Saturday, 22 February 2014

Queen Victoria

Published 1935
(First read 22/02/2014)

A clever and witty biography in which Benson deals mainly with Victoria as woman and wife rather than queen and empress.  The tone is light, anecdotal, even a bit gossipy; there's humour, some of it ever-so-gently in mock of Her Royal Shortness and killer consort; EFB doesn't bore the pants off us with endless politics and politicians, instead sketching them in with a few skilled strokes; in short, the reader's left feeling that he probably knows enough about Queen Victoria now.  (The edition I have ~ Chatto & Windus, 1987 ~ also has the advantage of being 'lavishly illustrated', which always helps ...)  Not available online.

I just came across this in Mother (1925):
Once only had I seen [the Queen] close and quietly.  For one year, towards the end of the eighties, my father had taken a house on Deeside for August, and we were all invited to Balmoral.  And the diminutive old lady with the prominent blue eyes that looked very fixedly at you and the really beautiful voice, who was so small and so significant, was the head of everything, the incarnation of stability and security, something cosmic. ...  There was, too, something vividly individual about her, and if, never having seen her before, I had observed her walking into some very unexpected place, like a small restaurant in Soho, I verily believe I should have known her for Queen Victoria: nobody else could possibly be quite like that, nor could she possibly have been anyhow different.

Other critics

As a biographer, Mr. Benson has several outstanding qualities, all of which were won, perhaps, from his long apprenticeship to the novel. He has a remarkable ease of narrative, which makes event follow event with precision and grace; he has the collector's fancy for knowing all the facts, no matter how trivial; he has a quiet humor, quite free from any bitterness of wit, that enjoys gossip for its own sake and savors it as a kind of art in itself; and, most important of all, he has the suavity and gentleness of the born spectator, whom nothing can move very deeply but who understands even themost extraordinary aberrations of conduct without feeling contempt for their authors. These are very great gifts for a biographer, since they lead almost inevitably to the production of books which are rich in entertainment and full of information, books that have charm and vivacity and the polish that marks the elegant drawing-room. If they lack power and compelling prophetic insight, it is because they have the defects of their virtues.
~Charles David Abbott in The Saturday Review, 20/04/1935
There is no end to books on Queen Victoria, as, stunned, we contemplate the decay of her world. It is much as if admirers of the full-rigged ship devoted their talents to minute descriptions of the figurehead at the bow. Benson cannot possibly lend her life the acid contrast necessary to such a work, for he is the chief dispenser of Victorian memorabilia, and his volume, As We Were, successfully concealed, with innate charm, just what the Victorians were.
The chief interest to be found in a biography of Victoria is the attitude of the biographer. Granted that Lytton Strachey presented her unfairly, it must be admitted in the concession that he made a brilliant job of it. Benson treads in fearfully, being of angelic disposition, and sets about gracefully admitting the basis of Strachey’s libel, mitigating it with an amused tolerance which never swerves from printing, when pressed, the approximate truth. Where the author of Eminent Victorians once toyed wittily with a vast machine of politics, Benson is more concerned with giving a domestic background to Victoria’s life, though the facets of her career which must delight all amateur psychologists glitter occasionally by reflection in Benson’s amused eyes. Just why such a lush field is permitted to lie fallow, when the psychologists are so thorough in digging into the past, must be only a matter of diminishing royalties if such liberties are ever taken with a Royalty considerably diminished herself.
I read the book with interest chiefly in perusing an estimate of England’s queen by a gentleman antithetical to Lytton Strachey’s attitudes. Though it may be true that the latter lost considerable esteem in the obituaries the English critics paid him, Benson’s work, with its access to official archives, at least absolves Strachey of mendacity and rehabilitates much that the wittier man belittled. Benson’s book is the last word in gentleness. Until another Strachey - preferably John, or any other good Marxian - cares to survey the past of this remarkable queen, Benson’s biography will remain a standard work.
~Laurence Stallings in The American Mercury, 06/1935

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Daisy's Aunt

Fiction ~ novel
Published May, 1910
Approx 59,000 words
(First read 04/02/2014)

To describe Daisy's Aunt as 'slight' would be a massive understatement: it has all the substance of a soap bubble, albeit quite a fat soap bubble.
Once again Benson dabbles in the world of heterosexual love, with his usual complete lack of understanding of how people really work.  Over a trio of automata unlikely 'characters' he casts the flimsiest, cobwebbiest plot imaginable, which goes like this:
Daisy Hanbury is a society gel, aged 22; her favourite aunt, Jeannie Halton¹, aged 30, is a widow; both are ~ obviously ~ great beauties.  It turns out that Daisy's married elder sister (Diana), who everyone thought had died five years previously, hadn't: what had actually happened was that she 'fell', i.e. she failed to love her husband and ran off with another bloke ... who was followed by another ... etc. ... in fact her 'ruin' was so complete that she ended up living in a flat in Paris where, at the beginning of her (Jeannie's) widowhood a year previously, Jeannie rediscovered her just in time for her (Diana) to die in her (Jeannie's) arms.  [I'm sure there must be a more concise way of wording this ...]  Diana's dying wish was that Daisy never find out the depths of her (Diana's) depravity (nor, presumably, that she'd been playing possum for four years ~ EFB skims over this consideration).
Now it just so happens that the elderly (32!) society gent who's been dangling after Daisy, Lord Tom Lindfield by name², was Diana's Bloke No. 2 ... or was it 3? ... might even have been 4.  Okay, that's the background, now the plot: Jeannie decides that the only way to stop Daisy finding out her sister was a fallen woman is to prevent Lindfield from marrying her; and the best way to do that is to come between them; and the only way to do that is to make him fall in love with her (Jeannie).
All of which comes to pass, in scenes of excruciating triteness and fatuity.  This thin broth is beefed up³ ever so slightly by Daisy's actually falling in love with Lindfield and wondering WTF her belovèd auntie is up to, and by Jeannie's being engaged to a man she does love while all this has been going on.  But the worst is yet to come: In the end, for no especially good reason, Jeannie bleedin' tells everyone why she's inveigled a man she doesn't love into loving her; she tells Daisy about Diana ~ contrary to everyone's expectations, Daisy doesn't immediately drop down dead on the spot; ... and everyone lives happily ever after: Jeannie marries her fiancé and lives in bliss; Daisy ~ again inexplicably ~ falls instantly out of love with Lindfield and decides to marry the ever-faithful Willie⁴; and [I tremble to write it] Lindfield happily settles down to a life in which he's best mates with Jeannie and her new hubby and more than happy to go on loving her from a short distance.
I put the book down at the end and called out across the years to E F Benson, "Do me a favour, Fred! ~ people just don't work like this!"

Given the similarity in the names, and EFB's propensity for recycling his own material, it's entirely reasonable to assume that he based Daisy's Aunt on his unpublished play Aunt Jeannie, which ran on Broadway, starring Mrs Patrick Campbell, for about a month in the autumn of 1902, and which, according to Brian Masters, received 'a most frosty reception and was deemed neither amusing nor a suitable vehicle for the famous actress.'

A fair chunk of the 'action' takes place at a house party in Bray,
Berkshire, in a house rather like this one, at Bray, Berkshire.
P.S. A few hours later, around 4.30am, as I lay there racked with sleepless neuralgia, a theory came to me: EFB's persistent delusion that a heterosexual man can be content ~ even happy ~ to live in close proximity with the woman he loves, to carry on loving her despite her being in love with (married to, etc.) another man, is, either consciously or subconsciously, a metaphor [this is where the theory starts getting ropey] for his own experiences of loving other men unrequitedly: he had no choice but to love the men he loved from close proximity, in silence, suffering nobly, etc.  Then ~ luckily ~ I nodded off. 

¹ The novel was published in the USA as The Fascinating Mrs Halton, a rather better title, IMHO.
² Not to be confused with (e.g.) Lord Tony Limpsfield in Lucia in London.
³ I was going to say 'the plot is complicated' but that would be absurd: it's only my inexpert recounting that's making this sound like War and Peace.  I find retelling plots ~ even, or especially wafery asinine ones ~ consummately tedious.
⁴ Don't ask.

Daisy's Aunt is so cloying it is like having toffee stuck to every tooth.  It was after this book that the rival novelist Hugh Walpole, about twenty years Fred's junior [...], accused Fred of being a fraud.  'E. F. Benson is a charlatan in literature,' he said, 'and writes solely for money [...]' [Arthur Benson's retort was this] 'If I were to refuse to meet everyone who thought me a literary charlatan, I should dine alone constantly.'
~Brian Masters in The Life of E. F. Benson, 1991 

For the sake of returning at one leap not merely to the centre of social life, but to that variety of it which is most insistently and fluffily feminine, it is profitable to take up next Mr. E. F. Benson's latest volume, The Fascinating Mrs. Halton. Now, there is no English writer, not even Anthony Hope himself, more expert in turning out idle little Dolly Dialogues that begin nowhere and end in the same place—feminine studies of the tinsel jewelry type, all sparkle and glitter but without the sterling mark. A generation has passed since he created the Dodo type, a perfectly good type so far as it goes, and one of which no intelligent student of human nature would venture to say that the Dodo of real life does not do such things. But here, at last, in The Fascinating Mrs. Halton, the author has failed to carry conviction with it. His heroine, to be sure, finds herself in a serious dilemma. Returning after a year of
widowhood upon the Continent, as the betrothed bride of another man, she discovers her favourite niece, Daisy, on the brink of accepting the proposal of a certain Lord Lindfield. Now, Mrs. Halton happens to know that the tragic death of Daisy's wayward and unhappy sister is mainly to be laid at Lord Lindfield's door. Daisy herself knows nothing of the matter, and even Lord Lindfield does not dream that there is any connection between a half-forgotten episode in Paris and the object of his present serious intentions. Now Mrs. Halton is represented to us as a woman of rather sterling qualities. Below a blithe and inconsequential surface, one feels that she is a woman who is distinctly worth while—and yet, in the face of this, what does the author ask us to believe her capable of doing? Why, here is the best way that this intelligent, warm-hearted, frank-natured woman can hit upon: she flings herself bodily at Lord Lindfield. She matches all of her maturer charms and finished arts against poor Daisy's youth and inexperience. With her own betrothed lover looking on and marvelling in patient and dumb trustfulness, she stoops to coquetries that are almost wanton in their boldness—and when finally Lord Lindfield falls into the snare and forgetful of Daisy offers himself, she assumes a sudden hauteur and becomes insulting in her attitude of disdainful and outraged dignity. Now it is obvious that Mr. Benson knew better; he felt that all this was preposterous—and the proof lies in the fact that despite the absurdity of this false position his people all act like sensible human beings; they get together, talk things over and refuse to have their lives wrecked by a bit of melodrama. Yet even here it is unnecessary to say that people don't do such things. If Mrs. Halton had not done this particular thing, Mr. Benson would have had no story to write. The real explanation is that Mrs.Halton was just a plain, garden variety of fool, and Mr. Benson was either not clever enough or not honest enough to tell us so.
~Frederic Taber Cooper in The Bookman (US)
Mr. Benson has an advantage over many current novelists in being sure of his métier. He never attempts too much. His plane is that of the social-humorous romance. He is content with few characters and simple plot. After a few of these pages, it is perfectly clear what the fascinating Mrs. Halton is going to do. Her task is an unusual one, though not unheard of: there is a very passable stage plot involved in the narrative. Mrs. Halton is a young and not over-mournful widow. She is, indeed, when the story opens,' already pledged to a second mate, and on the way to a first happiness. But an unpleasant duty intervenes. Returning to England from a season of mourning and recuperation abroad, she finds her favorite niece and companion almost engaged to be married to a certain young lord (of course a lord). He is a pretty fair sort of lord, but he has had his experiences, one of them connected with a lady in Paris, whom Mrs. Halton knows to have been the sister of Daisy, the girl. There is your situation. It is impossible for Mrs. Halton to tell Daisy, for the sake of her memory of the erring sister, who is now dead. And she cannot bring herself to tell the nobleman, since she regards him as a rascal. Evidently, there is only one thing to do. Mrs. Halton is almost as young and quite as beautiful as the fair Daisy. She determines to steal away Daisy's lover before Daisy actually promises herself to him. The thing is easily done: the gentleman is quite ready to change his objective. As soon as his fickleness is made clear to Daisy, Mrs. Halton's engagement to the other man is announced. Her game has been open, and both Daisy and his lordship demand an explanation—which the fascinating Mrs. Halton is forced to give. They agree that she has done right. Daisy promptly pairs off with her original second choice; milord is content to remain the adoring friend of the no longer Mrs. Halton. For her part, she has come to like and admire him very much: there is a touch of pure Briticism in the toleration with which she looks upon him as a man who has had a mistress, though the thought of his marrying the sister of that deceased mistress is a horror to her.
~The Nation (US), 02/06/1910