Thursday, 28 August 2014

Mr Teddy

Fiction ~ novel
Published June 1917
Appeared in the United States as The Tortoise
Approx. 83,000 words
(First read 28/08/2014) 

Mr Teddy is not at all badLike EFB's 'masterpiece' An Autumn Sowing, which appeared just a few months after this, it tells the story of a middle-aged man.  The hero of that book is 50; Mr Teddy has just turned 40¹.  Both novels offer intimate² portraits of gentlemen very conscious of the fact that they've reached the second half of their lives ~ and haven't had totally successful first halves.  Teddy ~ Edward Heaton in full ~ has dedicated his to the care and entertainment of his not-really-an-invalid mother.  In breaks from these activities he's made a career of being the life and soul of Society in the village on the Sussex Downs where the novel takes place in its entiretyA few years ago ~ well, fifteen, if we're honest ~ he came close-ish to developing an 'understanding' (no more than that) with the village's jeune première, Daisy Macdonald, now rapidly approaching middle age herself and still burning a candle for Mr T.  But alas, Mother came first.
Telscombe, East Sussex
The novel tells the story of the 'reuniting' of these star-crossed lovers.  Naturally, this being E F Benson, their path doth not run smoothlieth, but they get there in the end.  For once I'm not going to say any more about the plot ~ if you'd like more details, have a look at the reviews below.
The pace is, as ever, leisurely, but there's a sufficiency of plot for it not to appear dragging.  The characters are nicely drawn, particularly Daisy and her sister Marion, a very distant relative of Quaint Irene from Mapp and Lucia with a mannish maid-of-all-work named Parkinson³.  The humour is mostly gentle ~ EFB is kinder on Mrs Heaton (Ted's mum) than he was, for instance, on Mrs Hancock in Arundel (1914): the two are much the same character.  Everyone is impeccably EFB-Edwardian-English: gentlemanly, naïve, kind of innocent; only the vicar's wife ~ Mrs Vickary, who lives at the Vickary-age ~ comes in for anything like a vitrioling.
Its main defect ~ apart from the habitual excess of internal monologue, and even that's smaller than usual ~ is that, as often happens, Fred takes his eye off the ball to concentrate on the story's (true) Young Lovers for too long, and they're as hackneyed as all his other young lovers.
Oh and there's an ice-skating scene which goes on too long ... but does at least serve a purpose.
Apart from that, I recommend Mr Teddy.  But it doesn't appear to be available online, unfortunately.

¹ I'm tempted to believe that EFB wrote Mr Teddy in 1907 when he was 40, and kept it on the shelf for a decade, for unknown reasons.
² Very intimate in Teddy's case: we first meet him as he's contemplating his face while shaving on the morning of his 40th birthday.
³ Not the only Benson maid to bear that undistinguished surname ... which happens to be my surname [angry face].


It is my deliberate verdict that Mr. E.F. Benson is (as my old nurse used to express it) "in league with Somebody he oughtn't." I hope, however, that he will understand this for the extorted compliment that it is, and not magic me into something unpleasant, or (more probably) write another book to prove to my own dissatisfaction that I am everything I least wish to be. That indeed is the gravamen of my charge: the diabolic ingenuity with which he makes not so much our pleasant vices as our little almost-virtues into whips to scourge us with. All this has been wrung from me by the perusal of Mr. Teddy (Fisher Unwin). Even now I can't make up my mind whether I like it or not. The first half, which might be called a satire on the folly of being forty and not realising it, depressed me profoundly. I need not perhaps enlarge upon the reason. Later, Mr. Benson made a very clever return upon the theme; and, with a touch of real beauty, brought solace to poor Mr. Teddy and consolation to the middle-aged reader. I need give you only a slight indication of the plot, which is simplicity itself. Into the self-contained little community of a provincial society, where to have once been young is to retain a courtesy title to perpetual youth, there arrives suddenly the genuine article, a boy and girl still in the springtime of life, by contrast with whom the preserved immaturity of Mr. Teddy and his partner, Miss Daisy, is shown for an artificial substitute. Baldly stated, the thesis sounds cynical and a little cruel; actually, however, you will here find Mr. Benson in a kindlier mood than he sometimes consents to indulge. He displays, indeed, more than a little fondness for his disillusioned hero; the fine spirit with which Mr. Teddy faces at last the inevitable is a sure proof of the author's sympathy.
~Punch, 20/06/1917
Mr E F Benson must have written Mr Teddy […] in a very leisurely manner. It is a story which has scarcely any plot and the lightest of character sketching. There is something indefinite about all the persons who revolve in the orbit of Mr Teddy, who is a bachelor of forty, a dabbler in art, and the slave of a mean, hypochondriacal mother who tyrannises over the meek son. With her death he obtains freedom, and as he somehow contrives to look and act like a young man of twenty-five, he begins to plan the recapture of his sacrificed youth. So we follow Mr Teddy through a maze of tea parties, picnics, and tennis tournaments until he mentally resolves to marry. His late decision, however, is marred by the quicker wit of his young friend Robin, a delightful creature who makes all his companions seem like dolls in comparison. So in the end meek, indecisive little Mr Teddy takes a back seat and proposes to another lady in a bored moment. It is all very simple and clearly written, but Mr Teddy is not a man, but an amiable abstraction. Remembering Mr Benson in his more successful moments, our thankfulness for this novel is tinged with a little melancholy.
~Liverpool Daily Post and Mercury, 20/06/1917
There is nothing remarkable or ambitious in this quiet tale of middle-aged romance, but Mr Benson, with his inimitable power of satire and character portrayal, his exquisitely pointed epigrams and worldly wise generalisations, gives us a faithful study of English South country village life, its snobbishness, its unconscious humour, its petty gossip and easy-going pleasures. Mr Teddy, the heor, a happy-go-lucky artist of forty, has frittered away his early days and best opportunities in devoting himself to his somewhat querulous mother of many imagined maladies. After her death ~ and nothing in her life became her so well as her exit from it ~ Mr Teddy sighs for opportunities lost and gone, and on the entrance into the peaceful village circle of real youth, he endeavours to regain his lost youth. In this he is warmly seconded by a spinster friend; but seeing how youth goes out to youth, they recognise that the exuberant 'joie de vivre' of youth has passed from them, and they therefore sensibly console themselves with the ripe mellowness of autumn and leave the fragrant roses of June to the winsome boy and girl.
This quaintly picturesque novel, redolent of peaceful summer days in a sunny, rose-embowered cottage, is written with the touch of a true artist. None but Mr Benson could have given us the striking psychological portrait of Mr Teddy as so piquantly revealed in the first chapter; and who but Mr Benson could turn out such neat satires of snobbishness as he regales us with in every other chapter? Mr Teddy, though marked by little of the brilliancy of technique and finish of Dodo or Mr Blaze [sic], is yet a delightful production, fragrant and restful in these war days.
~The Aberdeen Daily Journal, 02/07/1917
Mr E F Benson writes every word of his charming stories with a fastidious pleasure that is quickly communicated to the reader, and it is good to find that in Mr Teddy […] he continues in this agreeable habit. He polishes the personalia of the minute village of Lambton with the quiet zest of a connoisseur of characterisation. The still fragrance of life as it surely is not lived now-a-days pervades the pages of his story, in which also Mr Benson does not scorn to give the tender spirit of romance and the mild, querulous humour of the elders a wise proportionate scope. One instantly appreciates Teddy, and traces his progress with leisurely satisfaction, while such delicate portraits as that of Rosemary, and the more robustly drawn Daisie and Marian, bear the authentic stamp of the artist in words. It is a book over which one lingers, not wishing to reach the end.
~The Yorkshire Post, 18/07/1917
A pleasant and peaceful little story of life in a provincial town. The hero, is a delightful person, but he was obviously a more than indifferent artist.
~The Spectator, 17/08/1917
[Mr. Benson's] pleasant England [...] is of the village neighbourhood rather than the 'county' aristocracy. Property and the social plane mean less to him than simple human nature as touched with personal whimsy and coloured by environment. His Honourable Mrs. Heaton, who is unable to forget that she is daughter of a peer, and exercises a sort of ex officio authority as 'invalid Empress of Lambton,' is one of the two persons in the present book to be drawn with a pen dipped in acid. For the most part, these friends and neighbours form an affectionate as well as close corporation for the conduct of the business of living; and the hand of satire with which Mr. Benson touches their foibles and quaintnesses is a gentle one. Teddy, the belated youth who at forty has not begun to live, is a delightful portrait. He is the 'tortoise' who, for all his sloth, is, after one desperate snatching at the vanished ecstasy of youth, to find quiet happiness in the person of his old 'pal' Daisy, waiting at his side. His mother the Honourable is a rather dreadful person, a lifelong 'mollusc,' toned down by a sort of death-bed repentance. The other members of the neighbourhood group are painted with deliciously good-humoured satire. The best of them all is Daisy's sister Marion, her labours as the literary genius of the community being not more absurd than her nature is doughty and loyal. Excellent also are the young pair who set the aging dwellers of Lambton to emulating their youthfulness, and are so blamelessly and hopelessly beyond emulation. This is a far better story than The Oakleyites, in which similar material was handled with less spontaneity and freshness. Mr.
Benson has no idea or 'message' to convey unless it be that the humours of ourselves and our neighbours are among the best sources of refreshment the Lord has given us, and that beneath them, we may flatter ourselves, there wells many a pure fountain of kind feeling and honest purpose.
~H. W. Boynton in The Bookman (US), 12/1917


Monday, 25 August 2014

Friendly Russia

Tsar Nicholas II: "Cute but dim." —L. Trotsky
Non-fiction ~ essay
Published in The Herald [Tamworth], 19th June 1915*
Approx. 1,500 words
(First read 25/08/2014)

In a shameless bit of propagandizing, EFB sings the praises of Russia.  Unfortunately my knowledge of the various campaigns of the First World War is pretty hazy (particularly as regards the Eastern Front), so I'm not sure why Benson felt the need to produce such an article at this precise moment.  In truth, about three quarters of it is more 'Hymn To Holy Russia' than 'Believe Me: Russia Is Okay'.
He begins by praising the progress that Russia has made over the past 20 years in dragging itself into approximately the middle of the 18th century.  [Oops, I'm editorializing here.]  After comparing the country's approach to its disastrous war with Japan as that of a 'careless, contemptuous and derisive' schoolyard bully [remind you of anyone?], he claims Russia 'grew up' as a result.  Yeah right.
Our intrepid propagandist then goes on to argue that the English and the Russians are kindred spirits, finishing his paragraph with this flight of fancy:
[...] epithets are always unsatisfactory, and to take a concrete illustration, which puts the matter in a nutshell, we may say that Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë, perhaps the most distinctively English novel in our language, is completely and essentially Russian. The whole spirit and sentiment of it, the love and the ruthlessness of it, its stern fatalism, its noble tenderness, come not only from the moors of Yorkshire, but from the heart of Russia.
I can more or less see his point here.
Nige Insky in Afternoon Fun (1912)
EFB next tackles Russian Culture, which he ~ inevitably ~ thinks is wonderful: while admitting that not all the icons he names are Russian strictu sensu (Chopin had decidedly Polish leanings, apparently), he omits to mention that they're all comprehensively dead ~ the most recent is Rimsky-Korsakov.  Stravinsky was churning 'em out in 1915 ~ but I dare say Fred would sooner have eaten his own feet than mention him.  He might've given poor old Nijinsky a nod, though.
In the last section EFB talks about the 'removal of misunderstandings' between the UK and Russia, over India, the Black Sea, y'know ... little things like that ~ least said soonest mended.
Benson's ideas about Russia are (particularly with the benefit of hindsight) distinctly half-baked, romantic, idealistic ~ but I'm fairly sure he never visited Russia or even got anywhere near it, and the essay is meant as a piece of 'puff', so we'll let him off.

*This is indeed where I found it: it's marked 'All Rights Reserved' so I'm assuming it was an exclusive.  As far as I'm aware, EFB had no association whatever with Tamworth.

The article is reproduced in full below ... well, in full except for a few illegible bits (suggestions welcome!).  This is, to the best of my knowledge, the first time it's appeared free of charge for all the world to see since it's first publication 99 years ago.

Friendly Russia by E. F. Benson
Never perhaps in the history of the world has any generation seen such amazing change take place in a people as the last twenty years have seen in the case of Russia. It is not that the character of the nation has altered, for the character of nations as of individuals is their one permanent and constant possession, and can no more be changed than can the skin of the Ethiopian or the spots of the leopard, and persists through any vicissitude of disaster or expansion of victory that may happen to them. But in all except character (that collective individuality which marks off nation from nation and people from people) it is impossible to conceive a greater contrast than the aspect presented by Russia of a generation ago when compared with the stern, calm and sober millions, who both in the battle-line and in the vast territory behind it wait in unshaken confidence for the inevitable issue of their conflict with the barbarism that has suddenly flamed out in central Europe. Unchanged in character, in the essentials that lie at the base of the nation's soul, Russia of to-day has nothing else in common with the Russia of twenty years back.
The change is one of growth and civilised development. Conscious and rightly conscious of her enormous strength, Russia entered the Japanese war, careless, contemptuous and derisive. She was like some huge youth, who, untrained, and without control of his limbs or knowledge of how to use them, went out, hardly taking off his coat, to fight a practised and intelligent foe, who with not one quarter of his adversary's bulk, was quick, decisive and disciplined. There were other disadvantages, circumstances also which have never been fully appreciated, for at that time Russia was not only at war with Japan, but with herself; she was internally dismembered by sedition and revolution, and was shaken by the storm of intestinal trouble. She was beaten, and then there began to rise in her the leaven that was already there, the leaven of her dawning maturity, of her sense of national responsibility. She said nothing, for Russia in adversity is as silent as her own winter nights, but shutting her door, she set herself to win the place that she knew was rightly hers in the hierarchy of the nations. She had been, as we have said, like some big, unthinking boy, and now she disciplined herself into manhood. But her character did not alter, she developed on her own lines, but grew in mind and in self-control. She schooled herself after the example of her own great men with the result that, as far as military matters go, she knows now how to use her inexhaustible strength in sobriety and wisdom and faithfulness to herself and her friends.
It is to English people more than to any of the nations of Europe that the Russian character so strongly appeals. A very foolish proverb, often quoted and supposed to be enlightening, tells us that if you scratch a Russian you will find a Tartar. That is so flippant a view that it only deserves the flippant answer that if you scratch anybody you will probably rouse his temper. But if you make friends with a Russian, if you try to be in sympathy with him instead of scratching him, you will find a very different being. You will discover a loyalty and simplicity that are child-like in their unquestioningness, you will find too, whether your Russian is a boulevardier of Paris, or a moujik of the central steppes, a wild romantic soul that reminds you of the sea at dawn, dim and immense and utterly indescribably. It is a northern nature like ours, sensitive to ridicule, shy of expressing itself, and above all romantic, with the romance of the north. But epithets are always unsatisfactory, and to take a concrete illustration, which puts the matter in a nutshell, we may say that Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë, perhaps the most distinctively English novel in our language, is completely and essentially Russian. The whole spirit and sentiment of it, the love and the ruthlessness of it, its stern fatalism, its noble tenderness, come not only from the moors of Yorkshire, but from the heart of Russia.
We have been told very often during the last six months from Berlin and other places where the Kaiser has been, that the conclusion of the present war willwitness the spread of German 'Kultur' over the whole of this fortunate planet. We are learning a little about German Kultur, and have been permitted to see it cursorily at work in Belgium, and as the weeks go on we are happily beginning to realise that this infernal millennium is getting further off than ever. But we see more and more that another element of civilisation, not enforced by megalo-mania and barbarism and piracy will certainly take its place. For a long time now those who have studied Russian literature, Russian music, and the Russian arts, generally have been aware of the wonderful culture. Turgenieff, Gogol, Lermontoff, Tolstoi expressed it, and in music Chopin, Tschaikowsky, Rubenstein, Rimsky Korsakoff were among its children. Some of these were Poles, other were Cossacks, but all in spirit as in nationality belonged to Russia, and all of them had that sea-like unfathomable suggestions which is the meaning of Russia, and with which in arms as in instincts we find ourselves so intimately allied. It is not easy to express or to give any definite account of the quality that underlies it, for it appeals much more to the emotions than to the mind, and produces in us not so much a train of thought as a mood, often sad, sometimes deliriously light-hearted, but always with the glamour of large spaces and infinite horizons about it. Though trained and ordered, the fruit of industry and endless patience, it never degenerates into artificiality, or loses itself in mere technique. The quality which, after all, is best called Russian, permeates it; it is always romantic, always elemental, born of the steppes and the limitless plains, and the Arctic night light by the remote Aurora of the north. For a long time now its first freshets, the rivulets that earliest began to come down from the vast mysterious [hills?], have been flowing westwards, and they come to us bringing the sense of home with them.
Already in this crisis of the danger common to Russia and to us, namely the barbarous nest of hornets in the midst of Europe, much misunderstanding has been removed from between us and our Eastern allies. No longer do we fear or have cause to fear what we thought of for years as the Russian menace to India. Germany, who for so long has tried, not always successfully, to promote dissension between nations with whom she professed friendly relationships, no [illegible] one time did encourage our Ally to [illegible] warm-water outlet southwards, and point a diplomatic finger towards India and the Persian Gulf. Now in the utter ruinous fiasco that has befallen Teutonic diplomacy, and now that the day prophetically [illegible: probably dreamt] by Bismarck has dawned, (and that [illegible] ) friendship between Russia and England [illegible] Russia looks, and will not look in vain, towards its natural outlet through the Black Sea and the Dardanelles. Hereby another misunderstanding has been removed, for even as in Whitehall it was thought that Russia turned longing eyes to our Eastern Empire, so in Petrograd it was believed that England would fight to the last drop of her blood in preventing Russia from obtaining this access to the Mediterranean. And once more we are indebted to the blundering diplomacy of Germany, which instead of fomenting has but healed the mutual distrust which for years existed between us and our Ally.
A cordial understanding, an unswerving purpose unites us with France. We work with our Latin neighbours in complete accord; we admire and revere their wit, their warmth, their brilliant achievements in the arts of peace no less than their courage and tenacity in these critical days, but I cannot believe that we are such natural allies with France as we shall prove to be with Russia. Let there be no misunderstanding: it is not that we need anticipate difficulties with our Western Ally, or feel that tact will be necessary to secure the solidity of our alliance; only, in Russia we seem to have found, now that all ground of misconceptions has been removed, our natural and ideal friend. A psychical affinity binds us to her, a certain unity and accord of character that is worth all the treaties in the world, for though they will be loyally kept they cannot in binding force equal or approach the inviolability which springs from characters that naturally fit each other, and from the identity of aims that are dictated by primal and ingrained instincts.

Reproduced from The Herald [Tamworth, Staffs., UK], 19/06/1915

Friday, 8 August 2014

The Challoners

Fiction ~ novel
Published July 1904
Approx. 100,000 words
(First read 08/08/2014)

Like most E F Benson novels, The Challoners is a simple tale ~ so simple, in fact, that it's a wonder the author managed to make it so long.  It tells the story of twins Martin and Helen Challoner and their relationships with ~ or rather: against ~ their widowed clergyman father.
In the Reverend Sidney Challoner EFB gives us a sort-of-portrait of his own august parent and namesake, Edward White Benson, these days best remembered ~ probably only remembered ~ as the father of E F Benson.  But he produced better portraits, most notably in Our Family Affairs (1920): Rev. Challoner is much smaller fry.  Though the two men share the same somewhat grim, single-minded, slavish devotion to His Almighty Upstairsyness, Challoner has none of the spontaneous warmth which EWB could and did (apparently, occasionally) exhibit towards his children.  He wants no more for his son than that he be a brilliant scholar and [dang! I've forgotten what his ultimate aim for Martin was, probably the clergy], and no more for Helen than that she devote her life to the service of the Church and ... well, him, really.
The snag is that the son is a dunderhead when it comes to your Greek and Latin ~ but a musical prodigy.  The dad has as much appreciation of music as, say, Caligula had of charity work.  While Helen's 'rebellion' is to commit the crime of falling in love ... with an atheist!
So Martin goes off to be a concert pianist, against his dad's wishes.  His teacher, Herr Something-or-other, delivers what is without doubt the most interesting ~ and revealing ~ speech in the whole book.  His general instructions to his pupil:
Work, and live also.  Do not forget that any experience in life, so long only as it is not sensual, — for whatever is sensual blurs and deadens the fineness of any gift —, gives richness and breadth to your power in music.
I don't really need to add any emphasis here, do I?  Along the way he falls in love (most non-sensually, it goes without saying) with a girl, and, the most genuinely rebellious thing he does, converts to Roman Catholicism, entirely ~ it has to be said ~ because they have better tunes, etc.  "Aha!" you may be thinking, "the perfect opportunity for EFB to imagine how EWB would have reacted, had he lived, to finding out that one of his own sons (Hugh) did exactly the same thing!"  Alas, no, this is E F Benson: he pretty much completely evades that particular issue.  Anyway, long and short, Martin is a resounding success as a joanna-player ... but not for long.
Helen, meantime, is much more timid in her rebellion against the pater: she tries to bring him round to the idea of having a no-better-than-a-heathen for a son-in-law, is impossibly virtuous and noble à la victorienne about it all, and has some success on that front.
Well, I'm not going to labour this review any longer ~ see below for more plot details.  There's a happy ending ... kind of.
The main and major drawback of it all, for me at least, is that Benson spent far far far too much time on Martin, who I found comprehensively boring, and on his ruddy music, ditto, and not nearly enough on Helen and Sidney, who I found far more ~ potentially ~ interesting.
But, like all Benson novels [this is the moment where I sound positively schizophrenic] it has a certain old-fashioned charm ... not a lot, mind you ... and is a pleasant enough read.
And the critics (see below) seem to have loved it, so what do I know?

The novel is available online here.


The theme is a father’s concern lest his children become contaminated by what he considers an unwholesome social atmosphere. The book is filled with Mr. Benson’s clever observations on the English smart set, and the love-story shows him at his best.
~quoted in endpapers of the US edition of The Angel of Pain

It is an admirably written story, given us by a man who thinks, feels, and observes, who expresses himself with a brilliancy which never fails him, yet does not spare us the sometimes bitter truths that belong to the life he is depicting.
~The Sketch, quoted in front endpapers of An Act in a Backwater and Sheaves
Mr. Benson has here more of a serious purpose and less of surface smartness than in some of his stories. His main theme is the absolute need of individual character and independent action. He pictures the anguish of a saintly, and at heart, affectionate clergyman who is a Philistine as regards art, literature, and imagination, when his son becomes a professional musician and a Roman Catholic, and his daughter marries an agnostic. The merit of the novel is that this situation is not treated roughly or with excessive emotion, but finely and with real feeling. The play of circumstance upon character, of temperament upon prejudice, and of Puritanism upon æstheticism,is subtly and truthfully worked out.
~The Outlook, 30/07/1904
He has written a very simple, a very moving, and a very beautiful story about a situation that is in the present day continually real. A story in which the inevitableness of the tragedy is the keynote.
~The Daily Chronicle, quoted in front endpapers of An Act in a Backwater
The story, as may be seen, is essentially serious, but, being by Mr Benson, it is, of course, also very interesting. The characterisation and dialogue are, as usual, excellent. There is a Lady Sunningdale, who is as amusing as the irrepressible 'Dodo,' but is a much more lovable creature, and frequently displays streaks of unexpected wisdom and breadth of view. Mr Benson's style is full of vitality. […] Of course, he never is dull; but in The Challoners he has gone further than producing a vivid and amusing book. It is full of suggestion, and permeated throughout with a generous philosophy of life.
~Pall Mall Gazette, quoted in front endpapers of An Act in a Backwater
It is a fine story [...] The story, simple in its development, is very touching and deeply interesting […] The literary merit of this beautiful story reaches a high mark […] The care and completeness of the character drawing by action and in speech are remarkable; each invididual is known to us and remains with us […] The consistency of Mr Challoner's action throughout the story is maintained with great skill, the struggle with his feelings reaching its utmost pitch of agony at the end. One of the finest scenes in fiction within our knowledge ~ is a grand and solemn study of the human heart.
~World, quoted in front endpapers of An Act in a Backwater
The Challoners […] must be pronounced not only the best book he has given us, but one of the best novels published so far this year. Well known as an accomplished author, with an unusually wide range, he shows a surer touch, a deepening maturity, if the expression may be allowed, with advancing years.
~The Daily Mail, quoted in front endpapers of An Act in a Backwater
Not counting the head of the family, Lord Flintshire, who plays but a minor part in the story, the Challoners are three in number: the Reverend Sidney, who is a widower, his son Martin, and his daughter Helen. Sidney is a profoundly religious man, of rigid and somewhat bigoted piety.
Martin is a musical genius wholly out of sympathy with his father's Puritanical ordinances, as his father is opposed to all his aspirations, and considers his passionate devotion to music nothing but a sinful waste of time. Helen, who teaches in the Sunday school and helps in the parish work, is a girl of some individuality, and has also strayed far beyond the limit of her father's narrowly conventional ideas, and stirs him to bitterest anger by insisting on living by her own light, even to the extent of engaging herself to the man she loves, though he confessedly has no belief in God. Although these three love each other and shrink from hurting each other, “the result was tragedy, tragedy in no grand and great style, but a pitiful little tragedy of misunderstanding and estrangement." Their differing characters are analysed with subtlety and insight. Lady Sunningdale is a delightfully humorous creation—she and her ridiculous pet dogs move through the book to a never-failing accompaniment of good-natured laughter. It is an intensely human story, written at times with epigrammatic cleverness, and at times with a larger humour, and with occasional touches of pathos that always ring true. Altogether a novel of marked originality and interest.
~The Bookman (UK), 08/1904
Mr Benson has broken some fresh ground in his latest novel. Always clever and amusing, he has the knack of blending the light with the serious things in a well-judged proportion that renders him one of the most charming writers of the present day. But in this book he gives the serious element the upper hand, and the result has the merit not only of success, but of comparative novelty […] Mr Benson's work throughout the book is so excellent […] He has produced, indeed, a not unworthy comparison to his brilliant success of the past, and that is saying a good deal.
~St James's Gazette, quoted in front endpapers of An Act in a Backwater
Of Helen Challoner and her brother it need only be said that their virtues and failings make them a fresh and fascinating couple, and they play their part as the storm of the story in a manner which holds the interest of the reader. Altogether, the novel is one that is sure to be read with pleasure and amusement, and, we believe, with profit.
~The Daily Telegraph, quoted in front endpapers of An Act in a Backwater and Sheaves

When we remembered that E. F. Benson was the author of Dodo, a book about which everyone was talking a few years ago, we expected to find that he had given us something pretty good in The Challoners. We read it, breathlessly and absorbedly, and then we were of the opinion that he had given us a novel that is better than the book which made him famous.
~Newark Advertiser, quoted in endpapers to US edition of The House of Defence

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

The Three Old Ladies

Non-fiction? ~ sketch
Published in Six Common Things, November 1893
(First read 06/08/2014)

A faintly voyeuristic EFB talks about three old sisters who live in his neighbourhood.  He's never met them and never exchanges a word of conversation with them: he merely observes their comings and goings in the street and local shops, is amused by their purple petticoats, etc.  One by one ~ for this is E. F. Benson, and E. F. Benson in Six Common Things mode to boot ~ the sisters die off until only the middle one is left, at which point
I longed to tell her that she was not so much alone as she thought; that I wanted to carry her basket for her, to sit and read to her in the evening [...].  But it was impossible; it would not do.  I could not have explained what I felt, and if I had, she would not have understood me.
Like so much of the material in this volume of stories and sketches, The Three Old Ladies is exquisitely melancholy ... and Benson (or 'the narrator', as you prefer) comes across as lonely and somewhat ineffectual.
It can be read online here

Monday, 4 August 2014

The Zoo

"Hullo everyone ~ I'm a quagga!"
Non-fiction ~ sketch
Published in Six Common Things, November 1893
(First read 04/08/2014)

Casting about for Something To Write About, EFB pays a visit to the zoo (undoubtedly London Zoo) and produces various sketches of the animal life.  As always, our favourite author excels himself when talking about animals ~ here he tackles parrots¹, seals, storks, bears, dingoes, snakes (for which creature he exhibits a peculiar venom² which can only be described as biblical), and, at some length, monkeys.  All good clean fun.  Unlike the majority of zoos, which any civilized person wouldn't even keep a quagga in. [joke]

You can read it online here.

¹ Again ~ see Jack and Poll.
² Pun unintentional.