Gilbert Frankau

Gilbert-FrankauGilbert Frankau (1884-1952) wrote a very large number of novels, in both verse and prose, and little of it was science-fictional or fantastic; interestingly, however, his mother Julia Frankau (1859-1916) wrote at least one supernatural novel, under the name of Frank Danby, and Gilbert was the father of the novelist Pamela Frankau. Gilbert Frankau wrote The Seeds of Enchantment: Being Some Attempt to Narrate the Curious Discoveries of Doctor Cyprian Beamish, M.D., Glasgow; Commandant Renée De Gys, Annamite Army; and the Honourable Richard Assheton Smith, in the Golden Land of Indo-China (London: Hutchinson and Co, 1921), a lost world fantasy in which westerners find contrasting utopias in the wilds of Indochina. Unborn Tomorrow: A Last Story (1953), published after his death (which had been preceded by a conversion to Roman Catholicism), imagines a fiftieth-century Roman Catholic world in which a ray which destroys all explosives has brought back a utopian pre-Industrial life-style. For more information, see the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

Gilbert Frankau was born in London into a Jewish family, but he was baptised into the Church of England at the age of 13. He was educated at Eton, where he distinguished himself by founding a magazine which was suppressed by the head after four issues, because of its outspoken comments about the masters, and by publishing a volume of Eton poems, in 1901: Eton Echoes. On leaving school he went into the family cigar business. His father died in 1904, and Gilbert became became Managing Director on his twenty-first birthday. He spent some time in Havana, in his attempts to get the business on a secure footing.

He married Dorothea Drummond-Black in 1905, by whom he had two children. He wrote pieces for magazines, and in 1912 he published a lengthy poem, One of Us, in the same metre that Byron had used for Don Juan. His daughter reported that he said at the time, of his critical success, “This isn’t what I want. I’m going to write a book that sells a hundred thousand copies” (Pen to Paper, 180).

After his war service, with the cigar firm closed, he began writing in a business-like manner, producing novels and plays at regular intervals. The first to hit the hundred thousand mark was Peter Jackson, Cigar Merchant, published in 1919. Of his writing, his daughter wrote:

In Gilbert’s view, he was a paid entertainer, who must never for a minute lose sight of his public. It was, he admitted, as difficult as shooting on a moving target. ‘Unlike your highbrow friends I don’t regard myself as a hothouse-blooming genius.’ He wrote for housewives and ex-soldiers and tired business-men and what he still called ‘flappers’. A novel’s first duty was to be long. I have seen him pick up a short one with the disgust of somebody who had found something nasty in the salad: ‘Call that a novel—look at it… can’t be more than sixty thousand words at the outside.’ The public deserved their money’s worth. Length, sex, colour, action; and—most importantly—life-size characters: to which I would retort that some of his he-men were rather more than life-size (Pen to Paper, 186).

Most of them, with their racism and extreme conservatism, lie unread today. He was someone who was not always liked, as he himself candidly recognises in the Foreword to Self-Portrait: A Novel of His Own Life (London: Hutchinson, 1940): “You only care for two things on earth—women, and what you writers call ‘copy'”, his battery commander noted, while he himself says that he did not know, when his four-year-old self greeted the news of the death of his baby sister with the comment that he could now have the nursery for himself, whether he was being “entirely artless or completely heartless” (p. x).

He hoped for a career in the House of Commons as a conservative MP. But his private life was against him. He divorced his first wife in 1919, his second in the late 1930s; he married for a third time in 1932. A Conservative grandee told him that the Party would never accept a divorced man, and suggested that he stand for the Labour Party, as they were less fussy: needless to say, Frankau’s politics did not allow him to take up that advice.

When the Second World War broke out he volunteered for Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, and became a squadron leader in 1940.

He died, of lung cancer, in Hove in 1952.

My information comes mostly from the entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography written by R.J. Minney (revised by Clare Taylor), supplemented by Wikipedia, and by Pamela Frankau,  Pen to Paper (London: Heinemann, 1961).



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