Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Jack and Poll

Fictiony fact ~ sketch
Published in Six Common Things (1893)
(First read 24/06/2014)

A sketch about a pet parrot and a pet jackdaw, which would more accurately be called Poll and Jack given that the jackdaw is rather tacked on at the end of the parrot, if you see what I mean.  As in his other pet sketches (including the ones written specifically for kiddies), EFB skilfully manages to employ anthropomorphism without its being silly: it's as if he were saying, "These are the things the parrot's behaviour made me think of" or "The jackdaw did something-or-other which put me in mind of so-and-so" rather than "Mr Jackdaw got up, looked me squarely in the eye, and said Gimme a biccy" etc.  Anyway, it's amusing enough (Jack is funnier than Poll) ... but not his best animal sketch by far.
It can be read online here.

The Murder of Alan Grebell

Non-fiction ~ essay
First published in The Spectator, 18th November 1932¹
1,250 words
(First read 24/06/2014)

In his capacity as Mayor of Tilling Rye and spinner of unlikely yarns, EFB recounts the grim story of the town's most notorious, blunderous, and ever-so-faintly-humorous, murder: that of local big cheese Alan Grebell by the butcher John Breeds, in 1742.  Breeds, in the manner so typical of 18th-century killers, was knocked off his trolley by something-and-nothing: the mayor had fined him for selling meat at short weight.  That mayor ~ the intended victim ~ was none other than James Lamb, owner of the famous Lamb House in which Benson (amongst others²) lived.  The tale is constructed of plot contrivances such as impenetrable fog, and improbabilities such as the victim dying without even realizing he's been murdered, but, unlike the overwhelming majority of the author's own similarly themed stories, it rings absolutely true ~ well, it is true.  Still, Fred tells it with great relish.
You can read it online here.

¹ The article was collected in Sea Mist: Collected Spook Stories Volume 5 (2005).
² Elizabeth Mapp, Henry James, Emmeline Lucas, no doubt a whole herd of other terrifying old women.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Our Family Affairs 1867-1896

The Benson family, circa 1866*
Non-fiction ~ memoirs
First published October 1920
Approx. 98,000 words
(First read 19/06/2014)

[written 03/10/14] I'm afraid I completely forgot to review this at the time of reading.  Like EFB's other books of memoirs (Mother and Final Edition), this first instalment is beautifully written and consistently interesting.  It's also extremely gossipy.
Anyway, it's available online here.  Oh and it has a nice handy index too. 

*See that twinkle in Edward White Benson's eye? ~ that's Fred.  The photo, by the way, is from Arthur's reminiscences of his father, published as The Trefoil (1924).

Our Family Affairs is ram-full of quotables ~ here are just a few things I noted down:

EFB's childhood infatuation with a chorister in Lincoln Cathedral:
That emotion […] touched such religion as I had ecstasy, and I added to my prayers the following petition, which I said night and morning.
O God, let me enter into Lincoln Cathedral choir, and abide there in happiness evermore with Thee!”
Who 'Thee' was I cannot determine: I believe it to have been a mixture of God and the chorister, and, I think, chiefly the chorister.
EFB on EWB [his dad]:
I do not mean to convey the idea that my father was continually pulling us up, for nothing is further from the truth. Continually we played to him, and he danced the most fascinating measure; continually he played to us, and our dancing strove to keep time with his enchanting airs. He could render us speechless with laughter at his inimitable mirth, or breathless with suspense at his stories. But all the time there was this sense that at any moment the mirth might cease, and that a formidable rebuke might be visited on an offence that we had no idea we had committed.

EFB on music:
[…] all my life music has been to me as a celestial light, shining in dark places for the mitigation of their blackness, and flooding the serene and sunlit with its especial gold, but [as regards my own budding ~ and thwarted ~ musical talent] from that soil there withered a little herb that once grew there, a nest with incubated eggs was despoiled, and the bird came not back.
A touching father/son moment. Young EFB has been dreading another paternal chastisement for some bizarrely trivial misdemeanour:
[…] I went stiff and resigned, not knowing whether there was not to be some renewal of his anger …. Instead, he put me in an arm-chair close by the fire and wrapped a rug round my knees, and asked if I was quite comfortable, and shared with me the tea that had been brought in for him, since he was too busy to come into the nursery as usual and have it with the rest of us. And then he somehow gave me a glimpse, sitting tucked up by the fire, of the love that was at the base of his severity. How, precisely, he conveyed that I cannot tell, but there was no more doubt about it than there was about the heaviness of his displeasure.
O. Browning (1837-1923)
EFB on Oscar Browning, whom he also portrayed in The Babe, B.A. (I think) and David of King's (I think):
[…] he wandered from room to room, bald and stout and short yet imperial with his huge Neronian head, and his endless capacity for adolescent enjoyment. Age could not wither him any more than Cleopatra; he was a great joyous ridiculous Pagan, with a genius for geniality, remarkable generosity and kindliness, a good-humoured contempt for his enemies, of whom he had cohorts, a first-rate intellect and memory, and about as much stability of purpose as a starling. His extraordinary vitality, his serene imperviousness to hostility, his abandoned youthfulness were the ingredients which made him perennially explosive. Everyone laughed at him, many disapproved of him, but for years he serenely remained the most outstanding and prominent personality in Cambridge. Had he had a little more wisdom to leaven the dough of his colossal cleverness, a little more principled belief to give ballast to his friskiness, he would have been as essentially great as he was superficially grotesque.
After sending Henry James (a family acquaintance/friend) his manuscript ~ handwritten, no less! ~ of Dodo, EFB received a reply couched in typically Henry-James-ian terms:
In case the reader has given a glance to Dodo, can he imagine a more wiself expressed opinion, that opinion, in fact, being no opinion at all? Never by any possibility could that MS. have seemed to him worth the paper it was written on, or two minutes of his own time. With what a sigh of relief he must have bundled it into its wrapper again!

Sunday, 15 June 2014


Non-fiction ~ review
Published in The Spectator, 19th November 1937
800 words
(First read 15/06/2014)

A review of The Miracle of Haworth: A Brontë Study by W. Bertram White.  EFB is alternately laudatory and condemning of White's work: he pours deserved scorn on the unoriginal idea that Emily Brontë and one of her father's curates William Weightman were lovers:
[White] ought to have acknowledged that years ago Miss Isabel Clarke, in her charming book Haworth Parsonage, had already selected this young man for the post, but he produces him apparently as a candidate of his own with a further wealth of want of evidence on the matter.
But ~ obviously ~ Benson is in full agreement with White that Emily's novel and poems are 'the supreme achievement in literature of all her sex'.  Then again, he's scathing (again deservedly, I reckon) about White's complete lack of understanding ~ or apparent knowledge ~ of what made Charlotte Brontë tick.  Etc.
You can read this review online here(Other reviews of the same book are available here.)


Beerbohm by Beerbohm
Non-fiction ~ article
First published in The Spectator, 31st January 1931
990 words
(First read 15/06/2014)

Benson sings the praises of the cartoonist, parodist, and essay-writer Max Beerbohm (1872-1956).
Curiously enough, the one aspect of Beerbohm's work EFB doesn't mention is that which he's certainly best remembered¹ for a hundred years later: his one-and-only novel Zuleika Dobson (1911).  Three or four years ago I realized one day that I'd never got round to reading this 'classic' of English light humorous fiction, so I read it.  O ye who p'ruse these lines! ~ I'm still recovering from the shock: I found it utterly utterly hateful ².
But anyway, you can read the article online here.

¹ Though to call it 'well-remembered' might be an exaggeration.
² I suppose really I ought to elaborate a bit on this ... but that would mean revisiting the novel ~ and I really did find it that bad.

Friday, 13 June 2014


Fiction ~ short story
Published in Six Common Things (1893)
(First read 13/06/2014)

An old nurse waits for a visit from her favourite charge who's just returned from Australia, where he was sent for health reasons*.  Like its two predecessors in the volume, the tale is sad, poignant ~ but this time there are no homilies.  The nurse (nicknamed 'Carry') is very obviously based on EFB's own beloved Beth, who stayed with the Sidgwick/Benson families for virtually the whole of her life.
The story can be read online here ...

...  I feel I ought to warn sensitive folk that Carrington contains a reference to 'the N-people' which, if EFB wrote it today, would almost certainly get him lynched.

* Yes, I know: why Australia of all places? ~ was Cleethorpes closed or something? had the South of France not been discovered in 1893? ~ baffling.

Two Days After

Fiction (probably) ~ short story
Published in Six Common Things (1893)
(First read 13/06/2014)

This one follows on from Autumn and Love, telling the story of the little girl's funeral, of her father and aunt's behaviour in the face of their bereavement.  Like the first of the pair, the mood is poignant and melancholy.  The writing is restrained, but it ends with a homily.
It can be read online here.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Social Customs

Non-fiction - essay
First published in The Spectator, 29th April 1937*
1,515 words
(First read 12/06/2014)

Presumably the title Social Customs among the Extremely Rich and Fashionable in Victorian London wouldn't have been deemed catchy enough.  This reads somewhat like EFB's notes for his quartet of novellas Old London, which was published in the September of the same year.  He covers: the development of Belgravia, that swankiest of London districts; the 'season' and country house-parties; carriage etiquette; dinner-parties; entertainments at Buckingham Palace and elsewhere; seemly conversation; and so on and so forth.  It's all jolly interesting if you're interested in that kind of thing, but doesn't really tell you much which, if you're interested in that kind of thing, you wouldnt've known already.
You can read the article online here.

*The essay was collected in Sea Mist: Collected Spook Stories Volume 5 (2005), under the title Social Customs in 1837.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

An Act in a Backwater

Fiction ~ novel
Published 25th January 1905
Approx. 62,000 words
(First read 08/06/2014) 

The more I read of EFB, particularly but not exclusively the early novels, the clearer it becomes that he wasn't really cut out to be a novelist ~ his short stories (and non-fiction, essays, articles, reviews etc.) are much much better as writing.  His novels, sadly, have a marked tendency to be inchoate, uneven, lumpy, sometimes even incoherent ... well, no, not that exactly ~ it's as if his mind kept wandering and he forgot what he was doing.
Anyway, enough musing.
Having read some of the reviews below, I'd been looking forward to An Act: "Oh goody," I thought, "a very early example of a Benson smalltown comedy."  Well, for the first few chapters I wasn't disappointed: we're introduced to the inhabitants of the small cathedral town of
Wroxton, and a very promising bunch of characters they are.  Colonel Raymond, late of the India Service (or so he wants people to believe) is a fore-runner of Colonel Chase in Paying Guests, and to a lesser extent of Major Benjy in 'those novels': a blustering, buffoonish braggart; his wife is obviously completely squashed by him, while his three little children are merely terrified.  The Misses Clifford are 40-something spinsters with harmless eccentricities.  But pride of place goes to Mrs Collingwood: EFB pulls off quite a trick with this character ~ he patently doesn't care for this cold, puritanical and (perhaps) rather stupid woman, but he somehow contrives to make her fairly sympathetic, particularly when, after an uncharacteristically personal conversation with her artist son, she melts ~ just once.
Now the unfortunate thing happens: EFB takes his eye off this promising material and relegates it to the background.
Enter the supposed hero and heroine of the piece: Mrs Collingwood's son Jack, and the Honourable Jeannie Avesham¹.  The former in fact is pretty much of a cypher, a young chap with vaguely artistic leanings but who's obviously more passionate about bloody golf than anything else.  Most of the book revolves around Jeannie, who is Benson Cliché Number 3, naught but an agglomeration of tedious saintly virtues ... after a while of her one almost starts to wish a Dodo would appear ~ she doesn't.  Instead EFB regales us with the preposterous story of an orphaned baby, which Jack and Jeannie 'adopt' ('appropriate' would be nearer the mark), treat much like a pet dog, and never bother to give a name to.  Jeannie becomes literally addicted to do-goodery, and faces her greatest challenge when there's an epidemic of typhoid fever in the town², but she sails through it triumphant, falls in love with Jack, The End.
Well no, that's not quite the end.
One of those long-neglected Clifford sisters makes the mistake of moving in the background; she catches EFB's eye and is instantly stricken with cancer, which she promptly dies of just before our hero and saint tie the knot³.  Benson commits this monstrous act of character-murder purely so he can trot out the platitude "While life begins for some, it ends for others."  An Act in a Backwater has nothing more profound than that to say, just like the vast bulk of Benson books.
I'm absolutely convinced that he sat down to write a Mapp and Lucia-style comedy ~ why else go to such lengths to introduce all one's minor characters? ~ but soon either changed his mind or forgot what he was doing.  The result is neither fish nor fowl.
The whole novel is available online here ~ it's fairly short.

¹ For heaven's sake, EF, don't you know any other christian names?
² For heaven's sake, EF, don't you know any other diseases?
³ Benson pulled off exactly the same 'trick' in Mr Teddy, but at least in that novel the character is allowed to die on the page, at some length, and with humour and dignity.  Poor Miss Clifford is merely bumped off.  Nastily. 

Mr E. F. Benson's new story will be published by Mr Heinemann at the end of this month. It is a story of love and courtship in a quiet cathedral town, and is somewhat in the vein of The Challoners. Mr Benson, who never neglects his 'minor characters', here gives them special attention.
~The Western Times [UK], 10/01/1905
Love and courtship in a quiet Cathedral town form the theme of Mr E. F. Benson's new novel, An Act in a Backwater, which Mr Heinemann announces for Wednesday [i.e. 25/01]. The society of the place is depicted in Mr Benson's happiest vein, and the story is told with his customary neatness and vivacity. It may be worthy of remark that Mr Benson's book, The Challoners, has been the greatest of all his successes.
~The Courier [Dundee, UK], 23/01/1905
 Mr. Benson has given us a slight but pleasing study of life in a small Cathedral town. The brother and sister of a poor nobleman settle there, and introduce a novel element into the placid life of the place which gives many opportunities for comedy. The son of a Canon, an artist, and therefore a rebel against the tyranny of the Close, falls in love with the sister, and the progress of their romance is the main interest of the book. Almost the only disagreeable person is a retired Colonel of Volunteers, who is aptly described by one of the characters as "the sort of man you find in a book on the Army by a lady." He is a snob and a coward, and provides the necessary relief from the intense amiability of the others. Jeannie Avesham is an attractive heroine, but the author is so anxious to show her goodness to the reader that he overdoes it and makes her a little theatrical. A deserted child and an epidemic of typhoid were surely enough, without afflicting a poor old spinster with cancer in order to bring out an unselfishness which was already sufficiently established. The best portrait seems to us to be the Canon's wife, Mrs. Collingwood, a type of the narrow good woman; but the treatment, as in that of the others, is spoiled by an undue sentimentality. It is a pleasant, wholesome story, but it might well have ended with Miss Avesham's engagement, for the later chapters read like the elaboration of a tale already told.
~The Spectator, 04/02/1905
Mr. Benson always tells a good story. An Act in a Backwater is a little comedy of an English town, dealing with the love story of a nice English girl and a young painter, neither of whom possesses a bit of morbidness. The book is one that puts the reader in a good humor with himself and other people, and so is a good book to read.
~Buffalo Express, quoted in endpapers to US edition of The House of Defence

An Act in a Backwater is in Mr Benson's lighter vein, but written with all his accustomed cleverness and humor, and it forms a delightful commentary on human nature in general as well as on its particular manifestations in the quiet, not to say dull, English town of Wroxton. That is to say, Wroxton was undoubtedly dull to the casual, unobservant eye of any but its most devoted inhabitants, but a quite different state of affairs is revealed when Mr Benson begins to examine it for literary purposes and discovers the possibilities for entertainment in the vanities and pomposities of Colonel Raymond, in the pathetically innocent enthusiasm of the elderly Miss Cliffords, the strenuous but irritating virtue of Mrs Canon Collingwood, the doings of the Ladies' Literary Union, where 'very improving and sometimes amusing pieces were read,' and in the contrasting unconventionality of 8 Bolton Street, whither the exigencies of fortune had brought a son and daughter of the late Lord Avesham to live while the son was initiated into the vulgar but lucrative mysteries of brewing beer.
In the eyes of Wroxton the intrusion of beer did not at all detract from the brilliance of a noble name, and for all sorts and conditions of Wroxtonites a new interest was added to life by the settling in their midst of these two youthful but exceedingly wideawake members of the house of Avesham. Even on the day they moved into Bolton Street a consuming curiosity kept the younger Miss Clifford wobbling back and forth past the house on her bicycle, from which she had to dismount when she needed to turn round, while on the same occasion Colonel Raymond happened once at least to be near enough to lend a hand with an abnormally heavy bookcase. Colonel Raymond's interest in the newcomers was more painful than pleasurable, as he had all his life been shining in the much-diluted glory of having a wife whose brother-in-law's sister was the late Lady Avesham, and if some of his much-boasted noble relatives, who did not know him from Adam, were actually coming to live in Wroxton he had an irritating consciousness that his habitual conversation would have to be curtailed or, still worse, corrected. It therefore behooved the Colonel to obtain a suitably familiar footing in Bolton Street at the earliest possible moment, and he hovered in the vicinity like the traditional moth round the candle. His experiences in this process of introduction, and even afterward, were of a variety calculated to pierce even his thick-skinned egotism, and in fact the exposure of the Colonel's character in all its devious ramifications is quite the best thing in the book, and amusing enough by itself to pay for its reading.
Mrs Collingwood, whose horizon was bounded by the Cathedral Close, and who waged fierce warfare upon the use of stimulants and modern fiction, adds uninterruptedly to the gayety of the story, and is unique in her narrow British bigotry, as is the Colonel in his unblushing pretenses. The Miss Cliffords are delightful types of the kind of maiden lady who never grows old in her tastes. Miss Clara was forty-two, her sister, Phoebe, a year or two older; but Clara rode her bicycle and wrote lyrics, while Phoebe accompanied sentimental ditties on her mandolin with exactly the same flow of youthful spirits as in their teens. They were happy and satisfied and felt no tragedy in their lives, but it was there all the same as they floated slowly around in a backwater of life, while the adventure and romance of living swept by them.
Nothing has been said so far of the heroine and hero of Mr Benson's charming little story, but it has both of those indispensable adjuncts, and naturally they bear no small part in the proceedings. Mr Benson has been known to draw smart English society in terms hardly complimentary to either its brains or its heart, but the aristocrats in this book are of the true-blue variety. There was not a drop of snobbish blood in Jeannie or Arthur Avesham, or in their wonderful Aunt Emma, and all that was sincere, natural, and worth while in Wroxton was accepted by them with a simplicity quite disarming; things like the Colonel and Mrs Collingwood were, as simply, kept at arm's length and made game of, greatly to the reader's satisfaction.
An epidemic of typhoid fever in the village gives the Aveshams an opportunity altogether to win the hearts of their neighbors by nursing them, regardless of weariness or danger, and it also convinces Mr Jack Collingwood, an artist, and therefore the black sheep of the Canon's family, that Jeannie Avesham's safety is of infinite importance to himself. Strangely enough, that was exactly what Jeannie had unconsciously been waiting for him to find out, and so all went merrily ever after,
As an example, not of Mr Benson's power, but of his wit, cleverness, and knowledge of human nature, An Act in a Backwater is a delightful bit of work.
~The New York Times, 11/03/1905

In some ways it is one of the best of Mr. Benson's books, for it develops certain quiet characters with considerable skill, and it is pleasantly and evenly written. It is eminently pleasant and wholesome; has many touches of nature in it.
~The Westminster Gazette, quoted in endpapers to Juggernaut
In An Act in a Backwater Mr. Benson gives us at least the shock of a surprise. For no one would have expected from the author of Dodo a mild and moving story, which we might describe as the apotheosis of Family Herald fiction. There is a Colonel, of course, and an Earl's daughter—the former a braggart and a coward, the other an angel of democratic tendencies. The Canon's rebellious artist son falls in love with the Earl's daughter. When fever breaks out in the village, the Earl's daughter is to be found by the bedside of the humblest, and the Canon's artist son is meanwhile heroically watching over the illegitimate child of his oldest friend. To complete the pathos Mr. Benson cruelly causes the charming village spinster to die of cancer. The plot of the book is banal to a degree, and only the obvious sincerity and seriousness of much of it forbid our consideration of it as an extravagant skit. The characterisation is often excellent, and, thanks to Mr. Benson's skill, the story makes very agreeable reading. But the wit in the book is not sufficient to save it from being not only surprising, but a little ridiculous. Mr. Benson is not at his best in a backwater. He is more himself in a house-boat on the Thames.
~The Bookman (UK), 03/1905
This story is so slight and uneven as compared with Mr. Benson's last published novel, The Challoners, that it seems like a sketch of a larger story abandoned because the author was dissatisfied with it. It has some pleasant bits of human nature and one or two lovable characters, but, considered as a novel, it is wretchedly constructed.
~The Outlook (US), 04/03/1905

A typical English novel
Much that goes to the make-up of a goodly section of modern English life may be found in this novel. There is the retired Indian official now turned garrulous clubman, the bishop, bishop's wife and bishop's son, the titled man and his relatives. A sister of the titled man and the bishop's son become hero and heroine, and an interesting couple they make, altho[ugh] they never wander outside conventional paths. A bevy of lesser lights circulate about these; gossip bubbles, babbles, and overflows. Nothing of unusual import really happens, yet interest is sustained by the force and vividness with which the people flitting before us are held up to the mirror that reflects the narrow,gossipy interests of an English provincial, town in which the intimate personal note is paramount and the large interests of the outside world play no part. And yet there is an ethical value in the minute exposition of this seeming inconsequent everyday life, because of the unlooked forheroisms that underlie it and crop to the surface as the story unfolds. As for the rest, it is sprightly in movement, well seasoned with the salt of humor, marked by literary skill in the construction, and in general fidelity to detail might be called Jane Austen-like—almost.
~The Literary Digest [US], 10/06/1905

The Morning Post has some very amusing criticisms of Mr. E. F. Benson's new novel An Act in a Backwater. Commenting on the wonderful achievements of artists in fiction, as for instance Charles Reader's sculptor, who could carve the bloom on a plum, the writer goes on to state that 'Jack Collingwood', Mr. Benson's hero, is worthy to stand with the best of them. When walking by a river he sees a girl playing with a dog, and from an instantaneous mental photograph, so to speak, paints a large canvas in three days, which is accepted by a local exhibition. “In the middle of it, cutting the picture nearly in two, was the figure of a girl, dressed in black, hatless, and keeping off a puppy with her parasol. Round the dog was a halo of spray, and he was in the middle of shaking himself, for his head was curly, his flanks and tail still smooth. It was an inimitable representation of a moment. One almost expected to see the halo of spray spread further and the hind part of the dog grow curly.”
~The Manchester Courier [UK], in the 'Painters at Work' column, 22/08/1905

A number of vivid and entertaining character sketches, and dialogue that is quite spontaneously witty and amusing.
~Daily Graphic, quoted in endpapers of Sheaves
It is a delicious world into which he takes us. There are scenes in it which 'catch hold'. The breaking down of the barrier between Jack Collingwood, the artist, and his mother, the canon's wife, is told as only a writer who has felt the pulse of humanity could tell it. It is a powerful study in high-strung emotion. In short, the author has given us a very kindly picture of a quiet life. Humour is to Mr. Benson as the circumambient air.
~Daily Express, quoted in endpapers of Sheaves

In An Act in a Backwater, published at the beginning of 1905, Fred returned, in a literary way, to a quiet cathedral town to recount a story of love and courtship, which he wrote in a gently flippant style, only at the end dropping into sentimentality.

An Act in a Backwater did not please the critics as had The Challoners. The Bookman called it the apotheosis of Family Herald fiction and Academy hoped that it was an early work of Mr Benson's, slightly touched and re-written in parts ~ 'certainly a very disappointing piece of work'.
 ~Geoffrey Palmer and Noel Lloyd in E. F. Benson As He Was, 1988
An Act in a Backwater (1903), set in Winchester, is sentimental, slushy, mawkish, too sweet.
~Brian Masters in The Life of E. F. Benson, 1991

Friday, 6 June 2014

Autumn and Love

Fiction? / Non-fiction?
Published in Six Common Things, 1893
(First read 06/06/2014)

EFB meditates on autumn, death, and love.  On a particular day not only does summer come to a sudden end but the young child of a faithful old servant dies and, as if this weren't already autumnal enough, the child's faithful old dog dies with her.  A bittersweet, melancholy little tale, which narrowly avoids being mawkish.  (How much of it is true is an entirely other matter.)  You can read it online here.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Classical Education

The doings of Athenians
Non-fiction ~ opinion piece
Published in The Spectator, 6th July 1928
1,335 words
(Read 03/06/2014)

EFB bemoans not the fact that Latin and Greek are taught at all but that they are taught so badly.  Well, to be honest, hardened Græcophile that he was, he talks almost exclusively about Greek, dismissing the Romans pretty summarily in the first paragraph.  He makes a fair point, though:
The fruitless expenditure of time and anguish over the acquisition of Greek, when it might be far more profitably employed, is tragic ... .  The fault was not in [boys'] brains, nor in the subject that they studied, for any boy of the smallest imagination would be interested in the doings of the Athenians, if only he had been made to realize that this tiresome parsing and syntax were not steps towards the mere acquisition of a language but towards the knowledge of an attractive and extraordinarily modern people, and that Athenian boys* played games with just as much zest as they, and spoke Greek, as it were, by accident.
The article can be read online here.

*Girls just don't come into it, obviously.

Scarlet and Hyssop

Fiction ~ novel
Published March 1902
73,800 words
(First read 03/06/2014)

Here's the basic plot: Lady Marie Alston and her husband Jack have been married several years ~ both are still fairly young (late 20s? early 30s? ~ I forget); they have no children; she has never loved him though he once loved her.  Shortly before their marriage Marie thought she might be in love with a chap named Jim Spencer, but didn't go through with it.  Jim went off to South Africa 'to forget', and has just come back a millionaire.  In the meantime Jack has been having an affair with a married woman named Mildred Brereton; he supposes he loves her; she loves him about as much as she loves the average footman, which is to say not one whiff.  Marie and Jack resume their 'friendship' and soon realize they're in love; but they're too noble to consummate their love.  Marie finds out about Jack's affair with Mildred; he breaks it off with Mildred and falls in love with his wife all over again.  (I may be getting some of this in the wrong order: the whole thing was instantly forgettable.)  Marie wants none of him but is persuaded to carry on with the marriage for appearances' sake.  Mildred goes, "Ho hum ~ next!"  Jack gets flattened by an omnibus.  Marie and Jim (and Mildred too, for that matter) live happily ever after.  The End.
I could list 101 reasons for disliking Scarlet and Hyssop but will limit myself to just four:
(1) The wild, glaring improbability at the heart of it: everyone on Earth (i.e. everyone in London Society, because nothing else exists) knows about Jack's affair with Mildred ... except Marie.  This is despite the fact that they all see each other 250 times a week and do nothing but gossip.
(2) None of the characters is in the least bit likeable, with the possible exception of Jack.  (I could add Jim to this except that he can hardly be called a 'character' ~ he's just a shadow.)  Benson's heroine, Marie, is a cold, condescending, snooty witch ~ and knows it.  At one point Jack says to her:
"You are a cold, passionless woman, and will not understand," he said.  Then he paused a moment, for a long sigh lay suspended in her breast.  "You object to my saying that?" he added.
"No; go on," said she.
It's no bleedin' wonder he went off and had an affair (though he could have chosen better), married to that sanctimonious icebox ~ he's just the average man.  And yet he's the one who, in order that a happy ending may take place, gets squashed by a bus.  Ah well.
Mildred is a piece of toxic waste: Dodo on acid.  She'd have to be buried underground for 40,000 years for me to go anywhere near her.
Bloody omnibuses! ~ they get everywhere
(3) If you've already read Daisy's Aunt and Mammon & Co. and umpteen of Fred's short stories that deal with adultery, there's no need to read this: it has absolutely nothing different to say.
(4) The supposedly comic relief, Lady Ardingly, who is another of EFB's preposterously-born-in-Russia Queens of London Society, isn't in the least bit funny.  She's a tedious old hag.  Still, she gets the best line in the book, which you have to wait till the last page of the epilogue for:
"Ah! my dear, we are lepers," said Lady Ardingly.  "We are all wrong and bad, and we roll over each other in the gutter [...].  We strive for one thing, which is wealth, and when we have got it we spend it on pleasure.  [...] and the odd thing is that the pleasure we get does not please us.  It is always something else we want.  I sit and I say 'What news?' and when I am told I say 'What else?' and still 'What else?' and I am not satisfied.  [...] we go after remedies for our ennui, for our leprosy, and there is no such remedy unless we become altogether different."
This pretty neatly sums up all the worst of the Edwardian period ... and of Scarlet and Hyssop
Okay, I think that's enough.  You can read the whole thing online here ... but I wouldn't bother.

In Scarlet and Hyssop […] Mr E. F. Benson has returned to his earlier manner. He opens by introducing us to a couple of ladies whose talk overflows with studied smartness in a way that may choke off some readers. But as many as persevere will not find their courage very well rewarded. Mr Benson's society ladies tire one very soon. Their affections and their affectations are equally a bore. We crave for something a little more natural, a little more healthy.
~The Yorkshire Post, 19/03/1902
All Mr E. F. Benson's stories may be said to make for righteousness, inasmuch as virtue always somehow finds its reward. But it must be frankly confessed that generally it is not the goal but the way we travel to it which interests his readers. Marie, Lady Alston, in [Scarlet and Hyssop] […] stands for right-doing, her friend Mildred, Mrs Brereton, for the opposite. Jim Spencer is the decent but poor young man who is sent out to South Africa to make his fortune. Like so many other young men in novels, he succeeds, and comes home to find Marie, whom he loves, married to Lord Alston, who loves Mrs Brereton. We sit at a game of whist, see the cards shuffled, cut, and dealt, note the mistakes made, and the cheating, and see how the wiles of the wicked are fruitless against the straight play and good cards of Marie and Jim. The best-drawn character in the book is Marie's husband Jack, Lord Alston, who wins popularity as a politician by preaching the doctrine of 'efficiency'. He finds, too late, that his mistress is not nearly so clever or beautiful a woman as his wife. His death was a necessity for Marie's reward on earth, and it comes about somewhat melodramatically, at the hands of Mildred, or rather at the feet of her horses. The characters all move in an atmosphere where the first law of life is apparently to be very amusing or very rich. Cleverness is pardoned if it can contrive to be interesting; stupidity is condoned if set in a gold frame. Men are apparently of little account except as counters in the game. That in spite of so much that is unreal, and our indifference as to the fate of the characters, we can enjoy the depiction of their little plots and counterplots, is the best testimony to the cleverness of the book.
~The Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, 29/03/1902
The author of Dodo gives us here another study of the decadent aspects of certain circles of London aristocratic and wealthy society. The book has not the dash and cleverness which inclined one to condone some of the disagreeable features of Dodo. On the other hand, it has a very plainly put moral; the only man and the only woman in the book who have strong and true characters are duly rewarded. Nevertheless and despite this fact, the presentation of vice, artificiality, and insincerity in modern society has a depressing rather than a tonic effect, and the whole leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
~The Outlook (US), 19/04/1902
Mr. Benson here plays the part of social satirist. He whips the manners and fashions of the smart set, not exactly with scorpions, but severely enough, and, we believe, in all sincerity of indignation. Through the mouth of his heroine, Lady Alston, he calls them vulgar, and he shows convincingly that their vulgarity does not even purchase enjoyment. “'Ah! my dear, we are lepers,' says one open-eyed old sinner. 'We are all wrong and bad, and we roll over each other in the gutter like these Arabs scrambling for backshish. We strive for one thing, which is wealth, and when we have got it, we spend it on pleasure . . . and the odd thing is that the pleasure we get does not please us. It is always something else we want. I sit and I say, "What news?" and when I am told, I say, "What else?" and still "What else?" and I am not satisfied.'" That is one of the mildest arraignments; Mr. Benson's favourite term of reproach for the vulgar woman of society, 'a cook,' is a slander on a highly respectable class, but at least he means to indicate unspeakable depths of stupidity and hopeless moral and mental obtuseness. It is some satisfaction to note also that, as none of the satirised are made to appear charming, their originals in real life are left with little consolation. A more brilliant exhibition of their weak wickedness might have tickled them; Mr. Benson's can hardly fail to annoy. So far good. But he has not chosen the most effective way of reform. To ignore entirely the stupid whirl after money and senseless pleasure is perhaps too slow, too doubtfully efficacious a method of showing contempt; but, at least some stalwarts might have been introduced into the story, uninfected by the general corruption and untempted by what the 'smart set' have to offer. Of course, there is Jim; but he is a shadow; and there is Lady Alston, but she is an abstraction, or little more than a mouthpiece for Mr. Benson's tirades of reproach. Contrast is wanted in the book—a picture of the other people. These need not have been saints, they might have filled their place admirably with a moderate amount of virtue, provided they were endowed with active brains, and were minded to demand from life some of its realities.
~The Bookman (UK), 05/1902
Scathing in satire and relentless in exposure. In point of construction, Scarlet and Hyssop seems to us to mark a distinct advance in the author's work. Nothing is out of place, nothing superfluous, but all is in due order and sequence, while the interest never flags for a moment. There are many pages of witty dialogue, and quite enough clever people who talk epigrams, and, on the whole, Scarlet and Hyssop must be accounted a really brilliant piece of work, unsurpassed by anything Mr. Benson has given us.
~The Pall Mall Gazette, quoted in endpapers of An Act in a Backwater and Juggernaut and in newspaper ad of 04/06/1902
Mr. Benson has returned to the field which he developed with such signal success in Dodo, and his new novel reveals a brilliancy, social knowledge, and worldly wisdom that show how much the author has grown in force and pungency since the appearance of his first book. This remarkable story of London society may or may not afford reasons for identifications. It is certain that the author's range of acquaintances and his knowledge of the subject are exceptional, and in this amusing and striking picture of life as it is lived in London he has utilized his opportunities to the full.
"Look out, luv ~ E. F. Benson's about!"
~Pittsburg Press, spliced together from quotes in endpapers to US editions of The House of Defence and An Act in a Backwater

There is much pleasure, as well as philosophy, in the book; its satire is pungent, the characters are well sketched, and it is certainly a book to read.
~The Sketch, quoted in endpapers to An Act in a Backwater and Sheaves
It is astonishingly up-to-date: it brims over with chatter, with Saturday-to-Monday parties, with Bridge ~ everlasting Bridge ~ flirtation, motor-cars, semi-detached husbands and wives, and the Boer War; in fact with everything in which London society of to-day interests itself. An admirable picture, witty, cynical and amusing. It is full of brilliant things.
~The Standard, quoted in endpapers to An Act in a Backwater and Juggernaut

Monday, 2 June 2014


stickleback (48 times lifesize)
Non-fiction? ~ memoir?
Published in Six Common Things, 1893
(First read 02/06/2014)

The narrator recounts various episodes from his childhood, mainly in connexion with the natural world, including the fun tale of him and his (unnamed) sister keeping ~ and inevitably losing ~ a pet stickleback.  This certainly looks and reads like straight memoir ("When I was eight years old my family moved to Truro" etc.) but ~ not that it really matters all that much ~ is rather too neat and polished not to have been at least partly fictionalized.  Still, it's diverting enough.  Read it online here.