Published March/April 1925
Approx. 109,000 words
(First read 12/04/2014)
[21/04/14] It's now well over a week since I finished Rex and I'm still trying to think of something good to say about it ...
[24/04/14] This isn't what you'd call a 'good' thing: it's just something that came to me while I was lying there racked with insomnia (etc.) at 3.30 this morning. When EFB had finished writing Colin (1923) and Colin II (1925) he found he had about 100,000 words left over: these he published under the title Rex.
Okay, serious now. The plot: Rex is a young chap (24 in this case) who wants to be a playwright. When he's not living in London and working as a solicitor's clerk, or something like that, he lives with his parents in Norfolk, or somewhere like that, somewhere with a beach nearby. He and the said father, who's Benson Father Type A (much older than his
constant hostility. During one of his spells in London, Rex meets a woman, a divorcée of 32 years, a certain Mrs Winton; he doesn't reckon much to her at first, but is happy enough to live rent-free in her flat while she goes off on holiday for a couple of months. The pater finds out about this; incensed that his son should be living off a woman, he confronts Rex; there's a Big Scene, after which he just has enough time to cut the troublesome son off without a penny, get the train home, have tea with his wife, during which he tells her the news, then drop dead on the drawing-room carpet.
This comes more or less exactly half way through the book ...
... and is the point at which it turns into just another Bensonian 'drama', with not the least shred of humour, about a not-especially-interesting young man pursuing a not-at-all-interesting career.
Rex has a best friend named Oliver who is ~ I'm not going to beat about the bush here ~ a poorly repressed homosexual who's in love with our hero. His declarations to Rex, coming from a supposedly straight man, are toe-curlingly embarrassing. Rex, having no great liking for anything other than his 'work', finds Oliver a nuisance at best, and they have a falling-out, then eventually a reconciliation of sorts. So that's one thing that happens.
The other ~ the Big One ~ is that Rex, despite having no soul to speak of, gradually realizes he's 'in love' with his divorcée, and convinces himself that it's reciprocal. In a scene which I can only describe as 'risible', he declares himself, and goes into a clinch with said woman; after which, she turns round¹ and says to him, "If you think I'm in the least bit in love with you, you're a total div ~ I was just messing with your head."² Rex is devastated and has a kind of nervous breakdowny affair. He says to Oliver, of Mrs Winton:
She's a spiritual Sadist, of great intellectual and physical refinement, but with a passion for the torture and heart's blood of nice young men like you and me.No, like you, Rexie.
Does any good come of all this? Well, yes and no. Mainly the latter. Our hero, who's been plugging away at plays all this time only to have them all rejected, suddenly realizes that he needs to pander to the public's love of cruelty and cynicism, so he dips his pen in bile and pens a piece about a cruel and heartless woman etc. And it's a hit! (The funny thing is that from what EFB tells us of Rex's work before and after his Road to Damascus experience, it's all exactly the same!)
Is that the end? No, the end is that Mrs W conveniently develops some mysterious illness or other; Rex visits her on her deathbed; and he forgives her.
Rex is, not to put too fine a point to it, a hopeless farrago of idiotic plotting, unbelievable characters you couldn't care less about, dead ends, red herrings, extremely feeble attempts at humour, missed opportunities, turgid dialogue, creaking moralities (difficult to believe EFB and, for example, D H Lawrence even inhabited the same planet, let alone the same country and time) ~ in short, it's a mess.
¹ Oops, this sounds rather like he was kissing the back of her head. He wasn't.
² This isn't a direct quote, obviously.
There are some writers whom it is somewhat difficult to place. Mr E F Benson is one of them. He can be ethereal one minute and mundane the next. You never quite know ~ when you hear that he has a new book on the stocks ~ whether he is going to describe the stars or discuss the slums ~ as witness his several David books and Dodo the Second. But whether it relates to the heavens above or the earth beneath, a new book by him is a great literary event. In Rex […] we are moved by high moral considerations at one moment and are brought down to such everyday problems as the evacuation of the Ruhr the next. The title of the book is the Christian name of its chief character.Rex Goodwin and his doings and his sayings provoke thought and reflection. No ordinary man is this, and the study of his character as portrayed by Mr Benson not only provides delightful reading, but stern teaching. My advice to those who like to think while they read is ~ read Rex. It is a really great novel.
~'The Bookworm' in The Western Morning News and Mercury, 06/04/1925
It is a hard thing to say about the author of the once daring Dodo (by the way, isn't Dodo's granddaughter almost ripe by now for analysis?), but Mr. Benson is an incorruptible Victorian. One has a rather Rip Van Winklish feeling about the people of his latest novel—that they went to sleep sometime in that relative age of innocence, the naughty 'nineties, and on awaking in the age of flapper went on behaving themselves as though nothing had happened. Rex Goodwin is not really of this day and generation, but of Mr. Benson's own, and it was about the time of the Boer War that he should have come down from Cambridge with an Ibsen in his pocket and in his heart the determination to go and do likewise. Even the successful play that he finally writes with a cynical snarl, prostituting his art because a lady has been unkind, is the sort of play that was ridiculed by the young intellectuals of the beginning of the century.If Rex is a Victorian, or at latest an Edwardian, heredity may account for it, for more Victorian figures than his parents could hardly be imagined—an irascible, unreasonable father, a sweet, docile mother, palpitating with love and sacrifice for both the superior, and mutually irreconcilable, males of her family. There may still be fathers like Rex's, but one prefers not to believe it.After all, however, Mr. Benson has a perfect right, if he pleases, to postulate Victorian survivals in a post-war world; and in this case it happens that the play is not the thing (Rex could have been an insurance broker just as well as a dramatist), but the character of the playwright. In Rex Goodwin the author has drawn a character probably more unusual in fiction than in life— hard, glittering, intellectual, able to stimulate love, but seemingly incapable of feeling it. As foils and victims are his mother and a man friend of school and Cambridge days. The interplay of the three characters, with the preposterous father appearing and disappearing as a diabolus ex machina, is dexterously handled and interesting to watch. The experienced reader would no doubt guess the dénouement even had the publisher's blurb not obligingly given it away. Love cavalierly treated will have its revenge, and in Rex's case the vampire lady chosen as the instrument of vengeance makes a remarkably good job of it The conclusion is just the sort of thing that Rex and his sophisticated young intellectuals (of the 'nineties) would have become ribald over, and if the novel were ever filmed there would undoubtedly be a title about the 'cleansing fires of love'; but there it is,— and Mr. Benson has again given us an entertaining novel in his second best style.
~The Saturday Review, 20/02/1926
Mr Benson's novels are always so fresh, full of the sage of life, and Rex is one of those stories, that, once begun must be finished. It savours of undergraduate repartee being so rich in finesse. It concerns parental responsibility and filial devotion. Parents would learn from it much wisdom, and sons and daughters much understanding of their duty and age. It clearly shows that the demands made by age from youth should not be demanded so much as a right but received as the bouquets from human understanding and direction. Rex is a highly-strung boy who whilst ready to be friends is quite as keen to be at variance with his father. He wants a reason for every action demanded of him. He is a sort of Cassabianca standing always on the burning deck, and even when friendly is always on guard for an undiplomatic word which will give him his chance. Mr Benson has [gauged] the psychology of youth in aspersed fashion. The criticisms are healthy, affording a much desired mental tone. Rex has his problems to face and faces them, even maintaining his sang froid against all the conventions. He accepts the flat of a woman friend who bears all expenses, yet sees nothing wrong, until his mother sees his predicament. Rex is selfish, always taking, and at times he thinks it is too much trouble even to receive.
~The Daily Mail [Hull], 20/03/1925. A curiously incoherent bit of writing. When he says 'Cassabianca' does he mean 'Cassandra'? Also: I get the distinct impression the reviewer only read about one third of the book. EDIT, after doing a bit of that research thing: No, the reviewer meant Casabianca ~ he just didn't know how to spell it.