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.