George Orwell v Frank Richards
Another on Orwell ...
.Browsing through the first volume of the Letters and Essays of George Orwell, a four volume collection that is my favorite Orwell writing, I came across an entertaining exchange. It starts with a long article by Orwell, written in 1940, on "Boys' Weeklies," sometimes called "penny dreadfuls" although, as Orwell points out, they actually sold for tuppence.
The Weeklies, of which Orwell identifies ten, produced by two different publishers and including two older series somewhat different from the others, were very popular reading, targeted at boys up to about fourteen or fifteen. All of the stories in the two older ones and many in the others were set in British public schools; Orwell suggests, plausibly enough, that much of the inspiration for the setting was Kipling's Stalky and Company.
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Orwell focuses mostly on the two older ones, each of which had a stock cast of characters and a setting that showed no sign of changing for the thirty years over which they had been coming out and recognizably stylized plots and dialog. He comments that although each claims to be written by a single named author — "Frank Richards" for one series and "Martin Clifford" for the other — it is obvious that a single author could not have done thirty years of weekly stories and that the stylized writing is in part a way of maintaining the illusion of a single author.
The essay is interesting both for the detailed, and to some extent sympathetic, description of the weeklies
In the Gem and Magnet there is a model for very nearly everybody. There is the normal athletic, high-spirited boy (Tom Merry, Jack Blake, Frank Nugent), a slightly rowdier version of this type (Bob Cherry), a more aristocratic version (Talbot, Manners), a quieter, more serious version (Harry Wharton), and a stolid, ‘bulldog’ version (Johnny Bull). Then there is the reckless, dare-devil type of boy (Vernon-Smith), the definitely ‘clever’, studious boy (Mark Linley, Dick Penfold), and the eccentric boy who is not good at games but possesses some special talent (Skinner Wibley). And there is the scholarship-boy (Tom Redwing), an important figure in this class of story because he makes it possible for boys from very poor homes to project themselves into the public-school atmosphere. In addition there are Australian, Irish, Welsh, Manx, Yorkshire and Lancashire boys to play upon local patriotism. But the subtlety of characterization goes deeper than this. If one studies the correspondence columns one sees that there is probably no character in the Gem and Magnet whom some or other reader does not identify with, except the out-and-out comics, Coker, Billy Bunter, Fisher T. Fish (the money-grabbing American boy) and, of course, the masters.
and for Orwell's analysis of their political implications. He thinks they are designed, probably deliberately by the owners of the firms that publish them, to indoctrinate boys with conservative views — respectful towards the upper classes, ignorantly patriotic, contemptuous of foreigners, blind to the real problems of British society.
Here is the stuff that is read somewhere between the ages of twelve and eighteen by a very large proportion, perhaps an actual majority, of English boys, including many who will never read anything else except newspapers; and along with it they are absorbing a set of beliefs which would be regarded as hopelessly out of date in the Central Office of the Conservative Party. All the better because it is done indirectly, there is being pumped into them the conviction that the major problems of our time do not exist, that there is nothing wrong with laissez-faire capitalism, that foreigners are un-important comics and that the British Empire is a sort of charity-concern which will last for ever. Considering who owns these papers, it is difficult to believe that this is un-intentional. Of the twelve papers I have been discussing (i.e. twelve including the Thriller and Detective Weekly) seven are the property of the Amalgamated Press, which is one of the biggest press-combines in the world and controls more than a hundred different papers. The Gem and Magnet, therefore, are closely linked up with the Daily Telegraph and the Financial Times. This in itself would be enough to rouse certain suspicions, even if it were not obvious that the stories in the boys' weeklies are politically vetted. So it appears that if you feel the need of a fantasy-life in which you travel to Mars and fight lions bare-handed (and what boy doesn't?), you can only have it by delivering yourself over, mentally, to people like Lord Camrose.
The essay ends with a somewhat tentative suggestion that someone ought to produce a left-wing equivalent and a discussion of some problems in doing so.
It is an interesting essay on its own merits. Still more interesting is the response, an article by Frank Richards rebutting Orwell and defending his own work. It turns out that, contrary to Orwell's confident claim, most of thirty years of weekly stories by "Frank Richards" were produced by the same person, with occasional stories by other authors when he was for some reason not available. Further, as Orwell comments in a later footnote to his essay, Frank Richards was also Martin Clifford, so the same person produced, for thirty years, most of the contents of two different weekly magazines for boys.
His response shows him to be an intelligent and articulate writer. His views are conservative in a general sense; he makes it clear that the setting of the stories is an unchanging 1910 England because he does not think much of the changes since. But he also makes it clear that the reason his stories do not include strikes, unemployment, labor unions, and a variety of other features of the real world is that he believes that providing boys an imaginative foundation in a secure world helps equip them to face future difficulties in a world much less secure.
Of strikes, slumps, unemployment, etc., complains Mr Orwell, there is no mention. But are these really subjects for young people to meditate upon ? It is true that we live in an insecure world: but why should not youth feel as secure as possible? It is true that burglars break into houses: but what parent in his senses would tell a child that a masked face may look in at the nursery window ! A boy of fifteen or sixteen is on the threshold of life: and life is a tough proposition; but will he be better prepared for it by telling him how tough it may possibly be? I am sure that the reverse is the case. Gray—another obsolete poet, Mr Orwell !—tells us that sorrows never come too late, and happiness too swiftly flies. Let youth be happy, or as happy as possible. Happiness is the best preparation for misery, if misery must come. At least, the poor kid will have had something! He may, at twenty, be hunting for a job and not finding it—why should his fifteenth year be clouded by worrying about that in advance? He may, at thirty, get the sack—why tell him so at twelve ? He may, at forty, be a wreck on Labour's scrap-heap—but how will it benefit him to know that at fourteen ? Even if making miserable children would make happy adults, it would not be justifiable. But the truth is that the adult will be all the more miserable if he was miserable as a child. Every day of happiness, illusory or otherwise—and most happiness is illusory—is so much to the good. It will help to give the boy confidence and hope. Frank Richards tells him that there are some splendid fellows in a world that is, after all, a decent sort of place. He likes to think himself like one of these fellows, and is happy in his daydreams. Mr Orwell would have him told that he is a shabby little blighter, his father an ill-used serf, his world a dirty, muddled, rotten sort of show. I don't think it would be fair play to take his twopence for telling him that!
His defense of portraying foreigners as funny:
As for foreigners being funny, I must shock Mr Orwell by telling him that foreigners are funny. They lack the sense of humour which is the special gift of our own chosen nation : and people without a sense of humour are always unconsciously funny. Take Hitler, for example, —with his swastika, his 'good German sword', his fortifications named after Characters from Wagner, his military coat that he will never take off till he marches home victorious: and the rest of his fripperies out of the property-box. In Germany they lap this up like milk, with the most awful seriousness; in England, the play-acting ass would be laughed out Of existence. Take Mussolini—can anyone imagine a fat man in London talking the balderdash that Benito talks in Rome to wildly-cheering audiences without evoking, not wild cheers, but inextinguishable laughter? But is il Duce regarded as a mountebank in Italy? Very far from it. I submit to Mr Orwell that people who take their theatricals seriously are funny. The fact that Adolf Hitler is deadly dangerous does not make him less comic.
The conclusion of Richard’s reply:
To conclude, Mr Orwell hopes that a boys' paper with a Left-wing bias may not be impossible. I hope that it is, and will remain, impossible. Boys' minds ought not to be disturbed and worried by politics. Even if I were a Socialist, or a Communist, I should still consider it the duty of a boys' author to write without reference to such topics: because his business is to entertain his readers, make them as happy as possible, give them a feeling of cheerful security, turn their thoughts to healthy pursuits, and above all to keep them away from unhealthy introspection, which in early youth can do only harm. If there is a Tchekov among my readers, I fervently hope that the effect of The Magnet will be to turn him into a Bob Cherry !
Frank Richards' reply is available online; you can see if you agree that both halves of the exchange are well worth reading.
Frank Richards’ Wikipedia entry is under his real name of Charles Hamilton. It turns out that he wrote not only the two weekly magazine series that Orwell discusses but many others as well, including another on Orwell’s list of ten. His total output is estimated to have been about a hundred million words, more than 5000 stories, roughly equivalent to 1200 novels of average length; he is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the world's most prolific writer.
He was born in 1876 and published his first story in 1895, when he would have been eighteen or nineteen. For those who would like to sample his work for themselves, quite a lot of it, including a majority of the stories in the Gem and the Magnet, can be read online at the Friardale website.
A Smaller Orwell mistake
(From my previous post)
Although he had no direct connexion with any political party, Kipling was a Conservative, a thing that does not exist nowadays. Those who now call themselves Conservatives are either Liberals, Fascists or the accomplices of Fascists.
As evidence of Frank Richardson’s attitude to Fascists we have his comments on Hitler and Mussolini, quoted above. Proving that he isn’t a Liberal in Orwell’s sense (Adam Smith not FDR) is harder, but this passage, from the first paragraph of Richardson’s reply, is pretty clearly written by a Conservative:
His most serious charge against my series is that it smacks of the year 1910: a period which Mr Orwell appears to hold in peculiar horror. Probably I am older than Mr Orwell: and I can tell him that the world went very well then. It has not been improved by the Great War, the General Strike, the outbreak of sex-chatter, by make-up or lipstick, by the present discontents, or by Mr Orwell's thoughts upon the present discontents!
Orwell had at least one conservative contemporary.
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