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.