Frank Swinnerton Essay - Critical Essays

Swinnerton, Frank (Arthur)


Frank (Arthur) Swinnerton 1884–1982

English novelist, critic, and biographer.

Swinnerton's reputation as a writer rests on his chronicles of the activities and concerns of the Georgian movement in English literature, which began with the onset of the First World War and lasted into the 1940s. His penchant for amusing detail, which often lends a gossipy quality to his work, contributes to the comprehensive literary portraits he created.

In his novels Swinnerton stressed realism and clear, detailed characterizations, projecting his pragmatic view of life. Of his more than forty novels, Nocturne (1917) is generally considered the best. Critics have praised its nearly flawless structure, convincing characterizations, and Swinnerton's compassion in depicting a harsh and disappointing world. His last novel, Some Achieve Greatness (1976), reveals that even past the age of ninety Swinnerton upheld the same artistic and moral positions evident in his earliest works.

Swinnerton's The Georgian Literary Scene (1934) is often cited as an important critical history of this era in English literature. In this large volume. Swinnerton offers insightful descriptions of the Georgian circle of writers, tempering his insider's viewpoint with objectivity. The Georgian Literary Scene provides intimate sketches of such writers as G. K. Chesterton, A. A. Milne, Arnold Bennett, and Hilaire Belloc, Swinnerton's subsequent literary memoirs, Swinnerton: An Autobiography (1936) and Figures in the Foreground (1963), which include information and personalities of the post-Georgian period, exhibit the same confident ease of presentation which makes The Georgian Literary Scene enjoyable reading.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vol. 108 [obituary].)

H. G. Wells

[Mr. Swinnerton] sees life and renders it with a steadiness and detachment and patience quite foreign to my disposition. He has no underlying motive. He sees and tells. His aim is the attainment of that beauty which comes with exquisite presentation. Seen through his art, life is seen as one sees things through a crystal lens, more intensely, more completed, and with less turbidity. There the business begins and ends for him. He does not want you or any one to do anything. (p. x)

Mr. Swinnerton, like Mr. James Joyce, does not repudiate the depths for the sake of the surface. His people are not splashes of appearance, but living minds. Jenny and Emmy in [Nocturne] are realities inside and out; they are imaginative creatures so complete that one can think with ease of Jenny ten years hence or of Emmy as a baby. The fickle Alf is one of the most perfect Cockneys—a type so easy to caricature and so hard to get true—in fiction. If there exists a better writing of vulgar lovemaking, so base, so honest, so touchingly mean and so touchingly full of the carving for happiness than this that we have here in the chapter called After the Theatre, I do not know it. Only a novelist who has had his troubles can understand fully what a dance among china cups, what a skating over thin ice, what a tight-rope performance is achieved in this astound-ing chapter. A false note, one fatal line, would have ruined it all. On the one hand lay...

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H. W. Boynton

[Nocturne] is neither grey nor gay, neither realism in its docket nor romance in its pigeon-hole. It is a book of fact but also of arrangement, of insight as well as observation; of dramatic action as well as sympathy. In short, it is a work of imaginative art, holding its magic mirror (and not a mere reflector) up to nature. To this roundness and fulness within its slender bounds [H. G.] Wells is paying tribute when he writes to Mr. Bennett, "You know, Arnold, he achieves a perfection in Nocturne that you and I never get within streets of." Mr. Wells enlarges upon his enthusiasm in his Introduction. "This is a book that will not die," he concludes. "It is perfect, authentic, and alive." Authentic or artistic—we may use either word in the effort to express our sense of this story as "the real thing." But I think the main point, which does not seem to be altogether clear to Mr. Wells, is that this is the real thing as a story. The Cockney family: Jenny, the milliner's girl; Emmy, the domestic slave; Pa Blanchard, the paralytic remnant of a reckless fellow … Alf, the vague satellite…. These people with their dingy surroundings fairly offer themselves to the grey method of a Gissing or the jaunty method of a Bennett or the inquisitive method of a Wells. The Swinnerton method is none of these. It is the method of the interpreter who frankly makes truth salient by his skilful manipulation of facts. Here, for example, it is his...

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Lola Ridge

The structure of [Nocturne] is almost classic. The events take place in the course of a single night. And each chapter folds upon the other without visible apertures or creaking joints, so that in retrospect the mind encompasses the whole with a single gesture.

In theme and treatment is seems to usher in a coming democratization of art. Here is no preoccupation with the commonplace from the contemptous elevation of the intellectual aristocrat—Mr. Swinnerton approaches the vulgarest of his creatures with a genial tolerance. At the same time his book emphasizes the revival of that indiscriminate realism already apparent in the work of two very different writers, Wyndham Lewis and James Joyce. But though he etches accessory details with the minuteness of the author of Dubliners, he does not achieve the latter's biting phrases. In the work of Joyce one is always conscious of looking through a piquant and intensely individual personal atmosphere. But in Nocturne, as Mr. Wells says succinctly: "Life is seen as through a crystal lens." And in spite of the warmth and color of the book and the physical glamor of the soft London darkness, the characters challenge one's vision like objects seen in a too strong light. (p. 323)

Lola Ridge, "A Study of the Commonplace," in The New Republic, Vol. XVI, No. 206, October 12, 1918, pp. 320, 323.

H. W. Boynton

One secret of the charm of Frank Swinnerton's "Nocturne" is what may be called the warm disinterest, or sympathetic detachment, of the chronicler. He doesn't mean his little episode to "teach" anything: it is simply there before us, yet by no means as a "slice of life", for what makes it alive is the radiant energy of creative art. The artist's self as well as his skill informs it. Irony would be too cold a word for its mood, for there is something glowing here. As we enter that mood, we feel ourselves lifted to something like the wisdom and tenderness of the gods, glimpsing elements of beauty in the children of dust, and in the dust itself. "Shops and Houses" is a less sublimated kind of fiction. Its emotion is less intense and less from within. And it labors somewhat from the outset under the burden of an "idea". At once we are, so to speak, confronted with Beckwith, an English provincial town which is confessedly and unhappily typical. Beckwith is an ancient village but fifteen miles from London, half spoiled by the advent of railway and factories, yet still self-centered. It is a place of rigid class distinctions, raw social nerves, and ruthless tongues of censure or surmise…. It is a village of snobs, such as from Miss Mitford to E. F. Benson has made itself familiar to American readers as a kind of stronghold of Briticism. What gives Mr. Swinnerton's handling freshness is his explicit conviction that this narrow, ingrowing, pharisaical life of the Beckwiths of old England is a damnable thing, and not merely a quaint and amusing thing.

The opening situation is intensely British. The unchallenged social supremacy in Beckwith...

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Rebecca West

It is not clear why Mr. Frank Swinnerton has called his new novel Coquette. A coquette, one had always understood, was a lady who loved the work for its own sake, who found the evocation and frustration of desire a satisfying sport in itself; but his Sally Minto was moved in her first encounter with a man by real passion and in her second by ambition. A novel about a coquette would be primarily … a discussion of the mystery of athleticism, that passion which leads human beings to spend their lives attaining proficiency in occupations which are obviously not of a kind that will print through this world into the next and be placed to their credit in eternity. But Sally Minto's story is something far other than this. It is first of all a virtuosic study of character. Throughout the book there are signs that Mr. Swinnerton is capable of talking conventional nonsense about women in general. He subscribes, for instance, to the legend that a set of girls will inevitably be jealous of the most attractive of their number, and makes all the hands in the dressmaking establishment where Sally works look on her with disfavour. This is Victorian. Experience is all against it; every pretty schoolgirl collects a train of plainer girl adorers, and while there may be rivalry among such leaders there is no jealousy felt by the plain against the pretty. This is not to say that there is no jealousy between women. There is, just as there is between men, but it is the jealousy the unhappy feel against the happy…. But the jealousy Mr. Swinnerton ascribes to the girls at Madame Gala's is a dusty convention with which a writer of his realist ambition ought to have nothing to do. It does in fact deprive him of one chance of exhibiting Sally's character....

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Raymond Mortimer

Every page of [Young Felix] shows the author to be a perceptive and thoughtful person. But ever since I finished reading it, I have been wondering what it is that he has been attempting. Young Felix is the story of the first thirty years of a man's life. Is it only a prologue to an enormous work five times its length, in which case its shapelessness is only apparent? If so, Mr. Swinnerton is unfair to himself in not giving us warning. If not, what are we to make of it? There must have been a moment when Mr. Swinnerton first saw his story in the lovely light that plays upon an idea when first it rises to the surface of our minds. What has happened since? In some respect the conception lacked vitality, and...

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P. C. Kennedy

[Here] is a literary problem for you. Read the following passage, and guess who wrote it:

Mr. Sims was in a better position than either Mr. Leicester or Mr. Twist. At a word from Mr. Sims, both Mr. Twist and Mr. Leicester would have been forced to leave the firm. They, although they had worked there for fifteen years and a quarter of a century respectively, and although they knew the business through and through, and could produce the papers unaided, had no status. They could be dismissed at a month's notice. Mr. Sims could not be dismissed. Although the junior, he was, by his purchase of a larger share, the principal partner in the firm. Mr. Twist and Mr. Leicester could run the...

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[The following essay is part of a thesis presented at The University of Pennsylvania in 1927.]

To speak of Swinnerton's novels in general we may say that he writes principally of the lower middle class life in London and in the cheaper suburbs. The exceptions to this are the three successful studies of the upper middle classes found in The Casement, Shops and Houses and September. His greatest weakness is in plot work; few of his endings have a finished effect, the reader is left dangling, dissatisfied. This is notable particularly in The Happy Family, On the Staircase, and Young Felix. His best motivation is achieved through character analysis as in the case of...

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Basil Davenport

In ["The Georgian House"] the author has assembled a number of well-tried and generally reliable ingredients: an old-fashioned house with a secret panel; a hero who is at the beginning of the book living under an assumed name and is evidently under some sort of romantic cloud, from which he is called home to take his inheritance; a wise old lady who understands the young things; a missing will; a thorough-paced villainess; a black-mailing lawyer's clerk; and other stand-bys too numerous to mention. The sort of book that results from such a combination is in most cases excellent entertainment, and of that we cannot have too much. If "The Georgian House" kept its promise of good traditional melodrama it would be a...

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George Dangerfield

Readers with a general curiosity about the last twenty-five years of English literature need look no further than ["The Georgian Scene"]. There are, no doubt, more brilliant writers and better critics in England than Mr. Swinnerton, but I doubt if any writer is better informed. It is precisely its information which gives this book its melancholy value—this, and its author's extraordinarily pleasant manners.

"Melancholy" because so few of the writers it mentions can one remember any more; and more melancholy still because one realizes how precious few of them were worth remembering. "The Georgian Scene" is not merely a record of English writers from 1910 until today, it is also the record of...

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Joseph Wood Krutch

[The Georgian Scene] contains essays on approximately seventy-five writers who range in time from Henry James to T. S. Eliot and in importance from Shaw and Bennett to Edgar Wallace and Noel Coward. A few of the discussions are quite perfunctory, and the space devoted to each often seems to bear little relation to either the popularity or the significance of the subject, but the best are genuinely illuminating and nearly all both informative and readable. Mr. Swinnerton quite frankly discusses his authors from the point of view of an enthusiastic reader of catholic taste rather than from that of a critic with dogmatic ideas. He walks around each subject, noting significant biographical details and, in a very...

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George Dangerfield

"Swinnerton" leaps, as it were, from ring to ring. Its sub-title should be changed from "An Autobiography" to "A Circus," and I make this suggestion without rancor, for there are many things less pleasant than a circus, and few more calculated to take our minds away from fact. In a circus all the performers have a glamor which is not false, but fictitious: and only if we are very small children do we think that they are what they so beautifully pretend to be….

"Swinnerton" is the kind of autobiography which has leaped into that category over the back fence, about one foot ahead of the critics. The more considerable part of it is about other people, and a charming troupe they are—all talented, all...

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The Times Literary Supplement

To use the word "old-fashioned" in describing [Harvest Comedy] is to praise it highly, for it is old-fashioned in the sense that it tells a gripping story and that it gives to each character a scrupulous care that is reminiscent of the method of Dickens…. The story traces the careers of [the three main characters] in London, with their various ups and downs, their marriages and their love affairs, but it does much more than this: it shows us the inside of every life…. In another sense, too, the book is old-fashioned in that the good boy comes out on top while the two bad boys, who seemed to flourish like the green bay tree at first, got their deserts. But even for them, with their very human weaknesses, Mr....

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Possibly the lowest sort of reviewing is the type which borrows overgenerously from the blurb on the highly colored book jacket—that eye-catcher which proudly quotes the welcome bouquets of a favored few who have seen the masterpiece in galleys or in manuscript…. In the case of "A Woman in Sunshine" the yellow jacket is misleading…. It purports to describe a novel concerned chiefly with "a good woman who is also an exciting one."…

The woman in question, Letitia Boldero, is 53 and gravely concerned about the marital status of her two sons, as well as that of the daughter-in-law in question. It is only in the final pages that she herself makes any impression in the field of feminine...

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The Times Literary Supplement

The title of Mr. Swinnerton's new book [The Doctor's Wife Comes to Stay] is Trollopean, and so in a sense is the story. An energetic and successful young artist, egotistical but attractive, finds that his wife is not content merely with household duties, nor even with the small celebrity of occasional parts in "little theatre" productions. The immense success of the play in which she is acting obtains for her an offer of the leading part in its American production; and she goes to America, leaving her husband at home in the care of her apple-cheeked Victorian mother who comes on a prolonged visit. This lady is the doctor's wife of the title; the doctor himself is an impressively puritanical, sharp-tongued and...

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Walter Allen

Those who have read Frank Swinnerton's earlier volume of literary reminiscences, "Background With Chorus," know what to expect of "Figures in the Foreground." It is, as the author says himself, "a book of personal gossip," but it is the gossip of a man who writes from experience at first hand. Mr. Swinnerton has spent his life among books and among those who make them….

In his new book he draws on his memories of British literary life between 1917 and 1940. He is—and no one knows it better than he—a survivor from a past age. He is, as he says in a characteristic phrase, "worm-eaten with Liberalism"; and of himself before World War I he writes:

"It never occurred to me that one...

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Ernest Buckler

Near 80, Verdi composed "Falstaff", at 80, England's Frank Swinnerton writes "Quadrille." "Quadrille" is no "Falstaff," to be sure, but it is a like example of perdurable creative power. Mr. Swinnerton has composed upward of 50 books in his lifetime. Of this number, at least 35 are novels…. This novel is certainly among his best. The final installment of a quartet (the others were "The Woman From Sicily," "A Tigress in Prothero" and "The Grace Divorce") it continues the author's observation—again, over more than half a century—of the changing tactics in another, timeless war, this time between men and women. The wit, marksmanship, spanking pace and impeccable technique are still there, brighter than new.


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The Times Literary Supplement

For the past forty years, two-thirds of his long career as a writer, Mr. Frank Swinnerton has lived in a restored seventeenth-century cottage in the Surrey village of Cranleigh…. At least, he calls it a village, for, in spite of all the urbanization of the Home Counties, he has managed to remain confidently under the impression that he lives deep in the English countryside. Indeed, one of the attractions of Reflections from a Village comes from the otherwise by no means unsophisticated author's naive discovery of the garden, the village green and the commonest of wild birds and flowers…. There is nothing affected about this, however, for Mr. Swinnerton has preserved into old age much of the excitement with...

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The Times Literary Supplement

It would be hard to maintain that Nor All Thy Tears comes up to the standard of [Swinnerton's] best fiction, since despite its lively construction and wide range of characters, there is a certain lack of verisimilitude about much of their behaviour which, alas, depends largely on the way they talk and the attitudes they express—inescapably those of an earlier age. The tough twenty-five-year-old heiress to a Fleet Street empire, who is the focus of attention, is somewhat inclined to shriek and glare and collapse, particularly after a glass or two of champagne with her oily legal adviser, in the manner of a Victorian heroine rather than the dogged and indeed pig-headed new broom who decides to liven up the old...

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Peter Ackroyd

What a familiar ring it has, 'the novel.' A comfort to the spinster and the secretary, and a temporary refuge for 'the reader' in an imagined world. A world in which effect follows cause, emotions are excited only to be soothed, adventure and surprise are muted in the pianissimo of a final chapter. The novel is now the armchair of our culture. I would hate to be considered a rabid experimentalist, but I often wish that contemporary English writing were something other than the fagend of the nineteenth century.

Gloomy reflections like these occurred to me after reading Swinnerton's Rosalind Passes. It is Mr Swinnerton's fortieth novel and his writing career must, as they say of another...

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James Brockway

A new novel by Frank Swinnerton published in his 92nd year. I make no apology for referring to the author's age. It is utterly relevant. And what do we see opposite the title-page? No less than forty fiction titles listed, followed by fifteen other titles. What an achievement. It makes another man blush for shame.

Only yesterday I received a card from a celebrated woman author, intellectual and sometime contributor to b&b … saying: 'What, I ask myself, is a bookman? Have I ever met one?'. Now, I can answer her: Frank Swinnerton.

Before discussing [Some Achieve Greatness], I should declare an interest, then claim disinterest—in the correct sense of that...

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