Friday, 20 December 2013

David Blaize and the Blue Door

Fiction ~ novel (children's)
Published 1918
(First read 20/12/2013)

For once I can't find anything to knock about an E F Benson novel.  David Blaize and the Blue Door is, of course, a book for kiddies, for little kiddies at that.  The eponymous hero is six years old; he goes to bed one night, passes through a blue door situated behind his pillow, and has a ~ fairly lengthy ~ series of adventures à la Alice through the looking-glass.  The adventures were humorous and quirky enough to keep me interested; the prose light and easy with just the right Oh do tell us a story, dear Uncle Fred! tone to them; the author doesn't pontificate or moralize (much); and the whole thing is very Edwardian, cozy 'n' comfy, even when, towards the end, it gets a bit 'soldiery'¹.
All in all, a jolly read.  Mind you, I daresay today's kiddiwinks would be bored shitless with it.  ["Don't you mean 'witless', Ewie?"]

I really think ~ not that anyone asked ~ that Benson should have written more for children, preferably on the subject of animals: this, and his sketches Jill's Cat (1916) and the pair 'Puss-Cat' and There Arose a King (both 1920) are not only charming but appear somehow both effortless and inspired, unlike so very much of his adult fiction.  Ah well, not a lot we can do about that, unfortunately.

P.S. DB & TBD should not be considered a prequel to David Blaize and David of King's: it stands up entirely on its own merits.

¹ I can imagine EFB's publishers saying to him, "Could you at least make some kind of acknowledgment that there's a war on? ~ you don't have to send David to Passchendaele or anything ... just a teeny little mention of soldiers or something, if only to let the parents know you're aware it's happening?"


Several years ago Mr. Benson wrote a story about this same David in his lively schoolboy stage. Here we have David as a small child. Jolly things happened to him when he went through the blue door, and only Alice in Wonderland saw more wonderful and topsyturvy queer sights than David.
~The Outlook (US; in 'Books for Young People' column), 26/11/1919
Up and Down (1918) and David Blaize and the Blue Door (1918) were composed during and after [Arthur Benson's] committal to a mental home, yet they are innocent of any reference to it, even by implication. This was probably quite deliberate, for both books are an evasion, a denial of the real and the important. […] David Blaize and the Blue Door is a book of fantasy for children, in the manner of Alice in Wonderland.  It enjoyed much success in its day, but now seems contrived.
~Brian Masters in The Life of E. F. Benson, 1991.  (Hmmm, I wouldn't call it any more contrived than ~ to take a random example ~ Alice in Wonderland.) 
David Blaize and the Blue Door is an imaginative fantasy that departs radically from the more traditionally structured David Blaize school stories. […] Searching for answers to important questions that adults dismiss as nonsense, David finds behind the door a Wonderland-like realm where nonsense is taken seriously by the inhabitants. The Times Literary Supplement [19/12/1918] notes similarities to the Alice books, but observes that Benson “carries the sincerest form of flattery just far enough to be clear of any charge of attempted concealment; and he weaves it into a story that is, in its main lines, his own invention.” Benson's inventive dream-fantasy anticipates some of his later supernatural fantasies, exploring the nature of 'nonsense' in order to question the limitations of conventional notions of 'sense'.
~Carolyn Sigler in Alternative Alices: Visions and Revisions of Lewis Carroll's Alice Books, 1997

Sunday, 15 December 2013

The Book of Months

Fiction ~ novel (kind of)
Published May? 1903
Approx. 56,000 words
(First read 15/12/2013)

I said in my introductory paragraph that I wouldn't pull any punches, that if I found something bad, I'd say so.  Well, The Book of Months isn't bad ~ it's atrocious.  
As with most of these books, I had no idea what to expect before reading this ~ I'm never even 100% sure whether it's going to be a novel or something else.  (See for example As We Are ~ opinion is divided as to whether it's fiction, current affairs, or ... well, something else.)  Well anyway, here's what happened when I picked up The Book of Months [this review contains spoilers, not that there's much to spoil]:
I see it's divided into twelve chapters, a month each, starting with January.  Fair enough, I think, it's a diary-type novel, nowt wrong with that.  The narrator starts off by moaning about the weather in London; then, it having become clear that he's an author, he recounts a couple of anecdotes of his daily life.  Then he goes off to Switzerland for a skating holiday.  At this point I'm starting to think Erm, who is this chap? ~ surely the resemblance between him and the author is more than coincidental.  The episode closes with the narrator befriending a little girl staying at the same hotel.  Hmm, well, maybe not then.
February (don't worry: I'm not going to go through every month like this) arrives and we're treated to a really quite heart-wrenching anecdote about a street newspaper-boy who the Great-God-Benson shows us just long enough for us to like ... then summarily kills off.  Please note: This is the only passage in the book worth reading ~ it lasts two or three pages.  Our narrator then goes to a house party where, one night, he goes 'rain-running' (the hero of Ravens' Brood does exactly the same thing), which is to say that he strips down to his pants and goes running around outdoors soaking up nature (etc.)  I say, this is terribly bold of EFB to admit that he's done this himself.
March is nothing but maundering waffle, in the unmistakeable voice of E F Benson (or is it?).  So is April.
Then comes May and [quote] "Dick Alington and I were very old friends: we had been at school together, and his father's house was next to ours in the country, the woods belonging to each running contiguous, separated only by the park paling."  The mystery deepens: I have no recollection of that name in EFB's biography ... and besides, the Bensons surely never lived in a property like that ...  Then, lo and behold, not only is there a 'Dick' but there's a 'Margery' too and [wait for it, another quote]: "Then quite suddenly I became aware that I had fallen in love with her."*
This is page 47 of 124.
It's a novel: the narrator is a fictional author who just happens to be exactly like the real one; and these people are characters.  Reader, I swallowed my own tongue.  Now I realize I might sound like a complete dullard saying this but up until page 45 I was convinced I was reading "A Year in the Life of the Author of Dodo".  It's not till one third of the way through the novel (p. 48) that we even find out the narrator's damned name (Jack).  It felt like a confidence trick ... or a cheap magic trick ... or a hoax ... or something.  And the worst of it is that at no point in the remaining 250-ish pages (counting this and the sequel A Reaping as one) do we ever really know who Jack is.
Well, that's the long and the short of it.  I should add that not only is Jack a complete and utter zero, but he must surely be the most crashing bore Benson ever created: he just rambles on and on and on and on and on ... about nothing ... for pages and pages and pages.  For example, virtually the whole of August (once the plot's been safely cleared out of the way) is devoted to him going to Bayreuth to watch Wagner operas and he describes their plots in minute detail ~ it was horribly, painfully, sickeningly, stomach-churningly, brain-rottingly boring to read.
So, my advice, steer well clear of this one.

Still and all, if you are that kind of masochist, the whole book is available online here.  (Don't say I didn't warn you, though.)

For the sequel, go to A Reaping.

*There follows the inevitable dull love triangle: Dick loves Margery too; Margery chooses Dick (as who wouldn't?); the narrator chooses to hang around suffering nobly.  Dick, like so many a doomed character, is mildly likeable, so Benson kills him off in the Boer War.  Margery dies of a combination of grief-at-the-news and childbirth.  The baby (for once) survives Benson's mad axe ... but thereafter vanishes off the face of the earth.


The Book of Months is not, properly speaking, a novel at all; if we may coin an expression to fit this style of novel, we should call it "fictional autobiography." At the beginning the reader takes the book as a real description of the mental processes of Mr. E. F. Benson; but later on, when two love-stories are worked into the text, the same reader must conclude that the book is pure fiction. The earlier and less narrative parts of the book are the best reading, and the author when he describes his midnight outing in his friend's grounds to enjoy the full delights of the first night of spring is singularly successful in getting the young man's joie de vivre "over the footlights." There is a delightful optimism about the book which renders it very pleasant reading, and some of Mr. Benson's theories of life are shrewd enough to give food for reflection. As a whole, The Book of Months is well worth reading.
~The Spectator, 02/05/1903
It is full of charm ~ real, persuasive, penetrating charm ~ the charm of a wayward, irresponsible, winning personality. There is sentiment, and sometimes sentimentality; but there is an underlying manliness, which renders even the most sentimental reflections strong and unaffected. The book is, above all things, sympathetic. Many notes are sounded, and in all of them there rings the sincerity of real feeling and purpose … [we] recommend it unreservedly to all sorts and conditions of readers.
~The Daily Chronicle, quoted in the endpapers to An Act in a Backwater and Juggernaut
The book contains fine work, notably the beautiful word-pictures of 'Spring in April', 'Capri in September,' and half a dozen others, which in themselves make it well worth reading.
~The Athenæum, quoted in the endpapers to An Act in a Backwater and Sheaves
It is an uncommon and a charming book.

~Illustrated London News, quoted in the endpapers to An Act in a Backwater

Mr. Benson, the author of Dodo and many other novels which have been severely criticised and widely read, now turns to a new field. These little prose essays, one for each month, record the out-of-door experiences and the reflections of a London man-about-town. In a measure, they suggest the work of Mr. Richard Le Gallienne, but they are in a manner simpler and less affected. A single reflection may be quoted: "The man who rings a bell for a small child who cannot reach it has done his duty and his part in the world's work far better that day than any philosopher who thinks a great deal and does nothing." A slender vein of humor and a considerable knowledge of society may be found beneath the surface of Mr. Benson's writing. The book is put in holiday dress with elaborate decoration in colors.
~The Outlook (US), 28/11/1903
Certainly, Mr. Benson is here at his best: quaintness, originality, some powerful descriptive passages, and very human nature gives an intimacy and charm.
~Daily News, quoted in the endpapers to An Act in a Backwater
The author reveals himself a keen observer and the possessor of a poetic fancy, expressed in vivid incident and sketches of human nature and scenery in all parts of the world. It is a book to be taken up at any time, and opened at any part.
~British Weekly, quoted in the endpapers to An Act in a Backwater
In some of the twelve episodes which Mr. Benson gives us in this volume he goes deep to the foundations of joy and sorrow. Much of the book is narrative; one or two of the stories are deeply and poignantly melancholy; other parts of the book are throbbing with vitality and the delight of life. Passages of descriptive writing, gay and sombre, occur which are wonderfully good work.
~Vanity Fair, quoted in the endpapers to An Act in a Backwater
It expresses the thoughts and feelings of a sane and mortal man; it reveals him in his private moments, and it throbs with his pleasure and his pain. It is all eminently natural, and it is 'mind-narrative' of a kind that will win the sympathy of average people by awaking echoes of their own emotions. Add to this that in style it is scholarly, in many pages lofty and poetic, and there is no need to explain away a charm which will be instantly felt. Besides the arts of sympathetic self-revelation and moralising, Mr. Benson has the rare gift of humour, and a talent for description and for narrative.
~St. James's Gazette, quoted in the endpapers to An Act in a Backwater
The charm of the book lies in its perfect sincerity, and no one will take it up but will find in it something which will bring him into closer relation with himself, and inspire in him a greater sense of the joy of life.
~The Bookman, quoted in the endpapers to An Act in a Backwater

And finally: I can only conclude from this that all these people were reading some other book of the same title, by an author of the same name.
The Book of Months [(April 1903)] is an agreeable if rather desultory book which is difficult to categorise, being neither a novel, diary, collection of essays, autobiography, nor a gardening book, but an amalgam of all of them; a record of experiences, both material and emotional, with the thoughts to which they have given birth, within the space of one year.
The critics were caught off guard by this change in tempo and direction and did not know what to make of it. Most of them praised it highly, in a rather surprised kind of way; only the Saturday Review, never a fan of E. F. Benson, spoke of “these maunderings on lumbago, and the gibberish he talks in his bath, and above its dreary humour, its wilted sentiment, is the amazing insensibility with which the thing is done.”
~Geoffrey Palmer and Noel Lloyd in E. F. Benson As He Was, 1988

Monday, 18 November 2013

The Princess Sophia

Fiction ~ novel
Published April 1900
Approx. 75,000 words 
(First read 18/11/2013) 

Sophia is firmly in the Ruritanian romance category.  Benson's madey-uppy Eastern European principality is called Rhodopé and is situated in a coastal part of [wait for it]
Albania.  Luckily for EFB, no-one in Rhodopé speaks Albanian, or even seems to know it exists: everyone uses impeccable English.  After a brief tour of Sophia's childhood, we see her ascend her dad's throne at the age of something like 20 [as ever, I forget the detail].  She marries a neighbouring prince and settles down to a life of ... well, nothing much, really.The 'catch' or, to use a more technical term, the 'thing' about this princess is that she is, from an early age, addicted to gambling: she loves roulette far more than she ever does her husband, her son, her father, her country, or anything else.  Gambling is pretty much all there is to her: she can't be arsed with running her country, which bores her; her sole child (Prince Leonard) has to sit in the nursery twiddling his thumbs till he gets a look-in; she soon
realizes her husband (Petros) isn't up to much, but nonetheless appoints him regent while she's off in Monte Carlo for x months of every year indulging her ruling passion; the only idea she ever has is to save herself some travel by opening a casino in Rhodopé itself.
The plot: Petros and the evil prime minister [yah! boo!] decide to oust Sophia while she's out of the country tossing her civil list down the toilet.  In one of the weirdest conspiracies I've ever read, they plot together to pull off separate dethronements ... it's kinda complicated.  Inevitably all their efforts come to nought in the end.  The PM is jailed for life, the prince consort merely exiled and divorced.  This takes us to about three-quarters of the way through.  The remaining dollop is devoted to her life post-non-event, and to her 'relationship' with her son-and-heir, who eventually ~ at the age of 20 or so [yawn] ~ wins the principality off her in a bet.  Yes, you read that right.
As so often seems to be the case with these reviews, I've ended up giving the impression that I didn't enjoy The Princess Sophia.  In fact I did quite enjoy it ~ but that's a  long way from being the same as thinking it was 'good'.  It wasn't: it was tripe.  But, despite having too many shortcomings to list, it was quite enjoyable tripe.  Lovers of Benson humour beware, though: 'light-hearted' though the general tone is, the novel is a zone almost entirely free of laughs, intentional or otherwise.  
It's available online here.


Mr Benson's novel is not void of entertainment, but it seems to have been written in an overwhelming hurry. Often enough in reading some volume of memoirs one says, “there is a novel here,” and would go on to write it, were it not for the fact that one realises that the story has got to be extracted from the material, the essential kept ~ some of it invented ~ and the inessential rejected. Mr Benson seems to have started with the intention of writing a novel, and to have succeeded only in producing a sketch history of an entirely fictitious character, on which a good story might be founded by anyone who had the time required for such achievements.  [...] There are several stories hidden away in the mass of material Mr Benson has got together. It is a pity he had not time to make up his mind as to which of them he desired to tell.
~The Morning Post, 26/06/1900
We are inclined to think that Mr. Benson's new book is the best thing he has yet done. It is a very clever study of gambling and a very clever study of human nature. In all the book there is not a character which is not natural, and there is also an absence of the superficiality which has sometimes been noticeable in Mr. Benson's work. He seems to be thoroughly at home with his characters, and describes them with truth and with originality.
~The Guardian, quoted in endpapers to An Act in a Backwater
 A gay and spirited performance, and the Princess herself a clever picture. It is lively reading, and the characters bubble along in true Bensonian fashion.
~The Westminster Gazette, quoted in endpapers of The Book of Months
As brilliant in execution as it is happy in conception.
~The Birmingham Daily Post, quoted in endpapers to An Act in a Backwater
Told with verve and wit. If the novel is to amuse we cannot recommend a more agreeable companion than Mr. Benson's brilliant friend The Princess Sophia.
~Literature, quoted in endpapers of The Book of Months
The best of the book is undoubtedly the admirably-conceived and skilfully-drawn character of Sophia herself ~ princess, gambler, and very woman. Mr. Benson has written nothing fresher or more graceful than the chapter which tells the story of her courtship. The art with which he preserves his picture of the card-playing, betting, hard-riding girl from any taint of vulgarity or sordidness is not easily over-praised.
~The World, quoted in endpapers to An Act in a Backwater
A rather long-drawn-out and not very creditable story of an imaginary principality lying between Greece and Turkey. Its Princess is a confirmed gambler, and in the end she stakes her kingdom in a game of roulette with her son, who is disguised, and whom she does not know. The book is decidedly inferior to Mr. Benson's historical stories of Greece, The Vintage and The Capsina. The last-named book seems to us to be the high-water mark of the literary achievement of the author of Dodo.
~The Outlook (US), 28/04/1900
The characterization is excellent, the humour pleasing, the satire true.
~The Daily Telegraph, quoted in endpapers to An Act in a Backwater
There is brilliance, lightness of touch. The dialogue is neat and brisk, and the miniature Court and its courtiers are amusingly treated.
~The Athenaeum, quoted in endpapers of The Book of Months and Sheaves

Monday, 11 November 2013

The Unwanted

Fiction ~ novella / long short story
Published 17th September 1937*
Approx. 21,000 words
(First read 11/11/2013) 

The fourth and last of Benson's 'Old London' quartet and my favourite of the bunch.  It's a day-in-the-life story set in a world EFB was completely familiar with: the genteel microcosmic world of the Edwardian London square ~ think Secret Lives and a lot of the spook stories (and no doubt others I've not read yet).  Miss Dorothy Vincent is 'a short, energetic woman of middle age, of full figure and eager countenance' ~ remind you of anyone?  This classic Bensonian spinster
lives in the fictional Beaconsfield Square with her elderly ~ and unpleasant ~ aunt and her pekinese Chang ('known also as "Strong Mannie"'!)  She fills her own and other people's lives with the usual pastimes ~ walking the dog, pestering the local vicar, visiting, that kind of thing, and considers herself busy.  And, of course, of course, she has no idea how utterly unwanted she is.  It would have been easy for EFB to make a figure of fun of her, but he doesn't: I actually felt for her.  I won't give away the plot other than to say that she rounds off the day with a magnificently risky and utterly uncharacteristic 'adventure'.  Not available online.

* The four Old London books were only ever published in the United States, apparently.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Friend of the Rich

Fiction ~ novella / long short story
Published 17th September 1937*
Approx. 20,000 words
(First read 22/10/2013)

The third of the 'Old London' quartet and a big improvement on the previous (Janet ~ qv) largely because Benson was on more familiar ground here.  Set in an indeterminate time during the reign of Queen Victoria, Friend of the Rich is the tale of a middle-aged society cow woman lady and her attempts ~ ultimately failed ~ to launch and subsequently monopolize a new couple of millionaires in town (they hale from Liverpool, no less!).  Mildly ... very mildly amusing.
Not available online.

* The four books in this collection were only ever published in the United States, as far as I'm aware.

Monday, 7 October 2013


Fiction ~ novella / long short story
Published 17th September 1937*
Approx. 19,000 words
(First read 07/10/2013)

This is the second in Benson's quartet of novellas published under the title Old London.  There's no connexion between the four other than the setting, which in this case is Victorian ... I didn't spot any particular clues as to the exact year, probably 1840s or 50s. 
Original dust jacket
Unlike the first in the series ~ Portrait of an English Nobleman, qv ~ this is a humdrum domestic drama, hardly likely ever to set the world on fire.  Read it if every other book on Earth has been burnt.  Otherwise, don't bother.

*These four little books were never published in the UK, only in the US.  I assume that they were specially commissioned for the American market.

Monday, 23 September 2013

Portrait of an English Nobleman

Fiction ~ novella / long short story
Published 17th September 1937*
Approx. 22,000 words
(First read 23/09/2013)

This is the first in Benson's quartet of novellas published under the title Old London.  There's no connexion between the four other than the setting.
This was quite good fun.  It's set in the Georgian period ... to be precise in the very last year of that period, 1829-30.  It's the kind of romp you'd expect of Georgian gents (mistress in a pied à terre in London; frosty wife and kids at home in the country ...), and with lashings of historical detail ~ hardly profound but entertaining enough.

*These four books were only published in the United States.
[10/2014] I saw one of the originals in a secondhand bookshop in Wales the other day ~ the only one I've ever seen.  I didn't buy it because I've already got a set of the modern reprints.   At least, I assume they're modern reprints ~ if not, they're in remarkably mint condition, notwithstanding the lack of any dust-jackets.

Thursday, 19 September 2013


Fiction ~ novel
Published 1911
Approx. 105,000 words
(First read 19/09/2013)

Juggernaut¹ tells the story of Margery Morrison's marriage to Arnold Leveson, of her cousin Walter's thwarted love for her, and ... well, that's about it, really.
When we first meet Margery she is sixteen-going-on-seven, bawling her eyes out over a kitten which has supposedly been drowned at the orders of her wicked aunt (Mrs Agnes Morrison, widow).  Marge is an orphan who has lived with said aunt and her cousins (Olive and Walter) for the past few years.  The latter is two years Marge's senior and Benson Type No. 1; the pair have grown up as thick as two short planks ~ oops, sorry, I mean 'as thick as thieves'.  But lo! over the course of a walk, during which it turns out the kitten hasn't been drowned after all (phew! that's a relief), Walter suddenly grows up and realizes he's in love with his couz.
Our heroine, as I've subtly hinted already, is a simple lass: to give her her due, she's the first to admit, on more than one occasion, that she's 'not very clever' ~ a bit of an understatement.  However, she makes up for her lack of brains by being sweet, flawlessly pretty, remorselessly optimistic, open-hearted, generous, pure in spirit and outlook, kind to animals, loving, virginal, saintly ... yes, she's Benson Young Female Type 1: so entirely good that you find it impossible to believe in her.  EFB does his best to convince us she's a bit of a tomboy (or maybe he uses the term 'romp'), but with little success: he's so obsessed with slathering on the 'tiny hands and feet', 'masses of silky hair', 'porcelain complexion' etc. etc. that you're left with the girliest tomboy that ever was. 
Into this cozy mix is thrown (very gently) Mr Arnold Leveson, an elderly bachelor (he's about 30 ~ joke!) and all-round dry-old-stick.  His great passion in life is writing incredibly long and tedious books about Ancient Greece ~ we're treated to a few quotes: they gave me the dry-heaves, I can tell you.  Margery raves about them and, now that Walter has been safely packed off to Germany (!), very soon ends up raving about Arnold himself.  They get married.  Marge is obviously ~ yes, obviously ~ so lacking in any kind of insight that when, on his return, Walter tells her he's over her and he's fine with her marrying Leveson, she believes him.  Walter proceeds to hang stoically around for the rest of the novel, confounded self-sacrificing idiot that he is.
Unfortunately, the marriage doesn't turn out well, to put it mildly².  It becomes clear that Arnold loves his Ancient Greek περίττωμα³ more than his wife.  Margery joins Walter in the Suffering-in-Silence corner.  The End.
No, I don't think I've forgotten anything ... other than: Margery's aunt.  Mrs Morrison is the closest Juggernaut gets to comedy: she's another of EFB's 'classic' middle-aged ~ but prematurely-agèd ~ embittered cows, a close relative of (e.g.) Mrs Hancock over at Arundel [qv].  The difference between the two is that Mrs M is actually pretty rubbish at her selfish manipulatings, constantly putting her foot in it, giving herself away, etc.  But she's nasty to everybody ~ her niece, her own kids, her neighbours, no-one escapes.  Sadly there isn't enough of her, though, to rescue Juggernaut from being a pretty tedious read: the plot is wafer-thin; Margery you just feel like punching; Walter is a moron; Arnold, though 'bad', is as dull and irritating as everyone else; only Walter's sister Olive shows occasional flashes of what might be called 'character', but she's a pretty minor character all told.   

¹ Published in the USA under the title Margery, which is far more sensible.  The UK title suggests a great deal of movement and noise: the novel has neither.
² Without giving too much away (!), I'll just tell you there's another heart-stoppingly callous Bensonian infanticide involved ...
³ The English is one syllable long and rhymes with grit.  Don't blame me if I've got this Greek word wrong: Greek isn't my thang ... obviously. 

"Juggernaut" in this book is performed by the man, who marries the very attractive heroine, and then allows his literary work so completely to absorb him that her married life becomes a complete failure. Even his wife's health is sacrificed by Arnold Leveson to his book; it is hard to believe that a sane human being could possibly be so absolutely egotistical. The book is written with Mr. Benson's usual powers of observation and analysis, but the nature of the theme is a constant source of irritation. It is impossible to avoid a wish that the scholarly Arnold should meet with some sudden disaster, as that would be the only possible way in which his unfortunate wife, Margery, could be restored to happiness. He declines to allow anyone to come to the house, for fear of disturbing his hours of work, and poor Margery is obliged even to drop her piano playing, in which she might have found an absorbing hobby. The minor characters are well drawn, and the portrait of Margerv's aunt, Mrs. Morrison, is so carefully studied that she is quite entitled to a place as one of the four principals of the book. But here, again, is a study of a purely self-centred egotistical person, and two characters of this sort in one book overweight it with non-conductors of sympathy.
~The Spectator, 04/11/1911
The central issue in Margery, by E. F. Benson, is whether a young woman, replete with the joy of living, can find happiness in marriage with a man who has never in his life known a passion warmer than his delight in Grecian urns and Tanagra figurines. Margery is the child of an ill-assorted marriage; and when, as a forlorn little orphan, she first comes to live with her father's relatives, her aunt Aggie takes good care not to let her forget that her mother was a mere vaudeville dancer. Margery is not malicious or vengeful, but just a sweet, wholesome, not over brilliant girl, whose innate goodness men unconsciously recognise. That was the explanation of the failure of all her Aunt Aggie's too obvious manoeuvres to keep Margery in the background, and marry off her own daughter, Olive. Almost simultaneously Margery has the task of refusing an offer from Cousin Walter, Aunt Aggie's only son, and from Arnold Leveson, whom Aunt Aggie already felt sure of as a son-in-law. Arnold Leveson had all his life been a student and a recluse. He had already written one epoch-making volume on the Alexandrine Age, and was now engaged on a companion work, the Age of Pericles. The wonder was that, in his absorption in antiquities, he ever raised his eyes high enough from books to rest them on Margery's face. But such happened to be the case, and presently they were married. And then, for a while, the experiment succeeded. But after the honeymoon and a brief season of London gaiety, Arnold felt a return of the old fever of study, the old impelling need of creative work. From that moment, Margery's loneliness began; and the rivalry was harder than that of another woman, because against a woman she could have offset her own charms, but she was powerless against ancient tomes and crumbling marble. Mr. Benson did not lack a big issue, but of his own accord he dodged it. What Margery and Arnold would in the end have made of their lives, he refused to tell us, because one fine day in Athens, antiquarian zeal led the man a step too high upon a tottering ruin, and when he and the ruin fell together, he was undermost. It is vexatious when a novelist has all the elements that go to make up a human problem of vital interest, and then deliberately shirks his task.
~Frederic Taber Cooper in The Bookman (US), 11/1911

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Mammon & Co.

Fiction ~ novel
Published 1899
Approx. 102,000 words
(First read 10/09/2013)

In his first decade as a professional writer (1893-1903), E F Benson produced no fewer than 16 [sixteen] novels.  Mammon & Co. is the ninth of them.  It falls into the category, now sadly neglected, of 'society (melo)drama set against a backdrop of stock-market stuff'.
The novel tells the story of five people ... no, six people ... no, seven people ... well, it tells the story of a bunch of people, most of them titled, who, to borrow and adapt a well-loved phrase, swirl about in a rich cesspool of their own making.  Jack and Kit, AKA Lord and Lady Conybeare¹ are a couple who have long since done with living beyond their own incomes and now live beyond other people's ~ and, my dears, they are perfect rotters: all their energies are devoted to their own amusement, at the psychological and financial expense of others.  Still, they make a good living out of it: house at a swanky London address, complete with maids, footmen, etc.; holidays-from-doing-nothing; balls; gambling; the usual.
Into their lives comes the somewhat enigmatic Mr Alington, a commoner of rather dubious origins, who lives and breathes the fetid atmosphere of the stock market.  He persuades Jack to join him in his new cunning plan which involves an Australian ~ literal ~ goldmine.
One evening Kit and one of her snot-nosed pals believe they catch Mr A in that most horribly scandalous of 19th-century crimes, viz cheating at cards.  (Reader, I literally almost got up from my chair to make a cup of tea.)  They plan to blackmail him accordingly ... or something ... I nodded off a bit during this storyline.  Before they're able to do so, Mr A sees Kit apparently doing exactly the same thing ~ a basic knowledge of baccarat would've come in handy here.  To cut a long story mercifully short, nothing comes of all this. [sigh]
Jack, meanwhile, has a brother, Toby, who, despite being kind-of-unattractive-in-a-large-muscular-way, is an utter brick, good egg, and the closest we get to a hero.  He falls for a stereotypical Bensonian heroine (i.e. a cypher) whose one claim to originality is that she's the daughter of an American ... well, two Americans, in fact.  Oh but it's allright, don't worry ~ she was brought up in England and is, consequently, as sublimely perfect an angel as it's possible to be without being employed directly by God.  Her mother, Mrs Murchison, provides the sole comic relief in this farrago of twaddle.  Mrs M is a latterday Mrs Malaprop: she can't open her mouth without producing 'octogeranium' or 'Sir George Eliot' ~ I can guarantee you will be convulsed with tedium at her amusing slips-of-the-tongue.  Listening to EFB describe how 'killing' people find them is far funnier.²
Meanwhile (again), Kit takes her harmless flirtation with a certain Lord Ted Comber just the eentsiest bit too far by permitting him to ~ ahem! ~ boff her, with consequences tragic both to herself and to the cause of English literature.
Mr A reappears and is just about to pull off the greatest coup in the history of insider dealing when ...
But enough plot.  Suffice it to say that a surprising amount of stuff happens in Mammon & Co.  Admittedly none of it is particularly exciting, but it's as eventful as an average non-supernatural (or supernatural, come to that) E. F. Benson.  Its main failing isn't so much an overabundance of dislikeable characters as a lack of focus for our distaste: Jack is cold and slimy; Kit is ... well, Kit is Dodo but, if anything, worse: at one point EFB makes mention of her 'worthless little soul'; Ted is a proto-Georgie Pilson but 50 times worse ~ EFB is utterly venomous about him; Mr A is devious, dishonest, and as slippery as an eel's rectum ...
Ach, what am I doing?! ~ I'm giving the impression I didn't enjoy Mammon & Co.  I did.  It's so full of loathsomeness ~ what's not to like?
But it is twaddle.

¹ No, I haven't made this name up. 
² At one point in her 'comical' drivel, EFB commits the fairly-unpardonable-IMHO sin of self-reference.  He has Mrs M say: '[...] what a wonderful dress she had on this evening!  She made me feel quite a dodo ~ I should say a dowdy.']

On the subject of Mammon & Co., Mr Brian Masters has this to say in his excellent biography of Benson (1991):

With the next book, Mammon & Co, Fred returned to a society theme, with happier results [than in The Vintage and Capsina]Lady Conybeare is a frivolous and heartless beast of the kind he would perfect in his more mature fiction, while Lord Comber is the first portrait of that vain and vapid male sub-hero who would achieve his finest incarnation in Georgie Pillson of the Lucia series twenty to thirty years later.  Comber repairs to the lavatory of his club to apply a little rouge to his make-up and considers the mirror his only uncritical friend.  Here at least Fred is relying upon observation for his characterisation, and one can only speculate which of his friends might have been used as model. 

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

The Inheritor

Fiction ~ novel
Published 1930
Approx. 108,000 words
(First read 14/08/2013)

SHORT VERSION: A young man of great beauty believes that (1) he is cursed, and (2) he needs to get away from the modern world and 'back to nature'.  Things don't turn out well for him so he goes for the simple unhappy ending option.  I guess this one might be classed 'a supernatural[ish] psychological melodrama', with the usual caveat about the Benson brand of melodrama.
LONG VERSION: Blimey! ~ never has an author taken so long (316pp.) to tell a story so insubstantial.
It kicks off at Cambridge University, more precisely at King's College [surprise!].  Steven Gervase, a student¹ is 20 years old [surprise! again] and [surprise! ~ okay, that's enough of that] has the looks of a Greek god and is a popular chap.  One of the dons watching over his career is Maurice Crofts, who is 25 ~ how he's got to be a don at that age isn't explained, maybe it was perfectly normal in those days.  'Those days', by the way, are 1929-30 ~ EFB mentions a date again, though really all his books are set in one and the same time: Benson Meantime, somewhere between 1890 and 1914, a magical period in which, though an occasional 'motor' might flash by on its way to a 'cinematograph', nothing really ever changes.
Where was I?  Ah yes.  This post-adolescent Maurice², this donkin is, despite his tender years, pretty much the stereotypical elderly Oxbridge don: rather stuffy, a shade over-devoted to the academic life, a confirmed bachelor dismissive of persons of the female persuasion ...
Maurice thinks he sees hidden depths in Steven, or rather, he thinks he sees another mysterious side to his character.  Steven, who has just unceremoniously dumped his best pal (who is known as 'The Child'!) and is on the look-out for a new one, obligingly gives Maurice a glimpse of what that other side is ... by charming a squirrel out of a tree.  [No, I'm not making this up.]  It turns out that this Greek god of a young man is ...
No, you really do have to read it to fully appreciate the unutterable daftness of the plot.  I'll just sum it up as follows: Maurice suddenly comes to the realization that he loves ~ no, not 'loves': adores ~ no, not 'adores': worships (these are all his own words ~ honest!) Steven and wants to be initiated into his mysteries.  Oh but it's not sexual, no! ~ Maurice is always very careful to point that out, immediately after he's alluded to his idol's breath-taking beauty for the umpteenth time ~ barely a page goes by without someone alluding to it³. 
Steven is wonderfully, miraculously, sublimely gorgeous, and Maurice loves-adores-worships him ~ despite not really knowing him to any great extent ... OH BUT IT'S NOT SEXUAL!
I was meant to be summarizing, wasn't I?  Well, Maurice goes for a holiday at the Gervases' ancestral home in Cornwall, over which there hangs a preposterous I-can't-be-arsed-to-dream-up-an-explanation-for-it curse.  He proves to be de trop and is effectively told, like 'The Child' before him⁴, to sling his hook.  He does.
After various tribulations (most notably marriage, y'know, to a woman), during which yet another perfectly blameless but sadly inconvenient character is summarily bumped off, Steven attempts to reform himself, but fails.  The End.
The Inheritor has one of the most idiotic plots I've ever laid eyes on, even by EFB's generally rather low standards.  With the exception of Maurice, who's really only interesting by virtue of being such a clear-cut case of violently repressed homosexuality, and who pretty much disappears halfway through (though he does at least manage to avoid the Benson guillotine), and Steven's aunt, who has some comic potential, the characters are sub-cardboard-cutout.  And vast swathes of the novel are endless interior monologue ... of the dull variety.  Nothing categorically and incontrovertibly supernatural happens, unless you count one case of squirrel-charming.  The whole thing is simply asinine.

P.S. If I was a serious literary critic with psychoanalytical tendencies [possibly a contradiction in terms] and, more importantly, if I gave at least half a stuff, I could perhaps cobble together a theory which would feature the phrase 'a metaphor for E. F. Benson's homosexuality' very heavily.  But I'm not, and I don't, so I won't.

¹ I'm not sure EFB ever gets round to mentioning what he's studying, but one can safely assume it's Classics.
² It has to be said that if Benson had made him 60 years old, the traditional age for your average literary don, the whole thing would've been creepy beyond belief.
³ After 50 pages or so you feel like punching Steven's perfect mush.  The feeling lasts until the last page.
⁴ Who EFB sees fit to kill off while he's off-stage, for no reason whatever.