Thursday, April 23, 2015

An American Interlude: ROSE FRANKEN, The Claudia Novels (1939-1958)


Every once in a while, in a brief lull between my obsessive pursuits of obscure British women writers, I remind myself that, however surprisingly, Americans aren't all bad either.  Many of you are, of course, already aware of this, and if I weren't generally so singlemindedly obsessed with all that's Anglo, I might acknowledge it more often.  Why, a few of my very favorite obscure authors are actually American, and no doubt there's a whole world of obscure Americans I could unearth if I could only clone myself and create a Furrowed Middlebrow US. 


For starters, there's Mary Lasswell's boozy novels about three middle-aged, beer-loving women and their joyful exploits from wartime San Diego all the way into the 1960s.  There's Emily Kimbrough's humorous travel books, which give me a feeling of having been on a delightful vacation with a charming group of friends without ever having to leave the comforts of my apartment—or, on the down side, getting a chance to do some bookshopping in exotic locales, but nothing's perfect.  There's Gladys Workman's hilarious account of her family's relocation to the Oregon wilderness in Only When I Laugh.  And, much better known to American readers if perhaps not to readers across the pond, there are Shirley Jackson's two masterpieces of domestic memoir, Raising Demons and Life Among the Savages.


And now, as a result of an impulse purchase of two books by a hitherto unknown author at a library book sale at least two years ago (possibly three or four?) and, more immediately, as a result of finally unearthing said books—now even dustier than when I found them—from the very bottom of my to read bookshelves (to which they were relegated because they spoke with an American drawl), I can add Rose Franken's Claudia series to that list.

According to Tolstoy (not an author you're likely to see me quote very often here, though I did spend the better part of one long hot summer in college reading War and Peace and Anna Karenina—and much preferring the former, if anyone cares), " Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."  But Rose Franken might have begged to differ.  For Franken spent a large portion of her very successful writing career documenting, in epic War and Peace-style, the joys and vicissitudes of one very charming, funny, quintessentially normal, and overall happy family.  It is undoubtedly an overstatement to call Franken a Tolstoy of the ordinary (though now that I think of it, that phrase might apply nicely to Dorothy Whipple).  Franken is perhaps more accurately described as a more in-depth Denis Mackail.  But at any rate, the fact that she is now largely forgotten and her bestselling novels are all out of print is surely more a testament to readers' fascination with unhappiness and misery than it is a verdict on her work.

Program from the Broadway version of Claudia

According to the Jewish Women's Archive, which has an interesting and informative page on Franken, she published eight Claudia novels in all, after having already published others novels and become a highly successful playwright.  Some of her non-Claudia work sounds quite intriguing as well, and rather edgy for its time, but unquestionably her main success was with the slightly dim young girl, barely of age in the first volume and gradually maturing into her 30s by the last, who meets her true love, a successful New York architect, marries him, and faces the vicissitudes of life—sometimes tragically, but most often with a sassy, flapperish, back-and-forth banter—staunchly by his side. 

Life Magazine photos from the Broadway play

As the luck of library book sales would have it, I started with volume 2, Claudia and David (1940) and have now been drawn inexorably into volume 3, Another Claudia (1943).  These books were preceded by Claudia: The Story of a Marriage (1939), in which the couple met and married, and the series was rounded out with Young Claudia (1946), The Marriage of Claudia (1948), From Claudia to David (1948), The Fragile Years (1952), and The Antic Years (1958).  A smash Broadway play, a radio show, two movies, and a short-lived television series followed from the books' tremendous success (see TCM's discussion of the books' screen iterations).

Nothing like a little beefcake to sell a reprint!

The early volumes seem to be the lightest, and Claudia and David begins on an almost slapstick note, as Claudia makes a crucial mistake about where the decimal point falls in the price of a dress in a Hollywood boutique during a business trip with David.  Then things get a bit more serious, as Claudia has a flirtation with a married man and cheerfully wends her way through a confrontation with the man's wife:

Claudia led the way into the living room. Mrs. Dexter wasted no time. "My husband is in love with you," she began immediately.

Claudia's first reaction was one of extreme gratification. She almost said, "How wonderful, what makes you think so?" but Mrs. Dexter's bitter agitation held her silent and waiting. "I want you to know that you're breaking up a home," Mrs. Dexter went on hoarsely. "I want you to let him alone. You're young and you're selfish and you don't know what you're doing. You've got a husband and you've got children, but you're the kind of woman to whom ties don't mean anything, all you want is conquest and more conquest. You live for flattery and adulation. You dress your body in expensive clothes and dangle it before men's eyes like a banner."

Mrs. Dexter stopped for breath. Claudia couldn't help feeling flattered. Her impulse was to assure Mrs. Dexter that, except for the pink net, she'd never had a dress that had cost more than forty-nine fifty at a sale, but the picture of an abandoned Messalina was infinitely more alluring.

Later, David seems to be having a flirtation of his own with a wealthy widow for whom he's designing a house—though the overall seriousness of both of their flirtations can be demonstrated by the fact that both the unhappy wife and the widow become close friends of Claudia's in the end.  They face near tragedy when son Bobby has a run-in with an automobile while learning to skate, and have a chapterful of more or less homophobic anxieties about Bobby's masculinity (irritating for me, and something to be aware of—like the brief flareup of racism in another scene—but it didn't spoil the whole for me).  Claudia falls under the influence of a medium who may be channeling her recently-dead mother, and then starts feeling restless with her life:

"Look at Julia, how full her life is. Besides being in a lot of movements, she's in business."

"Don't make me laugh," David rudely interjected.

"The shop has her name on it, anyway," Claudia argued. "And look at Helen Drew. She's had two divorces, and half a dozen affairs, and she's no older than I am."

It's all charming and frivolous and gay (in the old-fashioned sense, of course), and yet quite vivid and surprisingly true-to-life.  Claudia and David have their realistic problems—fights, temptations, financial worries, and serious illness—and yet they come through it with humor and remain, ultimately, a deeply loving couple.  Imagine Greenery Street continued through more than a dozen years, or the Provincial Lady with a bit more sentiment and melodrama.  Profound?  No.  But about as cozy an escape as can be imagined—at least outside of British fiction.  Plus, I defy you to pick up Claudia and David and not want to keep reading just a few more pages.


In Another Claudia, the war which is quietly in the background in Claudia & David takes center stage, as news of Pearl Harbor leads David to join up.  And in later volumes—particularly, it seems, From Claudia to David and The Fragile Years, the couple faces very serious tragedies.  If—as I suspect will happen—I am compelled to work my merry way eventually through all eight of the Claudias, I'll have to report back on whether the more serious volumes are as entertaining and satisfying.  When the going gets tough, Franken does have a tendency to get sappy, but so far that has only heightened the pleasure of seeing the characters' bolster each other with humor and affection and get on with things again.

Contemporary reviews of all of the volumes tended to be condescendingly dismissive, or else tended to damn the novels with faint praise.  Franken's bestsellerdom, combined with her unapologetically domestic, middlebrow, and sometimes sentimental concerns, makes her quite a perfect case study for the mid-century's Battle of the Brows. 

And perhaps that battle is still raging.  The only blog post I could find about Franken's work was in 2007 by Blue-Hearted Bookworm, who classified the Claudia novels as her "guilty pleasure reading" and, despite admitting to the joy they gave her, spent most of her post assuring readers of how awful they were.

Reprint edition with photo from the movie
starring Robert Young and Dorothy McGuire

Among all the other joys that blogging has brought me—not least of which are all you wonderful folks who comment and email and support me in my obsessions and quirks—has been a liberation from fretting about what books and authors I "should" or "shouldn't" like.  In the past several years, I have cheerfully tossed James Joyce and J. D. Salinger into my piles to sell at the local second-hand bookshop and have gleefully filled the regained shelf space with girls' school stories and romance novels and humorous tales of village life on my most centrally-visible, pride-of-place bookcases, where they rub shoulders with Virginia Woolf, Samuel Beckett, and Shakespeare.  They may make an odd mix, but they all provide pleasure and inspiration.

No more literary guilty pleasures for me.  Just pleasures, thank you, in widely-varying flavors.  And Franken's novels are simply delicious.

27 comments:

  1. I've enjoyed these as well and I've never met anyone else in the uk who has heard of them. Definitely icecream for the brain as you put it! Cathy

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    1. Well, Cathy, now you've (sort of) met several more readers from the UK who have read them. Isn't it nice to know you're not alone? :-)

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  2. My mother had 2 of them - certainly Claudia and David, as I remember the price of the dress particularly - but not sure which other one, so I know for certain that I read those in my teens. I must have found more when I started working in public libraries in 1968, as I definitely read others then. So they were still around in the UK at that time.
    I had almost forgotten them, but the dress price mistake suddenly came to into my mind the other day, and made me wonder whether to acquire some of them to read again. Thank you for telling me which one includes that little incident :)

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    1. Glad to have helped remind you of them. I feel like they're perfect books to keep around for stressful times or when one is feeling a little nostalgic.

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  3. As always, the cover "art" is intriguing. That first one makes Claudia appear to be a "woman of easy virture," whcih I am sure she is not, and the one of Claudia and David in his bath towel checking out the pink frock - well, is it hers, is she persuading him to wear it as drag? What? The cover are is always so intriguing, Scott!
    Tom

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    1. I THINK you might be reading a little too much into the cover art, Tom, unless David's transvestism appears in one of the novels I've yet to read...

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  4. No, no, Anon! A friend who was a librarian and I - both English - have both enjoyed Claudia. I have one of the series - Fragile Years or Claudia and David, I think - which I must now find. It has been pointed out to me that, for no reason I know, the library I went to as a child had a good selection of books from across the pond, and so I read Alcott, Coolidge, Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, Pollyanna (not much), Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, Anne Shirley, the Bobbsey Twins, Sue Barton, Cherry Ames and others, alongside Narnia etc. I am btw now discovering Olice Higgins Prouty, not well known in England, the rather Edith Wharton-like author of Now Voyager and Stella Dallas. Is she remembered in the US?

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    1. I've heard of Prouty but have never read any of her work. I seem to recall having come across one of her books recently--maybe at the book sale?--and not being able to remember where I knew the name from. Now you've reminded me of the highly successful movies which came from her books. I don't think she is read much anymore, but perhaps a revival is due?

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  5. Hi Scott - thank you for this - I have never heard of this series or author and will look out for them. Just wanted to comment as always I so very much enjoy your posts!
    Bronwen, Vancouver Canada

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    1. Thank you, Bronwen! So nice to have a reader in beautiful Vancouver!

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    2. I actually found a copy of Claudia and David - the same one in your post (what a hilarious cover) at a great local bookshop Paperhound today.

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    3. Oh, lovely, Bronwen! The stars were aligned. I hope you enjoy it!

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  6. I once collected all the Claudia books and when I'd read the lot I sold them again. As I've never seen another since, that may have been a mistake!

    I liked them for the pleasure of reading series fiction and for all the social detail. I got rather tired of the fact that for Claudia, David is everything (a lively sex life is hinted at), coming before her children and everything else in life. Rather selfish.

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    1. I did notice that about Claudia, too, and I can see that it might be off-putting. I think, living in a culture where children are once again supposed to be the be-all end-all of women's lives (at least according to American television), I found it kind of refreshing, but it was certainly noticeable and a bit unusual.

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  7. For the first time since reading your blog Scott I have taken umbrage at the covers. (I know, I know, you didn't design them :-)) And as for Blue-Hearted Bookworm's take on the books! Grrrrr.

    I had an omnibus edition in my teens, can't remember which of the books were in it, and read my way through all the rest from the local library. I loved them. And met a fair number of the situations during my married life. (And to respond to one of the commentators on BHB - yes many fathers were remote from their children in those days and loads of middleclass families, certainly in Britain, had help in the house.)

    I laughed and cried with Claudia and am left wondering whether Those Fragile Years and the omnibus vanished in the Giant Book Sale two years ago or whether I was bright enough to put them in storage.

    That's the second lot of books I have been left wondering about this week. The other was Chez Pavan abbey.....Will I ever be able to get those books out of storage again I wonder? I've just checked and Claudia is not on the GO shelves. Otherwise you could have borrowed her on Tuesday abbey.

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    1. Oh surely it's not your first umbrage, Gil! Think of all the other tawdry and sappy covers I've displayed here...

      I'm glad to hear you say that you encountered many of the situations in married life. It did seem to me that although the books may idealize the solutions to problems, the problems themselves are fairly realistic. I certainly recognized myself in them now and then. I do hope you find them again (and I couldn't resist googling Chez Pavan and am very intrigued by it too).

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    2. Ah yes, but I had nothing invested in those books....

      It was abbey who mentioned Chez Pavan on the Chalet School Bulletin Board. I am hoping my copy is in the Czech Republic. But I know Claudia isn't :-(

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    3. Noreen rather than I who mentioned Chez Pavan I think ... Mum may still have the 2 Claudias that I read as a teenager so no worries. I'd omitted to come back to this thread before we convened today!

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    4. Yes indeed, I realised that as we chatted :-)

      Enjoy Claudia. I shall have to wait....

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  8. OK, I thought it sounded familiar - so, a 1943 movie with Dorothy McGuire as Claudia (a child bride") and Rober Young as David (Father Knows Best!)
    and I guess Ina Claire is her mother, from whom she cannot stand living so far?
    Tom

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    1. Have you seen the movie, Tom? If you have, or if you track it down, you'll have to tell me if it's worthwhile (and if there's any suggestion of cross-dressing...)

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  9. My mom loved Claudia but I couldn't get into them as a child. Perhaps I'll try again.

    But Feeley, Tinkham and Rasmussen - I love them. In fact, I met a woman two weeks ago who looked just like Mrs. Feeley - lack of teeth and the ratchet faced profile. It was spooky!

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    1. So nice to know a fellow Suds in the Eye fan. I really may have to do another American digression here someday to write about those three wonderful characters. Such fun!

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  10. Comment from Chris Wesling:

    My late mother had a falling-apart hardback copy of The Book of Claudia, an omnibus edition of the first two books, Claudia and Claudia and David. I found your blog just now by googling Rose Franken, wondering how major an author she was and if the books were worth reading. After reading your interesting review, I will definitely have to give them a try.

    Funny you should mention the Mary Lasswell books -- I was introduced to them years ago via a handed-down copy of Wait for the Wagon and later picked up Suds in Your Eye and at least one other book in the series. Years ago I tried to find a copy of Mrs. Rasmussen's Cookbook for my mom, who not only enjoyed the books but was an amazing cook with a huge collection of cookbooks, but the only copy I was able to find in those pre-Internet days was over $100 -- way out of my price range at the time. I later heard that my Aunt Lyn had acquired a copy of it, but she passed away last year just a couple of months after my mother did, so I don't know what happened to it.

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    1. Thanks, Chris, hope you enjoyed the Franken books.

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  11. Thank you for this article. As an American teenager, I read all the Claudia books I wanted to read them again, in order, but I couldn't seem to remember the order. I will now take myself to the library and start with volume 1. I wonder if they are available as audio books; my eyesight isn't what it was 50 years ago. Probably not, but I can always hope. Judy Kudzin

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    1. Thanks, Judy, glad my post helped you out. I'm sure you'll enjoy your re-reading!

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