Sunday, 8 June 2014

An Act in a Backwater

Fiction ~ novel
Published 25th January 1905
Approx. 62,000 words
(First read 08/06/2014) 

The more I read of EFB, particularly but not exclusively the early novels, the clearer it becomes that he wasn't really cut out to be a novelist ~ his short stories (and non-fiction, essays, articles, reviews etc.) are much much better as writing.  His novels, sadly, have a marked tendency to be inchoate, uneven, lumpy, sometimes even incoherent ... well, no, not that exactly ~ it's as if his mind kept wandering and he forgot what he was doing.
Anyway, enough musing.
Having read some of the reviews below, I'd been looking forward to An Act: "Oh goody," I thought, "a very early example of a Benson smalltown comedy."  Well, for the first few chapters I wasn't disappointed: we're introduced to the inhabitants of the small cathedral town of
Wroxton, and a very promising bunch of characters they are.  Colonel Raymond, late of the India Service (or so he wants people to believe) is a fore-runner of Colonel Chase in Paying Guests, and to a lesser extent of Major Benjy in 'those novels': a blustering, buffoonish braggart; his wife is obviously completely squashed by him, while his three little children are merely terrified.  The Misses Clifford are 40-something spinsters with harmless eccentricities.  But pride of place goes to Mrs Collingwood: EFB pulls off quite a trick with this character ~ he patently doesn't care for this cold, puritanical and (perhaps) rather stupid woman, but he somehow contrives to make her fairly sympathetic, particularly when, after an uncharacteristically personal conversation with her artist son, she melts ~ just once.
Now the unfortunate thing happens: EFB takes his eye off this promising material and relegates it to the background.
Enter the supposed hero and heroine of the piece: Mrs Collingwood's son Jack, and the Honourable Jeannie Avesham¹.  The former in fact is pretty much of a cypher, a young chap with vaguely artistic leanings but who's obviously more passionate about bloody golf than anything else.  Most of the book revolves around Jeannie, who is Benson Cliché Number 3, naught but an agglomeration of tedious saintly virtues ... after a while of her one almost starts to wish a Dodo would appear ~ she doesn't.  Instead EFB regales us with the preposterous story of an orphaned baby, which Jack and Jeannie 'adopt' ('appropriate' would be nearer the mark), treat much like a pet dog, and never bother to give a name to.  Jeannie becomes literally addicted to do-goodery, and faces her greatest challenge when there's an epidemic of typhoid fever in the town², but she sails through it triumphant, falls in love with Jack, The End.
Well no, that's not quite the end.
One of those long-neglected Clifford sisters makes the mistake of moving in the background; she catches EFB's eye and is instantly stricken with cancer, which she promptly dies of just before our hero and saint tie the knot³.  Benson commits this monstrous act of character-murder purely so he can trot out the platitude "While life begins for some, it ends for others."  An Act in a Backwater has nothing more profound than that to say, just like the vast bulk of Benson books.
I'm absolutely convinced that he sat down to write a Mapp and Lucia-style comedy ~ why else go to such lengths to introduce all one's minor characters? ~ but soon either changed his mind or forgot what he was doing.  The result is neither fish nor fowl.
The whole novel is available online here ~ it's fairly short.

¹ For heaven's sake, EF, don't you know any other christian names?
² For heaven's sake, EF, don't you know any other diseases?
³ Benson pulled off exactly the same 'trick' in Mr Teddy, but at least in that novel the character is allowed to die on the page, at some length, and with humour and dignity.  Poor Miss Clifford is merely bumped off.  Nastily. 

Mr E. F. Benson's new story will be published by Mr Heinemann at the end of this month. It is a story of love and courtship in a quiet cathedral town, and is somewhat in the vein of The Challoners. Mr Benson, who never neglects his 'minor characters', here gives them special attention.
~The Western Times [UK], 10/01/1905
Love and courtship in a quiet Cathedral town form the theme of Mr E. F. Benson's new novel, An Act in a Backwater, which Mr Heinemann announces for Wednesday [i.e. 25/01]. The society of the place is depicted in Mr Benson's happiest vein, and the story is told with his customary neatness and vivacity. It may be worthy of remark that Mr Benson's book, The Challoners, has been the greatest of all his successes.
~The Courier [Dundee, UK], 23/01/1905
 Mr. Benson has given us a slight but pleasing study of life in a small Cathedral town. The brother and sister of a poor nobleman settle there, and introduce a novel element into the placid life of the place which gives many opportunities for comedy. The son of a Canon, an artist, and therefore a rebel against the tyranny of the Close, falls in love with the sister, and the progress of their romance is the main interest of the book. Almost the only disagreeable person is a retired Colonel of Volunteers, who is aptly described by one of the characters as "the sort of man you find in a book on the Army by a lady." He is a snob and a coward, and provides the necessary relief from the intense amiability of the others. Jeannie Avesham is an attractive heroine, but the author is so anxious to show her goodness to the reader that he overdoes it and makes her a little theatrical. A deserted child and an epidemic of typhoid were surely enough, without afflicting a poor old spinster with cancer in order to bring out an unselfishness which was already sufficiently established. The best portrait seems to us to be the Canon's wife, Mrs. Collingwood, a type of the narrow good woman; but the treatment, as in that of the others, is spoiled by an undue sentimentality. It is a pleasant, wholesome story, but it might well have ended with Miss Avesham's engagement, for the later chapters read like the elaboration of a tale already told.
~The Spectator, 04/02/1905
Mr. Benson always tells a good story. An Act in a Backwater is a little comedy of an English town, dealing with the love story of a nice English girl and a young painter, neither of whom possesses a bit of morbidness. The book is one that puts the reader in a good humor with himself and other people, and so is a good book to read.
~Buffalo Express, quoted in endpapers to US edition of The House of Defence

An Act in a Backwater is in Mr Benson's lighter vein, but written with all his accustomed cleverness and humor, and it forms a delightful commentary on human nature in general as well as on its particular manifestations in the quiet, not to say dull, English town of Wroxton. That is to say, Wroxton was undoubtedly dull to the casual, unobservant eye of any but its most devoted inhabitants, but a quite different state of affairs is revealed when Mr Benson begins to examine it for literary purposes and discovers the possibilities for entertainment in the vanities and pomposities of Colonel Raymond, in the pathetically innocent enthusiasm of the elderly Miss Cliffords, the strenuous but irritating virtue of Mrs Canon Collingwood, the doings of the Ladies' Literary Union, where 'very improving and sometimes amusing pieces were read,' and in the contrasting unconventionality of 8 Bolton Street, whither the exigencies of fortune had brought a son and daughter of the late Lord Avesham to live while the son was initiated into the vulgar but lucrative mysteries of brewing beer.
In the eyes of Wroxton the intrusion of beer did not at all detract from the brilliance of a noble name, and for all sorts and conditions of Wroxtonites a new interest was added to life by the settling in their midst of these two youthful but exceedingly wideawake members of the house of Avesham. Even on the day they moved into Bolton Street a consuming curiosity kept the younger Miss Clifford wobbling back and forth past the house on her bicycle, from which she had to dismount when she needed to turn round, while on the same occasion Colonel Raymond happened once at least to be near enough to lend a hand with an abnormally heavy bookcase. Colonel Raymond's interest in the newcomers was more painful than pleasurable, as he had all his life been shining in the much-diluted glory of having a wife whose brother-in-law's sister was the late Lady Avesham, and if some of his much-boasted noble relatives, who did not know him from Adam, were actually coming to live in Wroxton he had an irritating consciousness that his habitual conversation would have to be curtailed or, still worse, corrected. It therefore behooved the Colonel to obtain a suitably familiar footing in Bolton Street at the earliest possible moment, and he hovered in the vicinity like the traditional moth round the candle. His experiences in this process of introduction, and even afterward, were of a variety calculated to pierce even his thick-skinned egotism, and in fact the exposure of the Colonel's character in all its devious ramifications is quite the best thing in the book, and amusing enough by itself to pay for its reading.
Mrs Collingwood, whose horizon was bounded by the Cathedral Close, and who waged fierce warfare upon the use of stimulants and modern fiction, adds uninterruptedly to the gayety of the story, and is unique in her narrow British bigotry, as is the Colonel in his unblushing pretenses. The Miss Cliffords are delightful types of the kind of maiden lady who never grows old in her tastes. Miss Clara was forty-two, her sister, Phoebe, a year or two older; but Clara rode her bicycle and wrote lyrics, while Phoebe accompanied sentimental ditties on her mandolin with exactly the same flow of youthful spirits as in their teens. They were happy and satisfied and felt no tragedy in their lives, but it was there all the same as they floated slowly around in a backwater of life, while the adventure and romance of living swept by them.
Nothing has been said so far of the heroine and hero of Mr Benson's charming little story, but it has both of those indispensable adjuncts, and naturally they bear no small part in the proceedings. Mr Benson has been known to draw smart English society in terms hardly complimentary to either its brains or its heart, but the aristocrats in this book are of the true-blue variety. There was not a drop of snobbish blood in Jeannie or Arthur Avesham, or in their wonderful Aunt Emma, and all that was sincere, natural, and worth while in Wroxton was accepted by them with a simplicity quite disarming; things like the Colonel and Mrs Collingwood were, as simply, kept at arm's length and made game of, greatly to the reader's satisfaction.
An epidemic of typhoid fever in the village gives the Aveshams an opportunity altogether to win the hearts of their neighbors by nursing them, regardless of weariness or danger, and it also convinces Mr Jack Collingwood, an artist, and therefore the black sheep of the Canon's family, that Jeannie Avesham's safety is of infinite importance to himself. Strangely enough, that was exactly what Jeannie had unconsciously been waiting for him to find out, and so all went merrily ever after,
As an example, not of Mr Benson's power, but of his wit, cleverness, and knowledge of human nature, An Act in a Backwater is a delightful bit of work.
~The New York Times, 11/03/1905

In some ways it is one of the best of Mr. Benson's books, for it develops certain quiet characters with considerable skill, and it is pleasantly and evenly written. It is eminently pleasant and wholesome; has many touches of nature in it.
~The Westminster Gazette, quoted in endpapers to Juggernaut
In An Act in a Backwater Mr. Benson gives us at least the shock of a surprise. For no one would have expected from the author of Dodo a mild and moving story, which we might describe as the apotheosis of Family Herald fiction. There is a Colonel, of course, and an Earl's daughter—the former a braggart and a coward, the other an angel of democratic tendencies. The Canon's rebellious artist son falls in love with the Earl's daughter. When fever breaks out in the village, the Earl's daughter is to be found by the bedside of the humblest, and the Canon's artist son is meanwhile heroically watching over the illegitimate child of his oldest friend. To complete the pathos Mr. Benson cruelly causes the charming village spinster to die of cancer. The plot of the book is banal to a degree, and only the obvious sincerity and seriousness of much of it forbid our consideration of it as an extravagant skit. The characterisation is often excellent, and, thanks to Mr. Benson's skill, the story makes very agreeable reading. But the wit in the book is not sufficient to save it from being not only surprising, but a little ridiculous. Mr. Benson is not at his best in a backwater. He is more himself in a house-boat on the Thames.
~The Bookman (UK), 03/1905
This story is so slight and uneven as compared with Mr. Benson's last published novel, The Challoners, that it seems like a sketch of a larger story abandoned because the author was dissatisfied with it. It has some pleasant bits of human nature and one or two lovable characters, but, considered as a novel, it is wretchedly constructed.
~The Outlook (US), 04/03/1905

A typical English novel
Much that goes to the make-up of a goodly section of modern English life may be found in this novel. There is the retired Indian official now turned garrulous clubman, the bishop, bishop's wife and bishop's son, the titled man and his relatives. A sister of the titled man and the bishop's son become hero and heroine, and an interesting couple they make, altho[ugh] they never wander outside conventional paths. A bevy of lesser lights circulate about these; gossip bubbles, babbles, and overflows. Nothing of unusual import really happens, yet interest is sustained by the force and vividness with which the people flitting before us are held up to the mirror that reflects the narrow,gossipy interests of an English provincial, town in which the intimate personal note is paramount and the large interests of the outside world play no part. And yet there is an ethical value in the minute exposition of this seeming inconsequent everyday life, because of the unlooked forheroisms that underlie it and crop to the surface as the story unfolds. As for the rest, it is sprightly in movement, well seasoned with the salt of humor, marked by literary skill in the construction, and in general fidelity to detail might be called Jane Austen-like—almost.
~The Literary Digest [US], 10/06/1905

The Morning Post has some very amusing criticisms of Mr. E. F. Benson's new novel An Act in a Backwater. Commenting on the wonderful achievements of artists in fiction, as for instance Charles Reader's sculptor, who could carve the bloom on a plum, the writer goes on to state that 'Jack Collingwood', Mr. Benson's hero, is worthy to stand with the best of them. When walking by a river he sees a girl playing with a dog, and from an instantaneous mental photograph, so to speak, paints a large canvas in three days, which is accepted by a local exhibition. “In the middle of it, cutting the picture nearly in two, was the figure of a girl, dressed in black, hatless, and keeping off a puppy with her parasol. Round the dog was a halo of spray, and he was in the middle of shaking himself, for his head was curly, his flanks and tail still smooth. It was an inimitable representation of a moment. One almost expected to see the halo of spray spread further and the hind part of the dog grow curly.”
~The Manchester Courier [UK], in the 'Painters at Work' column, 22/08/1905

A number of vivid and entertaining character sketches, and dialogue that is quite spontaneously witty and amusing.
~Daily Graphic, quoted in endpapers of Sheaves
It is a delicious world into which he takes us. There are scenes in it which 'catch hold'. The breaking down of the barrier between Jack Collingwood, the artist, and his mother, the canon's wife, is told as only a writer who has felt the pulse of humanity could tell it. It is a powerful study in high-strung emotion. In short, the author has given us a very kindly picture of a quiet life. Humour is to Mr. Benson as the circumambient air.
~Daily Express, quoted in endpapers of Sheaves

In An Act in a Backwater, published at the beginning of 1905, Fred returned, in a literary way, to a quiet cathedral town to recount a story of love and courtship, which he wrote in a gently flippant style, only at the end dropping into sentimentality.

An Act in a Backwater did not please the critics as had The Challoners. The Bookman called it the apotheosis of Family Herald fiction and Academy hoped that it was an early work of Mr Benson's, slightly touched and re-written in parts ~ 'certainly a very disappointing piece of work'.
 ~Geoffrey Palmer and Noel Lloyd in E. F. Benson As He Was, 1988
An Act in a Backwater (1903), set in Winchester, is sentimental, slushy, mawkish, too sweet.
~Brian Masters in The Life of E. F. Benson, 1991

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