relation to the novel. She argues that the emotional fervency of Frankau’s novels is only exacerbated by his use of the ‘jargon of popular psychology and popular science […] it saves [the author] the trouble of dramatising a situation or visualising a scene’ (259).
Chris Baldick’s comments on the attitude towards psychology shared by F. R. Leavis and Q. D. Leavis can help contextualise these criticisms. Baldick suggests that the Leavises
Modern psychology, in this analysis, is a disruptive rather than ordering force. What also seems to make Leavis queasy about Frankau’s depiction of emotions and feelings is that rather than using the depiction of an individual’s emotions as the spur for reflections on humankind more generally, as for example D. H. Lawrence might, Frankau presents the individual as an example of a particular definable psychological state. Like contemporary advertising, which as Baldick notes was another of the Leavises’ bêtes noires, in Leavis’s view Frankau’s novels employ psychological ‘jargon’ as a misleading shorthand that obfuscates rather than clarifies. Thus for Leavis, what is objectionable about Frankau’s work is that it not only depicts and uses the bastardised psychological terminology of the commercial world, one of the more egregious aspects of modernity in her view, but that the work is itself unabashedly situated within the contemporary commercial network that Leavis believes to be so damaging to literature. In a passage which could surely only encourage those unacquainted with Frankau’s work to give them a try, she remarks:
The material in brackets here is quoted from Frankau’s Gerald Cranston’s Lady (1924). The use of the language of business, and in particular advertising, in extracts such as these, foregrounds for Leavis the dangerous infiltration of the literary by the vulgarising forces of commerce. For Leavis, literature ought to be challenging, rather than indulging in what she sees to be the lazy use of language.
Ironically, whilst Leavis identifies the Book Society and the Book Guild as symptoms of the ‘standardisation of taste’ (22), Frankau, although evidently attuned to the type of material his readers would prefer, ‘had declared war on the Book Society at the time of its foundation. Nothing personal; just the cut-royalty rate’ (P. Frankau, Pen to Paper 202). This exception aside, however, Frankau embraced the commercialisation of literature that Leavis despised; there is a further irony, then, in the fact that his works feature so prominently, and are engaged with so vigorously, by Leavis in Fiction and the Reading Public. Some of the most vivid writing in her bookcomes in passages such as that quoted above, when Leavis engages in a terrier-like tussle with her adversary. This is not to suggest that Leavis subconsciously enjoyed Frankau’s novels but she does manage to convey, despite herself, the verve, bordering often on melodrama, which drew readers to his work.
Reading Frankau: Hearts and Minds
Describing Martin and Jill’s relationship in the aftermath of Harry’s death, the narrator comments: ‘the war-wound dealt by Harry Ralston had so nearly healed that the scars throbbed no longer’ (130). Ernest becomes a ‘link between their scarred hearts’ (179) but he dies in a boating accident while still a schoolboy. Jill sees this loss as punishment for her adultery: ‘The very heart in her had died with Ernest. Only the brain of her still functioned, telling her that, since she still lived, she must go through with life’ (181). This type of rather strained locution (‘the brain of her’ rather than ‘her brain’) is typical of Frankau, whose syntax reached almost Jamesian levels of complexity later in his career, but what is principally of interest in these examples is the blurring of the corporeal and the psychic that is implied. In nineteenth-century faculty psychology, the higher faculties, ‘such as reason, faith, love, spiritual apprehension […] and so on’ were situated further up the psychological hierarchy than the lower faculties ‘such as sensation, feeling, appetite and desire’, a topography which ‘implies a mind-body separation’ (Rylance 27). In the passage describing Jill’s feelings, both love and reason are given physical locations, an idea resonant of the tenets of naturalism and of a biological or physiological, rather than psychological, understanding of behaviour. This blurring of the binaries of mind and body is coupled with a confusion of the literal and figurative. Initially, the war wound dealt by Harry appears to be a figurative one, and the notion of ‘scarred hearts’ also has a figurative meaning. But in the description of Jill, Frankau blurs the distinction between figurative and literal. The heart is no longer capable of affect and the brain – standing metonymically for the mind – has to take control. Frankau here harks back to the long-standing literary trope of the heart as the seat of emotion but attempts to weld onto it the idea of the mind as both a psychic and physical entity.
In attempting to assert the primacy of the brain as the ruling organ, Frankau also, as I have suggested, rethinks naturalism, in which bodily and physical urges, strongly influenced by hereditary factors, are key influences on behaviour. The brain is a physical organ, like the heart, but it also represents reason, and is therefore able to combat, on occasion, the baser urges of the body. In Three Englishmen (1935), Jeremy, a married stock-broker, is demanding the telephone number of Fay Rawlins, a young actress:
As is frequently the case in Frankau’s novels, in the middle of this passage there is a switch of focalising character, from Fay to Jeremy. Fay observes Jeremy’s lips and his ‘hot’ eyes, and he, after watching her sit down to write, observes his own physical reaction. The split here is between his feet, into which his sexual urge is rather primly diverted by the narrator, and his brain, again figured here as the organ in which reason, or at least common sense, resides. The commonplace saw, ‘lost my head’, is revealed also as metonymic displacement: what Jeremy means is that his physical urge almost overcame his (psychological and social) sense of propriety. It would be easy enough to take a Leavisite line and mock this as simply bad writing, with ‘feet’, ‘brain’ and ‘head’ tumbling against each other and evoking bathos rather than intensity of feeling; similarly, in a pastoral courtship scene with pronounced Lawrentian overtones in Life – and Erica (1928), Erica and her would-be lover are described as clinging to each other ‘breathless, their hearts in their eyes’ (149). But I would suggest that something more complicated is happening here, and that Frankau is attempting a synthesis of a psycho-physiological model of behaviour with an emergent psychoanalytical one, in which the controlling of ‘urges’ and instincts also plays an important role.
Frankau incorporates these developments in the understanding of human behaviour on a thematic level as well as in his techniques of characterisation. The ‘three Englishmen’ of that novel’s title, who first meet at Eton, Frankau’s own alma mater, are Andrew, a soldier whose career is traced from the Boer War to the First World War; Jeremy the stock broker, who eventually begins an affair with Fay, but who ends up in court for alleged fraud; and Max, a doctor. Describing Andrew’s character towards the end of the novel, the narrator comments:
According to these comments, the doctor and the stock-broker share an interest in human psychology, which is presumably what is indicated by ‘the motive springs of character’, that is of less interest to the soldier. The phrase ‘motive springs’, itself seems poised between the natural, if ‘spring’ is understood to mean source, and technological, if ‘spring’ is taken to have mechanical implications. Frankau here points to the growing application of psychological ideas both within and beyond the medical establishment at this historical juncture. In the inter-war years, psychology established itself as an important tool in the fields of both business and education, basing its usefulness on the adaptation of laboratory-based testing techniques (Burt 33). Popular systems of mind-training and self-improvement, often intended to lead to business success, were domesticated versions of the time and motion study, whilst, as I have shown, advertising also made use of simplified versions of psychological concepts. Martin, in Martin Make-Believe is involved in the world of public relations and Frankau’s daughter Pamela worked writing advertising copy for a time in the early 1930s, being advised by her employer that ‘the successful advertiser must understand many different points of view; from dukes to charwomen, he had said, though she gathered that charwomen were the more important’ (P. Frankau, I Find 198).
However, Frankau, like Leavis, is wary of the potentially egalitarian impulse that implicitly underpins this comment of Pamela’s. In Life – and Erica, Erica, who works as a cartoonist, worries that undertaking advertising work is ‘infra. dig.’ (beneath dignity) and has to be reassured that such work ‘can never damage a real artist’ (118). Martin Kenterton worries that he and his colleagues are ‘vulgarising’ (Martin 192) England through their advertising practices. The narrator seems to share Martin’s scepticism about the democratisation of Britain that advertising apparently represents, and that Martin’s financial interest in new housing developments promotes, and in sentiments that are resonant of Leavis, remarks that ‘humanity will always divide itself into two classes, the leaders and the led’ (192). Who these leaders should be, however, is not necessarily clear; Martin endures a spell in prison for unwittingly becoming involved in dishonest business dealings. Leavis might assert that Frankau’s work itself contributes to the ‘vulgarising’ of society, but Frankau here appears to distinguish between depicting and condoning this vulgarised culture.
War and the Jewish Question: Farewell Romance
This attempt to turn the stereotypical characteristics of Jewish characters into virtues is strongly in evidence in Farewell Romance (1936). Using flashbacks, Frankau describes how, while fighting in Flanders, David hears that his new wife Miriam has been badly injured in an air-raid on London. Miriam was giving birth when the raid happened, and their baby does not survive. Miriam is left wheelchair-bound and unable to have any more children, and the marriage becomes a celibate one. Miriam’s physical injuries cause the sharpening of her mental faculties; she gains ‘psychic insight’ (77), and, as her physical condition worsens, another character comments that Miriam is ‘growing into such a thought-reader’ (291). The trope of the physically damaged individual having acute and often sinister psychological powers is familiar from earlier novels such as Wilkie Collins' The Law and the Lady (1875), although notably the wheelchair-bound genius Miserimus Dexter in Collins’s novel has been born, rather than becoming, physically disabled. Frankau could also be making a veiled reference to the stereotype of the Jew as physically weak but psychological sharp, as he does in the depiction of the ‘brooding’ Adrian Rose. As Sander Gilman argues, medical literature of the fin-de-siècle ‘tended to show that behind Jews’ supposed intellectual superiority was an inferior ability to perform measurable tasks […] this degenerative creativity was marked by the stigmata of disease, of madness’ (34). Thus the depiction of Miriam shows how this stereotype had found its way into popular discourse by the 1930s; Miriam’s brain is powerful but it works only to increase her own neurosis.
The action of the novel focuses on David’s business dealings – he is a cloth merchant – but he also becomes entangled with Judith, the owner of a chain of dress-makers. David has ‘a passion for the mechanics of business’ and enjoys acquiring the latest mod cons: ‘fanfold stationery, adding typewriters, addressing machines’ (Farewell 85); he also makes frequent use of a motor-car to facilitate his liaison with Judith. However, this forward-looking urge is countered by a pull in a different direction. David’s relationship with Judith is partly explained by a deep-seated hereditary urge to continue the race, which Miriam cannot fulfil: ‘he was no sensualist and no weakling – this man of a race on which there had been laid, more than on any other, the command, “Be fruitful and multiply,” lest its seed perish from the earth’ (194). Thus biological determinism is a justification for David’s adultery. This is a good example of Frankau attempting, albeit awkwardly, to convert a negative into a positive stereotype. Apparent Jewish fecundity is reframed not as an attempt to infiltrate the populations of ‘host’ nations, but as a biological and indeed biblical imperative.
What is also notable about this novel is that, unusually for 1936, there are allusions to the fate of the Jews in Europe. One of David’s relatives is involved in a scheme to save ‘Refujews’ (230) and both Zionism (230-1) and the possible effects of the Nuremberg Laws (301) are discussed. Frankau thus appears to propose a ‘positive’ eugenics in the face of the anti-Semitic legislation being introduced in Germany. As I have noted elsewhere, it was not uncommon in the mid and late-1930s to see the coming war as a continuation or repetition of the last one (Stewart, Narratives of Memory 20-57): one character asserts that ‘this pitiful tragedy – Miriam’s and David’s – had its very roots in war’ (382) whilst David reflects that once again Germany, deemed to be unchanged since last time, may resort to ‘[d]ropping bombs on women in childbirth’ (301). The persecution of the Jews is seen also as a repetition and intensification of an historical – even pre-historical – pattern.
Whilst David’s urge to have children is constructed in a positive light, the manner in which he eventually achieves his freedom from his wife complicates the novel’s apparently positive appropriation of eugenic thinking. David decides that he cannot leave Miriam for Judith, and many of his family and friends, attuned to his situation, are broadly sympathetic with his plight. However, Miriam’s doctor, Malcolm Fraser, a neurologist who has been in love with Miriam since before her marriage, has a particular emotional investment in the couple’s difficulties. Malcolm asserts that psychological conditions must ultimately be rooted in bodily dysfunction, and this leads him to suspect that the apparent changes in personality that Miriam undergoes must have some organic cause:
Whilst the physical urge that David feels towards Judith might appear to support this supposition of Malcolm’s, the doctor finds it difficult to sustain his belief in these ideas when he entangles himself in the question of whether he should precipitate Miriam’s death in order both to save her from further suffering and, collaterally, to give David his freedom. The climax of the novel, in which Malcolm admits to his wife Josephine that he did end Miriam’s life, frames his action both as a means of sparing Miriam from almost certain blindness, and also as a way of freeing himself from his infatuation with her: romance, as represented by Miriam, has finally to be foregone (504). Miriam’s own emotions are not narrated in the final part of the novel; she is completely the object of the doctor’s ministrations. Even David’s feelings recede into the background as the focus shifts to Malcolm’s actions, which Frankau attempts to imbue with symbolic as well as personal meaning, using Miriam’s death to expose the contradictions and problems of euthanasia whilst centring in finally on what can be salvaged from Malcolm’s marriage.
1. This biographical information is taken from G. Frankau Self-Portrait, P. Frankau Pen to Paper and Minney 'Frankau, Gilbert'.
2. Frankau could here be either misremembering or deliberately alluding to the concept of ‘motive power’, the power, either mechanical or muscular, which drives motion.
3. Coincidentally, Q. D. Roth similarly became estranged from her family when she married F. R. Leavis. See MacKillop, 104-05.
4. Andy Croft examines a number of novels by writers whose central concern was to raise British readers’ awareness of fascism, often taking Nazi Germany or Franco’s Spain as their backdrop. Fewer examples depict anti-Semitism, or awareness of it, in a British context. See Croft, 308-35.
5. Frankau was allowed to rejoin the armed forces despite having been invalided out with shellshock during the First World War, and he appears to have undergone further medical treatment for these problems during the 1940s. These experiences feed into Michael’s Wife, which is discussed further in Stewart 2008.
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