Invisible Ink No 248: Frank Swinnerton


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If you look at the events at the more prestigious British literary festivals, you’ll quickly notice one thing; many of the authors chosen to appear have become famous in more than one medium.

Topping the bill are television and radio celebrities, columnists, chefs, sports stars, and adventurers.

A century ago, their antithesis would have been someone like Frank Swinnerton, who, in literary terms, was an unassuming backroom boy, quietly toiling to keep the nation’s bookshelves filled. Born in the London suburb of Wood Green in 1884, he taught himself to read, began working for a newspaper, and moved into publishing, becoming a novelist, critic, biographer, and essayist of prodigious output. He remained so, in his modest manner, for the next 70 years. Although he lived in Cranleigh, Surrey, he rarely ventured as far as London, which he considered cliquish and unfriendly. As a publisher’s editor he helped other writers, including Lytton Strachey and Aldous Huxley.

For his own novels, he remained in his village concentrating on stories that featured “characters in a muddle”, from which he extricated them in the course of each novel. He felt there was too much showing off in the arts, and that writers would benefit by being less flashy and prone to intellectual pretension. For this reason he is sometimes linked with H G Wells, John Galsworthy and Arnold Bennett, and there are indeed touches of Bennett and George Gissing in his prose style. Although he was highly regarded in his time, he was not a great writer; his novels feature solid, interesting, working-class characters who lead somewhat dull lives, but their stories are not without insight. If he were working now, it’s tempting to imagine that he would be writing for Coronation Street. Swinnerton’s most admired volume was non-fiction; The Georgian Literary Scene became a touchstone work and is still widely referenced, despite being out of print.

Although he was the ultimate low-profile novelist, he had many fans who felt he’d written about their lives in a straightforward manner. It’s characteristic of Swinnerton’s level-headed style that the first chapter of his biography is titled “I Am Born” and the last is “What I Think About Life”. This non-style becomes a charming style in itself, even though he thought it had dated. Considering his great age (he died, aged 98, in 1982), he said: “I do not yet live continuously in the past, and so it would appear that I am not yet old.”