‘If only the Huns could have shot straight…’: ‘Peter Jackson, Cigar Merchant’ by Gilbert Frankau (1919)

Review by John S:

When I selected this book – it seemed comparatively short – a colleague told me that it is in part autobiographical. Peter Jackson was written between 1917 and 1919 and published shortly after the war. It was one of the early Great War novels and one of the first literary treatments of neurasthenia or shell shock. (Siegfried Sassoon came later.) Peter Jackson’s success may be explained by the circumstances of its publication rather than its literary merit.

 ‘PJ’ is an upper middle class chap with a very stiff upper lip. He is married to Pat whom he treats as a pal rather than a woman. PJ owns several businesses in the tobacco trade. War breaks out in 1914, and PJ eventually signs up and becomes an adjutant (manager) in an artillery brigade. He has to sell the businesses which he can’t manage from France. As a business historian, I found the discussion of the tobacco trade very interesting. That and the description of an artillery brigade in training kept me going through the otherwise exceptionally dreary first half of the book.

At Loos – a very ‘bad show’ in which Harold Macmillan was wounded – PJ arrives on the battlefield at night. He hears a sound like ‘enormous wet fingers on an enormous glass.’ This was the sound made by the wounded in their thousands. However trite and awkward the rest of the book might be, Frankau achieves insight and clarity here on page 173.

During periods of leave, Pat struggles to communicate her love to her rather obtuse husband. PJ is eventually wounded in the head during the battle of the Somme. If only the Huns could have shot straight …. After PJ returns to blighty, his father in law, a Harley Street psychiatrist, diagnoses shell shock. With the help of Pat, whom he belatedly acknowledges as a lover not a pal, PJ is restored to health and becomes a farmer. Frankau’s awkwardness when describing PJ’s relationship with Pat rings true, but is also a bit sick-making. Fans of the singer Tom Jones will be surprised to read Pat’s impassioned invocation of Delilah on page 350.

 The only sympathetic character in the book is PJ’s colonel, the ‘Weasel’, a peppery old officer who looks after his men and, even more so, his horses. Gilbert Frankau’s novel is of interest as an early example of the Great War novel. Otherwise it is not worth the effort.

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2 thoughts on “‘If only the Huns could have shot straight…’: ‘Peter Jackson, Cigar Merchant’ by Gilbert Frankau (1919)

  1. Pingback: Christopher Strong by Gilbert Frankau (1931) « Reading 1900-1950

  2. Pingback: Frankau month at the special collection | Reading 1900-1950

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