George Orwell v Frank Richards
apropos of nothing in particular ... .
I've been browsing through the first volume of the Letters and Essays of George Orwell, and came across a particularly interesting and 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.
Orwell focuses mostly on the two older ones, each of which has a stock cast of characters, a setting that shows 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 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. 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, all thirty years of weekly stories by "Frank Richards" were produced by the same person. 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, the contents of two different weekly magazines for boys.
He shows himself 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 not that he is unaware of such things but 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.
Since Frank Richards' reply is available online, you can see if you agree that both halves of the exchange are well worth reading.
After posting this I googled for Frank Richards. It turns out that his real name was Charles Hamilton. He wrote not only the two weekly magazine series that Orwell discusses but many others as well. 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.