Pamela Frankau’s A Wreath for the Enemy (1954)
I was a different person now ...
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Below, I look at Pamela Frankau’s A Wreath for the Enemy. It’s an odd book in many ways but I loved it, and if you haven’t read it I recommend it – I own an old Virago edition, but it’s just been reissued by Daunt Books.
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Pamela Frankau’s A Wreath for the Enemy is a formation-novel: a story about individuation, about growing up, about children rebelling against their parents. It’s a heady example of the type, with not one but four idiosyncratic narrators, an arresting three-part structure, and a plot that develops from a dramatic opposition: a child from a well-to-do, artistic, nonconformist family meets, and wants to be like, a child from a middle-class, priggish, conservative family.
The child of bohemia is the fledgling writer Penelope Wells, who lives on the French Riviera in an hotel – it’s always an hotel here – run by her poet English father and French stepmother: their guests have included ‘Lord Beaverbook and Elsa Maxwell and the Duke of Windsor and Somerset Maugham’.1 Penelope’s father gives her free rein to live as as she pleases, but this freedom is an albatross (Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is a leitmotif) – so much so that it’s one of the dozens of things she has catalogued in her ‘Anthology of Hates’. Subject to what she calls ‘dooms’, including ‘the doom of being noticeable, of not being like Other People’, Penelope wants only
To live in England; with an ordinary father and mother who do not keep an hotel. To stop having dooms; never to be told that I am a genius, and to have people of my own age to play with so that I need not spend my life listening to grown-ups.
Any fourteen year old who keeps an ‘Anthology of Hates’ is likely to be a terrific character, and Penelope is terrific: well-read, articulate, pompous, funny peculiar, inadvertently funny ha-ha. Her narration is dazzling.
Her opposite is the inquisitive Don Bradley, who stays with his twin sister Eva and their quintessentially bourgeois parents (‘pure Edwardian’) in a nearby villa. Don thinks the precocious Penelope ‘lucky’, and that her dooms are in fact ‘heavenly […] adventures’. His stuffy parents – Penelope’s father dubs them ‘The Smugs’, and Don and his sister ‘a couple of sissies’ – tolerate Penelope but disapprove of the children’s friendship with a guest at the hotel, a roulette-loving, fortune-telling, champagne-quaffing, aphorism-spouting Duchess:
‘Of youth,’ said the Duchess, ‘I recall three things. The sensation of time seeming endless, as though one were swimming against a current; the insipid insincerity of one’s teachers; and bad dreams, chiefly about giants.’
Initially one of Penelope’s hates, the Duchess is one of A Wreath for the Enemy’s important mentor figures. She tells Penelope that children like the Bradleys are ‘largely hidden away from life, like bees in a hive’, and that when ‘they emerge from the kindly-seeming prisons’ they will have to face the terrible pain of reality. Penelope has been brought up ‘through the looking-glass, back-to-front’, and one day she will value the freedom she was given as a child:
You are learning what the adult learns, and walking through these lessons towards the light-heartedness that is usually to be found in childhood but later lost.
For the Bradley parents, ‘anything that isn’t “normal” is a terror’ – and so Don and Eva are prohibited from visiting the hotel, in case they encounter this ‘funny, wise, highly-coloured old creature’.
One night, they defy this order – and discover something distressing.
What follows, as the years progress, are Don and Penelope’s respective entrances into adulthood: his loss of childhood light-heartedness when he finds and loses his own eccentric mentor – the rich, brilliant, disabled Crusoe Raines; and her loss of her dooms and hates as she traverses the thorny path of first love – with Livesey, Crusoe’s brother.
I was a different person now. I did not know this person yet. I did not know what he would do; except that he must break free from the things he could not stomach nor believe. It felt as though he were setting out on a very long journey indeed.
To summarise these journeys here would be to spoil something thrilling about the novel: the playful way its episodic and multi-voiced form teases out the literal and thematic connections between Penelope and Don – though they meet only a handful of times. There are all kinds of echoes, opposites and ironies. For example, the mentors Crusoe and the Duchess mirror one another; but although Penelope falls in love with him, Crusoe’s brother is her antithesis, entirely humdrum, steered by ‘orthodox lights’. And so the bohemian and the bourgeois – and the lover and the hater – and the light-hearted and the heavy-hearted – bleed into each other, less opposites than interdependent Blakean contraries, until finally, Penelope and Don reach a kind of equilibrium, a moving state of spiritual grace.2
There are some superb set pieces on the way – a cricket match in which Don scores a hundred to his parents’ delight but his own indifference; an appalling hangover for Livesey’s substance-addicted, egocentric ex-wife; a holding to account by Don of his father’s ‘small minded, and smutty – and stupid’ philistinism, antisemitism and homophobia.
At one point Crusoe says to Don,
Ever noticed the dust of disappointment settling on the company at the news that the dying man is going to recover? Trouble is drama; and I, in common with the rest of the world, have an appetite for drama.
I wondered occasionally if Frankau’s dramas – and characterisations – were over-the-top. But it’s a mark of the novel’s narrative control and structural elegance that towards the end, a character on the verge of death – a character Penelope wants to die – counter-intuitively recovers, and that this turn of events confirms the Duchess’s prediction that in adulthood Penelope will find that her hates are not hates, and that she has been journeying towards light-heartedness.
According to Penelope’s father, some people are natural Wedding-Guests, receivers of the Ancient Mariner’s rime, his tale. The title of Part II, narrated by Don, is ‘Smug’s-Eye View’ – but ‘smug’ is a Wells word for Don and his family, not Don’s word for himself, and climactically we sense the marvellous possibility that A Wreath for the Enemy’s four narrators are in fact one. ‘I sat still at the table’, Penelope says at both the beginning and the ending,
with the blank paper before me. I went back; I remembered; I thought my way in. It was the sensation of pulling on a diver’s helmet and going down deep.
Presently, on the sea-floor, I began to find lost things; to raise the moods that were mine when I was fourteen years old, sitting in this garden, writing my Anthology of Hates.
I would begin there.
Her eye is glittering here, and I was happy to be the Wedding-Guest to her not-so-ancient Ancient Mariner, and to hear the tale of her rite of passage.
Pamela Frankau, A Wreath for the Enemy (London: Heinemann, 1954; repr. London: Virago, 1988), p. 13. Subsequent quotations are from pp. 3, 9, 12, 18, 24, 27-8, 47, 65, 93, 111, 113, 127, 130, 168.
Frankau was religious: born of a Jewish family, raised an Anglican, she converted in her 30s to Catholicism. See Raffaella Barker, Introduction to Frankau (1988), p. ix.