Wednesday, June 21, 2017
Frolic Wind - Richard Oke
'Richard Oke' wrote four novels, and a study of Frederick II. He won some esteem, and notoriety, for Frolic Wind (1929), his first novel. It is highly mannered, very precious, and full of the sort of extravagant characters to be found in the fantasias of Ronald Firbank and Lord Berners.
A contemporary critic, Ralph Straus in The Bystander said: “It is one long gorgeous lark – the most brilliant bit of fooling that I have read since [Evelyn Waugh's] Decline and Fall, and with a scholarship which is not to be found in that amiable macabre experiment”. Another reviewer, St John Ervine, compared it to Aldous Huxley, Norman Douglas, and Compton Mackenzie. In its style and panache it also reminded me of the work of Patrick Carleton.
The plot, such as it is, concerns the mystery of the uppermost chamber in a tower in the garden of a country house, closely guarded by its eccentric chatelaine, Lady Athalia. A cavalcade of aesthetes, dandies, furtive personages and delicate recluses inconsequently drift through the gardens and the house. Dorothy L. Sayers alludes to the tower in her Gaudy Night (1936), evoking it as "the home of frustration and perversion and madness".
She was probably recalling a theatre adaptation of the story. Under the pen-name ‘Richard Pryce’, Oke wrote a play in three acts based on Frolic Wind, which seems to have won passing fame. It was published in 1935. He had been involved with the Oxford University Dramatic Society in a production of James Elroy Flecker’s exotic verse play Hassan, for which he designed the sets and costumes.
Oke’s second novel, Wanton Boys (1932) seems to have been an attempt to emulate the success of Frolic Wind with similar devices. It has also a set of jestingly-named characters in an opulent setting, this time a villa in Corsica. The arts patron Mrs MacKansas has invited an array of writers and artists to a creative holiday there, where they can devote themselves to work undisturbed and well cared-for. The mild satire is not as outré and does not have quite the same bizarre charm as its predecessor.
India’s Coral Strand (1934) is a fantasy in which stout, middle-aged Mrs Yarlove, setting the tea-table one day, swoons, then finds herself plunged into another world, a savage society where a feather-cloaked high priest conducts sacrificial rituals, evidently based on those of the Aztecs. To this strange race she appears as a goddess. For some years, while her original comatose body lies in her bedroom upstairs (and visitors pay to see the sleeping lady), she leads a dramatically different existence in this world of barbaric magnificence. The idea, though odd and gaudy, is perhaps not quite artfully developed enough to sustain interest over a novel length.
One of the few descriptions of the author is found in an excellent essay, ‘Requiem for a Minor Author’ by Fred West (The Antioch Review, Vol. 34, No. 3 (Spring, 1976), pp. 318-324). Richard Oke was the pen-name of Nigel Stansbury Girtin Millett (1904-1946). Oke and his father (a barrister by profession) went to live in Mexico in 1937, where they ran a cantina. This unusual move must presumably have had some particular stimulus behind it, possibly the delicate health of the son. Richard Oke died in 1946 in Guadalajara of tuberculosis, and his grave is in Mexico. His father died the following year.
Oke has also been credited with a collaboration with a friend, Peter Lilley, on Village in the Sun (1948), under the joint pseudonym of Dane Chandos. There were further books under the same pen-name, such as House in the Sun (1950) and Journey in the Sun (1952). The British Library catalogue credits these books to Peter Lilley and Anthony Stansfeld. These two also collaborated on at least two books as ‘Bruce Buckingham’, Three Bad Nights (1956) and Boiled Alive (1957).
Frolic Wind at least deserves a discerning following for its languorous, inconsequential but strangely alluring prose: it is certainly one of the few plausible emulations of the dragonfly wit and imagination of Ronald Firbank.
A Checklist of Books by Richard Oke
Frolic Wind (Gollancz, 1929)
Wanton Boys (Gollancz, 1932)
India’s Coral Strand (Faber & Faber, 1934)
Frolic Wind: A Play in Three Acts [by ‘Richard Pryce’] (Gollancz, 1935)
The Boy from Apulia (Arthur Barker, 1936) (on Frederick II)
Strange Island Story (Arthur Barker, 1939)