Friday, 30 May 2014

The Economies of Mrs Hancock

Fiction ~ short story
Published 'by special arrangement' in The Courier [Taunton, UK], 28th January 1925¹
3,795 words
(First read 30/05/2014)

Yay! the welcome return of Mrs Hancock from Arundel (1914).  This one tells the story of Mrs H's marriage to the newly-widowed vicar Mr Martin (who barely gets a look in) and is set in the first six months or so of the Great War.  Utterly true to type, Mrs H/M decides in her infinite generosity to give Mr M a little run-about car as a wedding present, mainly so that she can continue to have exclusive use of her own massive motor, and on the proviso that he pays its running costs; when the beastly war starts she finds it the perfect excuse to make economies and retrench, so poor Mr M never gets his car.  Nor have any of the appeals from various charitable funds (the Soldiers' and Sailors' Fund, etc.²) had a solitary farthing from her by the time the story ends.  Very funny, if you like that kind of thing.

¹ I've no idea if this was the first-ever publication, I'm afraid ~ I would imagine, given all the references to the war charities, that EFB wrote this during the War itself, and that it was possibly published previously in 1914-18.  For another 'special arrangement' story that appeared in Taunton's The Courier, see The Dorothy Crystal Syndicate (1935).
² EFB himself was a keen supporter of the Sailors and Soldiers Tobacco Fund.

Below is the story reproduced in full ~ to the best of my knowledge ~ for the first time in 89 years, free gratis and for all the world to seeEnjoy!

The Economies of Mrs Hancock by E. F. Benson
Heathmoor, generally, that salubrious and prosperous settlement, the houses of which for the most part stand completely detached, and surrounded by their own private gardens and croquet lawns, was much excited at the authentic news that Mrs Hancock, whose fiftieth milestone of life was already clearly in sight, was going to marry Mr Martin, the vicar of their newly-built red-brick church. Mr Martin, lately widowed, was a little younger (but not much) than his prospective bride, and thus it will readily be understood that the interest which the announcement aroused was not of romantic calibre, and was rather concerned with the financial aspect of this unexpected visit of Cupid. But finance formed so large an ingredient in the life of Heathmoor, whose male inhabitants almost without exception go up to the City every morning by the 9-6, and return, slightly richer, by the 4-40 from Marylebone in the afternoon, that they could give a more reliable verdict on the appropriateness of the match than if it had been complicated by passion or romance, about which they knew less. As it was, the important facts of it were that Mrs Hancock lived on the scale, more or less, of three thousand a year, with a handsome motor, a two-acre plot of house and harden, a butler and a lady's maid, in addition to the ordinary domestic service which was usual, while Mr Martin's professional stipend was four hundred pounds a year; with house. But he was believed to enjoy what is called 'a little money' from the decease of his first wife, while on the other hand Mrs Hancock certainly put by 'a little money' every years. The conclusion therefore that Heathmoor came to was that Mrs Hancock probably had four thousand a year, and Mr Martin twice as many hundreds. This conjecture was so near the mark that it reflected great credit on the financial acumen of the place.
It followed, as a corollary, that Mr Martin would be in more comfortable circumstances than had been his hitherto, while there was no need for retrenchment on the part of Mrs Hancock. The young people ~ there was a slightly tendency towards acidity in the Heathmoor comments ~ were going to live at Arundel, Mrs Hancock's very spacious villa, and the parsonage was to be let. And as the parsonage would certainly fetch two hundred and fifty pounds a year, there was no reason to suppose that there would be any diminution of excellence in Mrs Hancock's habitual hospitality. But though Heathmoor was inclined to be a little acid about it ~ Heathmoor is a very satirical place in its own quiet way ~ there as no doubt that the young people were sincerely attached to each other, and would, no doubt, be very comfortable together.
It must be supposed that Mrs Hancock thought so, since comfort was the ruling passion of her life, and she would go through any discomfort to procure it. The financial aspect of her adventure also had concerned her as much if not more than it had concerned her friends and neighbours, and months before the event was to take place she had busied herself with contriving little economies with a view to meeting the outlay that the joint occupation of Arundel would entail. She meant her husband to be thoroughly comfortable also, and thus was prepared to turn the best spare bedroom into a sitting room for him, and give him as a dressing room, the original best spare dressing room that adjoined it. Similarly, she was seriously considering whether she would not buy him a small car which would really be quite at his own disposal for his regular parish work, and his no less regular games of golf. The running expenses of such a car were very small, so she had ascertained, whereas the road to the golf links was very trying for a heavy car. Besides, such an arrangement would leave her with complete command of her own car, and she could not dream of letting Alfred continue to go afoot everywhere as he had been accustomed to do. There was something of the personal dignity of the man who was to be her husband that must be considered.
The marriage was to take place in September, and on one fine evening in July when the two were talking together, before he went back to the vicarage for the night, she discussed with him some of these opulent plans for his comfort. Her kind brown eyes beamed with pleasure at the enumeration of her own unselfish thoughts, as she sat in the window of the drawing-room at Arundel, after routing her new Patience twice in succession.
“Alfred, my dear,” she said, “I have been thinking over so many plans and arrangements to-day. Is it not a lovely night, and would you open the window a shade more? I do not think I shall feel the draught if I sit well back in my chair and if I do, perhaps you would close it again. Well!”
A smile of content at her own generosity played round her mouth. But, before she proceeded to her announcement a sudden thought struck her. The running expenses of the new car, as has been mentioned would be small, and now her delicacy suggested to her that her husband might feel himself less burdened by her gift, if he paid for his petrol and tyre bill himself. She had been prepared to do that, too, when she made her original plan, but now a finer instinct asserted itself. But there was a little draught from the window, even if she leaned back.
“I think I must trouble you, dear Alfred,” she said, “to close the window again. I might catch cold sitting here, and how would you like to have me laid up, and perhaps catch a cold from me yourself? I could not forgive myself if you did. Thank you dear! That is quite comfortable.”
It was pleasant to put off the moment of her great announcement like this, tasting the delights of anticipation.
“Now I have made up my mind,” she said, “that before our marriage I am going to order a new little car. And who do you think is going to drive in it? Why you, my dear. It is to be yours, for your very own, as the children say, to take you to your golf and your district visiting. And the more you use it, the better shall I be pleased. There!”
Mr Martin had taken the rôle of Prince-Consort, so to speak, from the very first. He was quite aware that he was about to marry the Queen of Heathmoor; and though he was accustomed to strike the attitude of a proud, independent Englishman, he was not above receiving benefits from his future wife.
“My dear, you are determined to spoil me,” he said. “Fancy me with a motor of my own.”
Mrs Hancock beamed with pleasure.
“And I'll be bound that you learn to drive it in no time,” she said, “with Denton to coach you. And they are so cheap to run too. I daresay that your petrol bill won't be more than a pound a week. And I gave orders to-day about the door being cut between the best spare bedroom, which is to be your study, and the dressing room, so that you'll be quite snug there. As I told you, I shall always tap on your study door, if I want to see you, so that you'll only have to call out “Go away, Julia” if you're busy, and I shall not come in to disturb you. Look, there is a thrush on the lawn. There! It is running away into the bushes. Has it got a study and a dressing-room there, I wonder?”
The entrance of Mrs Hancock's butler with the evening paper put an end to any further pretty conjectures about the thrush's domestic arrangements, and Mr Martin took it under the lamp to gather and retail the news.
“Upon my word, things look very threatening,” he said. “Germany has insisted on Russia's ceasing to mobilize.”
Mrs Hancock noticed that the thrush had run out of the bushes again, but bent her mind to European affairs.
“How tiresome Germany is!” she said, “and Russia, too, for that matter. What a pity that nations are not like us and find enough to do in their own home without wanting to quarrel with other people. What do you think will happen next, Alfred?”
Alfred swiftly glanced to see what the leader writer thought would happen next.
“Hard to tell,” he said. “Personally I should not be surprised if Germany declared war on Russia.”
“Dear! What a disturbance that would be. I think I shall have just one more game at his new Patience, before I go to bed. Germany and Russia at war! I am glad it will be so far away.”
The events of the week, however, brought this remote conflict nearer home, but even when the Allied Armies were in retreat from Mons, Mrs Hancock felt but the faintest personal interest in the matter. She had no relatives or friends who had adopted a soldier's profession, nor in fact, even if they had, would she have felt any particular anxiety, since she really cared nothing but for her own comfort, though she liked, as adding to that, to have cheerful faces round her. But when it became apparent that the war was going to cost a considerable sum of money, she became much more interested and patriotic.
“And to think that we've been forced into it against our will by those horrid Germans!” she exclaimed to Mr Martin. “I never liked Germans, and now I declare I detest them. My dear, is not this an excellent soufflé? Pray take a little more before, as you say, it sits down. Such a good expression! But where is all the money to come from until we get it back from Germany, when we have beaten her?”
“From the tax-payers, I am afraid,” said Mr Martin.
“Ah! that is like this horrid Radical Government. Why don't they just increase the national debt, instead of making us pay? And Mrs Williams tells me that meat is up a penny in the pound already, and I assure you that the postman never goes by without putting into my letter-box some fresh appeal for money. There is the national fund one day, and soldiers' and sailors' help another, and Belgian refugees a third. One needs to be a millionaire ...”
As a matter of fact, all these appeals that were left in Mrs Hancock's letter-box had proved more expensive to the senders than to the recipient, since she had not given anything to any of them. With a guileless sincerity, that probably deceived herself, she proceeded to explain her attitude, having taken a little more of the soufflé before it sat down.
“They pour in every day,” she said, “but I suppose they will stop soon, and then I shall go very carefully over all of them, and divide among them what I find I can give, for it would be dreadful if I gave away at once all I can afford, and then got some very deserving appeal, which I found I could not respond to. I never thrown one away; I keep them all. But I should like your advice, dear. The national fund, now; could you tell me what you gave to that, and whether it is deserving?”
“I sent them fifty pounds,” said Mr Martin.
Mrs Hancock held up her hands in admiration.
“My dear, I do call that generous,” she said. “Fifty pounds! But you always are so generous. I think, then, as we have subscribed so much to that ~ for now I count all my money as yours ~ I shall leave that out of my list. Everyone must do their share, mustn't they? and we have done ours there. I must go very carefully into my expenses, and see if I cannot save a pound here and a pound there, so as to be able to give liberally.”
An idea of a brilliant nature occurred to her as they rose to leave the table.
“I am sure you feel as I do about it,” she said, “and we must put our heads together to arrange our budget, for after next week, when we are married, it will be our budget, won't it? Now, my dear, I'm going to be very frank with you. You remember that I was going to give you a little motor-car to run about with, and you were going to supply the petrol and tyres. I feel now that you will want to be spared that expense, and I should hate to embarrass you. So let me ~ “
Mr Martin took her hand.
“My dear Julia,” he said, “you want to take the expense of that yourself. But I couldn't possibly permit it. I shall be able to manage it easily.”
For the moment Mrs Hancock, instead of him, was embarrassed. It was really a little difficult to explain that this had not been her idea. But she made light of difficulties when faced by this need of saving a pound here and a pound there. She was going to save a good many pounds here.
“Ah, how willingly I would pay every penny connected with it,” she said, “if only I had the money. But I see I shall have to be very careful for these next months, and what I was going to propose, dear, was that I should postpone my present to you till better times. I know you could ill afford the running expenses of it just now, and as for me, I shall to retrench in every way I can. But I need hardly tell you that my car will always be at your service, if you don't mind walking up that little lane to the golf-links, where it is so bad for the springs. And so we shall both have a little more money to give to some of those funds. I declare I feel quite a miser for their sakes.”
Mrs Hancock's processes of thought were not swift and lightning-like, but calm and brooding, like the radiance of sun on still autumn mornings, and during the next few days she devoted a great deal of quiet time (sitting out in her tent in the garden, for the weather was lovely) to the question of economies. Her decision about Mr Martin's motor, which she had designed to be a wedding present for him next week was a solid piece of retrenchment, and what particularly (so she thought) pleased her about it, was that she had been the means of saving him the expense of its upkeep. Then it seemed to her that wine (which she never touched herself) was an unnecessary luxury in those troubled financial times, and thorough in all she did (including her own habitual self-deception) she cut off her servants' beer money also. To effect this, she summoned her butler and her cook, and made them quite a touching little speech, reminding them that burden of the war must fall on all who were proud to call themselves British, and that all such must cheerfully make sacrifices for the sake of their country. This she expressed so neatly and feelingly that Lind and Mrs Williams quite lost sight of the fact that she was docking their wages and saving herself some ten shillings a week, for this she concealed under the announcement that she was going to provide no wine either for her guests or herself, while the charitable calls on her purse were so numerous, and produced the general impression that it was everybody's duty to deny themselves, rather than that it was her delight to deny everybody else. Further she dismissed her under-gardener (giving him an excellent character), and counter-ordered the painting of her front-gate, and the cutting of the door from Mr Martin's dressing-room into his sitting-room.
She talked over all those admirable plans with him in the course of the next few days. She had noted down the saving that would be effected thereby on a half-sheet of writing paper. “I declare it has been three days' hard work,” she said, “but now, dear, I have got what I call my revised budget ready, and I think that I have provided for the extra taxation you tell me that we must expect, so that I can consider my income will be no less than it was, and I shall be able to give to all these appeals as if there had been no inroads into it. You will not feel, too, as if you were going to marry a pauper, and, apart from the wine, I shall be able to keep a good table still, and shan't starve you! That I was quite determined on, for after all, charity begins at home and certainly doesn't begin by the wife making her husband uncomfortable.”
But the rosy radiance produced by the thought that she was saving money in order eventually to answer all these charitable appeals with suitable generosity, turned rather grey when, in the course of the next month it became apparent that her dividends were not being paid with their accustomed regularity. The chief defaulter was the Thessalian Oil Company which instead of sending £500 to her bank, sent a polite letter to her intimating that it postponed its payment. Mrs Hancock ~ now Mrs Martin ~ had been almost prepared to devote a hundred pounds of this to various charities, and had gone so far as to divide it up (on paper) among them, assigning one ninth to one, and two ninths to another. This had all taken time, and now, it appeared, all that head-work was love's labour lost, since with this uncertainty about dividends, it would be very wrong to be spendthrift in charity that did not begin at home.
“And such trouble as I took about the division, my dear,” she said to her husband, “and it's all thrown away, for I could not give to Belgian refugees, when I may not have enough to pay my own servants. If I had not been prudent at the beginning, when I so much longed to help everybody, I don't know what you and I would be doing to-day!”
Mr Martin was divided between a desire to console his wife for this blow, and a conviction that they were not yet within sight of living one whit less comfortably (apart from the drinking of wine, which only affected him) than before.
“Of course it's a great disappointment to you dear,” he said, “but after all the dividend is only postponed. I daresay in a month or two, it will be paid, and you will be no worse off. I think, if I were you, I should pay some little subscription to all these charities, which really are in need of help.”
His wife became a shade more dignified.
“My dear, I have been accustomed to manage my income so long,” she said, “that you will excuse me if I continue to do so according to the best of my ability. In my view, it would be very wrong of me if I gave away now the money I may need to keep our home together. One does not not know what may happen or how much one may need money for even more pressing claims than these, a little later on. But I am not going to be depressed about it. Let us have a game of that excellent new patience which you showed me yesterday, and see if we can't bring it out, together. Oh, look, there is a little spider on the table. Perhaps that will bring us all better luck!”
The autumn weeks went on, and the appeals to Mrs Martin's charity, none of which she ever threw away, but kept, neatly docketted, with an elastic band round them, got ever bulkier. Sometimes, it is true, the hopelessness of dealing with them all on a scale that should satisfy her generosity, and the impossibility of choosing between them, so grew on her, that she was tempted to throw them all away, but matters never quite came to such a point. In the interval her financial affairs grew a little brighter, there was dawn on the wreck, for all the postponed dividends with the exception of Thessalian Oil were paid, and she felt that she had still a hope of avoiding bankruptcy. On the other hand the scare about the coming Zeppelins increased, and she felt far from easy in her mind about the risk of Heathmoor being bombarded by them. German spies who apparently knew everything, could hardly be unaware ow large a contingent of city men lived there, and it seemed to her, in her less sanguine moments, very likely that they would aim this staggering blow at their hearts and homes. And what if that happened, if a bomb dropped on her garage and blew to motor to atoms? She would certainly have to get a new one. The non-payment of the Thessalian Oil dividend weighed on her as heavy as life. Zeppelins! Thessalian oil! The words obsessed her like a nightmare.
One bright December morning, she received by post a small package and one letter. The package was her pass-book returned from the bank in a highly satisfactory mood, the fruit of her prudent economies. The letter was a communication from the Thessalian Oil Company saying that the postponed dividend had been paid, and that the usual December distribution would take place as usual. At breakfast she talked over this happy development with her husband.
“I declare all this planning and scheming over my little economies has made me quite a financier, dear,” she said. “I knew I should have have to be prudent, and how well it has turned out. Now I shall keep that Thessalian oil dividend apart from my other money, ear-mark it, don't they say, as an insurance against Zeppelins. Then I shall feel quite happy in my mind, and when the December dividends come in, I shall go through all those appeals again. Is it not a lovely morning? You will have a pleasant game of golf. But Lind tells me that coal has gone up another half-crown. Is it not lucky I always have the cellar filled in the summer? He thinks we shall get through till the warmer weather begins without buying any more. But we must be prepared for its not lasting out.”

Reproduced from The Courier [Taunton, Somerset, UK], 28/01/1925

The Tragedy of Oliver Bowman

Fiction ~ short story
First published in The Countess of Lowndes Square and Other Stories, 1920
Approx. 4,600 words
(First read 30/05/2014)

A jolly little story.  Our hero is a decided Georgie Type, aged 30, who lives with his sister, a decided Hermie/Ursie Type ~ while he sits and does his woolwork of an evening, she tinkers at her lathe.  Tiring of his indoor and rather lonely existence, Oliver starts taking walks through the streets of London, building stories out of the shop window displays.  Everything is okay to begin with: he's more cheerful and the exercise does him good.  Okay, so he's living entirely in his imagination and has fallen in love with a shop mannequin (yes), which after a few weeks disappears leaving him desperate ...  Eventually he ends up virtually inhabiting a certain department store where one day ...
I won't give this one away: the ending made me laugh out loud.  It can be read online here.

Sunday, 25 May 2014

George Moore

Non-fiction ~ article
Published in The Spectator, 27th January 1933
1,460 words
(Read 25/05/2014)

An appreciation of the Irish writer, who had died a few days beforehand at the age of 80.
That's pretty much all I have to say on this one ~ I've never got round to reading more than a handful of Moore's short stories, which I wasn't especially impressed by.  (I liked A Faithful Heart (1892) but only because it was very much like a  story by the great George Gissing ...)
It's available online here.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

The Baron

Non-fiction ~ review
Published in The Spectator, 16th April 1937
850 words
(Read 15/05/2014)

A review of Victoria's Guardian Angel: A Study of Baron Stockmar, by Pierre Crabites.  The said baron was a crony of Queen Victoria's uncle Leopold I, King of the Belgians, sent to the UK to act as adviser to the Queen and Prince Albert.  In his book Crabites argues that the baron was a massive power behind the throne; EFB believes that Crabites exaggerates his influence and importance.
The article can be read online here

Saturday, 10 May 2014

The House of Defence

Fiction ~ novel
Published May 1907
Approx. 81,000 words
(First read 10/05/2014)

I was pleasantly surprised to find that I quite enjoyed The House of Defence ~ "Oh dear," I'd thought, "a novel about Christian Science ~ this is going to be hard work."  In fact I needn't have worried: EFB doesn't come anywhere near proselytizing ~ well, he couldn't really when he can't make his mind up whether he believes in it or not.  In the best tradition of fence-sitters always and everywhere he allows the reader to make up his mind for himself.
Lord Thurso¹ Raynham is a jolly-decent-chap type of toff who happens to be prey to crippling neuralgic headaches.  He accidentally becomes addicted to the laudanum (opium) he takes to counter the effects of these.  All other attempts to cure Thurso of his addiction having failed, his sister Maud, who during the course of the book becomes converted to Christian Science, partly because she's in love with the jolly-decent-chap-despite-being-American-and-a-Christian Scientist who teaches it to her, persuades Thurso to have a go with Mrs Eddy's mumbo-jumbo² ~ and lo! it works.
That's basically all there is to it, apart from the usual Bensonian diversions into beside-the-point characters and plots-that-are-never-finished-off.  But it moves along at a fairly quick rate (for EFB) and the story is sufficiently different from the usual fare to hold the attention and interest.
It's far from perfect, mind you.
The whole book is available online here.

P.S. You'd think it would've been published in the United States as The House of Defense, that being their charming spelling of the word, but apparently it wasn't.  Go figure, as they say.

¹ The early scenes are set on his estate in Scotland, which probably explains the unusual name
² Oops. 

Mr E F Benson is remarkable for his utilisation of current interests for fictional purposes, and it is not surprising to find that The House of Defence […] concerns itself with Christian Science. It is a subject which, at the outset, appears eminently suited to a writer of Mr Benson's tastes and capabilities. Without accepting it in its entirety, the author sees no reason why Christian Science should not heal diseases when the brain is the seat of trouble, “and its disease and desire is the real cause of the damage done to bodily tissue.”  [...]
The picturesque conception is reminiscent of many of the author's earlier works, and contains some inimitable Bensonian descriptions. The character drawing is subtle and refined, but it is only a variation of previous efforts and not remarkable for originality. There is an undercurrent of sadness throughout the work, but it is cleverly handled and kept in check. Altogether the book is one of the most interesting and successful novels of the season.
~The Manchester Courier, 23/05/1907
Unlike his brother, Father Benson, in A Mirror of Shalott, Mr. E. F. Benson supplies a preface to his new novel, telling the reader which of the miracles described within are founded on fact and which are imaginary. The miracle of faith-healing is, of course, no novelty, and the Church to which Father Benson belongs claims to work as great marvels through faith as do the Christian Scientists whom Mr. E. F. Benson describes in this story. Judged purely as a work of fiction, the book, while written with a good deal of Mr. Benson's customary vivacity, is rather thin and slight, but the episode vouched for by him as literally true is of considerable psychological interest. To quote the words of the preface: "To save that drug-logged wreck who was our friend you [that is, the Healer] drank that which by all that is known of the drug should have killed you, and you drank it with complete and absolute confidence that it could not possibly hurt you.” The Healer, both in real life and in the story, is alleged to have performed this feat in order to show the opium-drinker that the effects of the drug with which he has been poisoning himself are purely imaginary, and this conviction, enacted before his eyes, is in the book, and was, it is asserted, in real life, sufficient to cure the patient. In real life, as Mr. Benson tells us, the patient is extremely fond of the Healer, while the imaginary patient has rather an aversion to the imaginary Healer; but Mr. Benson does not allow this fact to interfere with the cure. It may be said of the episode in the book that it is a little rash of the patient to cable to his wife that he is cured without making the experiment as to whether the cure will last. To the ordinary Christian belonging to any of the older Churches, the Christian Scientist, when his miracles succeed, which is by no means invariably the case, seems to do the right thing in a wrong way. The cure may be undoubted, but cures do not prove the truth of the Christian Scientist's view of the world. Cures are also made at Lourdes, and in these the healing is attributed, not to the fact that evil—which seems very like the Christian Scientist's "error"— does not exist, but that the power of faith can overcome it. With regard to Christian Science cures in general, it is difficult to forget the dictum of Mr. Dooley, which ran something like this: "If the Scientists had a little more Christianity and the Christians had a little more Science, it would not much matter which you had—always supposing that you'd a good nurse!"
Mary Baker Eddy (1821-1910)
~The Spectator, 06/07/1907 
An interesting contribution to the literature of the Christian Science controversy. The milieu of the tale is the very best society, and admirers of Mr. Benson's novels need not be afraid that the subject of his story hinders him from giving many bright examples of the kind of irresponsible chatter of which he is master.
~Morning Post, quoted in endpapers of Sheaves
The mass of English religious novels, to be candid, owe their importance to the fact of their numbers rather than to the intrinsic value of any one story. But there is significance in the mere fact of Mr. Benson's wit and skill being submerged by a weak and painful mysticism, as in The Angel of Pain, and in The House of Defense by a pitifully flat and obvious sermon upon Christian Science.
~The Atlantic Monthly (US), 01/1907
"Oh very topical!"
It is so new a thing, and one so entirely unexpected, to find the claims of Christian Science exposed with any degree of intelligence in a novel, that one is inclined to be very lenient to the writer who succeeds in this achievement. Mr. Benson, therefore, deserves well of the reading public. It is also well that a live lord and his kith and kin have been chosen as subjects of the Christian Science propaganda, for of such is the kingdom of Mrs. Eddy.
~Westminster Gazette, quoted in endpapers to Juggernaut and Sheaves
It appeals to two sides of the reading public's heart at once. It interests people in the story, and it makes them wonder for the hundredth time “how much there really is in Christian Science.” It is a fine book, and an interesting one.
~Evening Standard, quoted in endpapers of Sheaves


Tuesday, 6 May 2014


Lovely photo by Nigel Artingstall
Non-fiction ~ essay/sketch
Published in Pall Mall Gazette, 24th May 1900
1,720 words
(Read 06/05/2014)

It's one of those days that EFB seems to have particularly loved*, when Spring and Summer hang in the balance:
A day it was, in fact, on which to sit and to stroll, to smile without reason, to speak but inanely, still smiling; for sap was effervescent in all living things, and hummed and hissed, in what did duty for the brain, producing nothing whatever worth recording, but only a gay intoxication of happiness, of no value to any but the owner, but worth all the world to him.
The author steps out of his back door, accompanied by his dog, and goes on a nature ramble, with a particular emphasis on the bird life (obviously).  Very charming: EFB at his ... well, at his rambling best.

*Given that he's constantly describing them in his books.

The article is reproduced in full below.  As far as I'm aware, this is the first time it's been made available free of charge to the WWW readership.  I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

BIRDS by E. F. Benson

To-day Spring hung posed with Summer, an enchanted balance. Even to a laggard stroller the latter predominated, yet if he was tempted to sit down, as often happened (and he as often yielded), it would be just a question as to whether it was still spring, so fresh was the warmth. Idleness and the sun, and all that sang and flowered thereunder were the main point; all else, even the magic of the golf-clubs, was profitless, the winter's weeds outworn. A day it was, in fact, on which to sit and to stroll, to smile without reason, to speak but inanely, still smiling; for sap was effervescent in all living things, and hummed and hissed, in what did duty for the brain, producing nothing whatever worth recording, but only a gay intoxication of happiness, of no value to any but the owner, but worth all the world to him.
It did not matter where the stroller went, so long as he went nowhere in particular, but this was essential. A bed of tulips, looking as if lyddite had burst among them, first occupied him. The hens, moved, so it would appear, by the expansion of the day, had made this unfortunate choice of locality for hidden treasure, and earlier that morning, while yet the in the bathroom, the stroller had thrown two cakes of soap at them. His shots were judged to a nicety in the matter of range, and pitched in the middle of the laager. But the hens only pecked at the soap, and continued to kick up tulips backwards with a scuffling vulgar motion of the leg. And it was characteristic, not so much of the stroller, but of the fine quality of the day, that even at the depressing hour of the bath, he really did not care one daisy what happened to his beautiful tulips.
This is a digression; the whole day was a digression, and to return in an absent-minded way to the point, he strolled out, as has been mentioned, after breakfast, and examined the damage with more particularity. It was worse than he had thought possible, and he did not care at all, for, at the moment, Toby joined him and bounded playfully on a mole-hill.
Now, when a large Welsh collie makes up his mind to do a thing, difficulties are not. So Toby, standing firm on his hind legs, prepared to disintegrate the round world; he scratched at the ground with the rapid regularity of a metronome at 'Presto'. The solid earth did not yield beneath his feet as fast as he wished, and he bit a large piece out of the lawn, and jerked it at the stroller with a sideway movement of the head. In the hole thus made he buried his grey nose and breathed long and heavily. Spouts and geysers of light soil flew from his nostrils, and his tail quivered in rapturous Columbus-ecstasy, for he had discovered a new world. But as a gardener with a malign eye was watching these irregularities a short distance off, the stroller spoke gruffly to the dog, and they went to the orchard. Here the grass grew long and lush underneath the trees, and a foam of white petals lay there; juicy and blue in the grass were the wild hyacinths, and white and fragile the anemones, and the stroller was well content. He picked a cowslip and ate it, stalk and flower; he ate also a primrose that was like hock in colour and in taste, and he ate nine or ten violets. The violets, in the immortal phrase, were 'dim'; no other word will do.
The field below was florally a repetition of the orchard without the apple trees, but hedges of hazel and hawthorn bounded it, and the rapture of birds'-nesting became a fixed idea. To the vulgar and untutored this consists in the finding of the nest and the spoliation of the eggs; but the true nester has a worthier aim. All the ardour of the chase is his. He steals down the hedgerow like a thief; the notes of the male, be he robin, or sparrow, or nightingale, turn him to stone, as if they were a policeman's whistle, so that ~ there is the art of the thing ~ he may observe first the bird itself, with throat throbbing and ruffled in feather, and, secondly, by its position, conjecture and find the nest. For the male, be it known, sits and sings to his mate not alone in courting, but when she lies close on the eggs. What courtesy and fine manners is here! It is as if a bank-clerk went to the kitchen and sang to his wife as she made the roly-poly for his dinner, for the hatching of the eggs is a care as domestic as this; the thing has to be done with patience and brooding. The male is not thinking about his future family, and the ardour of the love-making is past; he is keeping up the spirits of his wife as she does the housework.
It is impossible to keep up the third person longer, the stroller vanishes; and I had not gone two yards down the right-hand hedge when a sparrow scolded her way out. Now, the sparrow is common, but whether the colour of its eggs is common or not, I do not care, for I like to look at them. So, peering through the tender green of the hawthorn, I saw three authentic pieces of blue sky, and as the sparrow is a bold lady, I felt one. The blue sky was warm, even as the day. Soon it would break, and mouth and veiled eyes take its place, in the working of the great spring miracle.
But independently of the colour of the eggs, it is always worth while to look in a hedge-sparrow's nest, for it is a favourite with the cuckoo, though how the long-tailed bird gets through the close-woven hedge to deposit the egg there passes the wit of man to say. And I do not think that even a woman could tell why she is so complaisant as to hatch this foreign substance. Yet year by year the woods thereby are resonant. O lady sparrow, let us give you your due.
But my search down this hedge was not exhaustive, for two hundred yards further was the great hunting ground. This, incidentally, is the property of the London, Brighton, and South Coast Railway, and trespassers will be prosecuted. Now, the birds, who know everything, of course know this, and the banks and bushes are populous to the point of overcrowding. They have observed the habits of the grunting trains, and are aware that they seldom leave the line. They are aware also that the smaller and more dangerous folk, who can walk in any direction, come not here, and in consequence you will find ten nests where you would find not one in the hedgerows. Let us then give the London, Brighton, and South Coast Railway its due, even as unto the lady sparrow. Also, they have never yet prosecuted me.
A hoarse, scolding voice was the first attraction, and, localizing it, I saw a blue-tit in the most violent passion. At first I thought it was just angry in general, but it soon became clear that this was definite, well-directed rage, and that I was the object. Now, this was rude, and opposed to the spirit of the day, and I told him that such language was unbecoming to a gentleman and titmouse. I should not speak so to him; there were limits to what a man should permit himself to say. But these remarks but aggravated him the more (for I take it that he knew he was in the wrong), and hopping down a branch or two of the tree which overhung the hedge, he said it all over again. Suddenly from just in front of my face a second voice joined in, and peering into the hedge I saw the round nest, covered with white lichen, and out of the hole near the top looked a little white mask of twittering rage. The lady was far angrier than her husband. She could barely articulate; horror, contempt, and disgust choked her utterance. So, as I make a point of not arguing with angry females, I went on.
This painful interview with such unreasonable folk was disconcerting, and I sat down awhile to recapture with the aid of Toby, tobacco and a penny underneath the wheels of a passing train, the smiling inanity which had been mine. And, in truth, it was not difficult. Here ran a sunny cutting; the flat margin on each side the line was starred with clusters of primroses, and up the bank was a flush of bluebells. In a copse close by a nightingale whistled liquidly four times, and broke into the froth and bubble of the song, which none can hear unmoved. The careless rapture of the thrush is there, and a passion which the thrush knows not. And, heretical as it may sound, I listen to him with greater wonder, not by night, but by day, when a thousand other birds sing with him, orchestra to that enchanting solo. Seventeen notes he has, and no note in the world may equal any of them. But, “unfortunately, madam,” as Heine says, “the nightingale's song is too long to set down here; it is as long as the world itself.” Youth, joy, passion, and all with insouciance, these are the dry bones of it. So even Heine would find other difficulties besides its length in the setting of it down.
So I crept nearer and yet nearer, restraining Toby's pursuit of interesting smells, and climbed over the fence and into the copse, thick with flowers, the fresh green of larch and hazel and innumerable chirrupings, till the song sounded quite close above me. There he sat, slim and brown, with swollen throat a-quiver, the eternal type of love and spring. Singing I found him, still singing I left him; and for me, in the album of the inward eye, there will ever hereafter be a new picture to turn to, the brown embowered bird singing on this May morning which God made.

Reproduced from The Pall Mall Gazette, 24/05/1900