William Charles Franklyn Plomer (10 December 1903 - 20 September 1973) was a South African and British author, known as a novelist, poet and literary editor. He also wrote a series of librettos for Benjamin Britten. He wrote some of his poetry under the pseudonym Robert Pagan.
Born of British parents in South Africa, he moved to England in 1929 after spending a few years in Japan. Although not as well known as many of his peers, he is recognised as a modernist and his work was highly esteemed by other writers, including Virginia Woolf and Nadine Gordimer. He was a homosexual, and at least one of his novels portrays a gay relationship, but whether he lived as openly gay himself is unclear.
Plomer was born in Pietersburg, in the Transvaal Colony, now Polokwane in the Limpopo Province of South Africa, on 10 December 1903. His parents were English; his father was a colonial civil servant, and the family moved between England and South Africa several times during Plomer's youth, with Plomer educated mostly in the UK, until his father left the civil service and took over a trading station in the Zululand region.
Plomer insisted on the pronunciation of his name as "ploomer" (to rhyme with "rumour"), although his family pronounced it in the usual way.
He started writing his first novel, Turbott Wolfe, when he was just 21, which brought him fame (or notoriety) in the Union of South Africa upon publication in 1925, which had inter-racial love and marriage as a theme. He was co-founder, editor and major contributor of the short-lived literary magazine Voorslag ("Whiplash") with two other South African rebels, Roy Campbell and Laurens van der Post in 1926. It included material in both English and Afrikaans, and intended to publish in the Zulu language, and also attempted to portray the more superior standards of European culture, while promoting a racially equal South Africa. Campbell resigned in protest against the editorial control exerted by the financial backer of the magazine. It never gained a wide readership.
Plomer became a special correspondent for the Natal Witness, but after Van der Post had met and befriended two Japanese men, one being the Japanese captain of a yacht, Katsue Mori, he and Plomer sailed for Japan in September 1926, Plomer leaving South Africa for the last time. Plomer stayed in Japan until March 1929, completing two volumes of short stories (I speak of Africa and Paper Houses) as well as a collection of poetry. He became friends with academic, poet and author Sherard Vines. There he fell in love with a Japanese man, Morito Fukuzawa, who became the model for the title character of Sado.
He then travelled through Korea, China, the Soviet Union, Poland, Germany, and Belgium to England and, through his friendship with his publisher Virginia Woolf and husband Leonard Woolf, entered the London literary circles. Among his friends there were Christopher Isherwood, W.H. Auden, Forster, J.R. Ackerley and Stephen Spender. The Woolfs, under their imprint the Hogarth Press, published Sado in 1931 and The Case is Altered in 1932, the latter becoming his most commercially successful novel.
He became a literary editor for Faber and Faber, and became chief reader and literary adviser to Jonathan Cape from 1937 to 1940, where he recognised the saleability of, and edited the first and many more of Ian Fleming's James Bond series. Fleming dedicated Goldfinger to Plomer.
From 1937, Plomer took part in BBC radio broadcasts, and contributed to the Aldeburgh Festival from its start in 1948. From the late 1950s, he contributed to frequent poetry readings and events, served on the Arts Council and the board of the Society of Authors.
He is known to have used the pseudonym "Robert Pagan", notably for some of his poetry.
At least one source (Alexander) says that Plomer was never openly gay during his lifetime; at most he alluded to the subject. However Southworth says that he lived relatively openly as a homosexual in Japan, and portrayed gay relationships in a number of his novels, including Sado, The Case is Altered, and The Invaders.
Plomer described himself as "Anglo-African-Asian" in a 1967 article of that name, nearly 40 years after his return to England.
The England and Wales National Probate Calendar records that he died at 43, Adastra Avenue in Hassocks, West Sussex (Cuckfield Vol 5H, Page 547, 3rd Quarter of 1973), (another source gives Lewes (the location of a nearby hospital) as place of death). The death occurred on 20 September 1973 aged 69 in the arms of his partner of almost thirty years, Charles Erdmann. The date given by Encyclopaedia Britannica is incorrect. The date cited in the London Gazette is also incorrect.
In 1976, the inaugural Mofolo-Plomer Prize, created by Nadine Gordimer and so named in honour of Basotho writer Thomas Mofolo and Plomer, was awarded to Mbulelo Mzamane. The judges for that year were Chinua Achebe, Alan Paton and Adam Small. Since then, Achmat Dangor, JM Coetzee, Njabulo Simakahle Ndebele, Rose Zwi and Peter Wilhelm have been other recipients of the prize.
Nadine Gordimer, in her introduction to a new edition of Turbott Wolfe in 2003, said that the novel deserved recognition as being in the "canon of renegade colonialist literature along with Conrad", and others have noted its experimental narrative structure, which puts it (along with some of his other work) in the category of a modernist novel.
[Name] Plomer, William Charles Franklyn. [Address] 43 Adastra Avenue, Hassocks, Hassocks, Sussex. [Description] Author and poet. [DOD]
Published online: 24 Feb 2007