Out of all the books I’m reading for Reading Presently, this is the one I should have read before now… Tanya very kindly sent me The Flying Draper (1924) by Ronald Fraser, as she correctly thought it would be useful for my research (I’d actually requested a copy to the Bodleian library, and hadn’t had time to read it there) – but somehow I have only just read it. So it’s going in the footnotes of my thesis…
Before I get any further – compiling my list of sketches from year six made me keen to include more in future. Often I just can’t think of anything to draw, so I came up with the idea of drawing punning cover illustrations, for how the book might look if the title were a little different… So, instead of The Flying Draper…
Ahahahaha… ;) As for the novel itself, the title does indeed give the game away. For my research into middlebrow fantastic novels, Ronald Fraser provided a useful example which I hadn’t found elsewhere: the flying man. My only previous experience with Fraser had been a novel I did use in a chapter on metamorphosis, called Flower Phantoms – it wasn’t hugely encouraging (which might account for the delay in reading The Flying Draper) since, although the idea of a woman turning into a flower was interesting, the novel itself was written in an equally flowery way. Lots of swirling, whirling metaphors that ended up being so convoluted that they meant nothing at all, and all rather wearying to read.
The Flying Draper is much better; I thought maybe Fraser had developed his craft, until I discovered that it was actually written a few years before Flower Phantoms. The narrator is aristocratic Sir Philip, who is rather a thin character of British decency, observing his energetic fiancée Lydia become absorbed in the life of another man – that man being Arthur Codling, the eponymous draper. His flying happens rather matter-of-factly – the narrator and Lydia are a little surprised, but he doesn’t seem to be, when he flies off a cliff and into the sea, where he bobs around for a bit until he comes out.
The draper is a great character. He is rather detached from everyday life and manners, observing the world around him wryly, being wittily offhand while selling fabrics, and having the potential to be a brilliant eccentric in the same mould as Miss Hargreaves. But he never becomes quite developed. His flying takes over from the establishment of a promising character, and oddly diminishes him as a force on the page. Similarly, Fraser never seems quite sure how to develop the story, once he has thought about it. There is an intriguing plotline about politics being disrupted and disturbed by Codling flying, and a branch of parliament and a branch of the church wanting to have him expelled or locked up or killed. But then Fraser suddenly introduces a heap of young, bohemian characters who don’t seem to add much at all to the book.
It all gets a bit lost and winding at that point, which is a real shame – the flying draper was an interesting idea, and Fraser had lots of other ideas to follow it up – but he just shoved them all in, in any order, and hoped for the best.
And the style? Well, some of it is still rather over the top, mistaking exotic and curious imagery for fine writing – such as the following…
“Codling has just published a book,” he said. “I read all I could of it last night. A sort of account of his doings during the three years of his absence from England. The finest book, I think, that was ever written; so cold, so calm, so clear, like an April evening; and, pervading it, hints of a passion, huge and heedless and flowering, like the passion of our earth, Philip, in spring. He has felt passion, that man. When he writes of love you smell blossom and you see daisies spring up in the carpet. He knows more of love than is in the brains and hearts of most men to understand. And that is just the trouble. He handles his themes, and especially that theme, so primitively and so coldly, Philip, that it will be death and perdition to the sentimental, who preponderate. For most people his philosophy will be like a lump of ice in the small of the back.”
…but Fraser shows a talent for amusing secondary characters, such as Codling’s landlady, which I’d have liked to see much more of:
“What I call a near-actress,” she answered. “Dances a lot and doesn’t say much. And a very pleasant young woman she is, and I don’t think I ever saw anyone so pretty in my life, Sir Philip. Blue-eyed and babyish, though very grown-up, hif you know what I mean. Hair like tow with a shine on it, and every bit her own, believe me or not. And a stink of powder like a Turkish harem. I did her up one night, Sir Philip, and the smell of powder and scent nearly knocked me down. But what she wore underneath! You never saw anything so flimsy. It’s my believe you could undress her with one motion of the ‘and, which no doubt she finds convenient, though I will say that she strikes me as being quiet for a hactress.”
Some people have a hatred of comic working-class characters in novels (I remember reading that Angela Carter hated them), but I love affectionate spoofs of middle-class and upper-class characters, and it would be silly of me to make an exception for Cockney landladies.
So, all in all, The Flying Draper certainly has its moments, and is an enjoyable enough read (and useful for my thesis, thanks Tanya!) – but, like so many second-rate writers (for Fraser, sadly, is that) the narrative lacks coherence and the promise of ideas is ultimately not matched by their execution. The Drying Flapper, on the other hand, I would love to read.