Neil Rathmell

100+ essays on literary topics

A Reader’s Diary, 9 April 2014

I found Ronald Fraser (not to be confused with either the actor or the historian of the same name) in a second-hand bookshop, which is the only place he can be found now. Information about him is as hard to find as his books. An internet search leads straight to the other Ronald Frasers. You have to search for Sir Ronald Fraser. Then you will find that he was born in 1888, died in 1974, wrote 27 novels and received a knighthood in 1949 for services, not to literature, but to the overseas section of the Department of Trade.

It was probably the title that caught my attention – The Flying Draper. His first novel, published in 1924 by Jonathan Cape, it tells the story of a man called Codling, the owner of a draper’s shop, who goes up onto Hampstead Heath and, by an effort of will, rises into the air and flies to Devonshire. In his introduction to the 1931 edition, the one I bought, Humbert Wolfe tells us that the book was at first ‘dismissed as a fantasy in the manner of Mr H.G.Wells’ and goes on to say, quite rightly I think, that ‘no serious book of our time is less like the work of Mr Wells or more completely unaffected by him.’ Describing Wells as ‘a reformer of society rather than a philosopher’, he says that ‘the opposite is true of Mr Fraser’. He then gives us a description of Fraser’s un-Wellsian imagination which I don’t think can be bettered. ‘His imagination is as nearly disembodied as it is possible for imagination to be without losing meaning.’ In other words, he has much more in common with Maurice Maeterlinck than with H.G.Wells. He belongs with the symbolists and, if it had not been for the association with English tradesmen of the Kipps variety that the hero of his first novel inevitably produced in readers’ minds, he might have been recognised sooner for what he was.

Since making my discovery, I went on to read Rose Anstey, in his day the most successful of his novels, published six years after The Flying Draper, and, just a few weeks ago, Surprising Results, which was published five years after that in 1935. It seems to me now that Fraser’s originality is not a matter of style or form, as it is with, say, James Joyce or Virginia Woolf, but of character and narrative. All three of the novels that I have so far read are conventional in style and form, telling a story in the manner of the nineteenth century realistic novel. But the events of which the narrative is made up and the characters who participate in them are quite the opposite. This is what makes the novels so strange and individual.

It explains too why his publishers, with the support of advocates like Humbert Wolfe, stuck with him and why most readers did not, with the result that all his books went out of print soon after his death. It helped, perhaps, that Wolfe was a poet of Jewish Italian descent who therefore had a wider view than that of most English readers. His work, like Fraser’s, is largely forgotten now, except for one piece of verse, which is still widely quoted.

You cannot hope
to bribe or twist,
thank God! the
British journalist.
But, seeing what
the man will do
unbribed, there’s
no occasion to.

English tradesmen are absent from Rose Anstey and Surprising Results. What we have instead, in each case, is a group of characters in settings that are remote and detached from the everyday world. The story of Rose Anstey is a kind of variation on Goldilocks and the Three Bears, in which the part of Goldilocks is taken by Rose, a young woman who appears out of nowhere looking for somewhere to live and about whose origins we know as little at the end of the story as we did at the beginning, in other words nothing, and that of the Three Bears by the three unmarried brothers who take her in. It is a love story, untrammelled by the rules and conventions of real life, but related as if it were all perfectly normal, which is what Fraser was aiming at in The Flying Draper and managed with more skill and sophistication as he went on.

In Surprising Results, the characters are ex-pats living comfortably in the south of France, their lives for the purposes of the story revolving around the violent relationship between a local bar owner and his beautiful young wife. English detachment is contrasted with Mediterranean passion. The story of the French couple would make a good opera of the Cavalleria Rusticana variety, melodrama here taking the place of fairy tale as a vehicle for Fraser’s ‘disembodied imagination’. The thought makes me wonder why nobody, as far as I know, has thought of putting it on stage. The characters are all very finely drawn and given a distinctive voice in the dialogue through which, as much as through description by the first person narrator, they are presented. The fact that two of them are identical twins could be a problem, but if that could be overcome I think it would work very well as a play. Fraser’s imagination might be set free in the theatre and find a new audience for his books, if someone could be found to publish them again.

Neglected female novelists of the twentieth century have been well served by specialist imprints, notably Virago. The assumption that male novelists can be left to fend for themselves is an example of gender bias and discrimination that has gone unnoticed. There are others besides Ronald Fraser whose work is long overdue for rediscovery. Jack Lindsay, Louis Golding, David Garnett, T.F.Powys are four who spring immediately to mind, most of whose work can be found only in second-hand bookshops. By definition, there will be many more that I have yet to find, among them for example Humbert Wolfe. These writers need their own Virago to rescue them from oblivion.

But what is a male virago? If you look it up in the OED, the definition you expect, ‘a man-like, vigorous, and heroic woman’, comes second. The first is simply ‘Woman’, qualified as ‘the name given by Adam to Eve after the Vulgate rendering of Gen.ii.23’. I propose therefore an imprint called Adam with a mission to rescue male writers from neglect, starting with Sir Ronald Fraser. Meanwhile, you can pick them up for a song at your local second-hand bookshop. My signed first edition of Surprising Results cost me just £5.00.

secondhand bookshop 01

My next essay, to be published on 16 April, is called W.G.Sebald and the common reader.

My next Reader’s Diary on 23 April will be on a suitably Shakespearean theme.

Click here for an extract from my new book, An Englishman (and his mother) Abroad.

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