Frank Swinnerton: four novels

For over two years I used Arnold Bennett’s self-help book Literary Taste to find out if, a century after the book’s publication, it was possible to create my own literary taste. To carry on the experiment, I will now read the books reviewed by Arnold Bennett in the Evening Standard from 1926 to 1931 in his weekly column, Books and Persons. To bring a little personal perspective I will, where possible, draw on entries from his personal journals. This week, four novels by Frank Swinnerton. 

During my absence from this blog I continued to to read as often, if not as widely, as possible. I feel most comfortable in the company of those writers who have already made that Stygian crossing and hopefully are resting in the Elysian Fields. One of these writers I wanted to get to know better was Frank Swinnerton (1884-1982), a successful author and close friend of Arnold Bennett.

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I chose four of his novels: Nocturne (1917), A Woman in Sunshine (1944), Death of a Highbrow (1961) and Rosalind Passes (1973.) The first I chose because it is regarded as his most famous and caught the interest of other established writers such as H. G. Wells and Bennett himself; Death of a Highbrow because I had seen it mentioned elsewhere on the Internet and the remaining two because they came in the mid-point and at end of his long career as a writer. Why did I choose him? From simple curiosity given his links to Bennett; having enjoyed a volume of his biography Figures in the Foreground, it seemed natural to want to read something of his fiction and, I have to admit, from hoping I might “rediscover” a writer worthy of republication by, for example, Persephone Books or the Handheld Press.

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Was any of the above worth it? It depends on which reason I chose to read them. If from curiosity then I have filled in a gap in my knowledge of popular British literature. Like Bennett, his scale is human and the fragile nature of our egos that marks so much of our lives. Mistakes are made; young lives are ended too soon; affairs are undertaken; values are held onto; other roads less-less travelled are chosen and in the end little of it makes any great impact. There is no attempt to explore new literary forms or marshal literature to any ideology.

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If I look honestly at my half-formed but no less real desire to “rediscover” a popular writer from the twentieth-century then I’m afraid the results are not so clear. There has been a great deal written about Nocturne. All that I can add is that it is a novel with equal parts of charm and insight and has two strong female voices. I’m sure it will continue to be reprinted at intervals in the future.

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Death of a Highbrow deserves more attention as an example of post-war fiction which looks at the personal impact of a choice to work in  highbrow literature based on the respectability which it will afford. It is the most “modern” of the novels I chose, reminding me at times of Herman Broch’s The Death of  Virgil, in its theme, shifting perspectives and passages that at times resemble streams of consciousness. Is it worthy of a reprint with a concise introduction to place it in its literary, social and cultural context? I simply do not know.

Frank Arthur Swinnerton - source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43576934

Frank Arthur Swinnerton – Source Wikipedia.

As for the other two, the characters speak their lines convincingly, reminding us that they are our reflections and leave a trace of memory after they have gone. Swinnerton lived by his writing, publishing a new book every year or so and can be forgiven for nodding at times. There may be others which I did not read and which deserve our praise.

Am I disappointed? Slightly, but more in myself than in anything I read. Like any writer, Frank Swinnerton deserved, as his friend Arnold Bennet wrote in one of his Books and Persons columns in The Evening Standard, to be read while I examined not only the book but also my reactions to it. I did not read them with an open mind and therefore possibly missed that chance to be simply entertained which is no mean end for any novel.

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4 Comments

  1. Arnold Bennett

     /  February 19, 2019

    From the Arnold Bennett Blog 29/11/2017:
    I have been reading Swinnerton’s “Nocturne”. Good. Perhaps very good. Only a short novel and all set in the course of a few hours, with only five characters. No plot as such, Swinnerton’s intention being to ‘get inside’ the heads of his characters. And he succeeds pretty well. The setting is a ‘respectable’ working class home somewhere in London where live two sisters and their father who is more or less helpless, needing constant care. Both sisters are desperate for love and for some sort of escape from their dreary existence. Jenny, the younger, is a romantic, sharply intelligent, unpredictable, a dreamer. Emmy, the elder, is conventional, unimaginative, caring, with a deep reservoir of love for the right man if she can find him. By the end, Emmy is on the road to happiness, whilst Jenny looks likely to continue to be dissatisfied.

    I can’t quite decide whether this would have been better edited to become a short story, or extended to a normal size novel. Probably the latter had I been dealing with it. There is very little back story which could, I think, have been introduced to advantage. There is also very little description of the sisters’ home. I could have made a lot of that. Swinnerton is excellent in describing a visit to a music hall, and could have done more to flesh out the context of the sisters’ lives. Also, we get privileged access to the characters thoughts but not so much about how their thoughts and emotions express themselves in nuances of behaviour; the sort of thing that Conrad is a master of. I enjoyed the read. It could reasonably be described as a tour de force, and I think it will sell well.

    Reply
  2. I’ve just discovered your blog and Twitter feed – right up my street! When I started in publishing in 1968 Frank Swinnerton had been a fixture there at least since 1900 (the earliest book available on Abe, so there may have been earlier titles) and was still knocking out a book every couple of years or so. Inevitably we young Turks paid him no attention whatsoever – 1968 was the year of Arthur C Clarke’s 2001, after all – but obviously somebody in the company was looking after him. His Reflections from a Village (1969) would have passed through my hands in the Production Dept, but I never had the slightest urge to read it.

    Hutchinson published Rosalind Passes in 1973. I can’t find the publisher of his penultimate book, but his last one was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1978 – obviously Hutchinson let him go, which seems rather harsh. But has any other writer been with the same publisher for 73 years, I wonder?

    Reply
    • Thank you so much for your comment. What a great insight into an author which you normally could never get. 73 years with the same publisher. What an amazing achievement and one that must, as you say, be unique. He was by all accounts, a lovely man. Also, many apologies for not replying much sooner to your comment. It’s wonderful to get feedback like this. I am currently reading another book reviewed by Bennett and hope to write a post on it soon!

      Reply
  3. babymughal

     /  April 5, 2020

    Well penned🙏🙏

    Reply

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