Sunday, March 27, 2011

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.


NCLu said...

Funny enough, it makes me think of Schlock Mercenary. Although not in the political kind of sense. This guy has been writing and drawing a comic for ten years. He has posted new content every day for that entire duration, not missing a day. He keeps roughly a month of posts ready to go, just in case he gets sick or some other emergency. It amazes me, the people that can produce creative content on demand like this.

Joe said...

Hi David,

Since you like Orwell and Kipling this might interest you:

Norm said...

Fun. Thanks for putting this up.

I love Orwell's writing, although I have a much higher opinion of capitalism than he does. Frank Richards certainly can dish it out as well as Orwell.

Richards has Interesting thoughts about how to raise children and when to show them reality. However, the internet makes his way impossible.

David Friedman said...

I've read the Orwell essay on Kipling, and while it makes some legitimate points, I think it badly underestimates him as a poet. As evidence, I offer "The Mary Gloster," "Hymn to Breaking Strain," and "the Palace."

Joe said...

Hi again David,

Not sure if you saw this on Wikipedia: Frank Richards

It's a good link to include on this page.

Jeff S. said...

I followed your link to Frank Richards' reply. Near the beginning he says, perhaps tongue in cheek, that after he has finished his rebuttal to Orwell he expects "to receive from Mr Orwell a telegram worded like that of the invader of Sind."

If Richards' comment seems a little obscure, Wikipedia explains the joke:

'In 1843, British forces led by General Charles Napier conquered the province of Sindh in India. On his conquest he was supposed to have sent a one word message in Latin to his commander, Peccavi, meaning "I have sinned" ("I have Sindh"), making it not only a laconic phrase, but also a bilingual pun. In fact this message was suggested by Punch at the time, since Napier had been acting against orders.'

Bruce said...

They sound a little like the Stratemeyer publications in content. And in form. These went from magazine to book format without many changes in the format (cliff-hangers at the end of chapter).

Stratemeyer's first successful book series was the Rover Boys, followed by Tom Swift and many others. These culminated with the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew.

David Friedman said...

The other difference to the Stratemeyer publications is that those, as I understand it, really were written by a stable of authors using a common name for each series. Although I gather that, at least for quite a while, Stratemeyer himself had some involvement in all of them, sketching out a plot in very general terms.

But it is, in both cases, interesting that a single publisher was able to produce a certain sort of mass literature enough better than the competitors to maintain a near monopoly. In the penny dreadful case, Frank Richards' two series seem to have had no serious competitors within their niche, although there was another publisher competing in a somewhat different niche.

Nicholas D.Rosen said...

I can't say that I'm impressed by Frank Richards's views. I first read Orwell's _Collected Essays, Letters, and Journalism_ (or whatever the exact title is) when I was about eleven, and didn't think highly of them then. Obviously, a buy who was reading books like that at eleven could not agree that sixteen year olds shouldn't think about social problems. Richards may have caught Orwell in a few errors of fact, but his view of life, and of the British aristocracy, is very far from my own, and he has his cheap shots. No doubt the average Sixth Form boy did spend more time handling a cricket bat than cuddling the parlor maid, but unless boys then were very, very different from boys now, he certainly had frequent thoughts of cuddling the parlor maid, or something like that.

Anonymous said...

How do these "boys' weeklies" compare with American comic books? Based on Orwell's thoughts on boys' weeklies, comic books - despite being created largely by self-described progressives - would be responsible for instilling largely conservative values in young boys. There was actually an essay in FrumForum recently that argued that Captain America had a very conservative ethos.

Eddie Sharpe said...

I got my first Frank Richards book at nine and could not read it. You don't read them at nine. It was Orwell not Richards who went to a PUBLIC SCHOOL. Orwell in a novel praised 1910 to the skies, months before the Richards essay was published. Both Richards and Orwell will soon be forgotten as their work are but shadows now.

Anonymous said...

Anyone who has read the Magnet stories knows that the Greyfriars boys enjoyed the company of girls. Majorie Hazedene and Clara Trevlyn of Cliff House school were high sought after picnic companions for Greyfriars boys. Even Billy Bunter imagined Majorie had a crush on him.

So while sex didn't enter into the stories in a blatant in your face manner, boy/girl attraction was certainly not ignored. These days Orwell's criticism would probably be that homosexuality is not presented as a desirable coupling.

I read the Bunter books as a teenager and although I had girlfriends at the time I can't say I missed the fact that the stories avoided overt sex. I just kind of took it for granted that Harry Wharton and co would have girls on their minds when they weren't playing cricket and footer
and enjoying their regular adventures. Pretty much like normal teenage boys, really.