Thursday, February 1, 2024

The Flying Draper Centenary - A Guest Post by John Howard

Ronald Fraser (1888-1974) was a British soldier and civil servant who achieved a small and dedicated following through his more than twenty novels beginning with The Flying Draper, first published in February one hundred years ago. (His final novel, A Work of Imagination, appeared in the year of his death.)

The Flying Draper (1924) is narrated in retrospect by Sir Philip Wokingham, the fiancé and later husband of Lydia, free-spirited and unconventional daughter of the botanist Sir Thomas Holbrook. Sir Philip is the personification of a respectable establishment politician, and the relationship between him and Lydia might seem unlikely. However, their love is genuine and profound, surely meant to last. Throughout the novel, opposites abound and are kept in a lively tension.

Lydia first encounters the Flying Draper, Albert Codling, among his tanks of tropical fish and greenhouse ‘full of green light and ferns’ when she visits him in the company of her uncle, Codling’s vicar, the pompous and earth-bound Rev. Walter Arbuthnot. The two men are very different in outlook but show a guarded respect for each other’s beliefs. Arbuthnot symbolises conventional thinking; Codling, with his ability to enter states of detached reverie and self-hypnosis, putting his body under the control of his will and imagination, making Lydia think of him as one of the Rishi: ‘Mountain wizards. A sort of rarified human being that has resigned the world and attained immortality’ (38).  

Codling is able to levitate and propel himself through the air: he explains that the contemplation of the lives of his fish and plants sets his mind free for flight. Soon he is a local celebrity, and as his fame grows becomes an inspiration for the young, many of whom eagerly wish to become his ‘disciples’. But Codling is as much loathed as loved. The media stir-up disorder, and his past is subjected to scrutiny. Questions are asked in Parliament. The parallels with another charismatic figure are clear, although Fraser has no need to state them explicitly. Albert Codling is not destined to return to his shop or enter peaceful retirement; neither will he become a spiritual leader or mentor. Yet his failure and death leave their mark on those who knew him, and cherished him as much as were exasperated by him.

It is appropriate that the story begins and ends in April. Growth and renewal, freshness and openness, are recurring themes, expressed through a variety of symbols. Codling lives near Primrose Hill, in North London (which was also the setting of Fraser’s novel Rose Anstey [1930]). That high, breezy, open space overlooking the crowded city is the scene of Codling’s first public ‘miracle’ – and, months later, his lonely death while surrounded by a hostile crowd. Throughout, The Flying Draper is full of images of height, air, and light: elevated, and so better, thoughts can then abound. Transcendence can be within grasp – and it can slip away.

On the anniversary of Codling’s death Philip and Lydia return to Primrose Hill. The times they spent with the Flying Draper, the memories of his words and actions, have left them wiser, if not sadder but nevertheless more understanding of the reality of their lives together. ‘For we both know, now, of something that makes all life strange and beautiful. There is some secret, some experience . . . perhaps we shall find it’ (252).

A revised edition of The Flying Draper was published in 1931 (and was included in Cape’s Saint Giles Library, 1940), with an author’s note stating that he ‘has attempted to remove the crudities of the original version’. In his introduction to that edition Humbert Wolfe explained that ‘crudities is too harsh but is permissible in self-criticism . . . the book has been re-orchestrated and always with advantage’ (14). Wolfe had previously told us that The Flying Draper had ‘slipped quietly into the world,’ continuing: ‘But for the most part, in so far as the book was noticed at all, it was dismissed as a fantasy in the manner of Mr H.G. Wells, and an unsuccessful one at that. In fact no serious book of our time is less like the work of Mr Wells or more completely unaffected by him’ (7).

Even though Albert Codling was the owner of a thriving business and not a downtrodden draper’s apprentice or assistant, he was surely at least a small nod to both Wells himself and the sort of characters who populate his earlier novels. Despite his powers Codling is also still something of a suburban ‘little man’ – another Mr Hoopdriver or Mr Lewisham who desperately wants to think better thoughts and radically break out into a new life. In the end Albert Codling, the Flying Draper, may fail to do so – or does he? Whether The Flying Draper is a Wellsian novel or not, it is certainly a fully Fraserian one.

(John Howard)


  1. I love learning about books and authors that I'm not familiar with!

  2. Thank you John. Fraser is one of those authors who seems destined to always be on the edge of obscurity. If my memory does not fail I believe it was an article in the greatly lamented Wormwood that first brought his work to my attention. Over the years I've been able to secure many of his works, including the so-called 'Venus Quartet' and the utterly astounding 'Flower Phantoms'. I would like to thank the contributors of both this site and Wormwood for Ronald Fraser and everything else.

    ps: Have the folks at Tartarus Press given any thought to publishing a single volume collection of selected Wormwood articles and reviews by any chance?

  3. Thank you for this, John. Ronald Fraser is woefully overlooked. Anyone discovering him is in for a great treat, for he wrote with an elegance, wit, and imagination that often rivals Nabokov or Wilde. As a fantasist he equals or surpasses them both. "Flower Phantoms" is indeed the place to start; then I'd recommend "Landscape with Flowers," set in an imaginary China of magic and miracles. Prepare to be astonished!

  4. I second all the previous comments above. Time spent reading Fraiser is never time wasted. In addition to the novels mentioned here, I would also recommend The Fiery Gate (1943), a slim novel set in Battersea and Chelsea during the blitz concerned with love, transcendence and magic-powers, & Tropical Waters (1933) an adventure in South America with two friends attempting to rescue a third from the clutches of a suave warlord. Lots of travel and local color, with just a touch of mysticism around the edges. Both novels deserving of a much wider readership.