Frank Swinnerton

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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 September. When he is unable to proceed by that method, he is at a loss and finds it necessary to use the various devices which are only too familiar to the reader.

For settings Swinnerton is at his best in the business streets of London and in the commonplace suburbs with their rows of little houses all alike. His London seems to be seen largely from the top of a swaying omnibus. The West End and all the abodes of fashion and affluence are hidden in an unrevealed grandeur. The Three Lovers presents a part of the semi-fashionable town life which is not typical of Swinnerton's field. He does not belong in the bright cabaret but with Gladys Verren in the small parlor-sitting room of one of the ninety-six identical flats which comprise "Culverin Mansions", or walking quietly in Hyde Park with Mortimer, Anne and Vera who have come out to listen to the public band concert. His men are largely occupied in printing offices, the only business we may judge with which Swinnerton is familiar; his girls, if of the working class, are stenographers—a limitation which even the most idealistic analysis cannot completely overcome.

It is in his portrayals of young women that Swinnerton does his most convincing and original work; in fact, one is led to say that his novels are all written from the feminine point of view. His analysis of their restless half-formed thought bears a naturalness delightful to the reader. The men, that is the young men, are all modern editions of the Gissing type with, of course, such variations as would be expected. Young girls in the early teens such as Rachel Lane in Summer Storm or Edith Dennett in The Happy Family are well drawn, and this is an age that few novelists are able to present successfully; the majority feel that they must have either the child, or the woman, or the definite child-woman, never attaining that intermediate something which is none of these but has a quality essentially its own.

Swinnerton writes on one theme, love; no matter of what he is speaking his constant preoccupation is with sex. That is the reason, I think, why one sees signs of exhaustion in [Summer Storm]. After reading it many would say that he was "written out". The difficulty is in knowing just how long a writer can last who has only one theme. Is, say, fourteen novels his limit? In Shops and Houses Swinnerton broke away and allowed other motives and other thoughts as well as those of love to sway his characters. In Young Felix, by means of a new style, a broader vision was glimpsed. But as many must have seen, when Swinnerton published his following novel, The Elder Sister, he had not continued any of his new developments but reverted to the unrestricted pursuit of his original theme, love. His future novels must invade new fields: Nocturne, Coquette, September, and The Elder Sister cannot be repeated; their possibilities have been exhausted. (pp. 88-9)

Ruth Capers McKay, in her George Gissing and His Critic: Frank Swinnerton, University of Pennsylvania, 1933, 88 p.

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