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Ronald (William Sutherland) Frame Biography - Ronald Frame comments:

london novel penelope life

Nationality: British. Born: Glasgow, 1953. Education: High School of Glasgow, 1962-71; University of Glasgow, 1971-75, M.A. 1975; Jesus College, Oxford, 1975-79, B. Litt. 1979. Awards: Betty Trask award, for first novel, 1984; Samuel Beckett award, 1986; Television Industries award, 1986; Scottish Arts Council award, 1987.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

Winter Journey. London, Bodley Head, 1984; New York, Beaufort, 1986.

A Long Weekend with Marcel Proust: Seven Stories and a Novel. London, Bodley Head, 1986.

Sandmouth People. London, Bodley Head, 1987; as Sandmouth, NewYork, Knopf, 1988.

A Woman of Judah: A Novel and Fifteen Stories. London, BodleyHead, 1987; New York, Norton, 1989.

Penelope's Hat. London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1989; New York, Simon and Schuster, 1991.

Bluette. London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1990.

Underwood and After. London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1991.

The Sun on the Wall: Three Novels. London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1994.

Short Stories

Watching Mrs. Gordon and Other Stories. London, Bodley Head, 1985.

Walking My Mistress in Deauville: A Novella and Nine Stories. London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1992.

Uncollected Short Stories

"Rowena Fletcher," in Winter's Tales 3 (new series), edited byRobin Baird-Smith. London, Constable, and New York, St. Martin's Press, 1987.

"Trio-3 Stories," in 20 Under 35, edited by Peter Straus. London, Sceptre, 1988.

Plays

Paris: A Television Play; with Privateers (includes story). London, Faber, 1987.

Radio Plays:

Winter Journey, 1985; Twister, 1986; Rendezvous, 1987; Cara, 1988; Marina Bray, 1989.

Television Plays:

Paris, 1985; Out of Time, 1987.

*

My characters are caught between an imagined freedom to determine their lives and the machinations of fate. I write about the circular nature of time as we experience it, about repetitions and coincidences working through generations. About social ritual as a mental stabilizer.

"History" to me is a kind of grand opera bouffe, scarcely believable sometimes. Social contact too is a complex game, perhaps a more serious one, of bluffs and evasions and all graduations of "truth."

I'm interested in the compelling power of imagination. My characters are inward, inhabiting a landscape of memory and desire, but are also ironically aware of how other people see them: I prefer my descriptions to come through, say, self-reflections in mirrors or window glass, or to be read in the facial reactions of others. I try to bring my third-person narratives as close to the first-person perspective as I can.

I hope I don't deal in heroes and villains. I write quite formally, but within that structure I mean to follow illogic where necessary; violence is implied, and it may appear the more desperate by contrast with this ambience of control.

While dissecting, I aim to preserve some essential mystery about my characters, so that not everything should be knowable, to themselves or to us. They partly live through received images—cinematic, for instance—and I appreciate that in writing about a period like the 1950s, as I frequently do, I'm approaching it through its own legend. I don't hold with research and verifiable realism; much more important to me is atmosphere, the evocation of a world—an approximately detailed but spiritually authentic world—which I can use to pit my individuals against the process of historical change. I hope the atmosphere will lure the reader, and induce for a short time a spell that might prove consistent and credible—and enjoyable.

* * *

Ronald Frame belongs to that select group of male novelists who write almost exclusively from the female point of view; indeed he has been described as the poet of thé dansant, obsessed with the minutiae of women's lives. Although in a novel like Sandmouth People he is capable of creating a whole range of characters reflecting different social strata and both sexes—in this case representative of a small English resort town during the 1950s—his preference is clearly for the female personality, and it is noticeable that the most memorable characters are women. In this record of a day in the life of a nondescript English town, Frame creates the milieu of a social comedy in which his characters reveal themselves through their past and present lives. Most notable among these is Nanny Filbert, whose hidden secrets are resurrected once more to haunt her. Other characters also remain in the memory: Lady Sybil de Castellet, representing the old monied aristocracy, who dreams only of death; or Penelope Prentice, middle-class and wealthy, who carries on a covert affair with Norman Pargiter, "Sandmouth's own success story"; or Meredith Vane, the sub-Bloomsbury local author. All these, and a supporting cast of lesser lights, give the novel its knowing tone of a darker existence lying below the surface of a middle-class life so carefully depicted by Frame. It is indicative of the author's wit that he introduces a repertory company visiting Sandmouth to play Terence Rattigan's Harlequinade, a quintessential description of English middle-class life.

Although Sandmouth People is only his second novel—it was preceded by Winter Journey and by two collections of short stories—it is a good starting point for exploring Frame's fictional world. Similar to it in range of experience and in choice of background is A Woman of Judah which was published in a single volume with fifteen short stories. (Indeed, Frame is an excellent creator of shorter fiction.) Once again the time is the past, in this case England during one of the long hot summers of the 1930s, and the background is again peopled with a selection of suitably enigmatic characters. The story is told by Pendlebury, an elderly judge, reminiscing some fifty years after events which had a profound effect on him during his days as an articled clerk in rural Essex. While that is the starting point, Frame's main interest is the friendship Pendlebury strikes up with a couple called Davies: he is the local doctor and she appears to Pendlebury in all her "glowing well-scrubbed voluptuousness." Slowly but surely the novel starts to revolve around her, and young Pendlebury is drawn ever more deeply into her life. Although he desires her, she remains curiously aloof and yet, following her husband's suspicious death, she continues to haunt Pendlebury, allowing him no peace in the years to come. It is a strange and diverting novel, and manages to seduce the reader into joining a claustrophobic and closed society inhabited by basically dishonest people.

In his next two novels, Penelope's Hat and Bluette, the themes Frame had been exploring in his earlier fiction come to fruition in a new and precocious way. Penelope's Hat is the story of an English novelist who disappeared in 1979, leaving only her straw hat as a clue to her fate. Seven years later she resurfaces in Australia, but this is not a literary whodunit; rather, it is a novel of layers which have to be drawn back to reveal the different stages of Penelope's life—her childhood in Borneo and the return to post-war Britain, Cornish summer holidays, her life as a young girl during World War II and the awakening of sexual desire. Different hats at various stages of her life punctuate the passing of the years and provide clues about Penelope, but the novel's real fascination is the central character herself. Here Frame displays an uncanny ability to unravel the strands of her past, to make sense of her obsessions with expensive clothes, silk stockings, even hats. Luxury is a key word in Penelope's life, and Frame revels in the goods that provide it—precious perfumes, fast cars, and designer-labelled clothes. Penelope might have hidden herself under several hats, but Frame has the measure of her personality, and the overall effect is of hearing whispered conversations behind half-closed doors.

It could be said that in Bluette Frame wrote a sequel; even the opening sentence is a promise of the exotic story that is about to unfold—"Follow the finger of Destiny." Like Penelope in the previous novel, protagonist Catherine Hammond occupies a world that is part reality and part make-believe, and shifts disconcertingly between the two. At different stages she works in a nightclub, as an actress and, later still, in an upper-class brothel, but throughout she manages to retain her integrity—ironically, through her ability to surround herself with the finer things of life. Vast, sprawling and eclectic, Bluette is both a saga and deeply touching story of a woman's search to find something approaching fulfillment and happiness. The book marks Frame as one of the most innovative writers of his generation.

—Trevor Royle

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