Friday, 3 October 2014

The Babe, B.A.

Subtitled: Being the Uneventful History of a Young Gentleman at Cambridge University
Fiction ~ novel (kind of)
Published in the UK 15th January 1897¹
Approx. 53,000 words
(First read 03/10/2014)

Having read a good few reviews of this 'novel', I have to admit I approached it with a fair amount of dread.  And after the first few pages I did think to myself, "Well, I'm just going to have to read the rest through gritted teeth."  But then a curious thing happened: the further I got into it, the more I began to enjoy it.  That's not to say I loved it; rather, I somehow managed to get into it ~ to inhabit that bizarre long-long-long-dead world of Cambridge in the 1880s/90s.
I use the term 'novel' rather than novel because there's virtually no plot to it ~ it's very largely dialogue with a few bits of narrative stuff thrown in here and there; also oddly, given that I'm generally rather particular about 'structure'², after a while I ceased to care about this.  'The Babe' (real name Arbuthnot: he doesn't appear to have a first name) is, in a very weird way, quite delightful: he's good-but-not-brilliant at
his Greek and Latin stuff, and he's good-but-not-brilliant at sports; his chief talent is talking the kind of inconsequential babble that Dodo specialized in, the all-important difference being that she was a rancid heartless hag while the Babe is a complete and utter innocent.
In fact it's the innocence of the whole thing that got to me, that drew me in.  The most awful thing that happens in it is a chap cheating at cards³, and that's all sorted in the most amicable and gentlemanly fashion.  All these young chaps do is play football (by which they mean rugby), croquet and cricket, eat muffins, jabber, put on amateur productions of Greek tragedies, eat muffins, punt, and sing in chapel.
Kings College Chapel, with punter
Okay I could've well lived without the blow-by-blow descriptions of the sports fixtures ~ especially the cricket, which was like reading something in Chinese ~ and I did occasionally find myself wondering if there were going to be any shower scenes⁴.  But on balance the whole was so fresh, so youthful, so innocent that I thoroughly enjoyed it⁵.
Well anyway, you can judge for yourself: it's available online here.

¹ It appears to have been published in the United States in the Autumn [Fall] of 1896.
² ... and having loathed EFB's The Book of Months (1903) and A Reaping (1909), which had much the same format.
³ See Mammon & Co. (1899).  The game in question is one called 'marmara', which EFB either invented exclusively for The Babe or ... has never been heard of since The Babe.  It's insane.
⁴ I can't help it: I'm a product of my age, despite everything you read here.
⁵ I certainly enjoyed it more than David of King's (1924) in which Benson, approaching pretty much exactly the same subject nearly 30 years later, had to try that much harder to recreate that world ~ and ended up overdoing it somewhat.

It would be interesting to know when as well as why Mr. 'Dodo' Benson (as he is called to distinguish him from his poet brother, Mr. A. C. Benson) wrote the book that has just appeared. It seems hardly possible that, after having demonstrated through Dodo and The Rubicon that he could do extraordinary things, even though he might not be able to make literature, he should give himself to anything so utterly aimless, so meaningless, so indescribably dull as this. There is, indeed, a certain amateurish air about the work, an actually infantile manner, that would seem to make its writing antedate anything else from the author. And yet, on the other hand, there runs between the lines a decadent suggestiveness — making its foolish feebleness evil—that seems eminently up to date. On one page we have this kind of inanity:
The Babe was continuing to eat strawberries with a pensive air; and having finished the dish, he looked round pensively, and Reggie caught his eye. 'You mustn't eat any more, Babe,'he said; 'it's after twelve, and we're going out at eight to-morrow, and we have to get back to Prince's Gate.' The Babe sighed. 'Mr. Sylies will be waiting up for us,' he said; 'I suppose we ought to go. He will lose his beauty sleep.'
On another page we have another kind less innocent, and not more interesting:
'It is quite true,' said the Babe in a hollow voice. 'I have tried to go to the devil, and I can't. It is the most tedious process. Virtue and simplicity are stamped on my face and my nature. I am like Queen Elizabeth. I was really cut out to be a milkmaid. I don't want to get drunk, nor to cultivate the lower female. The more wine I drink, the sleepier I get; I have to pinch myself to keep awake, and I should be sleeping like a dead pig long before I got the least intoxicated. . . . We are going to call on obscure dons every afternoon and speak to them of the loveliness of life, for the majority of them have no conception of it. Their lives are bounded by narrow horizons, and the only glimpse they catch of the great world is their bed-maker as she carries out their slop-pail from their bedroom.'
But faugh! why quote more of the revolting twaddle? It is not likely to do any harm. Its very dulness will be a protection from its depravity.
~The Bookman (US), 09/1896
If the Babe had written his own undergraduate memoirs, he would have done them just in Mr Benson's spirit and style. “Remarkable and stirring events,” Mr Benson observes, “do not befall the undergraduate.” They do not. Some are 'bloods', some are 'smugs', some, if they happen to be at Oxford, are 'toshers'; some are Union orators. But for picturesque purposes, as for most others, these are of no account. We prefer the more characteristic “futility of mind,” as Mr Benson puts it, “girt about with that flippant atmosphere, in which the truly heroic chokes and stifles.” Of such was the Babe, who lived in a land wherein it seemed always afternoon, largely no doubt because of the good wholesome hour at which he rose. There is no story in Mr Benson's little volume; he just slings together “a cricket-ball, a canoe, a football, a tripos, a don, a croquet-mallet, a few undergraduates, a Greek play, some work, and so forth.” The result is a pleasingly futile string of sketches, whose local colour and faith unfaithful to the happy-go-lucky inconsequence of one in statu pupillari will please any one who is now or ever has been there. Only, for general working purposes, here, as in Dodo, Mr Benson is too smart to last. By which we mean not merely that the book tails off towards the finish, as it most certainly does, but that Mr Benson's high pressure cannot be lived up to throughout his 310 pages, short as they are. Butterflies and champagne and fireworks are delightful in their way; but Mr Benson gives you so much of them that it is well to take him in short stretches and with considerable intervals. He is too conscientiously funny, in short.
[...] Excellent fooling, but, as has been said, you must take your Babe in homÅ“pathic doses. Mr Benson's cap and bells are too persistently noisy. As a minor point, is it humorous to mix up the index of your illustrations in no sort of order, and always to write “could n't” and “would n't” in two words and “onto” in one?
~Pall Mall Gazette, 25/01/1897
Mr E. F. Benson has a manner and a vast but not unpleasant audacity of his own. He is, moreover, firmly persuaded that the world at large takes an unfailing interest in Cambridge Undergraduates. But, if this vanity is amusing, so are the books that result from it, especially his latest one, The Babe, B.A., which professes to be 'The uneventful history of a young gentleman at Cambridge University' […]. For, though a fair half of it may be skipped by older folk, the other half contains some excellent comedy ~ only once, in a scene which would have been much better omitted, degenerating into farce ~ good humour, excellent criticism, occasional wit, and a few grains of common-sense. Cambridge is described with unflinching accuracy, names are thinly disguised, or not disguised at all, and we are, besides, treated to all manner of surprisingly frank remarks and observations.
[...] the book is redeemed by the hero, an irresponsible masculine Dodo, whom everybody likes and humours. When it is added that he is well-placed, well off, healthy, and no fool, in spite of some appearances, it is not surprising that he finds life an excellent amusement, especially, it should be added, as he has a faultless temper, takes all things leisurely, and none very seriously ~ in which apparently he resembles Mr Benson.
[...] We follow this promising youth through the various excitements that usually beset the way to the Tripos with a good deal of interest and some liking. Taking the book as a whole, there is one scene ~ that of the Babe's interview with Feltham, after the cheating at cards ~ that is almost masterly; and most of it will, no doubt, be interesting to Cambridge Undergraduates, especially to King's men; even those to whom the University is now a very old story may like it a good deal; the rest of the world will skip some scnes, and be amused at others. The Babe will not enhance Mr Benson's reputation as a novelist, but, in spite of its carelessness, it confirms the impressions he had already given his readers. Some day he will grow serious, which will be a pity; but we shall not be surprised if he then writes a brilliant book, which, after all, will be some compensation.
~The Standard [London], 15/02/1897, abridged
The Babe, B.A. […] is the development of a view already sketched by its author, Mr Edward F Benson, in his Limitations, namely, that the exciting, romantic, or sensational features of university life found in fiction are to be found in fiction alone. He tells, in the dedication to his present 'Uneventful History of a Young Gentleman at Cambridge University', how he and a friend with some solemnity ~
procured a large sheet of foolscap paper and a blue pencil, and then and there
set ourselves to put down all the remarkable and stirring events which
happened to us in those four years we spent together at Cambridge.
How they “drew blank” in respect of their acquaintances as well of themselves, until ~
The uncomfortable conviction dawned on us … that in the majority of cases
remarkable and stirring events do not befall the undergraduate, and that if
the book was to be made at all it must be made of homely, and I hope whole-
some, ingredients, a cricket ball, a canoe, a football, a tripos, a don, a
croquet mallet, a few undergraduates, a Greek play, some work, and so forth.
The ingredients certainly fulfil the promise of wholesomeness, and are not ill-mixed. But the salad lacks flavour. The truth is that Mr Benson has too conscientiously set himself to show that university life lacks interest for outsiders, and refrained from supplying what is essentially wanting. That some dons are commonplace [ganders] and some undergraduates are commonplace goslings needs no more proof than that a university is more than superficially unlike the rest of the world. Perhaps Mr Stewart, the don who spoke of the German Emperor as “the nicest Emperor he had ever known,” is scarcely to be regarded as typical; for the rest, Mr Benson keeps uncompromisingly to mild types which readily lend themselves to mild satire. Most Cambridge men will find his volume amusing for its subject's sake, especially if they be of a recent generation.
~The Graphic [London], 10/04/1897
Mr Benson's delightful book is rife with clever definitions as well as graphic character sketches.
~The Daily Telegraph, quoted in newspaper ad of 26/01/1897
A bright and humorous picture of University life.
~The Scotsman, quoted in newspaper ad of 26/01/1897
Mr Benson's wit and easy delineation of character fully atone for lack of plot. The lightsome chronicle goes gaily one, sufficiently rich in incident unfailingly rich in bright ideas, and in happy turns of expression, which provoke the reader to smiles.
~The Daily Mail, quoted in newspaper ad of 26/01/1897
Mr Benson's novel is a photograph of everyday life at Cambridge. His undergraduates play football and cricket, act in the Greek play, converse on intimate terms with dons, and occasionally manage to get through a little reading.
~The Daily News, quoted in newspaper ad of 26/01/1897
The book is indeed by 'Verdant Green' out of Alice in Wonderland; and it is as delightful as a book so bred could not fail to be.
~Vanity Fair, quoted in newspaper ad of 26/01/1897

Several attempts have already been made to write what Mr Benson's sub-title calls the 'History of a Young Gentleman at Cambridge University', but none of them all has succeeded in approaching the merits of the very amusing adventures of Mr Verdant Green at Oxford. There was an air of farcical unreality, however, about the work of 'Cuthbert Bede', for which even the inimitable portrait of Mr Bouncer could not wholly atone. Mr Benson has succeeded, where so many have failed, in painting with much happiness the lighter side of Cambridge life. His 'Babe' occasionally speaks with the voice of Dodo, but on the whole he is a very agreeable and amusing new acquaintance. He was not really a babe, of course; his real name was Artbuthnot, and he was “a cynical old gentleman of twenty years of age, who played the banjo charmingly. In his less genial moments he spoke querulously of the monotony of the services of the Church of England, and of the hopeless respectability of M. Zola. His particular forte was dinner parties for six, skirt-dancing and acting, and the performances of the duties of half-back at Rugby football.” Mr Benson's humour will not appeal to everybody, but those who can taste it will think it delicious. The long vacation croquet-match is specially realistic and funny. An added charm is given to the book by the delightful pictures of Cambridge scenes (apparently from photographs) which adorn its pages. One hopes it is only the printer who chooses to speak of Butler' Analogies, but Mr Benson should have known better than to suggest that Ranjitsinhji earned his fame whilst 'Stoddard' was still playing football.
~The Glasgow Herald, 01/02/1897
The Babe, B.A. […] is also set in Cambridge against a background of flippant undergraduate repartee. It is full of froth signifying nothing, bright inconsequential chatter at the Pitt Club wrapped in compulsive cheerfulness. There is a nice buoyancy about the book, but not the smallest attempt to delve into character. Fred admitted it had been written piece-meal, and it shows, each chapter independent of its predecessor and the whole devoid of plot. […] the book looks as if it was written over a glass of whisky in the early evening, and within a couple of weeks.
~Brian Masters in The Life of E. F. Benson, 1991

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