The Willow Cabin by Pamela Frankau

When I searched for the source of the title of Pamela Frankau’s 1949 novel, it was lovely to remember how lovely it was, and to realise that it suited the book that I had just read quite beautifully.

“Make me a willow cabin at your gate,
And call upon my soul within the house;
Write loyal cantons of contemned love,
And sing them loud even in the dead of night;
Halloo your name to the reverberate hills,
And make the babbling gossip of the air
Cry out ‘Olivia!’ O, you should not rest
Between the elements of air and earth,
But you should pity me…”

From Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare

This the story of Caroline Seward, a young actress who had just had her first taste of success on the stage. Wonderful possibilities opened up for her, but she didn’t take them. Because she had fallen in love – with Michael Knowles, a successful, middle-aged doctor – and she built her life around him.

He loved her.

“He came over to the chair, pulled her out of it and stood holding her hands. ‘If I were really grown-up now, I should say good-bye to you and walk out of your life. And yet I cannot bear to go.'”

But Michael was married. He and his wife were estranged, and he made it clear from the start that that there could be no divorce. Caroline accepts the situation, she lives for the moment, but it casts a shadow over their relationship. How could it not?

The Willow CabinWhen war came, and Michael was called up, Caroline signed up for military service so that she would be as close to him as she could be. But Michael did not survive the was. Caroline, grieved for him, but it was only when she finally met her lover’s estranged wife that she fully understood and could come to terms with everything that had happened.

You could call this a love story, and of course it is a love story, but it is so much more that those simple words suggest.

It is the story of a young woman who changes, and whose understanding grows. And it is the story of her relationships. With theatre friends and colleagues, who appreciate her talent, who want to work with her, but are often infuriated by her.  With Michael’s friends and family, who were also friends and family of his estranged with. With her best friend, who was practical, sensible, and just the friend she needed.

Every character, every relationship is carefully and beautifully drawn, with rich detail and understanding that gives the story wonderful depth and power. Period detail, and a lovely writing style, made it very readable. So many different scenes played out so very well; the story lived and breathed.

Michael was an elusive character, and I’m inclined to think that Pamela Frankau was much better at women that men. Certainly it’s the women – Caroline;  Michael’s estranged wife, Mercedes; Caroline’s best friend Joan; Michael’s sister, Dorothy – who make the story sing.

Caroline was not the most likeable heroine. She was often heedless to the consequences of her actions, and insensitive to the feelings and concerns of others. But she was utterly believable, and I found that I felt for her, even when I was shocked or disappointed by her actions.

Her story and its telling might seem a little dated now, but it is so well done that it more than repays slow and careful reading. And now I’m very interested to find out who I might meet in Pamela Frankau’s other novels …

8 responses

  1. Oh, Jane, you are so making me want to re-discover the Viragos I have on my shelves (including some Margaret Kennedys) and look for the ones I’ve never heard of (like this one)!

  2. Ooh, just the sort of story I enjoy so much! I was with a group of friends in Toronto yesterday for Buskerfest. Needless to say there were three second-hand shops along the route and I ducked into all of them looking for green spines. Didn’t buy a single book but was quite intrigued by a mime artist! Thanks for pointing out the good reads, Jane.

  3. Pingback: A nice cup of tea, and a chat about books. | heavenali

  4. Pingback: The Story of the Where-Virago-Led-Me Bookcase | Beyond Eden Rock

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