Monday, 28 July 2014

The Alliance of Laughter

Fiction ~ short story
Published in Scribner's Magazine, December 1902
3,070 words
(First read 28/07/2014)

Either you like stories of romance set in the supremely idle world of Edwardian England ... or you don't.  If you do, you'll love this.
Jack, Dick, and Margery have been friends, relatives and neighbours since childhood; they're now aged 22, 22 and 20 respectively.  They call themselves 'The Alliance of Laughter' because their whole life has just been one long succession of games (golf, pea-rifles*, etc.)
Thus from the days of school where the boys had been together first at Eton, then at Sandhurst, returning for the holidays to find Margery waiting eagerly for the games and laughter which filled the days, the three had grown up equals in age, and comrades together without a break. Till then, at any rate, all had retained to a somewhat unusual extent the absolute insouciance of childhood, taking each day exactly as it came, utterly ignorant of the deeper and tenderer needs which come soon or late to all men and women.
'Somewhat unusual', did you say? ~ pfffftt!  Through 2014 eyes the three of them are practically circus-freaks, so immature and virginal are they.  Anyway, we shouldn't judge a story written 112 years ago by today's standards.  (No, we shouldn't.)  So the inevitable happens: both chaps fall in love with Margery at the same time and agree that no matter what happens, no matter which one of them she chooses, nothing will get in the way of their friendship.  And lo! it comes to pass.
Benson later recycled this story ~ large parts of it word for word ~ in the 'May' section of The Book of Months (1903), where, beefed up and back-filled somewhat, and with a tragic sequel tacked on, it doesn't seem quite so silly.
You can read it online here.

*Whatever that is. 

Sunday, 27 July 2014

The Blackmailer of Park Lane

Fiction ~ short story
First published in The Countess of Lowndes Square and Other Stories, 1920
9,965 words
(First read 27/07/2014)

Very much in the same bracket as The Countess of Lowndes Square in that it's a tale of the blackmailer blackmailed.  Arthur Whately is a fifty-something self-made millionaire, and a bit of a reprobate on the QT.  Realizing one day that he's bored at having done and bought everything he ever wanted, he decides (like you do) to embark on a new career as a blackmailer.  For his first victim he chooses his 'friend' and neighbour Lord Peebles.  Unfortunately he doesn't know Lord P at all well, and E F Benson was feeling particularly bone-idle on this occasion, so he just assumes that if he writes to him saying "I know what you were doing between Aug. 2nd and Aug. 10th two years ago", Peebles will have been doing something to feel guilty about.  And so it turns out ... and the rest is, as they say, as much bunkum as this would lead you to expect.
An amazingly daft story ~ not 'fun', just 'daft'.  The tone is supposedly light but it's all told at such inordinate length (about twice the length of the average EFB story) that it feels like swimming through treacle.  I'm not saying it's bad: just that it's woefully over-long, not in the least bit funny, and pretty dull.
It's available online here.  Good luck.

The Brontës

Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery not really 
Non-fiction ~ article/essay
Published in The Spectator, 7th February 1931
1,090 words
(First read 27/07/2014)

This article falls into two halves.  The first recounts the publishing history of Wuthering Heights, Agnes Grey, The Professor and Jane Eyre, quite a saga in itself.  The second deals with a subject which EFB talked about at greater length in his book on Charlotte, viz. her seemingly total lack of understanding of any kind of her sister Emily.
Fans of Brontëana will enjoy this, though they're unlikely to learn anything new.
It can be read online here.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

National Service or National Disgrace?

Non-fiction ~ propaganda article
Published 31st March 1917*
370 words
(First read 23/07/2014)

* I found this in The Aberdeen Daily Journal for that date ~ it was undoubtedly published elsewhere on the same date, if not earlier.
The National Service Scheme, not to be confused with the later National Service (compulsory military service), was a voluntary one whereby ~ largely but not exclusively men ~ unable to take part in the war would, on a part-time basis, assume extra jobs there weren't enough people to perform ~ bus-driving, policing, etc.
No doubt someone at the relevant ministry could have ghost-written this for EFB to put his name to, but it bears the distinctive hallmarks of his own prose style.

The article is reproduced below.  As far as I know this its first appearance, in full and free of charge, in 97 years.

National Service or National Disgrace? by E. F. Benson
There will be hardly one man in a hundred who reads these few lines who, during the last two years and a half, has not [illegible: 'sent' or 'seen'] off some friend or brother or son to face the day-long and night-long dangers of the trenches.
Such a one has gone back home, when the cheerful, gallant train-load pulled out of the station, to his fireside or his office with a thrill of heroism in his heart, wishing that he was stronger or younger, and could take his part in the peril and do something ~ were it only in his power ~ to help Britain. He tells himself that, old though he is, he longs for the opportunity (the privilege he calls it) of doing 'his bit', and out of his comfortable bank balance he perhaps finds himself able to invest a little in the Victory Loan. He swells with pride at the thought of helping his country, and, at the same time, it is very jolly to reflect that 'his bit' brings him 5¼ per cent., which is a most handsome return on so sound a security. And he wants to do more to help his country.
Then he is confronted with the National Service scheme, and about that his patriotism cools a little. He procures a National Service card; he sees in it a trade of which he really knows a little, and in which he could be of use. But he does not enrol. He must consider a little whether he can give up his time, or make a sacrifice at all. Now there is not too much time for such a man, who thought himself so patriotic, to prove his patriotism. Unless he enrols he will definitely have declared himself a neutral in the war. Or, since he is British, he will have declared himself a deserter. This is simple, sober fact.
And, unless he enrols, all his fine thoughts when he saw his son or his brother off to fight, and risk his life for the sake of his country, will have proved themselves shams ~ cheap, tawdry shams. That will not be a very pleasant thought for the rest of his life, will it?
Reproduced from The Aberdeen Daily Journal, 31/03/1917

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

A Winter Morning

Fiction ~ short story
Published in Six Common Things, 1893
(First read 22/07/2014)

If you thought the story before this one (Blue Stripe) was sad, have your hanky ready again for A Winter Morning.
On a morning of thaw after a long cold snap, our Unidentified Narrator travels back 20 years in memory to a particular evening, six years after his wife's death in childbirth, when he and his brother were playing billiards, while U.N.'s little boy tried to keep himself amused on the hearth rug ~ a piece of cue chalk took his particular fancy as a plaything.  The following morning the child, Jack, goes out for a ride on his pony only to come back two hours later with a broken back and on the brink of death.  The 'familiar object' on this occasion turns out to be a piece of that billiard-cue chalk, which the father finds in Jack's pocket after he has been laid out.
It's partly because the piece is so short, partly because the  subject takes you somewhat by surprise, and partly because EFB, as in all the other episodes from Six Common Things, shows admirable ~ and very masculine ~ restraint in his writing, that he manages to pull the story off without crossing the line into mawkishness.  So, a quintessentially Victorian subject ... but handled in a rather modern manner.
You can judge for yourself, though: the story's online here.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Blue Stripe

Fiction ~ short story
Published in Six Common Things, 1893
(First read 21/07/2014)

The sight of some very familiar object, observed again even half unconsciously after some great change has happened, is full of a pathos almost unbearable.
Unidentified Narrator recalls the occasion, many years ago, of his wife's death in childbirth.  He remembers the game of croquet they'd been playing shortly before this double life-changing event, and goes in search of the 'familiar object' ~ a croquet ball shunted off into the bushes: there it still lies, decades later.
An exquisitely sad vignette, simultaneously shot through with quiet bitterness and quiet joy.  I had a terrific sensation of déjà vu all through this: I'm fairly sure EFB recycled the exact same motif in a later piece of work ~ number one suspect was The Book of Months (1903) but I've not been able to find it so it may have been in something else, or I may be mistaken.  For the continuation see A Winter Morning, also in Six Common Things.
You can read it online here.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

The Sound of the Grinding

Non-fiction (?) ~ sketch
Published in Six Common Things, November 1893
(First read 16/07/2014)

An impressionistic portrait of London in the 1890s.
Benson flits from one disconnected subject to the next: the River Thames > London crowds > a drowned baby > an old chestnut-seller > the misery of child labour in a Christmas card factory > the profession of being 'disgusting' > Londoners' addiction to 'grinding' (hustle) > the therapeutic nature of paintings > the tragicomedy of London > a donkey-cart at Covent Garden > an act of charity, manqué The only common theme would appear to be something like "London, especially for the poor, is horrible and miserable."  The most incoherent bit of writing by EFB I've read to date.
See if you can make more sense of it yourself ~ it's available online here.

Saturday, 12 July 2014

At King's Cross Station

Non-fiction (?) ~ sketch
Published in Six Common Things, November 1893
(First read 12/07/2014)

It is in the small unnoticed sorrows of average people that I realise most deeply the infinite pathos of human life.
A ~ presumably ~ observational study of a shabby, slovenly woman who can't afford a 3rd-class train ticket from King's Cross to Grantham.
Is this EFB's one-and-only full-length portrait of a poor woman? ~ it's certainly the only one I've read so far; if so, it's a real pity he didn't do more of them as it's very good.  Benson is more or less compassionate, and certainly never comes anywhere near sentimentalizing; and the revealing details are admirably done.
It's available online here.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Account Rendered

Fiction ~ novel
Published February 1911
Approx. 107,000 words
(First read 09/07/2014)

The first character we meet in Account Rendered is Mrs Winthrop, a middle-aged woman with a 'piercingly aromatic' temper and a face which "looked rather as if hens had trampled it, and it had subsequently been raked over" (a wonderfully witty description ... though I must admit I can't actually picture what that looks like!)  Mrs W is far and away the best thing in the whole book and ~ yes, you guessed it, she's just a minor character who pops in occasionally.
Ah well.
Our heroine Violet Allenby, on the other hand, is just your standard EFB Young Lady Type 1: so nauseatingly saintly that you feel like reaching into the book and twanging her bra strap (or worse).  The orphaned Violet is nanny to the Winthrops two little kiddies, aged about 8 and 9 and known to all as 'the imps'.  Mr & Mrs W also have a grown-up son ~ no, no-one ever explains why they chose to have two additional kids after a gap of 15 years or so ~ named Jack (Young Gent Type 1): army, curly hair,
Spot the budgie
broad shoulders, strong swimmer, the usual stuff.  In one another's presence he and Vi feel stirrings within their nethergarments but alas! she's too poor even to consider falling in love with.  So he trots off back to Egypt where, presumably, he's on guard duty at the Pyramids.

Enter Lady Tenby (dwgr) and her son Lord Ted¹.  The latter also feels unwonted emotional upheavals in his trizers when gazing upon Vi's gorgeous halo, puppies, and wings ~ well, when he's not too busy playing golf, that is.  But his mater, though well-disposed towards our latterday Teresa of Avila, also wouldn't countenance his marrying a pauper.
Then whammo! ~ Violet very conveniently, totally out of the blue, and for no good reason whatever, inherits a colossal fortune: I believe it was £1.5M, which in today's money would be around £90M!!!  This, obviously, is where the plot starts to ... I was going to say 'thicken' but 'form a thin surface film' would be more appropriate.  Overnight Vi becomes everyone's flavour of the month ~ I wonder why.
Anyway, to cut it short: Lady Tenby schemes to keep Vi and Jack apart and get her to marry Ted, which she does.  Jack comes back from Egypt and he and the Sainted One² realize they still love one another.  Lady T's true character and dastardly scheme are revealed to all parties involved and ... are you ready for this? ... Ted, realizing that his wife will never love him and he'll forever be de trop, decides to do the noble thing and throw himself off a cliff.  The End.
Account Rendered is extremely humdrum routine EFB turgid-romance fare.  It's far far far too long; the pace is absolutely elephantine; the four main characters are no more than types; and the ending is as preposterous as anything Marie Corelli (the butt of so many Benson jokes) ever wrote.
This is the part where I say "Having said all that, I quite enjoyed it", isn't it?  Having said all that, I quite enjoyed it.

Not to be confused with the short story To Account Rendered (1925).  The whole book is available online here.

¹ It's only just this second occurred to me what a daft name Ted Tenby is.
² Okay, I owe Violet a kind of apology: when she comes into her stupendous fortune it turns out she's no better than your average lottery winner, splashing out on fancy houses, flash cars, fur coats, jewels, etc.  Admittedly a fair bit of it is for her best mate Lady T ~ but not all of it.  And EFB seems completely unfazed by, seems not even to notice, her shocking vulgarity.

From Mr Bennet's brilliant and realistic fantasy [The Card], I turn to the work of a more popular, but certainly less important author. Mr E F Benson has written many excellent stories in his time, but unfortunately his time is not the present. His last few books have shown an almost progressive decline from the sparkle and brilliancy ~ even though it was a little nuretricious [sic! ~ presumably he meant meretricious] ~ that marked Dodo and the stories of five years or so since. For Mr Benson is becoming dull. He has become the preachers [sic] and now writes rather 'goody-goody' tales which only his long experience as a writer and his undoubted ability save from absolute tedium.

There is really only one character in Account Rendered and she is over-done while the grand finale is crude and unconvincing melodrama. Frank, the young soldier, and Lord Tenby who commits a kind of suicide which would be the last thing that stolid young nobleman would ever have thought of doing in real life, are mere puppets while the heroine, the governess who becomes a millionairess and a peeress, is little more life-like. There remains Lady Tenby who begins as just another voluble Lady Sunningdale, apparently a prolix good-hearted woman, and who ends as the villainess of the piece.


Mr Benson's mannerisms are growing upon him. In ordinary conversation ordinary people do not call each other 'dear' whenever they speak. We have 'dear Violet', 'dear Aunt Maggie', 'dear Mr Frank', with exasperating frequency. Mr Benson can do so very much better than this. Mrs Winthrop, who disappeared just as he [sic] was interesting me, is a proof of this as indeed are several of the early chapters before the play began to get out of the author's hands. Let Mr Benson put aside his pen for two years and take a long rest. Then he might give us something worthy of his early promise.
~'A. C. W. L.' in Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 23/02/1911

Archbishop Benson had three sons, all of them writers. Edward Frederick, the author of the present volume, has come to be known as the Dodo man. The number of books to his credit is large. In this volume Mr. Benson has told a very conventional love story. His real strength lies in his character sketches. The book opens with a really delightful description of an English family, some real children, an atmosphere of English country seashore life, a pretty governess, and a hint of a love story involving the eldest son of the family. When Violet inherits an American fortune from a childless uncle, the story loses its refreshing qualities and becomes strictly conventional. Lady Tenby, a neighbor and a matchmaking mother, comes onto the scenes, and with the aid of all kinds of deceit wins the affection of the girl for herself and her son 'Ted.' When the parted lovers meet again, the "murder is out," and the solution of the difficulties furnishes the dramatic element in the story. Poor Ted, with his loyal and immovable affection, deserved a better mother and a happier fate!
~The Literary Digest, 06/05/1911
 Mr. Benson is most successful in his masterly portrait.
~Truth, quoted in endpapers to Juggernaut
The story will be widely read, and deserves to be.
~The World, quoted in endpapers to Juggernaut
Account Rendered is a distinct success.
~Literary World, quoted in endpapers to Juggernaut 
It is written with his customary skill and artistic method. The novel should be read if only to make the acquaintance of the clever, astute Lady Tenby.
~The Globe, quoted in endpapers to Juggernaut
The characters are real enough: they are well-observed studies of ordinarily decent people seen through the enlarging spectacles of romance. There are some scenes which flash and remain in the memory, like that in which Violet comes unexpectedly into the box in the theatre just when Lady Tenby is volubly lying about her to Frank.
~The Daily News, quoted in endpapers to Juggernaut

E. F. Benson's literary career sped along in the pre-war years, earning him popularity, wealth, but very little critical respect. Within less than two years (1910-11) he produced Daisy's Aunt, The Osbornes, Account Rendered, and Juggernaut, of which only The Osbornes […] shows some maturity of characterisation.
~Brian Masters in The Life of E. F. Benson, 1991

Monday, 7 July 2014

The Education of a King

Non-fiction ~ article
Published in The Spectator, 17th March 1933
1,070 words
(First read 07/07/2014)

No doubt EFB published this condensed version of the education of the long-serving Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, to get the public warmed up for the release of his full-length book King Edward VII: An Appreciation, which was released in June of the same year.  Despite all the best efforts of Prince Albert (guided in part by his own ex-tutor Baron Stockmar), the prince's education was a signal failure ... or rather he never really learnt anything that his dad and the Baron wanted him to learn.
You can read the article online here.