The Golden Gate (1986), Vikram Seth’s novel in verse (to be precise, in Onegin stanzas) is one of my all-time favorite books, and there is something about a verse novel I find particularly attractive. Perhaps it’s the way the flow of the verse gives the narrative an added momentum. When I picked up Nazim Hikmet’s Human Landscapes from My Country in the Istanbul airport a couple of years ago, it read so fast that I felt like I was inhaling it.
Alice Duer Miller’s Forsaking All Others (1931) was probably the most successful verse novel in English since Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh or her husband Robert’s The Ring and the Book, and it got a second wind when Miller’s second verse novel, The White Cliffs, a salute to England’s defense against the Nazis, sold over a million copies and led to its reissue. Running just under 100 pages in its original hardback edition, it’s perhaps more accurate to call it a novella in verse.
Unlike Vikram Seth, Miller mostly stuck to simple rhyming couplets and alternating rhymes (ABAB), and used a variety of foot lengths rather than sticking to one particular metre. However, the first couple parts of the poem may remember readers of the light, sophisticated, ever-so-slightly tongue-in cheek tone of much of the romance between Seth’s two protagonists. In this case, there is the added spice that the lovers are married–to other people. Lee Kent’s husband is locked away in an asylum, apparently a victim of combat fatigue from his time on the Western Front. Millionaire Jim Wayne (no relation to Bruce) has married his childhood sweetheart, the faithful but somewhat dreary Ruth.
The story in Forsaking All Others is played out in five parts. Part 1: Lee and Wayne meet at a dinner party and exchange some flirtatious banter. Part 2: Interested by Wayne, Lee wonders why he doesn’t contact her until they meet again at a art auction. Part 3: Lunches ensue. Part 4: The affair develops, and Wayne starts using the demands of business as an excuse to avoid joining Ruth at their summer place in Maine.
With Part 5, however, Miller takes her story on an express train from the Jazz Age to the heart of the Victorian era. Ruth, who knows that something is going on, dies tragically from a dramatically-convenient illness. “Is that you, Jim?” she murmurs in her fever before dying in a scene worthy of “Ten Nights in a Bar-room.” Stricken with grief and remorse, Wayne sails for the Mediterranean. The moral of the story? Vide the Seventh Commandment.
Personally, I’d have been happy to stop at the end of Part 4. Wayne is already struggling between attraction to Lee and loyalty to Ruth, but there are still plenty of bubbles in this champagne:
They would meet for luncheon every day
At a small unknown French cafe
Half-way up town and half-way down
With a chef deserving great renown.
And Pierre the waiter would smile and say:
“Bonjour, Monsieur, dame,” and they
Would see by his smile discreet and sly
That he knew exactly the reason why
A couple so proud and rich should come
To eat each day in a squalid slum.
And nothing delighted his Gallic heart
More than to find he could play a part
And protect “ces amoureux foux d’ amour”
And guide their choice through the carte du jour.
In its way, it could have been more conventional version of W. M. Spackman’s little classic of civilized adultery, An Armful of Warm Girl.
Nevertheless, Forsaking All Others still has something of a loyal following. One of Miller’s fans has brought her into the 21st century at www.aliceduermiller.com, where Forsaking All Others can be read. It’s also available in Kindle, and I’ve provided a PDF version here for anyone who’s interested.