Francis King Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Francis King 1923-

(Full name Francis Henry King; has also written under the pseudonym Frank Cauldwell) Swiss-born English novelist, nonfiction and short story writer, and poet.

The following entry provides an overview of King's career from 1985 through 1997. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 8 and 53.

King is an award-winning author of over forty works that include novels, novellas, short story collections, nonfiction, and poetry. Known primarily for his fiction, King focuses more on people than events and his writing frequently includes sharp portrayals of characters finding themselves in different areas of the world. Sometimes referred to as a “dark” writer, King employs satire, humor, and perversity to explore his characters' eccentricities as well as the pain and fragility that lie beneath them.

Biographical Information

King was born in Adelboden, Switzerland in 1923. He spent his childhood in India until age eight, when he was sent to an English boarding school. As a young man, King became a pacifist, avoiding World War II, and chose instead to work the land and study at Balliol College in Oxford. While he was at Oxford, King published three novels and various poems. In 1951, he joined the British Council, serving in Italy, Greece, Finland, Egypt, and Japan. King returned to England years later and worked as a reviewer and drama critic. He went on to hold professional positions as president and vice president of the English branch of the International Association of Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists, and Novelists (PEN), and president of International PEN. He also cofounded the Writers' Action Group. The people and places encountered during his travels had a lasting impact on King, and his writings continually draw on his experiences as an expatriate and foreigner.

Major Works

King's works include fictionalized accounts of his childhood, his life during the war years, his mother's life, his experiences in postwar Florence, his travels while employed at the British Council, and his life in Brighton after “retiring” from the council. Family relationships and sexual identity are two of the most prominent and consistent themes in his work. Several of King's early novels so openly addressed homosexuality that many critics during the 1950s refused to mention them. In fact, the homosexual subject matter in The Firewalkers (1955, reissued in 1985) forced King to find a new publisher. In this novel set in Athens, the narrator interacts with the elderly and eccentric Colonel Grecos. King uses a similar story structure in Punishments (1989), Secret Lives (1991), The One and Only (1994), Ash on an Old Man's Sleeve (1996), and Dead Letters (1997). In each work, a chance meeting between two men (often from different countries) is a catalyst for major and lasting changes in their lives. Punishments deals with the hardships encountered by Michael Gregg, who becomes enamored of German man during a student trip to Germany in 1948. In the highly praised Secret Lives, the plot centers around Sir Brian Cobean and his relationship with a Japanese boy, Osamu, who is fleeing an arranged marriage. When Sir Brian dies of AIDS, Osamu must explain to the world why he and he alone will receive Brian's estate. The One and Only examines themes of jealousy and obsession, feelings which arise when the protagonist Mervyn meets Robert, a man who is in love with Mervyn's mother. When Robert is shunned in favor of another man, he manipulates Mervyn's feeling toward his mother, who neglected him as a child. Robert and Mervyn's shared rage leads to their own sexual relationship and Mervyn eventually kills his mother. Years later, Robert writes a manuscript that details the crime extensively and Mervyn is desperate to keep it from being published. In Ash on an Old Man's Sleeve, sixty-nine-year-old Elliot Baker becomes infatuated with a wealthy, young police officer in Havana. As the two men travel through Cuba together, Baker's obsession with the officer makes him reflect on the theme of religious and sexual suppression. An Australian named Steve and an Italian aristocrat are at the center of King's Dead Letters. They meet by chance in Sicily, form a relationship, and the aristocrat becomes increasingly dependent on Steve. Abuse in Steve's past prevents him from being able to love; however, the Italian is still able to draw inspiration from him. One of King's most successful and critically praised novellas, Frozen Music (1987), is a fictional account of King's life in India. The narrator, Rupert, looks back on a trip taken with his father to India. During the trip Rupert is forced to come to terms with his mother's death and to accept the reality of a vastly changed country. The Woman Who Was God (1988) follows the path of Mrs. St. Just as she travels to Africa to investigate the disappearance of her son, presumably at the hands of a religious sect. As she searches for the truth, Mrs. St. Just becomes obsessed with reconciling her unwieldy preconceptions with what she observes firsthand. In Visiting Cards (1990) and The Ant Colony (1991), King makes clever use of location and satire. Visiting Cards is a campy, almost over-the-top narrative about Amos Kingsley, a little-known travel writer who has accidentally become president of the fictional World Association of Authors. At the Association's latest conference in Malindi, meetings are unproductive, writers are taken prisoner, wives become unfaithful, and a dwarf naval officer begs to display his exhibitionist tendencies. The Ant Colony, set in Florence, satirically explores the relationship between the worldly Iris and the frumpy Jack, while also commenting on the lives of British Institute instructors. King's autobiography, Yesterday Came Suddenly (1993) makes extensive use of reconstructed dialogues with several people, giving the book an anecdotal flavor that renders it readable and entertaining.

Critical Reception

Although his novels are well regarded, King is primarily known for his mastery of the short fiction and novella forms. David Profumo writes that the “pressures of the shorter genre … make so incisive his descriptions of psychology and place.” Some critics find King's prose loose and overwritten. Others describe his writing style as detached, commenting that he sometimes fails to elicit reader sympathy. King admits to a pessimistic world-view, but disagrees in part with critics who call his work dark. Commenting on the darker themes in his work, King has stated that “it is a darkness illuminated (I hope) by acts of decency, generosity and valor.” King has also been faulted for implausible plotlines and for including too many characters in his work. Many of his detractors concede, however, that the King canon is rich with keen observation and deep insights into his characters' emotional lives. His blunt, straightforward prose is regarded as one of his main strengths, and critics judge his ability to portray the intricacies of human behavior as one of his most effective tools. Critic Martin Seymour-Smith asserts that King is “one of the best writers of fiction [that] England possesses.”

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

*The Firewalkers: A Memoir [as Frank Cauldwell] (novel) 1955

Act of Darkness (novel) 1982

My Sister and Myself: The Diaries of J. R. Ackerley [editor] (nonfiction) 1982

Frozen Music (novella) 1987

The Woman Who Was God (novel) 1988

Punishments (novel) 1989

Visiting Cards (novel) 1990

**Florence: A Literary Companion (nonfiction) 1991

The Ant Colony (novel) 1991

Secret Lives: Three Novellas [contributions by Francis King, Tom Wakefield, and Patrick Gale] (novella) 1991


(The entire section is 99 words.)

Stephen Everson (review date 12 April 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Firewalkers, in New Statesman & Society, April 12, 1985, p. 26.

[In the following review of The Firewalkers, Everson comments favorably on the novel's writing and on the character Cedric. He warns readers that although the novel was reissued in the Gay Modern Classics series, it does not treat homosexuality as a subject.]

The Firewalkers was first published in 1956 under the pseudonym ‘Frank Cauldwell’ after the British Council had given Francis King the choice of publishing it under his own name or remaining in their employ. This autobiographical novel describes the young narrator's encounters with Greece and with...

(The entire section is 347 words.)

David Profumo (review date 29 August 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Mischief That Is Past,” in Spectator, August 29, 1987, pp. 28–9.

[In the following review of Frozen Music, Profumo asserts that although King's prose is looser here than in his short stories, the narrated novella succeeds in its exploration of a father and son coming to terms with the past.]

‘I promised my mother I should never use that wretched word “novella”', wrote Dorothy Parker, and for many readers the term does seem to be a taxonomical cop-out for something that is ‘entre chien et loup’. When Hutchinson launched its novella series, in which Frozen Music is the latest offering, it was good to see a new platform available for...

(The entire section is 646 words.)

Martin Seymour-Smith (review date 27 March 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “A Death in India,” in Washington Post Book World, March 27, 1988, p. 10.

[In the following review, Seymour-Smith praises the structure and depth of Frozen Music.]

There is some confusion about the nature of fictions that are too short to call novels but too long to call short stories. There are novellas, Novelle, novelettes—and even ŕecits, André Gide's invention. The novella, which we are used to from Boccaccio, was simply a short prose narrative. The Novelle, more self-consciously developed by Goethe at a time when the short story as known to us had hardly been conceived as a form, and then by other Germans...

(The entire section is 625 words.)

Philip Glazebrook (review date 23 April 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Sport of a Mad Mother,” in Spectator, April 23, 1988, pp. 31–2.

[In the following review of The Woman Who Was God, Glazebrook asserts that King includes too much detail and too many fleeting characters in his novel. However, Glazebrook does praise King's well-constructed narrative.]

There is a relief in putting yourself into the hands of so accomplished a constructor of fiction as Francis King, which encourages you to suspend disbelief, suspend too to some extent the critical organs, and allow credulity a long rein. You accept that the novelist in the pages of his book may claim to be God, creating a real world. So, if at the finish you find...

(The entire section is 1119 words.)

Wendy Lesser (review date 27 November 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Haunter and the Haunted,” in Washington Post Book World, November 27, 1988, pp. 6–7.

[In the following review of The Woman Who Was God, Lesser criticizes what she perceives as King's lack of empathy for his characters, especially Ruth St. Just, and maintains that the too-clever plot does not allow readers to know or identify with Ruth.]

There's something disconcertingly wrong with Francis King's latest novel, but throughout most of The Woman Who Was God it's hard to put your finger on exactly what the problem is. Every time you think you've found a flaw, the novel justifies it by placing it in the context of the main character's...

(The entire section is 830 words.)

Nicholas Lezard (review date 3 June 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “A Dark and Troubling Business,” in Spectator, June 3, 1989, pp. 34–5.

[In the following review of Punishments, Lezard claims that the novel's principal drawback is its simplistic plot, but that this simplicity is made up for by the depth of the Michael Gregg character and by King's refusal to provide the reader with clear answers.]

These days, we look at prolific authors as at mothers of unviably large families (when will they get fed up? We are); except, really, for Francis King. He is a very professional writer, one of the last who does not rely on producing rubbish to sustain his output. This is his 21st novel. His subject-matter takes...

(The entire section is 771 words.)

Betty Abel (review date July 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Punishments, in Contemporary Review, July, 1989, p. 45.

[In the following review of Punishments, Abel briefly describes what she feels are the two “punishments” found in the novel.]

Punishments by Francis King is a subtle, thoughtfully planned novel in which a strong under-stated theme underlies the plot. A young medical student, Michael, recounts his experiences during a journey to Germany almost immediately after the second world war, in the company of a number of other English university students. They are to stay in the homes of German undergraduates. Theirs is a voyage of reconciliation and Michael later calls it a...

(The entire section is 441 words.)

Toby Fitton (review date 15 June 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Botni for All,” in Times Literary Supplement, June 15, 1990, p. 653.

[In the following review of Visiting Cards, Fitton praises the novel, despite his questions about its unlikely premise.]

Visiting Cards, a jocose novel about the conference procedures of a World Association of Authors (WAA), by a former world president of PEN, contains much salutary sending-up of the scheming (and screwing) that seems to accompany worthy international gatherings. The donnée may appear all too familiar; the writers’ conference novel, or memoir, may even be a symptom of writer's block. In the practised hands of Francis King, however, some...

(The entire section is 528 words.)

Mark Illis (review date 16 June 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The PEN Is Mightier Than the Word,” in Spectator, June 16, 1990, p. 54.

[In the following review of Visiting Cards, Illis notes that there is a serious side to King's comic novel.]

Francis King, former President of PEN International, has written a novel about the President of WAA, the World Association of Authors. Given that this fictional President is called Amos Kingsley, and that two early and fleeting characters are called Gabriel Lopez Martinez and Fukushima Kazuo, the novel at first looks like an extended literary in-joke. This is deceptive. The world in which WAA exists is not a satirical construct in which members of PEN, and others, are...

(The entire section is 603 words.)

Paul Binding (review date 7 June 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Internal Combustion,” in New Statesman & Society, June 7, 1991, p. 44.

[In the following review of The Ant Colony, Binding finds honesty and objectivity in King's satirical novel about the British Institute in Florence at the end of World War II.]

To Florence, not long after the end of the second world war, two young people come to teach English at the British Institute: Iris Crediton, who arrives with a whole string of connections (her mother was a famous pianist, well-known in Florentine expatriate circles), and Jack Prentice (his very surname significant), from a workingclass northern family with no social pull anywhere.


(The entire section is 589 words.)

Lorna Sage (review date 7 June 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Name-Droppers,” in Times Literary Supplement, June 7, 1991, p. 22.

[In the following review of The Ant Colony, Sage examines King's treatment of his characters, especially Jack and Iris.]

Export the English if you want to have a good look at them, their absurdities and anxieties thrown into high relief against a foreign backdrop. It is the formula of Forster's A Room With a View and Woolf's The Voyage Out (in her exasperated début she transported them as far as South America), and countless novels before and since. Francis King's The Ant Colony is back on Forster territory, in Florence, just after the end of the war, where...

(The entire section is 770 words.)

Mark Illis (review date 8 June 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Expatriates Gossiping in Florence,” in Spectator, June 8, 1991, p. 36.

[In the following review of The Ant Colony, Illis writes that despite the many likeable characters in the novel, the story is not compelling.]

The English novel is regularly accused of being too quiet, too polite and too safe. It is often described in negative terms: it is unadventurous or unambitious. Francis King has written novels, such as Act of Darkness, to which none of these adjectives apply. They are all, however, appropriate in the case of The Ant Colony.

Jack, a young, diffident, working-class virgin, and Iris the ‘classy’ titled...

(The entire section is 695 words.)

Richard Davenport-Hines (review date 2 August 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Only the Lonely,” in Times Literary Supplement, August 2, 1991, p. 19.

[In the following review of Secret Lives: Three Novellas, Davenport-Hines judges King's novella, a tale of emotional isolation, as the strongest in the collection, which also includes novellas by Tom Wakefield and Patrick Gale.]

By far the most arresting of the three novellas in this collection is that by Francis King [Secret Lives] which gives the volume its title. This tells the story of a poor Japanese painter named Osamu who comes to London to escape a forced marriage, and becomes the houseboy and lover of a QC, Sir Brian Cobean. The latter is an elegant, persuasive,...

(The entire section is 711 words.)

Paul Binding (review date 23 August 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Coexistences,” in New Statesman & Society, August 23, 1991, p. 19.

[In the following review of Secret Lives: Three Novellas, Binding praises King's title novella for its portrayal of characters carrying burdensome secrets and of a man dying of AIDS.]

In conversation with Professor Barbara Hardy for the European Gay Review, Francis King observed that the novella “is not an English genre. It was developed in France and Russia as a concentrated form for narratives of sexual passion.” He cites Prevost's Manon Lascaut and Turgenev's First Love. Now he has followed his own masterly contribution to this un-English genre...

(The entire section is 597 words.)

Penelope Lively (review date 4 September 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Places and Friends He Still Can Recall,” in Spectator, September 4, 1993, p. 26.

[In the following review of Yesterday Came Suddenly, Lively commends King's memoir, which she feels is an engaging and moving work, in large part because of King's use of anecdotes and lengthy dialogue segments.]

Autobiography comes in many guises—as stern narrative, as expiation, as justification, as smokescreen. Francis King is an accomplished raconteur and it is in this style that he has chosen to write his—a sequence of anecdotes by means of which the great array of people with whom he has been associated trip in and out of the pages. The result is...

(The entire section is 976 words.)

Penelope Fitzgerald (review date 5 September 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Words Break the Pain Barrier,” in London Observer, September 5, 1993, p. 53.

[In the following review of Yesterday Came Suddenly, Fitzgerald summarizes King's autobiography, commenting on its story-like quality and on King's modesty in relation to his achievements.]

Francis King, the brilliant and distinguished novelist, poet, critic, travel-writer and biographer, turns out also to have been a successful Brighton landlady (his own definition), short-order cook and agricultural labourer. These experiences have led to ‘an attitude of profound, if resigned, pessimism about the world. I do not expect people to behave consistently well, and my...

(The entire section is 923 words.)

Jonathan Keates (review date 8 October 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Wasp at Large,” in Times Literary Supplement, October 8, 1993, p. 30.

[In the following review of Yesterday Came Suddenly, Keates praises King's “busy, populous chronicle of a literary life.”]

The boy Francis King tasted “a brine-like salt” on his father's forehead when, reluctantly, or at any rate unspontaneously, he kissed him goodnight. The taste, his autobiography's Proustian memory spur, turned out to be a malign portent of disease and death, and it is the presence of these two elements, spectral or all too palpable, which lends a melancholy consistency to [Yesterday Came Suddenly, a] busy populous chronicle of a literary life....

(The entire section is 826 words.)

Patricia Beer (review date 16 December 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Memories Are Made of This,” in London Review of Books, December 16, 1993, pp. 22–3.

[In reviewing King's Yesterday Came Suddenly alongside Giles Gordon's Aren't We Due a Royalty Statement? and William Trevor's Excursions in the Real World, Beer concludes that King's “detached” prose style serves Yesterday Came Suddenly well.]

I was well into Giles Gordon's Aren't We Due a Royalty Statement? before I noticed that other readers were taking the book seriously, often to the point of denunciation. Up to then I had been assuming that it had set out to be an ingenious spoof, a sort of hoax or parody which had failed to...

(The entire section is 2992 words.)

Gregory Woods (review date 23 September 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Criminal Connections,” in Times Literary Supplement, September 23, 1994, p. 22.

[In the following review of The One and Only, Woods criticizes what he views as overwritten passages, but states that the story is “well told” and unique.]

The past comes back to haunt you. It does in fiction, at least. One does not need a large-scale obsessive, like Proust, to demonstrate how heavily the structure of the novel itself has come to rely on this banal idea. Come-uppance is the key.

The narrator and protagonist of Francis King's [One and Only], Mervyn Frost, is sent the typescript of an old school friend's autobiography and...

(The entire section is 647 words.)

Charles Godfrey-Faussett (review date 29 March 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Ash on an Old Man's Sleeve, in Times Literary Supplement, March 29, 1996, p. 22.

[In the following review of Ash on an Old Man's Sleeve, Godfrey-Faussett objects to the novel's “confessional style” and to its forced imagery.]

With [Ash on an Old Man's Sleeve] Francis King juggles the epithets in the aphorism attributed to William Lecky that “sensuality is the vice of young men and old nations.” The “ash” of the title doesn't only get on the narrator's sleeve but also up his nose, as a brief encounter with cocaine launches his Cuban holiday in a way he never expected. He writes: “my head, so far from resembling some...

(The entire section is 588 words.)

William Scammell (review date 30 March 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Love in a Hot Climate,” in Spectator, March 30, 1996, p. 29.

[In the following review of Ash on an Old Man's Sleeve, Scammell praises the novel's treatment of sexuality.]

[In Francis King’s novel, Ash on an Old Man’s Sleeve,] Elliott Baker arrives in the ‘hot, dark, mysterious’ city of Havana, a valetudinarian of fixed habits and declining powers, more accustomed to watching his step for cracked paving-stones than sniffing ‘that strange fermentation of the air’ which greets his traveller's enquiring nose. ‘You want a good time?’ he is asked on his first morning by a couple of prostitutes. ‘Of course I wanted a good time. Who...

(The entire section is 908 words.)

Sarah A. Smith (review date 6 December 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “People of a Certain Age,” in Times Literary Supplement, December 6, 1996, p. 22.

[In the following review of A Hand at the Shutter, Smith comments on King's “sly” storytelling and on the brave female characters found in this collection of stories.]

A Hand at the Shutter brings together sixteen of Francis King's stories, half of them already published in journals and anthologies, written over a period of thirteen years. Elegant, well-bred stories, ranging in location from Maida Vale to Slovenia, Buenos Aires to Japan, they form a varied, subtly challenging collection which confirms the author's creative longevity. King focuses on...

(The entire section is 584 words.)

Tim Haigh (review date 24 October 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Sicilian Overtures,” in Times Literary Supplement, October 24, 1997, p. 25.

[In the following review of Dead Letters, Haigh takes issue with the main plot, which concerns Prince Stefano and Steve's relationship.]

There is a tradition of novels whose power resides in allusiveness and suggestion rather than story-telling. It is as part of this tradition that Francis King intends Dead Letters. His aim is to indicate, rather than to tell, to leave things in the shadows or off-stage, rather than to expose them to the glare of sunlight; or, like a De Chirico painting, to give them the mythic resonance of a train in the distance.


(The entire section is 553 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


McDadd, Susanne. “Francis King: An Interview.” Pen (Autumn 1989): 24-25.

McDadd interviews King, focusing on his life and various works.

Mellors, John. “Waves and Echoes: The Novels and Stories of Francis King.” London Magazine 15, (December 1975–January 1976): 74–82.

Mellors offers a critical assessment of King's work, concluding that The Custom House, The Waves Behind the Boat, and The Japanese Umbrella are his “most impressive achievements.”

Williamson, Malcolm. “Lechers on world peace.” Observer (London), No. 10365 (10 June 1990): 54....

(The entire section is 130 words.)