Published very very late 1907, or very very early 1908
Approx 137,000 words
(First read 25/03/2014)
Y'know, the more I read of E F Benson, the more I become aware that the Problem of age gap in relationships was something of a preoccupation of his. I've recently discovered (or rediscovered) it in a couple of short stories: The Eavesdropper (1924) and Adjustments (1923?); it's the theme of Sheaves and also of Mezzanine (1926). And these are only the Older Woman / Younger Man examples.¹ There's probably something to be learnt in all this but it'll have to wait.
Sheaves, then, tells the story of 42-year-old Edith Allbutt² and her marriage to 24-year-old Hugh Grainger³.
When the 'action' begins, Edith is a widow-woman of three years' standing; her first marriage was to a drunk and consequently one of never-ending misery, heartache, etc. Despite all this she's come out of it as exquisitely pretty as all the other impossible Benson heroines. She's spent the past few years 'recovering' and writing a play about it (like you do) which turns out to be a massive hit, obviously.
Hugh is a young toff of no-fixed-utility who, unsurprisingly, is like this:
His huge, high spirits were clearly natural to him. [...] his slight, slender frame; his quickness of movement and gesture; his thatch of thick, close-cropped hair; his vivid, handsome face, with its dark eyes and clear white skin.Oh and he sings like an angel. In fact he sings like such an angel that Edith and her sister Peggy persuade him ~ though it doesn't take much doing ~ to become an opera singer. So he becomes an opera singer (like you do) and is a massive hit, obviously. (Peggy ~ Cynthia Lady Rye in full ~ is another utterly utterly impossible heroine: a combination of society hostess and Mother Teresa, but likeable enough, once you get past the fact that only EFB could have created her.)
Where was I? ~ ah yes, so Edith and Hughie get married; they have a baby, which dies of neglect⁴; Edith develops consumption so everyone troops off to Davos where a jolly time is had by all ... except Edith who, when she's just on the road to recovery, dies of heart failure instead. The End.
This postage stamp of a tale takes approximately 137,000 words to tell.
It's not so much the thinness of the plot that rankles, nor is it the country-ramble-over-very-uneven-ground pace of the thing⁵, nor the unremitting preposterousness of the plot and characters.
No. What rankles is that Benson takes an interesting premise and problem ~ "What happens when a woman approaching middle age marries a man still in the flush of youth?" ~ and almost totally ignores it! Sure, before the marriage is actually decided on, Peggy has a bit of a go at talking her sister out of it, and, once hitched, Edith does occasionally fret a bit about the age gap ... but, to put it plainly, Edith and Hughie could have been any age (her 62, him 22; the pair of them 32; you name it) and the novel would've turned out exactly the same: 'doomed love story' is all it is, in the final analysis. An opportunity spectacularly missed.
(P.S. Comic Relief Note. The sole bits of comic relief in Sheaves ~ and they really are like oases in a desert: one longs for them ~ come in the shape of Edith's neighbours at her home in Wiltshire: Hugh's brother-in-law Canon Dick Alington, an insufferable pompous prig, and his son Ambrose ditto, and their pal Mrs Owen, a scheming hypocrite in the best tradition of Bensonian small-town harpies. But, as I say, they're woefully under-utilized.)
¹ Older Man / Younger Woman novels include Juggernaut (1911), An Autumn Sowing (1917) and Alan (1924).
² No, I haven't made this name up, in case American readers are wondering.
³ Not that Hugh Grainger, not [unnamed narrator]'s ghost-hunting pal from the latter spook stories. This is an entirely unrelated chap who just happens to have the same name.
⁴ Oh don't panic: it doesn't really die of neglect, though for all the attention that's paid it, it might as well.
⁵ In fact I'm so thoroughly inured to the leisurely pace of late Victorian and Edwardian novels ~ especially EFB's ~ by now that if I read anything faster I tend to get nose-bleeds.
The marriage question in relation to disparity of age is less often touched upon in fiction than are some other phases. This aspect is the pivot of Mr. E. F. Benson's novel in which Hugh Grainger, a man of twenty-four, marries a widow of forty-two, whose earlier marriage was a disastrous one. In this union there is perfect harmony of tastes and mind and a passionate mutual love; there is nothing to prevent its being an ideal coupling of two human beings except the great gulf between twenty-four and forty-two—with the seniority on the wrong side. No 'little rift' appears to open graduallyand silence the music of this marriage, though the wife feels an occasional qualm as she glances into futurity, knowing that the years that will bring only maturity to Hugh will bring old age to her; what will be the outcome? There is only one ending that can avert unhappiness in such a case, and Edith's qualms were needless. Mr. Benson's most admirable point as a writer is his hatred and clever setting forth of cant and priggishness and his clear contrasting of it with the real goodness it attempts to mimic. In Edith Grainger is portrayed a thorough Christian gentlewoman. She is a creation any novelist might be proud of. Several of the other characters display clever handling, particularly a pushing would-be society woman whose snobbishness and hypocrisy form a foil to Edith's genuine refinement and goodness; also Ambrose and Perpetua, a delightful pair of juvenile prigs.
~The Outlook, 04/01/1908
Though Sheaves […] by E. F. Benson is a fascinating novel, with many interesting characters and notable passages, still it is less satisfactory than most of his work. The reason is not far to seek, since the author has set the problem of the consequences of disparity of age in marriage and has evaded its difficulties. Into the everyday word of society people, which Mr Benson presents so artistically and so accurately, come Mrs Allbutt, a middle-aged widow, who has written anonymously a play which proves successful, and Hugh Grainger, an attractive youth with a glorious voice, which secures his immediate entry into Grand Opera. The pair love and marry and enjoy an ideal life, crowned by the birth of a son, yet the woman dreads the approach of old age, but the test is not applied, for she is stricken with consumption, which proves fatal. Of the minor characters, which show extraordinary knowledge and penetrating insight, the most convincing are Lady Rye, the heroine's sister, Canon and Mrs Alington and Mrs Owen, as well as some delightfully contrasted children. As is always the case with Mr Benson's books, the descriptions are admirable; and, whatever the subject, the writing is brilliant. The sole objection to the novel is that the problem which the author has pressed on the attention of the reader, and which has succeeded in raising great expectations, remains unsolved.
~The Manchester Courier, 24/01/1908
Sheaves, by E. F. Benson, purposes at the start to be a study of discrepancy in age between husband and wife. It needs no argument to show that the story of a marriage between a man of twenty-seven and a woman of forty-four must depend for whatever interest it has upon development of character. Only in the rare case where the man and woman are by some freak of fate strangely fitted for one another in every respect save that of years, that a problem of this kind is worth the working out. Hugh Grainger and Edith Allbutt are two people thus miraculously intended for each other. In both the dramatic and artistic temperaments are highly developed. Hugh has a voice which in Lohengrin sets all musical Europe aflame. Mrs. Allbutt is the author of a new play which has taken London by storm. With the blindness of a dreamer Hugh refuses to look ahead; Edith looks ahead, but, because her early life has been embittered and she is hungry to snatch a little joy from the years still left her, she defies the future. Mr. Benson is undeniably a careful worker. He builds up character with a leisurely thoroughness and a clear-eyed appreciation of the value of little things that one often misses in writers of larger calibre than he. For this reason one regrets to see him deliberately shirk his responsibility in this book. The one purpose of the story, the one justification for its existence, is to follow down these ill-assorted lives for ten, fifteen, twenty years, and show in what particular form the inevitable tragedy will take place. Instead of doing this, Mr. Benson falls back upon the rather cowardly expedient of letting the heroine develop a weakness of heart and lungs and, after lingering for a few months between hope and fear at the famous consumptive resort of Davos, suddenly sink during her husband's brief absence to London and pass away almost before he could return to her. In a somewhat over-subtle way Mr. Benson apparently holds the difference of years responsible for the wife's death. He seems to argue that her morbid sensitiveness causes her to fear constantly that her young husband will become bored if tied too long to a frail invalid in a health resort. Accordingly, she forces herself to persuade him to go to London, thinking she is acting most wisely for both; but it is really the lack of the daily stimulus of his presence that robs her of her last chance of recovery. In this sense the death may be called logical, but Mr. Benson ought to have remembered that it is even a bigger thing to make his characters live logically.
~Frederic Taber Cooper in The Bookman, 01/1908
SHEAVESDISPARITY OF AGE IN MARRIAGEIn Sheaves Mr. E. F. Benson has attacked one of the most difficult problems a story-teller can set himself ~ the problem of disparity of ages. It is one that constantly recurs in fiction, as for example in Henry Esmond, Indian Summer, Alice-for-Short ~ the list of novels old and new might be stretched out indefinitely. The problem occurs in four variations: (a) he is too old, happy ending; (b) the same, unhappy ending; (c) she is too old, happy ending; (d) the same, unhappy ending. Speaking in a general way, there is no such thing in fiction as a hero's being too old so long as he retains the use of his faculties, and romance has a specially kind regard for the match between the worn warrior of forty and the debutante. If he is uncommonly strong, brave, and unhappy, he may be fifty, and a widower, or divorced, or anything one pleases. But inasmuch as the largest consumer of fiction is the young person of the unsentimental sex, it is unreasonable to expect a similar toleration where the disparity is in the opposite direction. It is seldom indeed that a novelist has dared so greatly as Mr. Benson. Thackeray and Mr. Howells cravenly hedged— propounded the problem with a string attached. Harry Esmond marries Lady Castlewood, certainly, and is moderately happy ever after, but after all there is less disparity than there would have been in a marriage with Beatrix. The scales are cleverly loaded to tip as they were meant to tip. Mr. Howells has made them tip in the same direction, but with a different loading, so that they settle more naturally and inevitably in their place. Here the disparity is to the man's disadvantage, but his hero is no square-jawed figure of romance, but an ordinary, middle-aged American who feels draughts and has lost his enthusiasm for dancing all night. He is fascinated by the young heroine's charms and grace, but after trying books and life with her, he is forced to recognise that he is a contemporary of her mother. Now Mr. Benson, except at the very end, has faced his problem with the utmost gallantry, put it in its most difficult form, and then employed all his literary art to make it 'go down'. He has put the disparity of age on the wrong side, and has made it, for that side, almost excessive. The heroine is forty-two, the hero twenty-five. There are the figures baldly put. Turned about, they would be admirable: it has been commonly urged by experts in these matters that a wife should be twelve years younger than her husband, and if seventeen years' difference is excessive for a beginning, time will operate to reduce it. But as Edith's sister Peggy pitilessly points out, for love of her, in ten years Hugh will be but thirty-five and still a young man, an opera singer at the height of his career, while Edith will be fifty-two. In another decade the disparity will be greater yet; at forty-five Hugh would be well mated with a wife of twenty-five, but what of one of sixty-two Well, what would have happened? Even Mr. Benson's courage has fallen short of letting his tale run out into the dry sands of middle age to see which stream would evaporate first. Quite arbitrarily he has provided Edith with a phthisis which operates to end the story at the right moment, attcr a brief and happy married life. This is better than the altruistic simile that seems to be the fashion, as for example in Hamlin Garland's Money Magic, where the elderly husband obligingly hastens by poison the question of disease. Nevertheless, the case Mr. Benson has put is one that occurs within everyone's observation in real life; it should be within a novelist's province to find out what happens and make a report in literary form. The phthisis confuses the issue, eliminates the question of age, and substitutes at the last moment the problem of engines offered by Elizabeth Robins in The Open Question. But Mr. Benson does not write problem fiction. He is much more bent upon his story, and it is to be said that if his dose is not of the most palatable sort to the young person of the unsentimental sex, he has artfully sugar-coated it till it is hardly to be distinguished from caramel. As good a case as possible, to begin with, is made out for Edith. Her first marriage is shown as having been unhappy enough to entitle her to large compensation. She is made a stately beauty, a Juno at forty, without a gray hair, and looking twenty-five; Nature is not lacking in such miracles. Then as 'Andrew Robb' she has won celebrity as a playwright, revealed intellectual and emotional powers of the highest order, and as the history of art and literature shows, if genius is not exempt from the operation of time, it is much given to overleaping such obstacles. Some of the affaires célèbres to which whole libraries are not very profitably devoted, are of precisely this sort, though on the wicked 'continent' it is not always a question of marriage. Mr. Benson has put his case well, and he has skilfully chosen his subordinate matter to enlighten and enliven his tale. It is full of nursery nonsense, frolics with children, games of imagination, in which Hugh shows himself as good a child as the rest. Mr. Benson does this sort of thing very well, and while it is a thing that can be overdone, for adult readers of the sentimental sex who are not frequently thrilled by the spectacle of six-year-olds playing Indian, in this case the subject gives a logical justification, as does the subject of The Younger Set. But Mr. Chambers has set his stage in the more popular fashion— grizzled military hero, faithless frivolous wife, tender debutante. In the filling out of his novel, the selection of people and scenes and incidents, all the things that in old-fashioned treatises of rhetoric were called 'amplification' and to novel-writers are sometimes known as 'padding', Mr. Benson has wisely chosen lightness and humour to offset his subject. The book has the quality of The Challoners, not the harshness of Dodo, The Relentless City, and Scarlet and Hyssop. It is an amusing and agreeable satirical picture which he gives of a narrow provincial life. The picture of Canon Alington is a little awkward, and a very little exaggeration, but it is as good a presentation as comes at the moment to mind of the prosaic, kindhearted, narrow-minded man who has gone in tremendously for culture, prides himself on his liberality of intellect, his appreciation of art, and all that sort of thing. The portrait gives very much the effect of having been done from life, and with just little more geniality of tone it would deserve a place in any gallery of noted prigs in fiction. Unluckily Mr. Benson cannot quite keep out of such pictures a slight touch of resentment as though he had not forgotten intolerable hours of boredom. [...]
~The Evening Post [Wellington, New Zealand], 01/02/1908. Slightly edited for punctuation, etc.
The most mundane of Archbishop Benson's sons has written nothing better than this. By the temper rather than the method of his treatment he has given new life to an old story. The outcome of a marriage between the well-preserved woman and the man in his first youth is a famous crux of fiction. Mr. Benson's heroine has given her youth and beauty to a hopeless sot, with whom she drags out a dozen weary years, before his death releases her. She has endured the experience with a fortitude so deep-rooted that she appears to have come out of it almost unscathed. She wakes from it as from a long nightmare, her mind haunted with the horror of it, but her body unimpaired. Childless, she takes up her waking life alone, having attained the serenity of one who has consciously put youth behind. But youth will not 'stay put'; it assails her in the person of a man seventeen years her junior. Their marriage, however, lacks nothing but parity of years, and except as her consciousness of the actual disparity obtrudes itself, they are absolutely happy. A son is born, and for a time the mother's cup runs over. But after the first wonder of it is past, she wakes to the fact that her triumphant joy finds but a faint echo in the father's heart. The sense of his youthfulness begins really to oppress her. At this point Mr. Benson proceeds, in a way, to beg the question by killing off the woman. For the question is not whether a man of twenty-four can be happy with a woman of forty-two, but what is going to happen later on. All along the road to seventy will they be lovers, a wedded pair, or simply an old woman with a more or less dutiful spouse? This is the knot which Mr. Benson cuts, in effect, if not by intention. But one is rather grateful to him for it. His way of taking off the wife is not so summary but that it tests adequately not only the husband's patience and devotion, but the depth of his love. Their relation is made perfect by suffering, and there is no tragedy in its earthly surcease. Mr. Benson's treatment of this sober theme is without a touch of sombreness. The tone of the book is cheerful, and even merry. The boy-husband is of the class called 'artistic,' over whose total selfishness and irresponsibility lady novelists are prone to yearn. Yet he succeeds in being charming without being either a brute or a popinjay. His career as a Lohengrin who captures Belgravia, and a Tristan who causes a popular riot in Munich reminds one, to be sure, of the achievements of various other paper heroes of recent date. But one ought to be willing to forgive him, as one forgives the heroine for being the most successful dramatist of her day. These two persons are credible and admirable in more essential matters. There is not in either of them, a trace of morbid self-consciousness. The man gives his voice to the world because the woman thinks it his duty; and is glad of his strength and buoyancy for her sake, as the woman is glad of her beauty and serenity for his. The thought of her death does not make them frantic, does not even rob them of laughter. Her sister, Lady Peggy, is a creation worthy of the author of Dodo, a delightfully intense, humorous, Puck-like spirit, wresting joy from the most diverse activities, an ardent politician and mother's-club woman, a patroness of balls and soup-kitchens. A certain rural canon and his circle give scope for those broader 'character' studies which your English novelist seems still bound to add, like a pinch of coarse salt, to the more delicate ingredients of his composition.
~The Nation, 06/02/1908
It is always a pleasure to read Mr Benson's books. Unique in style and original in conception, his novels possess a fascination that no other works of fiction can command at the present day. In Sheaves the gifted author is at his best. There is infinite enjoyment in every page. Stated bluntly, the plot is simple enough. A widow makes a love match with a man much younger than herself. Both parties to the wedding are thoroughly in love with each other, and the man is exceedingly happy. But the woman is haunted by doubts regarding the wisdom of the step she has taken, and her life is a curious blending of misery and joy. It is on the whole a sad story, but Mr Benson is not unkind to his reader. The sadness is never too prominent. Inimitable in its character drawing, in its pictures of life and scenery, and, above all, in its innocent charm, the book will be perused from beginning to end with undiluted pleasure. There are few books more worthy of repeated perusal.
~The Courier [Dundee], 12/02/1908
He has done nothing that comes near to the excellence and strength and beauty of this love-story of a middle-aged woman who is one of the most charming and exquisitely drawn characters in modern fiction.
~World, quoted in endpapers to Juggernaut
Brilliant, clever, full of wise observations and sage counsels.
~Standard, quoted in endpapers to Juggernaut
Packed with sympathy and sly satirical touches.
~Daily Chronicle, quoted in endpapers to Juggernaut
The charm of Sheaves lies in the essential human nature of the men and women who move in it. … We live with these people, share their emotions and their interests, worry out their difficulties, laugh and weep with them.
~Westminster Gazette, quoted in endpapers to Juggernaut
The thirty-eighth novel by E. F. Benson is an event to be welcomed in the circle of that worldly-wise author's readers. In Sheaves […] Mr Benson tackles a problem that few novelists would care to try to solve ~ that of the woman who married a man younger than herself.There is always a freedom from purple passages in Mr Benson's books, and few writers have a happier knack of creating characters. It is a welcome change, too, to be certain of a happy ending.
~'Penman' (who was seriously ill-informed) in The Citizen [Gloucester], 24/10/1932 and in Gloucestershire Echo, 31/10/1932 [!]
Sheaves (1907) tells the story of a marriage which appears happy yet conceals distress, and ends with typical Benson sentimentality ~ a consumptive death. The title, replacing the original Indian Summer, is taken from Psalm 126*.
~Brian Masters in The Life of E. F. Benson, 1991. *He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him.