Pamela Frankau is one of those names that has been around the edges of my consciousness for years – it’s hard to read about interwar fiction, academically, without seeing Pamela and Gilbert Frankau (her father, it turns out; I had assumed brother) mentioned a lot. Yes, I’ve got her confused with Pamela Hansford Johnson in the past, but having read A Wreath for the Enemy (1954) now, I shan’t make the mistake again – mostly because I thought it was really, really good.
Many thanks to my good friend Caroline for giving me a copy of this book – Caroline was in my Oxford book group and, very sadly for us, moved away a while ago. We’ve stayed in touch, and she sent me A Wreath for the Enemy because she thought it would be up my street. What an unusual, clever, innovative novel it is. And how’s this for an opening line?
There had been two crises already that day before the cook’s husband called to assassinate the cook.
It is told in three sections, though with overlapping sets of characters. In the first, we see Penelope Wells and her family – looking after an eccentric hotel on the French Riviera. She calls her father and stepmother by the first first names, and is one of the most deliciously unusual child characters I’ve ever encountered. She is an adolescent, but one who has learnt language from books rather than friendships – guess who can relate? – and her conversation is a delight. It would be precocious if the character were showing off, but she isn’t; it’s simply the only way she knows how to communicate.
“Painful as it is to refuse,” I said, “my father has acquired visitors and I have sworn to be sociable. The penalty is ostracism.”
What a creation on Frankau’s part. She has brilliantly drawn a girl turned eccentric by her upbringing (when we meet her, she is writing her Anthology of Hates) who is quirky without being irritating, and a world away from a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. For the reader, she is endearing and interesting – but with an undercurrent of sadness: she has not chosen her upbringing any more than anybody else has, and she clearly has some understanding
Penelope meets the Bradley family, and is enamoured by the children Don and Eva. They come from a strikingly conventional family (Penelope’s father calls them ‘the Smugs’), and they find her enticing – she, in turn, admires the conventionality of them. It is an unusual but entirely plausible friendship – which lasts until a disreputable woman known as The Duchess comes to stay at the Wells’s hotel. The Bradley parents are shocked… and the section ends with something tragic, beautifully understated while at the same time having a significant emotional impact on them all.
The second section jumps forward a few years, and is from the perspective of Don. He is now at a boarding school, and beginning to rebel against his father’s conventionality – chiefly through his friendship with Crusoe. Crusoe is an older man in a wheelchair, brusque and direct with all, but with evident fondness for Don and a certain amount of wisdom. But absolutely no regard for ‘doing the right thing’, in the British-upper-class sense, and Don has to choose between his father’s commands and the new world he has glimpsed – while also still affected by the events of the first section of the book. And I shan’t talk too much about the final section – but Penelope is back, everybody is older, and new challenges come to the fore.
What makes A Wreath for the Enemy so brilliant, to my mind – well, it’s the writing, and the quirkiness, and the great humour – but it’s also the unusual way in which it’s written. It’s as though Frankau took a traditional novel, threw it up in the air, and wrote up what fell to the ground. It should feel disparate and jagged, but the different elements are ingeniously combined. It’s something of an abstract portrait, where the reader is left to fill in some gaps – but can understand a whole world of half a dozen characters, just be the brief moments we see them.
I will confess that I had always rather assumed that Frankau wasn’t very good. She was so prolific, and (I think I’m right in recollecting) disparaged in the highbrow/middlebrow debate – but both these facts are true of authors I love, so I should have realised that she’d be a winner. If any of her other novels are up to the quirky, imaginative, and confident calibre of A Wreath for the Enemy, I greatly look forward to reading them. And I have The Willow Cabin next on my tbr…
Others who got Stuck into this…
(I could only find one, but it’s a lovely one.)
Fleur Fisher: “This is lovely: a quite beautifully written book that speaks so profoundly. I find myself wanting to say so much, and at the same time being almost lost for words.”