Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Across the Stream

Fiction ~ novel
Published June 1919
Approx. 98,400 words
(First read 22/05/2013)

A supernatural romantic melodrama, very much in the same vein as The Image in the Sand (1905).  The novel starts off extremely well ~ in fact so well that I was moved to tell my partner (who I rarely talk to about the rubbish I read) that I literally couldn't put it down until I got to the end of Ch. 2: it was some of the best stuff I'd ever read by EFB.  The first book deals with the early childhood of our hero Archie, the son of an aristocrat ~ well, a lord at least.  At the beginning he's a babe-in-arms; at the end of the section he's six ~ a rather precocious six, it has to be said.  What makes the opening chapters so unusual is that, though it's a third-person account, it's told very much from the point-of-view of Archie himself: it's an account of 'awakening consciousness', of an entirely new human being gradually coming to the realization that he's a person, just as much as all those surrounding him are individual people.  The reason I found this part (Chapters 1-3, at least, before the plot starts intervening) so unusual is that it is utterly real, believable, convincing.
Archie's earliest memory is of his nurse (Blessington ~ not 'Miss' or 'Mrs' or 'Bessie' Blessington: just 'Blessington') leaning over his cot and comforting him; she reappears throughout the novel and is always drawn with great charm and love, to the extent that it's impossible to believe EFB wasn't painting a portrait from life ~ the Benson kiddies' nurse was called Beth and was a family fixture, staying with them till her death.  Archie also has two sisters, as did EFB in life, and a deceased older brother, ditto.  He's written his two real-life real-world brothers out of the novel (inconvenient!), but his distant forbidding father has survived the cut.
Now then.  It turns out that Archie has mediumistic powers, when he's contacted by the aforementioned deceased brother, named Martin ~ as was EFB's.  At the end of Book One Archie is taken to Switzerland for his health ~ he's consumptive ~ to the exact place where Martin died of the same disease a few years earlier.  Great plan!  There the deceased contacts him again, saying that he won't be able to come another time but, by so doing, 'proving' to Archie's mum that his powers are real.
Book Two, pp.105-205.  We've now moved on something like 15-20 years and Archie has ~ with dull inevitability ~ grown up to be EFB Stock Character No.1, all 'slim, strong arms, incredibly browned with a month of sea-bathing' and crisp, blond curls; he's also something of a poet; in short, all the usual stuff.  And, my dears, he is thick: Benson seems to have been peculiarly wedded to the notion that young men totally lacked the gift of insight, clairvoyant or no.  For lo! Archie is in love with a cold, calculating, heartless, soulless vixen of a young woman (Helena), one of a pair of sisters.  Obviously she isn't in love with him, though her sister (Jessie) is.
Well, to cut a very long and decidedly predictable story short: Archie, blind to Helena's true
character, falls deeper in love with her and is just about to propose when she goes and marries someone richer.  (Obviously she doesn't love him either.)  He's devastated and turns once more to the shade of Martin for solace.  Unfortunately it soon becomes clear ~ to the reader, and to Jessie, but obviously not to Archie, totally devoid as he is of the gift of insight ~ that the shade he's communing with regularly isn't Martin at all, but some 'evil spirit' who promptly ~ very promptly ~ sends him to the bad: he becomes addicted to absinth (yes, you read that right) and resolves to have an affair with Helena behind her husband's back.
Just then some war or other starts in Europe (details are vague), the husband is conveniently killed in action, and Archie is 'rescued' by Jessie > The End.  Yes, it really is like that: after maundering on for 300 pages or so, EFB suddenly realizes he's getting near his permitted word-count and wraps the whole thing up in about 20 pages with thoroughly unseemly haste.
VERDICT: 'uneven' doesn't come anywhere near covering Across the Stream: the first part is very good, uncharacteristically good; the remainder suffers from EFB's sadly all-too-typical ropey plotting and bletheriness; the ending feels more like afterthought than logical and consequential conclusion.


It is quite undeniable that within the last few years there has been an immense increase in the number of those who take an interest in matters relating to fortune-telling, telepathy, thought reading, and things broadly classed as spiritual. To some individual temperaments the occult has a great lure. It would not be true to say that these persons are all neurotic, or victims of a disordered imagination. Many of them, like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sir Oliver Lodge, Mrs Ella Wheeler Wilcox, Mr E. F. Benson, and many others are men and women whose honesty of purpose no one doubts. […] Young people should be warned against the folly of attempted intercourse with the powers of the unseen universe. Mr E. F. Benson's latest novel, Across the Stream, shows the perilous possibilities of haphazard traffic with spirits which may be bad as well as good […]
~The Daily Mail [Hull, UK], 12/06/1919

Mr. Benson has never written with greater charm than in his picture of the child life of Archie in this story. There is a psychic element, delicately treated in its inception but as it grows to be the real theme less interesting to the imaginative appreciation of those who are not believers in psychic phenomena.
~The Outlook (US), 25/06/1919
[...] Across the Stream possess[es] [...] the merit of fine workmanship. […] Mr. Benson has his inevitable touch of the garish and the excessive. But the art [...] is ripe and flexible. […] the fine Italian landscapes of Mr. Benson, are admirably rendered; [the] characters live with a strong if not very lasting life. [...] Mr. Benson uses all his dash and color to make the figure of Archie both brilliant and exquisite. And yet [the book is], in any deep and serious sense, unimportant. It is not because [Mr. Benson has] chosen these people and not others. It is because in drawing [his] characters and telling [his story he has] been too little concerned with memory, which is the mother of the creative imagination, and too much concerned with a fancy that grows out of emotional impulses and builds a vain and fleeting shadow world above that reality from which arises all our suffering but likewise all that we know of beauty. [Across the Stream deals] with the supposed communication between the living and the dead. Facts of the utmost questionableness and theories of the most baseless improbability are treated as established in the practice and experience of life. [...] Mr. Benson [has never] faced the real nature of the problem or the limitations of average minds, or [...] reflected on the insurmountable difficulties of the question of human evidence. [He has] deliberately built [his novel] upon a foundation more insecure than the shifting sand. And no amount of talent or skill in the details of execution can save [it] from the result. "Thought," wrote RĂ©my de Gourmont, "is the man himself. And style and thought are one."
~The Nation, 02/08/1919 [wow, what a stupid review!]

Mr E F Benson's literary talent is as remarkable as ever, for his latest book ~ Across the Stream […] ~ is distinguished by the charm of its phrasing, its balance of light and shade, its technique, and that quality, elusive as light, which is usually known as 'style'. The book is divided into three parts, of which the first is the most remarkable as a study of the psychology of a child, and of scenes and pictures of his earliest days of childhood from the time when his powers of memory were only just beginning to germinate; and the horizon of his outlook on life was ~ only very gradually ~ widening through scenes and situations in which he was “still a detached observer, looking at them as through a telescope.” Mr Benson has either a marvellous memory of his own childhood, or has made a vital study of the floating impressions and untranslatable instincts of other children he may have known. In any case, we follow the pilgrimage of the hero of his book from childhood to manhood with unabated interest to the end. It is an admirable and convincing piece of literary craftsmanship.
~The Yorkshire Post, 30/07/1919

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