Tuesday, 30 July 2002

Ravens' Brood

Fiction ~ novel
Published August? 1934
Approx. 104,000 words
(First read 30/07/2002; second read 28/11/2013)

There's no two ways about it: Ravens' Brood is fun ... in comparison with a lot of the rest of EFB's output.  Okay so it's fun of a rather rarefied, perverse kind, but what the hell.
Set in the second half of the 19th century, it tells the story of a consummately dysfunctional family all living in a heap (well, in a farmhouse, actually) in rural Cornwall: John Pentreath, a part-time religious fanatic and full-time alcoholic; his second wife Mollie, a demented harridan supposedly gifted in folkloric supernatural stuff; his widowed daughter-in-law Nancy, a preening gadabout with an eye for anything in trousers; his stroppy-strapping grandson Dennis; and Mollie's niece Nell.  John and Mollie are estranged, to put it mildly; he lusts after Nancy when he isn't slagging her off for being a jezebel; Mollie lusts after him; Dennis and Nell lust ~ fairly chastely ~ after one another.
Well, obviously, lust is the key.  As Geoffrey Palmer and Noel Lloyd say in their introduction to my copy¹, amongst Benson's other stuff Ravens' Brood "stands out like a cromlech in a cornfield ... black magic, sexuality, blasphemy, violence and ecstasy surround and penetrate the plot and characters."
I'm not saying any more: I recommend it.  But don't read it in the expectation of finding light social comedy in it.  Expect, rather, to put it down and say, "Blimey, did the author of Mapp and Lucia really write this?"

¹ Published by Millivres Books, 1993.

P.S. This has only just occurred to me today [28/01/14]: 'Ravens' Brood' isn't the name of the Pentreaths' farmhouse, which doesn't appear to have any particular name; also, to the best of my recollection, Benson never refers to the family as being like a bunch of young ravens; in fact, there's no mention whatsoever of ravens in the book.  There is an owl, though. 
"Rip me bodice, bigfella!"

STOP PRESS! ~ apparently the late Mr Rock Hudson owned a copy of Ravens' Brood ~ LOOK.


A bit far-fetched perhaps, but this suggests an English counterpart of Tobacco Road*, in its picture of degradation and its atmosphere of hate and depravity and sexual desires, in its ironical contrasts of belief and action, in the sense of its being a world removed from current life. Not a pleasant book, as one can guess by the above. Farm life in Cornwall against which is played out the drama of old John Pentreath's fear of God and love of the flesh and drink, and his growing hatred of his grandson Dennis, [whose] saneness alone lifts the story out of an abyss of degeneracy. A far cry from Benson's usual work.
~Kirkus Reviews, no date.  * A 1932 novel by Erskine Caldwell.  Never heard of it, I'm afraid.

Sunday, 7 July 2002

Colin II

Fiction ~ novel
Published 1925
Approx. 118,000 words
(First read 07/07/2002)

In his introduction to the 1994 Millivres edition of Colin II (pictured here), Mr Peter Burton recounts the following anecdote:
'I have just finished Colin,' Lord Halifax wrote to E. F. Benson on October 6th 1923.  'I have been deeply interested in it ~ first rate plot and most exciting.  Colin is a real devil ~ rather he is the devil ~ and yet one is interested in him and something more than interested [...]  Now I am longing for the sequel.  Please be sure to make the next volume as good as the first.'
I shared Lord H's sentiments exactly the last time I read Colin (13/01/2014).  I wonder if he shared the feelings of disappointment I had the last time I read the sequel (17/02/2014)¹ ...
After recapping the yarn of the original Colin's pact with the Divvel, EFB resumes the action a while after the close of the first novel.  Our Colin and his first cousin Violet have been married a couple of years and are the parents of a 14-month-old boy named Dennis.  We're then treated to another recap of everything that happened in Colin.  Here we have Problem No. 1 with Colin II: it is endlessly repetitive ~ if EFB isn't recapping what happened in Colin he's recapping what happened two pages ago.  I fully realize that recapitulation was one of Benson's besetting sins, but here he takes it to absurd and irritating lengths.
Not a lot happens in this section: Colin and Violet bicker; he flits back and forth to Bloody Capri; he reads a book written by his Elizabethan namesake and as a result takes up Satanism; he drives a frankly pretty stupid woman to suicide; and he flirts with his new Italian manservant Nino.  (EFB wearied of the last one so bumped him off.)  You have to hand it to Colin: he is ~ in my opinion ~ by far the most sexually ambiguous of all Benson's heroes.  In the following passage, when he and Nino have gone for a skinnydip in the lake at
Stanier, comes what I think is the most overtly gay bit of stuff in the whole Ĺ“uvre:
Nino, but for a towel round his loins was still as Nature had made him.  But she had done it very nicely, and as he handed his master his clothes, Colin looked at his shapely shoulders and broad chest.
"You'd make an awfully good bronze statue, Nino," he said.  "You'd look nice in a museum, covered with verdigris, and with an arm and leg missing [...]
But enough of this frivolity ~ on with the show!
"Erm ... can we just back up a bit here, Ewie? ~ did you say 'Colin takes up Satanism'?"  Alas, yes.  This is the second Major Problem with Colin II.  Benson's
fascination with spiritualism I can cope with; his fixation with the god Pan, and attendant malarkey, is just about tolerable; but Satanism? ~ do me a favour.  But luckily he doesn't go overboard with it; his hero gradually loses interest too.  Anyway, Part II shifts the action on a dozen years and largely deals with Colin trying and failing to resist the charms of his adolescent son, who's a facsimile of David Blaize.  This internal struggle is probably the best, and the only believable, stuff in the whole book.  Then it ends.
Huh?  Yes, that's it: Then it ends.
Colin II is poor.  If you've read and enjoyed Colin, you ought to read it, if only to find out How Not To Write A Sequel.

¹ Mr Burton neglects to tell us the follow-up to the anecdote. 


The redemption of a gentleman whose soul had sought the devil and found him wanting.
~The Bookman's Guide to Fiction, 11/1925

Two years ago appeared Mr. Benson's Colin, with a preface announcing that the narrative would be completed in a later volume. Therefore, says a new note, Colin II must not be regarded as a sequel to Colin, but as the second half of that romance. We are not to take it as an afterthought. It is a tale of demoniac possession. The first Earl of Yardley was a handsome yokel who made Faust's contract with the Devil, became a darling of Queen Elizabeth, and was by her made Earl and endowed with a great estate. His bargain (duly signed in his own blood) is fulfilled. The Devil gives him material prosperity in return for worship and service. The Earl even practices the blasphemous rites of the Black Mass, and plans to raise a chapel to his master's honor. In every generation of his descendants there is found one to renew the bargain. The Colin of our story is the physical and spiritual counterpart of Elizabeth's Colin; radiant in beauty, and utterly committed to the worship of evil.
The first part of Colin told how the youth grew up, married, and by the accidental death of his elder brother, came into his great inheritance. Here the tale is taken up some years later. The young Earl is in his prime. He has great surface charm which he deliberately employs for his purposes. The only thing he fears is love. Very soon after her marriage, his young wife has discovered his true character: or rather, has discovered that there is more in him to fear than to love. Yet she still loves him, sure that there must be some secret goodness in him to have aroused her love. He treats her with mockery, when they are together; to her alone shows himself freely as a servant of hate and evil. Their one child, Dennis, much resembles Colin in body, but has his mother's nature. What ensues is a conflict between Colin's will to hate, and the natural love that stirs in him for his son. In the end the victory goes to love, and we are to suppose that the long devil-service of the house of Yardley is at an end.
A difficult theme for any story-teller, most difficult for one of Mr. Benson's light satiric bent. He says in his prefatory note: "The interval between the appearance of the two books has been longer than I anticipated, for I was not aware of the difficulties that lay ahead." The narrative bears signs of scrupulous and even painful effort. Indeed, this is matter for a Hawthorne or at very least a Powys. Mr. Benson could not fail ignominiously at anything. But he could hardly attempt a much less hopeful enterprise than the present one. The witty purveyor of social comedy cannot muster for this occasion a deep-going fancy or a sustained and stately manner. The story of Colin is, you may say, frank romance; but it is romance which just fails to convey the necessary if fleeting illusion of reality. Colin and Violet and Dennis never get to be more than brilliant figures of the theatre.
~H. W. Boynton in The Saturday Review (US), 10/10/1925