Frankie’s first book, Approach to Farming, was an immediate success and launched her career as a writer. It was published in time of austerity, with no photographs or fancy cover but its success and book reviews brought her instant fame and invitations to broadcast with the BBC. Her father was a famous playwright (hence her mention of an acting role as she had had the occasional walk-on part) and so reviews and celebrity were not new to her, but exhilarating and at the same time guilt-begetting. She felt in many ways a fraud as she was not yet farming independently, but still needing a bailiff. The yoke was irksome but she had to wait a bit longer before finally throwing it off early in the following year.
15/10/41 When I got back to-night I found my first review, in the B’ham Post, (which once damned me as an actress). It is a very good one and I think might be wonderful from a selling point of view. It is very enthusiastic. I will quote the best bits: “All this is set down with so much verve, so much unwavering enthusiasm, that it makes delightful reading …. There is personality in every page of this delightful book. Personality seems to have been an invaluable supplement to Mrs Donaldson’s other forms of capital.” Then all about Stapes, Clyde Higgs etc; “All of them get their portraits done with appreciation, intimacy and freshness”. I have just noticed that the article is headed “Personality on the Farm”. I hope you won’t get bored with the book, because, if things go on as they have started, (which they probably won’t), you will have to hear a good deal of it. I find it wildly exciting because, in relation to newspapers, I always expect them to find it a trifle conceited and therefore to be out to take me down a peg, so when they are not I am whooping with joy. So far, however, Clyde Higgs’ letter is the thing that has pleased me most because he is a tough old nut to crack, and he had obviously been amused by it.
I have just heard the news. Very bad. It looks as tho’ within a week Moscow may have fallen and Japan declared war.
(Oct 10: German armies encircle about 660,000 Red Army troops near Vyasma. Oct 15: The Germans drive on Moscow.
19/10/41 These are high spots in the TLS. “…Tho’ the author modestly disclaims any literary talent, her book is extremely well and clearly written.” I think this is pretty good for the Times and I am particularly pleased with the last sentence. Note “extremely”.
20/10/41 I think I shall take to feeding the pigs before breakfast because if I get up and go out and then eat a good breakfast I think I start the day with more vitality. It takes about an hour now, as I have to cut cabbage for them. I have had a letter from Malcolm Messer (editor of The Farmers Weekly) saying it will be mentioned next week and saying that he like it so much that he had ordered two further copies to give to friends. There is no question I am having a certain success even tho’ it doesn’t mean the book will sell. How lovely if you come back to a famous authoress!
Thomas has a very blunt toy saw with which he has been sawing wood all day. They have terrific application compared with other children. Katta’s children would not pick blackberries or glean wheat for more than 10 minutes. Ours will work all day and enjoy it immensely. It is because we work all the time so they think it is sensible and dignified and grown-up. Rose’s latest is a snort like a pig. She knocks on the door, and I say “Come in.” then she snorts. Then I say “O God, there’s Mummy’s pig come up here,” then she peals with laughter. She has a very gay, infectious laugh, and she absolutely splits her sides. She’s very inventive — she thought of all this herself.
22/10/41 I’ve had a letter from Morley Kennedy, Faber’s publicity Manager. He says there have been several good reviews besides the TLS. he says “We shall be sending you bad reviews as well if there are any, but it does look as if your book may be one of those rare ones which receive only favourable notices.” I must tell you that my head is not swelling at all – I take it all with a pinch of salt and remain the gloomy little pessimist you know so well.
27/10/41 I hardly dare to say it yet, but I believe the book is a wow. Fabers now advertise it with the remark “See book reviews which are too long to quote”. I was in London this morning. Both the Times and Hatchards have got it displayed in their windows.
30/10/41 Thomas is so sweet when he is earnest. He said to-day “If you would only learn me to feed the pigs I shouldn’t have to bicycle up and tell Carling you are ill”. I said “the bucket is too heavy for you”. He said “Well, you could get me a toy bucket and I could go backwards and forwards several times.”
6/11/41 I ought first to tell you about my experience as a broadcaster. When I arrived at the BBC I immediately discovered that George Haynes was your friend and we were both awfully pleased to see each other and I loved him. Then we all, Williams Ellis, who is like an imitation of George Arliss and immensely Bloomsbury as well, went up to Alford’s room. He was the producer, about our age and more extravagantly BBC than you could imagine. He appeared with Approach to Farming under his arm!
It was clear from the beginning that Alford wasn’t going to let Williams Ellis get away with anything, and he coped with the situation extremely well by just saying George Haynes had got out some excellent stuff and we ought to base the talk on that. So Haynes took the chair, as it were. He was of course sweetness itself to me.
We worked from 3 to 8 on the script and then went down to their basement cafeteria to have drink with a man called Johnny Green who is the BBC farming talks man and I thought really intelligent. Monday morning we started to rehearse. I was incredibly bad to begin with, and Alford was vicious — exaggerated imitations and so on. However he kept on at me all day. By the time I got to the mike I had no idea whether I was making any sense or not. You see, he rehearsed me well and hard, but one day isn’t really enough. After all, in the theatre you have three weeks. You have to go slow and emphasise much more than you would think. I wasn’t feeling at all inspired because I thought the talk was dullish anyway and also, as you know, I much earlier had got neurotic about doing it at all, and this plus Alford made me feel I should be both uninspired and also like a ham actor. However, he seems to have known his job better than I gave him credit for because the Stapledons and everyone else round here swear that I sounded quite natural and really not too bad.
7/11/41 By the way, Buck tells me that all the pundits have read the book, M of A notables and Rob himself. They don’t say so much about what any of these people think but I think one can assume they wouldn’t all have read it so soon unless at least some of them thought it was good. Who would ever have thought I would be read by the pundits? What gets me is how I ever did it. Sometimes, when I read a bit, I think Gosh, did I write that? How the hell and where on earth did I ever think of it? There are two things — 1) it was written in a mood of enthusiasm amounting to inspiration. 2) nothing in the world has ever been better timed.
Nanny is awfully sweet. She has very much taken me in now. Just now I said I was reading your criticisms. She said “Of course, he is clever, and then I always say education’s everything”. But then, “Anyway, you’ve got better writing than he has!” How’s that for a triumph?