Sunday, 30 June 2013

Charlotte Brontë

Non-fiction ~ biography
Published 1932
Approx. 96,000 words
(First read 30/06/2013)


I do not think Charlotte was in the least like the domineering little shrew he pictures her, anymore perhaps than she was like the rather too saintly heroine of Mrs. Gaskell’s biography. I do not put any faith in Benson’s theory that Branwell wrote parts of Wuthering Heights and inspired the whole. There is no foundation in the world for it beyond the assertion of two of Branwell’s cronies that he read the first few chapters of it to them and told them it was his own. They may have been telling the truth, but I would not put the least confidence in any statement of Branwell’s. He was entirely capable of reading someone else’s manuscript and trying to pass it off as his own. No doubt he was more in Emily’s confidence than Charlotte ever knew and had got possession of her manuscript in some way. Benson blames Charlotte for her unsympathetic attitude to Branwell. I imagine that an angel would have found it rather difficult to be sympathetic. Benson cannot understand a proud sensitive woman’s heart. I love Charlotte Brontë so much that I am angry when anyone tries to belittle her.
~L. M. Montgomery, quoted by Sheila O' Malley on The Sheila Variations website
In the introduction to his admirably judicious presentation of the Brontë family, Mr. Benson records a remark once made to him by Sir Edmund Gosse on the subject of writing biography; "Nobody but a novelist," said that scholarly bookman, "should be allowed to write a biography, but he must remember that he is not writing a novel." We now have two biographies of Charlotte Brontë, each of distinguished achievement and both written by novelists—one, the famous authorized biography by Mrs. Gaskell published a few years after Charlotte's death, and the other this present one by Mr. Benson, now published more than three quarters of a century after her death. Both these works bear witness to the wisdom of Gosse's dictum — Mrs. Gaskell's to the vice in its warning and Mr. Benson's to the virtue in it. For after reading Mr. Benson's book we are compelled to agree with him that Mrs. Gaskell was terribly forgetful that she was not writing a novel. "In her admirable zeal to make her friend known and valued," says Mr. Benson, "she (Mrs. Gaskell) sometimes fobs us off with fiction, forgetting that, though a novelist's business is to create characters, it is the business of a biographer to render them, and that the tact of omission, when too unscrupulous, becomes a fabrication." That this kind of tact was employed by Mrs. Gaskell in her justly famous work will be abundantly evident to any reader of Mr. Benson's book, which is at once a rendering of characters and a convincing argument for the life values precipitated by his rendition.
Since the publication of the first edition of Mrs. Gaskell's Life a heavy gray cloud of legends has hung over the remarkable inmates who "dreed their wierds" in the isolated Haworth rectory,
arousing a wide and eager curiosity, and resulting in what Mr. Benson calls the 'Brontë Saga.' This saga still finds its devoted students and expositors in the many admirers of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, in the faithful members of the Brontë Society, and in the numerous pilgrims who make the Haworth Rectory their Mecca.
In writing this book, Mr. Benson has dissolved this cloud of legends and translated the saga into the common prose of everyday life. Instead of a mythology he has given us a biology in the literary sense of that word—not of ordinary human beings, of course, but still of human beings with human frailties and human strengths. And he has done this with so engaging an urbanity of style, often tinged with quiet humor, that we look at the pictures he presents as a fresh revelation, and a natural one. Of this family of three young women and one young man, each of whom was singularly gifted, and all of whom were more or less tragically destined, mentally or physically, Emily alone still remains 'unguessed at.' Charlotte, the eldest, easily "abides our question," and Mr. Benson very properly makes her the main subject of his work. With the help of the many letters piously collected and preserved by Mr. Clement K. Shorter, and the voluminous correspondence with Charlotte's friend Ellen Nussey, and also with the strange light thrown on Charlotte's sojourn in Brussels as revealed in the four letters she wrote to M. Heger so remarkably saved from destruction, and now public property, Mr. Benson rebuilds the Brontë home and rehabilitates it. He does this not so much by the magic of a sympathy as by the common sense of a cultured, judicious mind, dealing dispassionately with the evidence largely furnished by Charlotte Brontë herself. The story as he now presents it is quite plain and unvarnished, yet arrestingly dramatic, and it captures out acquiescent interest by its sheer reasonableness and its fidelity to the human qualities of both mind and heart, in the actors of this unique drama.
We now see that it was Charlotte who was the guiding and [illegible] spirit of the home. The mother died when the children were young, and the father was too self-centered a man to understand even his own children; certainly he was not the kind of man to train and direct them, even had they been willing to accept his ministrations. The ruler of the household was Charlotte, a shy, homely, and tiny little woman, but with an indomitable will and a clear vision of what she wanted, and with the tact and perseverance of a born diplomatist to get what she wanted when she wanted it. As self-centered as her father, she had a natural gift for enlisting the services of others to the satisfying of her ego, even in the belief that such satisfaction was in the nature of things proper for her. She could hate passionately what or whom in any way prevented that satisfaction, and she could love just as passionately what or who contributed to it.
The humor with which Mr, Benson reveals these qualities in her is at times amusingly engaging. It is especially so where he tells us of Charlotte's decision to marry Mr. Nicholls, her father's curate, whom her father detested and for whom she herself had no great liking. She had rejected his suit more than once, but when she did finally decide to accept him, she skilfully and quietly overcame all the difficulties that were in the way of her marriage, and then she could write to Ellen Nussey and tell her that Providence had offered her this destiny. "Providence," says Mr. Benson, "would not have much chance without her firm cooperation."
In several parts of this book Mr. Benson's narrative rises to intensely moving situations. The scene between Emily and Charlotte when Emily finds her sister reading the poetry she had been writing in secret; the story of the happenings prior to Branwell Brontë's death and culminating in Emily's death; the tale of the discovery of Charlotte's abject love letters to M. Heger and the mental anguish she suffered because of his continued silence; the account of Emily's relations with her brother Branwell and of her loyalty to him; all these are dramatically set forth, compelling our heartfelt sympathy and even pity.
Between Charlotte and Emily, the two members of this family who have survived for immortality, Mr. Benson sees a vital difference, an "abysmal, impassable gulf that separated the great talent of the one from the genius of the other."
“Charlotte in her novels used not once, but over and over again, both in motive and episode, the actual experiences of her life—its detested occupations, the relationship between employer and employed as she encountered them in her schoolings, bitterly caricaturing those who had offended her. Emily, on the other hand, save in a few commemorative poems, never drew from external experience—her inspiration, like that of the mystic, came wholly from within, and her work glowed and was fed by the fire and wine of the soul that dwelt apart.”
Mr. Benson has written a winning book and has told a true story in so far as the truth of the Brontë children can be extracted out of the documentary evidence. But the truth of Emily Brontë is still only to be guessed at, and even then by our intuition alone. Her elemental spirit was a natural phenomenon the mystery of which must forever foil our human searching.
~Temple Scott in The Saturday Review, 06/08/1932
There is something special about the Brontës. They produce passionate partisans. They have produced, also, according to Mr. Benson, numerous biographers from Mrs. Gaskell down who
have recklessly juggled with facts and theories in order to present their particular favorite in the best possible light. In this excellent study, therefore —ostensibly of Charlotte, but actually and inevitably of her whole strange, ill-fated family — Mr. Benson has striven to be scrupulously fair and to adhere to the actual record. This, to a large extent, he has done. Ironically enough, however, he is quite unable to disguise the fact that his heart and sympathies lie with Emily, and next with Branwell. He is just to Charlotte; he admires her ability, her practical intelligence, her grit and determination. Nevertheless it is evident that the strain of intolerance and priggishness in her repels him, that he could never forgive her for her harsh attitude towards Branwell, nor for her lack of any real understanding of Emily. This is a delightful biography, free from sentimentality and pseudo-interpretations, sharply real in its descriptions of life at Haworth Parsonage. Nevertheless it is not actually as brilliant, nor as full of warmth, as the really confirmed Brontë fan would like to see it. One feels, at times, that the essential quality in those four eludes Mr. Benson as it has eluded so many others.
~The Forum, 09/1932
Three-quarters of a century has gone by since Mrs. Gaskell brought a hurricane about her ears by the publication of her Life of Charlotte Brontë. Since then we have had innumerable biographies of the Brontës, but we are as far as ever from getting an impartial one. Something in the air of Haworth Parsonage seems to go to the heads of chroniclers, and they emerge from their researches in states of violent partisanship.
Although Mr. Benson has made Charlotte the titular heroine of his book he inclines to the Emily-cum-Branwell cult. Poor Charlotte emerges as an acidulous, spinsterish little figure-of-fun, driving her talented sisters and brother with her own furious ambition. Often Mr. Benson seems aware that he is not presenting a woman who could by any sweep of the imagination have been a genius, and at such moments he halts his interpretation to recall to us, flatly, that he is writing of the author of Jane Eyre and Villette. But the moment passes; we have again the resentful, driving, managing creature before us, and the task of re-creating her as the mystery she was is all to be done over again.
This is not to say that Charlotte Brontë is not an excellent book. It is one that should be on the shelf of every Brontë-lover. In retrieving Mrs. Gaskell's error of presenting Charlotte as a saint without stain, Mr. Benson occasionally leans too far in the other direction, and presents her as something just short of an hysteric. But he has had the inspiration to tell about her straightforwardly as a woman who was capable of falling deeply, wildly, and indiscreetly in love (though indeed how the indisputable evidence of her love for M. Heger can still be ignored is inexplicable). In building up the character of a woman capable of deep emotion, Mr. Benson quotes extensively from Charlotte's letters to her school companion, Ellen Nussey. These quotations are wild enough, in all conscience, and yet perhaps a protest is again in order: in the middle of the last century a Gothic madness was abroad in the land, and many a good soul poured out the frenzied self-accusation that was customary, that was in fact downright modish, who hadn't a sin to bless herself with.
Mr. Benson has a theory, to me, I confess, more ingenious than convincing, that Branwell Brontë had much to do with Wuthering Heights. It is well stated, worth considering, and recommended to all who like insoluble problems.
~Frederic Shepard in The Bookman, 09/1932

The flood of works published in recent years upon the Brontës, their lives and their works, and the support afforded from all parts of the English-speaking world to the Brontë Society, show how strong a hold, even to fascination, this 'Yorkshire tragedy' has upon the imagination and the affections of readers. But popularity is apt to invite depreciation. Admiration is often mistaken by those who do not share it as adoration, earnest students are regarded as fanatics, and the subject of their study becomes in the eyes of the unbeliever a cult or an idolatry, and a challenge to the iconoclast. Moreover, biography-writing itself is subject to fashions. Certain writers have shown how easy it is to give novelty and piquancy to their narrative by adopting the tone of the discoverer and censor of scandals.
These differing attitudes of mind are illustrated by the two brothers Benson. The late Arthur C Benson, the essayist and poet, was moved some years ago to the writing of a vivid and appreciative 'personal sketch' of Charlotte Brontë, which he contributed to a volume published by the Brontë Society, besides other addresses and writings appreciative of her 'message'. The other brother, Mr E F Benson, author of the famous Dodo and fifty other books, approaches the subject differently. Reading the life and letters of Charlotte Brontë with a disposition to get as near as may be to the truth without sentimentality and, as he expressly assures us, without malice, he finds Charlotte a golden idol with feet of clay. He is not inappreciative of the passion and sincerity, though keenly alive to the technical defects, of her literary work, but it is with austerely unsentimental eyes that he views her character as revealed in her letters and, to a degree unusual to novelists, in her fiction.
'Personally Hard'
Arthur Benson recognised in Charlotte's writings “the qualities which her deeply seated diffidence prevented her from displaying in daily life. Her humour, her penetrating insight, her delicate fancy, her liveliness, her passionate affections, the noble scorn of all that was cold or mean, all these flashed into life on her pages.” Mr E F Benson regards her as personally hard, bitter, morbid ~ except perhaps that she became more human in the few months of her married life ~ engrossed in the symptoms of her own ill-health; to the end revengeful, incapable of recognising the genius of her sister, Emily, with whom she was, he thinks, never on intimate terms; and implacable towards her brother, Branwell. He finds much that it is 'impossible to accept' as true in her letters and in her poignant little memoirs of her sisters, and he accounts for the tenderness of tone as 'remorseful'. The friendship of Charlotte with Ellen Nussey, prolonged from schooldays to the last letters from her deathbed, is to him evidence of a 'sex-obsession'.
Mrs Gaskell's life of Charlotte Brontë is regarded as a book in which the novelist as creator of characters gets the better of the biographer as mere recorder, and the authoress is lashed very severely for her exaggerations and suppressions, especially for softening the 'hard lines and characteristic traits' in her portrait of Charlotte. With such a Charlotte and such a Mrs Gaskell ever before his mental vision, Mr Benson reviews the story of the Brontës, colouring afresh in what he believes without malice to be the true tints in which the various episodes should be presented. He has no new information to offer. The reviewer has detected only one 'fact' which is new and maybe true and a minor addition to our knowledge, but even that more probably is a blunder. Mostly the book reminds one of the reflections of the distorting glasses popular at fairs.
Who Wrote Wuthering Heights?
His new readings of character are not limited to Charlotte alone, but involve Emily. He represents Wuthering Heights as the result of a 'collaboration' of Emily with Branwell. His only evidence is that Mr Dearden, more than twenty years after the event, published a statement that at a poetic tournament at the Cross Roads Inn, at Haworth, in 1845, Branwell read a 'fragment' of a story with the same characters introduced as those of Wuthering Heights. Mr Edward Sloane, a friend of Branwell's and of Mr Dearden, declared to the latter that Branwell had read to him, “portion by portion, the novel as it was produced at the time”; and there is a third witness who 'felt certain' that it must have come from Branwell's pen.
This evidence does not leave much work for Emily, nor much basis for her reputation as a novelist. Yet Emily, as 'Ellis Bell', had the effrontery more than a year and maybe eighteen months before her brother's death in October 1848 to negotiate for the publication of the book with, on the title-page, her own pseudonym ~ the same she had used on the poems published in 1846. It is true that Emily about this time called Branwell 'a hopeless being', but can we imagine her counting so surely on his death as to steal the share of literary fame which, according to the evidence, was rightfully his? Was she, less than Charlotte, imbued with that 'noble scorn of all that was cold and mean'? Mr Benson has not faced this question fairly and squarely.
Mrs Gaskell's worst offence as biographer was the omission of any indication of the passionate nature of the 'love-letters' of Charlotte to her old professor in Brussels, Monsieur Heger ~ whose name Mr Benson persistently misspells. He will not tolerate any excuse that Mrs Gaskell wrote while yet both Monsieur and Madame Heger were alive. He is not sure “whether or no she [Charlotte] actually muttered 'Je me vengerai' to that lady when she left Brussels for the last time (but) she had kept these things in her heart,” and when she wrote 'immortally' her Villette “she took her revenge.” It was not till sixty years later that there were published the letters which Madame Heger had “picked out of the [her husband's] waste-paper basket and pieced together,” but with their publication Mr Benson thinks Madame Heger was 'quits' with Charlotte.
Such is Mr E F Benson's contribution to what he calls 'the Brontë Saga'.
~Herbert E. Wroot in The Yorkshire Post, 16/04/1932

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Jill's Cat

Fiction ~ short story
Published 1916
2,720 words
(First read 26/06/2013)

Tuesday, 18 June 2013


Fiction ~ novel
Published December 1914
Approx. 115,000 words
(First read 18/06/2013)

As with The Relentless City [qv], I came to this one completely blind.  'Arundel' is the name of the suburban house where most of the 'action' takes place.  The novel is set very specifically (EFB actually mentions a date) in 1912-13.  I'd classify it as a 'romance with social comedy'.
It opens in ~ of all places! ~ India, where the 18-year-old music-loving Elizabeth Fanshawe lives with her English colonel father and stepmother.  The last of these has some comic potential: a thoroughly selfish and self-indulgent 'married merry widow' ~ she doesn't reappear till near the end, but her return is worth the wait (more anon).
Elizabeth is, like every good Benson girl-heroine, utterly devoted to her daddy ... but not to the extent of really objecting to being sent back to England for the summer for no discernible reason.  So off she trots.
Next we are introduced, in fine detail, to the metro town of Heathmoor, specifically to the inhabitants of 'Arundel'.  Mrs Hancock, a widow, and her 20ish-year-old daughter Edith, who are Elizabeth's paternal aunt and cousin.  Heathmoor is a place of perfect smug comfort and contentment, never a hair out of place, never a feather ruffled, and Mrs Hancock is the embodiment of that ethos.  Here is one of EFB's comic meistermonsters: Mrs H is only 48 but she always comes across as about 30 years older ~ her entire existence revolves around ensuring and perpetuating her own comfort, both physical and emotional (not that she actually has any emotions), to the exclusion of all else, including other people's comfort.  And she contrives to do all this while maintaining the fiction that she never thinks of herself: a typically Bensonian conceit ~ her whole life is an elaborate lie.  On top of this she is extremely miserly, only prepared to spend money on things that will conduce to her own all-important comfort ~ a scene in which she sits down with herself to decide what settlement to make on Edith for her marriage, starting with £400 p.a. and gradually whittling it down to £0 p.a. is very funny.  Luckily, she's no minor character: a good half the book is hers.
Anyway, next door to the Hancocks lives Edward, a young stockbroker (he's about 27: EFB's heroes and heroines are rarely the same age) who ~ and EFB makes no apologies about this, indeed he gives it emphasis ~ is a kind of 'paragon of averageness' ... except in two respects: (1) [Experienced Benson readers will already have guessed] He's extremely good-looking; and (2) [They won't have guessed this one] He has a dreamy passion for music.  Sadly he has no such passion for Edith Hancock, nor she for him, but, it being universally 'expected' that they shall marry, he proposes to her and is accepted.  Alas for Edith! the moment she becomes engaged she starts to fall in love with him.
Into this supremely comfortable ~ and dull ~ world steps Elizabeth Fanshawe on her visit from India.  And ~ alas for Edith again! ~ as soon as Edward hears Elizabeth play the piano after his own disastrous performance (one presumes that if EFB had given him actual performing talent, it would have been 'unmanning'), he realizes she is the other half he's always dreamed of, and that he's made the greatest mistake of his life in proposing to Edith.
The remainder of the novel deals with this impossible love, which is (obviously) utterly sexless, formulaic, Victorian and, frankly, pretty unconvincing.  There's a passage towards the end where Elizabeth, having finally renounced all hopes of having Edward (well, he's gone ahead and married Edith, she having refused to 'release' him), goes to a concert and has some kind of Road to Damascus experience in which the meaning of ~ possibly ~ the entire universe becomes clear to her: it's impossible to say just what happens because EFB goes into Waffle Overload here ~ it's kind of mystical ... or something ... or maybe not.
Just when you think (p. 379 of 382) the story can't possibly have a happy ending (!), Benson performs his once-in-a-million-years-of-literature ~ or in his case once-every-other-novel ~ sleight of hand and the pregnant Edith is taken suddenly ill.  Did I say 'suddenly'? ~ it's practically in mid-sentence.
And lo! within one paragraph of this, she's dead, the baby's dead* ... and the survivors all live happily ever after.
Almost forgot: Mrs Fanshawe's return is worth waiting for because near the very end she and Mrs Hancock meet and spar in a scene reminiscentish of Mapp and Lucia**, the big difference being that Hancock and Fanshawe are kind of trying to outdo one another at exactly the same game, trying to 'out-sweetness' one another.
Like so many of Benson's other novels, Arundel contains quite a lot that is good (Mrs Hancock, the subsidiary inhabitants of Heathmoor) but rather a lot more that is bad (the hero, the heroine, the plot, EFB's extremely dodgy notions of what 'love' is ...). 

The whole novel can be read online here.

STOP PRESS: For a sequel to Arundel, see the short story The Economies of Mrs Hancock (1925).

*No, EFB doesn't even draw the line at infanticide when the infant in question would be 'inconvenient'.
**Dang! ~ I mentioned them! 


Mr Benson at his subtle best.
~Pall Mall Gazette, quoted in newspaper ad of 18/12/1914
Arundel is truly E F Bensonian. That is, it is full of delightful chatter, more or less irresponsible, about a group of people who are all socially charming, though one or two of them may be trying to live with. They enjoy croquet, love Wagner, become engaged, marry, and even die ~ and we are entertained, in fact, quite touched, by their adventures, but we know that all is for the best, and that their ineptitudes will be more kindly dealt with by Mr Benson than they would by life. [...] The story is most readable throughout.
~Manchester Courier, 28/12/1914
Mr E F Benson is much too practised a novelist to write a book which is not clever and interesting. In Arundel the womenfolk are undoubtedly the most convincing, and while Mrs Hancock is not the principal person in the somewhat limited community into which we are introduced, she is certainly the most amusing, and her inconsequential volubility, endeavouring as she does to [illegible: probably 'hide'] her intense desire that all should minister to her comfort, is thoroughly entertaining. The hero is a strange creation. Mr Benson has imagined a Stock Exchange man of so little knowledge of himself that you would have believed he had always lived a quiet and retiring life. [...]  [Edith and Elizabeth] are very human, and the strength of characterisation is equal to the powers which Mr Benson has already shown himself to possess. “And for those who follow the gleam there is always light sufficient to show them their way” quotes Mr Benson, and this is the text of a good story.
~Western Daily Press, 04/01/1915

Arundel (Fisher Unwin) is one of those stories that begins with a Prologue; and as this was only mildly interesting I began to wonder whether I was going to be as richly entertained as one has by now a right to expect from Mr. E. F. Benson. But it appeared that, like a cunning dramatist, he was only waiting till the audience had settled into their seats; when this was done, up went the curtain upon the play proper, and we were introduced to Arundel itself, an abode of such unmixed and giddy joy that I have been chortling over the memory of it ever since. Arundel was the house at Heathmoor where lived Mrs. Hancock and her daughter Edith; and Mrs. Hancock herself, and her house and her neighbourhood and her car and her servants and her friends—all, in fact, that is hers, epitomize the Higher Suburbia with a delicate and merciless satire that is beyond praise. I shall hurry over the actual story, because that, though well and absorbingly told, is of less value than the setting. Next door to the Hancocks lived a blameless young man called Edward, whom for many reasons, not least because their croquet-lawns, so to speak, "marched," Mrs. Hancock had chosen as her daughter's husband. So blamelessly, almost without emotion, these were betrothed, walking among the asparagus beds on a suitable May afternoon "ventilated by a breath of south-west wind and warmed by a summer sun," and the course of their placid affection would have run smooth enough but for the sudden arrival, out of the Prologue, of Elizabeth, fiercely alive and compelling, the ideal of poor Edward's dreams. Naturally, therefore, there is the devil to pay. But, good as all this is, it is Mrs. Hancock who makes the book, first, last and all the time. She is a gem of purest ray serene, and my words that would praise her are impotent things. Only unlimited quotation could do justice to her sleek self-deception and little comfortable meannesses. In short, as a contemporary portrait, the mistress of Arundel seems to be the best thing that Mr. Benson has yet given us; worth—if he will allow me to say so—a whole race of Dodos. For comparison one turns instinctively to Jane Austen; and I can sound no higher praise.
~Punch, 03/02/1915

One piece of superb characterisation lifts Arundel […] to the plane of its author, Mr E. F. Benson's best work. The story in itself is excellent. It is at least a human situation, when a young man somewhat hurriedly becomes engaged without loving to his full capacity, without even waiting for friendship to turn to love at all, and then meets the perfect she who can evoke his deepest feeling and stir him to passion. This situation Mr Benson handles with a transcendental regard for love, and with rhapsodical devotion to music, particualrly Wagner's. The interest in the story is well maintained. But it is not the story which lifts the book to greatness ~ it is the perfectly-drawn figure of Mrs Hancock. It may seem strange that the delineation of an odiously selfish woman should do what ideal thinking and fine eloquence fail to achieve; but Mr Benson has sung of love and Wagner's Siegfried before now. The ecstasies of Arundel may be matched elsewhere in his works. Not so the wonderful Mrs Hancock. Here is an absolutely selfish person, yet she is no mere personification of a single quality, an abstraction clothed in human form. She is individual and alive. Her whole life is a selfish concern for her own comfort; her entire energy is devoted to securing that comfort in all the trivial details of well-to-do suburban existence, and yet she is forever pretending even to the point of fussiness to be concerned for the happiness of others. Mr Benson indulges in no direct attack upon the lady, no note of bitterness mars the suave gravity, almost geniality of his depiction of Mrs Hancock. Yet despite the author's unbroken graciousness, the matron rustles through the pages one of the most worthless beings that ever arrayed herself in the finest pink of all the proprieties. Mrs Hancock is a rare achievement, and would make remarkable any story, and Arundel is sufficiently good a story to be able to do without her. But what a difference her absence from the pages would make.
~The Liverpool Daily Post and Mercury [UK], 24/02/1915
 By no means the best of Mr. Benson's many stories—two selfish and talkative women of middle age are too much for any one novel. Nor are the unhappy love affairs of the humdrum man and young woman of a quiet English village very exciting, even when the brilliant, witty, and highly energetic lady from India converts their tepid affection into a tragedy of the passions.
~The Outlook (US), 31/03/1915
Mr. Benson has written a musico-psychological novel in a prologue, three books, and 350 closely printed pages. It is all about a young girl who, in addition to all the virtues, moral and physical, that young womanhood ought to possess, has a passion for music and much skill in its execution. Into her life enters a young man, also endowed with a musical, but inarticulate, soul. The obvious plan would have been for the two to get married and spend the rest of their lives going to the opera together—as, being in prosperous circumstances, they could very well have afforded to do. This, however, would have entailed a short book and an unpsychological one; so the author astutely arranges that the young man, shortly before his first meeting with Elizabeth, shall have carelessly engaged himself to her cousin, and many pages are devoted to a conscientious analysis of the feelings of the three parties to this blameless triangle. Truth to tell, the result is a somewhat dull book, written in a style of laborious realism, reminiscent of Arnold Bennett in his most determined moments, and only in part redeemed by illuminative sketches of some of the minor characters, and by occasional flashes of the humor that we know Mr. Benson can display. One feels on laying the book aside that the reward has been incommensurate with the pains, for one remains unconvinced of the reality of any of the three principal characters.
~The Nation, 13/05/1915

Arundel (1914) opens in Peshawar in India but subsequently moves to London. The story is banal and the prose thick, and there is a lack of the amusing peripheral characters that Fred often uses to lighten a turgid atmosphere*. The best scenes are those set in India**; they bring out all the scents and colours of the country that Fred had absorbed during his stay there with Francis Yeats-Brown a couple of years before.
~Geoffrey Palmer and Noel Lloyd in E. F. Benson As He Was, 1988. * !!! ~ I can only imagine Mrs Hancock had completely slipped Messrs Palmer and Lloyd's memory when they wrote this. ** i.e. the first two chapters, about 50 pages of the 370.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

The Relentless City

Fiction ~ novel
Published 1903
Approx. 100,000 words
(First read 12/06/2013)

I came to this one completely blind, with no idea what it was about or what to expect.  I'd put it in the 'romantic melodrama' category, though obviously, EFB being EFB, the melodrama is pretty low-key, and the romance is ... well, it's the EFB version of romance.  But this is too dismissive: there's actually a surprising amount of content in it.  What it contains is quite a lot of social commentary on life as it was led by the super-rich of England and the United States at the turn of the 20th century. 
Benson is particularly scathing about the latter, with their vulgarity, their lack of any kind of home-grown culture, their ostentation, and their relentless pursuit of wealth at any cost.  (The relentless city of the title is, presumably, New York, though little of the action actually takes place there.)  But their English counterparts scarcely fare much better: EFB's assassination of them is less blatant ~ and perhaps just a shade involuntary ~ but nonetheless he makes a very thorough job of depicting them as vacuous, shiftless, incredibly snobbish and complacent and, it has to be said, downright decadent
While the Americans career about at breakneck speed in their pursuit of amusement, the English merely drift about in their maze of country houses and croquet trying their utmost not to die of boredom.  Come to think of it, that's really the only content there is ~ but there's a goodly portion of it.  On the whole I think the Americans come out of it best in the final analysis: Mr & Mrs Palmer, and the charming villain Bilton are undoubtedly grotesques, but they are at least characters; Palmer fille is a failure for the usual EFB reason.  The main English characters, by contrast, are stock cardboard-cutout paragons of virtue and/or chinlessness, with the exception of Mrs Emsworth (who is, after all, an actress so understandably thespoid and wicked), and the minor character Judy who, unless I was reading it wrong, actually has a sense of humour.
Oh but the plot! ~ this, as always, is best left not too closely examined.  Suffice it to say here that The Relentless City contains what must surely be the silliest, flimsiest, and most inexplicably motiveless exercise in blackmail ever put to print.  Of course, this being E. F. Benson, the perpetrator (Bilton: American; well, blackmail is so un-British) receives his comeuppance for such a dastardly crime.  "Social ostracism, is it, Ewie?"  No, not that.  "Business failure, then?"  No, not that either.  "A crippling illness, maybe?"  No, but you're getting warmer.  Oh I'll just tell you, shall I? ~ the 'justice' handed out to the blackmailer is a horrible, violent, untimely death.
"Ah right ... okayyyy."
Verdict: Quite good fun, in a masochistic kind of way.  It's a lot less ploddy than the usual fare: hardly 'action-packed' but still with a fair bit of stuff happening.  And a bit of comedy.

Friday, 7 June 2013

The False Step

Fiction ~ short story
Published 1920
Approx. 3,800 words
(First read 07/06/2013)