Review by George Simmers. See his Great War Fiction blog here.
One of Us is a 1912 novel in verse, written by the young Gilbert Frankau. A direct imitation of Byron’s Don Juan, it tells the story of Jack, a wealthy young Englishman, as he travels around some of the world’s most luxurious locations, meeting young women who mostly fall in love with him – but something always happens to interrupt the relationship.
Technically, the book is a tour de force; Byron’s ottava rima stanza, with its abababcc rhyme-scheme, is a difficult one to handle. Frankau maintains it inventively, and the triple rhymes rarely show signs of strain.
According to Self-Portrait, Frankau’s ‘novel of his own life’, the book’s first title was The Nut Errant (a nut – or knut – being a young Edwardian man-about-town). This describes it quite well, since Jack, the hero, wanders from place to place having mildly amorous adventures. The title preferred by his publishers, One of Us, is also appropriate, since the book is all about being an insider, a member of the charmed circle of the leisured classes. The section set in Eton, where Frankau had been educated, makes much of Etonian slang and insider knowledge; later sections take the reader among American plutocrats, Parisian socialites and English theatrical stars. The familiar ease with which all these are presented was presumably part of the book’s appeal. There are several versified menus, giving details of the exotic food Jack is offered in glamorous locations.
Contemporary reviewers praised the poem’s satire, but this is usually aimed at fairly obvious targets. These stanzas come from a section where Jack is beginning an affair with the wife of a London department-store owner. The magnate opens a new store with a spectacular sale, and women come running:
Panting, they tore from Wandsworth’s leafy glades.
From Streatham’s hill where chapel nigh to church is,
From Walton’s pines and Ilford’s soapy shades,
From Sundridge Park embowered of silver birches :
Married and mateless — mothers — spinster maids,
Letting lone parrots languish on their perches —
By tram and tube and train and taxi-cab
The women of a nation came to grab.
They flung themselves on selvedges and smocking,
On stoles of skunk and wraps of wolverine,
They howled like fiends o’er handkerchief and stocking,
They bit, they scratched, they screamed for crepe-de-chine.
Duchess with Mrs. Snookson interlocking.
Slattern with silk-clad, massaged with unclean,
Rabid Bacchantes of the shopping lust
Wrastled and stamped and scrimmaged in the dust.
This passage shows Frankau’s strengths – his energy and his inventive use of rhyme – but the joke of women turned into fiends by the prospect of sale bargains is rather a standard one.
The story is episodic, and the characters are one-dimensional. Millionaires behave exactly as stereotypes of millionaires are expected to; the women Jack meets are either sweetly innocent or ruthlessly calculating. As the book progresses, the depiction of the women becomes less sympathetic – a reflection of Frankau’s disintegrating first marriage?
Self-Portrait tells us something about the work’s origins. After leaving Eton, Frankau had joined the family’s tobacco firm, and had travelled on business to the places described in the book – Germany, New York, Florida, Havana, Paris. By 1910 he was married and back in London; the marriage was running into problems and the business was going badly, so it was as a displacement activity that he decided ‘It would be rather fun to write an up-to-date Don Juan.’ He wrote the poem in the spare moments of a busy life, ‘for forty minutes twice daily on my journeys to and from London, after dinner on free evenings, and at fixed hours over the weekend.’
Jack’s travels follow Frankau’s own, but as a man of leisure, not as a businessman; the book conveys a conventional scorn of business. The later Frankau novels that I have read all have a touch of wish-fulfilment, telling the story of how he would like his life to have been, not how it actually was. One of Us is no exception. Jack is a insider, accepted everywhere, and a magnet to women. The young representative of a failing tobacco firm was probably not nearly as sure of his acceptance, and I suspect may not have had quite so many adoring female admirers.
A novel in verse was an unconventional offering in 1910. Frankau first sent the manuscript to Byron’s publisher, John Murray, who refused it, as did twenty other firms. His mother, Julia Frankau, persuaded Chatto and Windus to accept it. (Frankau says he he did not realise at the time that she had secured publication by agreeing to invest fifty pounds of her own money in the edition.) Perhaps unexpectedly, the book was a success. There was a second printing within a month, and a third followed a few months after that. A cheap edition appeared in 1914, and an illustrated edition in 1917. The last reprint, so far as I know, was in 1923, in Volume One of The Poetical Works of Gilbert Frankau (Which has been scanned, and is online here: http://archive.org/stream/poeticalworks01franuoft#page/n7/mode/2up )
The book was successful enough for The Tatler to contact Frankau in 1918, offering generous terms for a sequel, to be published in the magazine in weekly instalments. Frankau obliged with One of Them, the story of Jill, Jack’s female equivalent.
A century after publication, One of Us is more a curiosity of literature than a living work, but it is a reminder that Frankau could write well. He put care and effort into his verse, whereas his later novels were often dictated at speed (He claims to have dictated the first draft of Peter Jackson: Cigar Merchant in ten days.) His war poems were widely admired in their time, and the sequence ‘The Guns’ is well worth looking at.