Saturday, 7 November 2015


Fiction ~ novel
Published 1924

Mr E. F. Benson continues to give us novels from his busy pen, and we imagine he secures a pretty large circle of readers for them. He is something in the nature of an historical survival, and yet he manages to preserve a rather remarkable quality of youth. As far as we can remember, his sympathies are always on the side of the youthful outlook, and he succeeds, up to a point, in stating youth's case. The curious thing about him is that in the welter of modern realism, such as we owe to Wells, Bennett, Galsworthy, and their successors, he alone survives as a realist of the period before. Older novel readers remember well the revelation of a Benson story twenty-five and thirty years ago, how real it all seemed after the romantic tales of Weyman, Anthony Hope (who did not try again in his Dolly Dialogues vein), and others on the one hand, and the novels of such writers as Mrs Humpry [sic] Ward on the other. He was as refreshing as Pinero on the stage after the Robertson comedies. And now, good though he is, he is seen to be behind the times, just as, again, is Pinero. The one has been eclipsed by Beresford, Swinnerton, and Compton McKenzie [sic, again], as the other by Somerset Maughams, Stanley Houghtons, and a host of others.
Mr Benson does not alter greatly. His style to-day in Alan […] is much the same as it was in The Image in the Sand and earlier books still. Clever 'chattery' is its mark, and a species of character drawing which consists in emphasising in hard, black lines the lineaments of complex beings, made up of a hundred real people combined to make the type-people with whom his stories deal. The publishers tell us on the jacket that Alan is a 'clever study of a novelist of the old school'. It is a clever study, but Alan is no novelist who ever lived or ever could have lived. The qualities of a great many novelists or imaginary novelists are combined to make an impossible creature. Similarly with his wife and her young lover, and the lion-hunter lady who so basely deserts him for his rising young relative. They are all drawn in a way which makes one suspect that Mr Benson has no faith in his readers. He cannot trust us to see what people are.
~The Yorkshire Post, 24/12/1924
Alan is a successful author, twenty years older than the wife he has made a drudge. A masterful study in egotism, a departure for Benson.
~The Bookman's Guide to Fiction, 06/1925

So predominant is Alan's profession in Mr. Benson's study of an egoist, that he strikes one as an egoist who does nothing but write novels. For his selfishness lies in neglecting his wife and enslaving her as his amanuensis, and in hating his young cousin Tim because Alan fades out as a writer while Tim becomes the literary idol of the hour. His feeling toward Tim is purely professional; be does not hate him because he and Agnes, Alan's wife, fall in love with each other.
Within narrow limits Alan is a convincing egoist, but as a writer he is hardly more than a caricature. Though conveyed in a long-winded and repetitious fashion, without any of those unforgettable flashes which reveal so much, Alan's egoism is made quite clear; but as a novelist, particularly a once famous novelist, he does not ring true. His tiresome pomposity, his dull wit and complete lack of humor, his almost incredible way of composing, his ignorance of modern literature, are a little too much to bear with, considering his position; they, and not his egoism—which is quite conceivable, even in the great—turn him into a caricature.
The book fails to assume life for another reason; it is far too wordy and undramatic. It has no feeling for either pace or climax, and two potentially good scenes—Alan's finding in a literary supplement a panegyric to Tim he expected for himself, and his entrance into Mrs. Probyn's drawing-room to find Tim lionized—are stodgily mismanaged. What Mr. Benson required to
show up his egotist was not scene after scene in Alan's workroom, but a few sharp incidents, a few revealing situations, a few clipped studies of the characters at interplay. What he achieved was a book as dull as one of Alan's own.
~The Saturday Review (US), 13/06/1925
In Alan Mr. Benson has given us a novel second only to his exquisitely humorous Queen Lucia as satirical comedy. The book deals entirely with the home life of a successful novelist whose vogue is on the wane, and the story introduces us, not only to Alan and his much enduring wife, but also to certain other well-drawn and entertaining characters. Alan is a supremely selfish man, not as elaborately portrayed or of as high social rank as Meredith's Egoist, but rather a British edition of the German husbands so feelingly delineated in Elizabeth and Her German Garden and The Caravaners. Alan's wife acts as his amanuensis, and, since he is as tireless a worker as was Anthony Trollope, the conditions of her life are pitiable. Moreover, she gains but little sympathy from her mother, who was once in love with Alan herself, or her sister Dora, a worldly woman married to a rich man and able to indulge her fancy for costly garments, a hobby that engrosses her waking hours. There comes into this family one Mrs. Probyn, a social pusher of the most virulent type, whose quarry is of the intellectual rather than the titled class. In her vision Alan is the sun around which the lesser planets of her dinner-table revolve, and, as he seldom goes about in society, she regards her capture of him as the most brilliant feather in her richly adorned cap. She squirms her way into the household, using her flattering tongue as a weapon of assault, for the novelist's vanity renders him an easy mark. She soon establishes herself in his study as a temporary amanuensis, in order to relieve the wife of some of her toil, and it is not long before she becomes a permanent fixture beside him. Meanwhile, as every reader will be glad to note, a young cousin appears on the scene and relieves the wife of some of her loneliness. He is an attractive young fellow, and every woman who reads the book, especially those who are reminded by Alan of their own husbands, will wish him well.
~The Outlook (US), 04/11/1925

The little clutch of secondraters, belonging to the first half of the 1920s, are Robin Linnet (1919), Colin (1923), Alan (1924), Colin II (1925), Rex (1925), Mezzanine (1926) and Pharisees and Publicans (1926). They may be a tribute to Fred's industry, but not to his talent. He seems to have been marking time, waiting in a literary limbo, content to drift along. The seven books are either exceedingly silly or exceedingly sentimental or just dull.
~Geoffrey Palmer and Noel Lloyd in E. F. Benson As He Was, 1988

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Up and Down

Fiction ~ novel
Published 1918
Approx. 92,000 words
Available online here

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

The Rubicon

Fiction ~ novel
Published 9th April 1894
73,900 words


Mr Benson's very clever and deeply interesting novel ~ a novel far superior to Dodo.
~Sussex Daily News, quoted in newspaper ad of 12/06/1894
Mr Benson's second novel is better artistically than his first. The character-drawing is excellent.
~The Globe, quoted in newspaper ad of 12/06/1894
Without inquiring into the causes of the notorious success of Mr Benson's first novel, it is at least fair to say that it was not for any phenomenal exhibition of imaginative or descriptive power that his book became the comet of a season for the circulating libraries. Dodo could hardly be hailed as a sign that a new sun was rising in English fiction, and The Rubicon affords no reason for any belief that another name has been or will be added to the rolll of notable novelists. The faultlessly beautiful Eva, who very deliberately barters her attractions for wealth and position, and who, neither loving nor beloved by her husband, seduces the affections of a 'clean', handsome, and abnormally innocent youth, already engaged to someone else, is no new figure in fiction. She has done duty in hundreds of romances of that well-known class in which sin is invariably associated with diamonds in the women and immaculate evening-dress in the men. In fact, The Rubicon would not have been out of place in that imaginary publication which Mr George Moore, in a book to be presently noticed, describes as the Family Reader. Lady Hayes (Eva) is an extremely selfish person, who nevertheless does two 'sublimely unselfish things' in her short life. She gives up a lover who has discovered the wickedness of her intentions, but who is none the less bound in her chains; and she ultimately takes prussic acid as the best means of retrieving the evil she has wrought. But Mr Benson's chief object is not, one may fairly suppose, to teach us high moral lessons, and those who read his novel will look for momentary pleasure rather than for permanent profit. This being so, it must be allowed that the wit ~ such as it was ~ of Dodo, was far superior in quality to the wit of the book now before us. It is unsatisfactory as a rule to extract isolated specimens of 'humour', but we may make one or two quotations, showing the kind of thing that Mr Benson is capable of presenting to his readers. We are told that a guest at Eva's wedding, “in spite of his strawberry leaves and his pedigree and his frock-coat, trembled in his patent leather shoes, and in his confusion was vividly impressed at the idea that his Prayer-book consisted entirely of the Service for the visitation of those of riper years to be used at sea on the occasion of the Queen's accession.” Among the characteristics of '[illegible: 'the best'?] London houses' we are elsewhere informed [illegible: 'that'?] “a couple of dozen large square windows looking out on to what is technically known as 'the [illegible] garden', partly because it is round, and partly because it is sparsely planted with sooty, stunted [illegible: 'bushes'?], scattered about on what courtesy interprets to be grass.” These things may not be [illegible: 'intelligent'?] wit, but if they are not, what they meant for, and if they are, even 'the new humour' will hardly acknowledge them as its own. But in spite of its many bad qualities, The Rubicon will no doubt give pleasure to scores of [illegible: 'those'?] of the undiscriminating sort.
~The Morning Post, 11/04/1894
The author of the much talked of Dodo has followed up its success by the publication of a fresh novel, The Rubicon. Mr E F Benson is, as all the world now knows, the son of the Archbishop of Canterbury, but a critic of The Rubicon unhesitatingly avers that if the book has any purpose at all, it is so written as to ridicule virtue, and to applaud vice. It is perhaps as well there is in the English Church no 'Index Expurgatorius'.
~leader column of The Evening Telegraph and Star [Sheffield], 10/04/1894
We congratulate Mr Benson upon an exceptional achievement. He has conceived and executed successfully an analytical study of modern life, in which a certain salt of humour serves to keep the pages wholesome. The book is a notable advance upon Mr Benson's previous work.
~National Observer, quoted in a newspaper ad of 14/05/1894

Friday, 19 June 2015

Saturday, 23 May 2015

Mike / Michael

First published in serial form under the title Michael, from November 1915 to ?
First published in book form in the UK under the title Mike, September(?) 1916
Published in the US (1916/17) under the title Michael¹
57,300 words
(First read 23/05/2015) 

¹ To be honest, Michael is the better title as that's how the hero's most often referred to.


One feels somehow that the writing of Mike […] imposed no particular strain upon Mr E. F. Benson. It suggests a delightfully easy command of material. But, of course, Mr Benson is a master of graceful narrative, and it is perhaps a tribute to his power that he should give the rather poignant situation to which his tale leads up so simple and, in a sense, so charming a directness. The lucidity of his examination of a mood and passion is delightful. The story turns upon the war. Mike, otherwise Lord Comber, gives up the Army for music, and is accidentally brought into contact with a young music teacher, Hermann Falbe, and his sister, for whom he develops an appreciation which in the case of the latter becomes love. The Falbes are of mixed parentage, their father being German, and, though they have lived their life in this country, Hermann is a German at heart. One of the best things in the book is the description of his emotions on paying a visit to his fatherland. When war breaks out Hermann leaves England in order to fight for his own country, and Mike rejoins the Army to fight for his. How, then, about the love affair between Mike and Hermann's sister? The conflict of emotions, personal and national, created by war and love is manifestly intricate, but Mr Benson treats it so cleverly that the play of feeling is easily followed. We cannot say that the novel is one of his best. It is none the less an attractive story. The writing is always pleasant, and the characterisation has a crisp distinction which is refreshing to encounter. All the characters interest us in some way, and their individual peculiarities are described with admirable skill.
~Liverpool Post and Mercury, 13/09/1916

The most human of romances that have been written about the war.
~Punch, quoted in newspaper ad of 09/10/1916

Wonderfully fresh and amusing.
~Westminster Gazette, quoted in newspaper ad of 09/10/1916

Mr Benson's masterpiece.
~Evening Standard, quoted in newspaper ad of 09/10/1916

It is not easy in times such as these to imagine a much more trying lot than that of those whose sympathies are in any great measure divided between two of the combatant nations by ties of parentage, association, or marriage. Such a case it is, or rather two such cases ~ for brother and sister are alike involved ~ that Mr Benson brings us to contemplate. But that problem arises only in the later stages of his story; in the earlier it is another case of divided allegiance, that of a son called on to decide between dutiful loyalty to a father's wishes and the sacrifice of his own feelings on the one hand, and on the other the assertion of his right to live his own life. Mr Benson has in this part taken care that our sympathies shall be on the right side, for he has presented his hero in most pleasing colours, as he has every right to do, and then, as if that were not enough, he has sought to strengthen his case by representing the father as an egregious ass and snob, self-centred, domineering, a repulsive blend of self-important arrogance and pompous fatuity. And just as we feel compelled to quarrel with his Lord Ashbridge, so do we think he has erred in overdoing the ineptness of his Lady Ashbridge and also of Mrs Falbe, who was also 'one of us'. Not even the pathetic picture that comes later of Michael's touching devotion to his mother can atone for the vacuousness of the initial portrait. Lady Barbara, on the other hand, with her brisk and healthy vigour, her since and humorous kindliness, is excellently drawn, though the author puts an unnecessary strain on our credence when he makes her husband ambassador. He makes a similar mistake, to our mind, in the last scene but one of his novel. But the main material of the story is excellent; the tracing of Michael's musical development is well done; his devotion to Germany, the genuine outcome of his debt to her, the fortnight at Bayreuth and Munich, with its revelation that “Germany was music,” the awakening of his own powers under the stimulus and skilful guidance of Hermann and Sylvia Falbe. And it is well also that some among us should be reminded that the patriotism of the German is in itself a deep-rooted and an ennobling thing. “Scratch a German,” says Hermann, “and you find two things ~ a sentimentalist and a soldier.”
~The Birmingham Daily Post, 11/10/1916

A story of music, love, and the war. Well written, sometimes even delightfully written. The ending has a situation of grievous distress, but joined to it is the triumph of faith and love.
~The Outlook (US), 28/02/1917

In Michael Mr. E. F. Benson shows himself, as always, a very capable storyteller with no genius to disarrange his neat workmanship. One habit of his he does not outgrow, which seems to me a bad habit from the point of view of workmanship: his habit of diffuse and repetitious dialogue. When two or three of his people get to talking, we may be sure they will use ten pages to say what a playwright would make them say in ten lines. But there are readers who like this sort of garrulity (witness the amazingly large constituency of Miss Ellen Glasgow), and no doubt they are readers to whom the general ingenuousness of Mr. Benson appeals. The Michael of this book is an English lord, very ugly and sincere, who tires of being a Guardsman and determines to devote himself to music. His father, the Earl of Ashbridge, is as highly coloured a caricature of the British aristocrat as has ever appeared on any stage. He is a snob, a martinet, a self-conscious ass, a person with no dignity of character or conduct: certainly not a gentleman. Well, of course he forbids Michael his music and orders him back into the Guards. Luckily the young man's grandmother has left him plenty of money. He sets forth for Baireuth and Munich, as the first stages of his musical journey, and falls in with a young Falbe, a brilliant musician and pianist who is to be Michael's master and friend. Falbe is half German, half English; but his German paternity determines his allegiance when the test comes. In his companionship and that of his sister Sylvia, a singer, Michael quickly finds himself. Almost at once he shows ability as pianist and composer. Friendship also comes to him, and love in the person of the beautiful Sylvia. So we have our situation. Meanwhile there have been tremblings of the earth, and suddenly the tempest of the war breaks forth. Falbe becomes all German, Michael all English, and poor Sylvia is torn between. Thus we are worked up to our catastrophe in the form of a chance encounter in the trenches between Michael and Falbe... Michael shoots and kills his friend, not recognising him until-the thing is done. The slayer returns to England wounded, and Sylvia must be told. Here, evidently, is a 'big scene' at hand. It is well, no doubt that Mr. Benson should not have laboured it, but he somehow fails to make anything of it at all. Michael tells the girl he has killed her brother, bursts into tears, and she tells him it is all right. The fact is, Mr. Benson's field is that of a mild social comedy, and his efforts at dramatic intensity of mood are inadequate to the verge of banality. To a point, there is characterisation here-—Michael seems real, the Falbes seem real, despite their association with that man of straw the Earl; but the action in which they are involved fails to come home to us the moment it attempts the heroic plane.
~H. W. Boynton in The Bookman (US), 03/1917

E. F. Benson has followed the lead of several English novelists by including in his newest book, Michael, just published by the George H Doran Company, a 'full-length description' of the German Kaiser. Benson's hero, Michael, is a young Englishman with a talent for the piano. The story opens before the war, and Michael journeys to Munich, where he hears Tristan at the Hof-Theatre. The Emperor is in the city, and having several years before been the personal guest of Michael's distinguished father in England, invites the young man to sit in the Imperial box with him. Benson's description of the Kaiser is interesting.
~The Evening Post [Wellington, New Zealand], 28/04/1917

Sunday, 5 April 2015

The Osbornes

Fiction ~ novel
Published October(?) 1910
Previously serialized in The Cornhill Magazine, July 1909 - about May 1910
(First read 05/04/2015)

Thursday, 26 February 2015

The Kaiser and English Relations

Non-fiction ~ current(ish) affairs
Published 19th October 1936
(First read 26/02/2015) 


[…] ingenious […] The book is a very skilful mosaic of the vast amount written or spoken by William, his majestic grandmother Queen Victoria, and his brilliant mother the Empress Frederick, largely made possible by the fact that the letters and papers of the Empress and of her husband, the unlucky Frederick, Emperor for but ninety-eight days, were smuggled out of Germany and deposited safely in this country. [The remainder of this very long review is basically nothing but quotations from the book.]
~Aberdeen Press and Journal, 19/10/1936
Before he was kaiser

Mr Benson is brilliant and finished. Also, he has found the key to the tortuosities of the Kaiser's foreign policy. That monarch's ultimate intention ~ as is pretty generally admitted to-day ~ were pacific. But, like Polonius, he preferred with indirections to find directions out. If he wished for friendly relations with B, a straightforward advance was not enough: it was necessary first to embroil B with C, then to point out to the former how ill he stood with the latter, and thus to let him reach the conclusion that to meet the German advances would be best for 'wretched, meritorious B'.
[Unlike his subject, Mr Benson is a realist: he has] attempted, successfully, to pronounce a just verdict. [He] has resisted the temptation of making the ex-Kaiser into a blundering buffoon, a monster of tactlessness; and has shown that his uncle, for example, contributed his share to the friction between these two kinsmen.
~W H Johnston in an article titled Kaiser and Field-Marshal, which was a joint review of EFB's book and of Hindenburg: The Wooden Titan by J W Wheeler-Bennett. Published in The Yorkshire Post, 21/10/1936

Mr. E. F. BENSON, who thoroughly knows his way about the many volumes of royal correspondence published since the War, has used them, together with a few other familiar sources, to put together this slight but agreeable study of relations between the ex-Kaiser William II and our own royal family. The volume begins with the marriage of Queen Victoria's eldest daughter to the Crown Prince Frederick, heir to the Prussian throne; and it leaves the eldest son of that marriage in his house of exile to Doom, preparing to read the Sunday morning service to his attenuated suite, and wondering (Mr. Benson, be it said to his credit, does not often indulge in these tricks of fictionised biography) "why it had all happened like this."
So dramatic a story, told by a practised craftsman like Mr. Benson, cannot fail to interest and entertain, even though the facts on which it is based are well enough known to every reader of pre-War history. But the story would have been better still if Mr. Benson had been able to conjure up a little human interest in his central figure. William II was not a great or a wise monarch. He was impulsive where caution was needed, bombastic in utterance, tactless and sometimes sly in his dealings with foreign monarchs and Governments, and easily rattled in moments of crisis. But constant insistence on these defects of his hero's character makes Mr. Benson's book smack a little too much of the atmosphere of war propaganda. Mr. Benson is well aware, as many passages show, that the Princess Frederick was a difficult mother. But this is not allowed to mitigate by one jot the indictment of William as a difficult son. The relations between Edward VII as Prince of Wales and William II show both of them in anything but a favourable light. The fact that the Prince was the uncle and the Emperor the nephew obviously made the relationship delicate and embarrassing and is, in itself, almost sufficient to account for the chronic antipathy between them. But here again Mr. Benson, while not particularly flattering to the Prince, loses no opportunity of pressing home the case against, the Kaiser.
More important, however, than these petty personal issues is the question how far the course of history was affected by the constant correspondence and the frequent family meetings between royal personages which were characteristic of the half century before the War. Much has been written and talked in the past few years about the foreign peregrinations of British politicians. It is not generally remembered that the place of these personal discussions between Prime Ministers and Foreign Secretaries was in part taken before the War by the regular intercourse between crowned heads of States (who, for important meetings, were often accompanied by Ministers). These meetings were, of course, habitually used for the transaction of political business. But were they a governing factor of policy or merely its instrument? Was the notable falling off in such meetings in the few years immediately before the War a cause, or a symptom, of the impending
The newish kaiser (1890)
catastrophe? Mr. Benson's book, in so far as it makes any contribution to this historical problem, confirms the impression that all this personal intercourse between royal relations, despite the immense importance attached to it by its participants, had little decisive influence on the course of events. Neither Willy nor Nicky deflected the policy of his country by a single inch in the interest of friendship or cousinship with the other; and it would be fantastic to attribute to the temperamental incompatibility of William II and Edward VII any determining rôle in the deterioration of Anglo-German relations. There is no ground for suggesting that French interests were penalised because France had no crowned head to hobnob with royal cousins from other leading European countries. The Tsar of all the Russias found no difficulty about allying his country with a republic, and receiving on equal terms a President in a silk hat and boiled shirt; and the picture of Queen Victoria consenting, albeit with reluctance, to stand while the Marseillaise was played suggests an irreverent comparison with M. Litvinov proposing the health of King George V. When important interests of foreign policy were at stake, the principles of the International of Monarchs went by the board as easily as the principles of the Third International.
~E. H. Carr in The Spectator, 30/10/1936

The Benson name will stimulate interest in this though it is unlikely to achieve the sales of his English subjects. But for anyone interested in the international picture, the psychological aspects of the German-English relations, this is important, and a story that bears close reading, as written by an author whose integrity in stating problems and facts differs openly on many points with previous writers. [He] Covers the Kaiser's life, from a sensitive, tragic boyhood, to his present retirement in Holland. [He] Stresses the atmosphere of hostility between England and America at his birth, fostered by the unpopularity of his English mother. Essential for public libraries and colleges. 
~Kirkus Reviews, 10/11/1936

Mr. E. F. Benson's biographical study of Queen Victoria and King Edward VII has well fitted him for writing on The Kaiser and English Relations, for the story of William's relations with England is largely the story of attempts by his English relatives, wiser than he, to keep him in check. William, the grandson of Victoria, is a sort of Richard III of Germany ~ a deformed, ambitious, unbalanced schemer, who lived to be cursed by his own mother and to be morally execrated by his own countrymen. These freaks occur in history. There was nothing in William's parentage to suggest such a creature. His father was an eminently upright man, without any egotism or desire for self-advancement; his mother an amiable woman, who did her best to promote the friendship of England and Germany. Yet their eldest son grew up to trample on them and exult at his father's death, to ally himself with Bismarck, who systematically humiliated them while the old Emperor lived, and to overthrow all their good works. Mr. Benson explains this degeneration from type as due to the accidents of William's childhood ~ the paralysed arm and consequent physical weakness, his harsh schooling that set up in him an inferiority complex, and so led him to assert himself at all costs. At heart, Mr. Benson maintains, he was a sheer coward, and even in his most grandiose and blatantly truculent moments trembled inwardly for
A bit later ...
the consequences of his words and actions. Then, too, he had no judgment, no common sense, no self-restraint. He would commit the silliest errors, and endeavour to escape responsibility by denying them. Time and again Mr. Benson catches him out on his own words. By setting a passage from an authentic letter alongside a passage from the Kaiser's own memoirs, adding the testimony of others, he is able to show what a pitiful liar the man was. Altogether, Victoria, and after her, Edward, had a bad time of it holding in this blustering, irresponsible kinsman. Several times ~ over the Boer War, at Tangier, at Agadir ~ he nearly precipitated a crisis; luckily, the wise monarch of England never lost his or her head over it.
William's grand delusion ~ again to be attributed to that ingrained conviction of personal inferiority ~ was the 'encirclement' of Germany by the other European Powers, so he was constantly intriguing ~ you never knew where to have him. He would write warning Victoria against the designs of Russia; at the same time he would be showering his blandishments on the Csar. He never really hated England, Mr. Benson shows how deep-seated his love of that country was, and how genuinely he longed for a permanent alliance with her. He was inordinately proud of the tincture of Stuart blood in his veins, swelled in glory when Victoria made him an Admiral of the Fleet, touched the sky when she bestowed on him a colonelcy in an English regiment. All this strengthened his position in England, but his personal behaviour at the same time made it impossible. He was persistently rude to Edward, as Prince and King ~ he even flouted Victoria. When the armaments competition began, through his mad ambition to control the Atlantic, the inevitable conflict was definitely envisaged, and when it came it was a relief to the Kaiser, as it must have been to English statesmen who had long despaired of holding such a trouble-maker in check. It was then that his many wild utterances began to be remembered against him ~ the 'mailed fist,' the adjuration to Germans to be Huns, etc. He found himself regarded as a dangerous lunatic.
Mr. Benson is more impartial, even ~ for all his gentle but crushing irony ~ sympathetic with William in some of his moods. In spite of his bloodthirstiness, William had genuine artistic taste and ability, and to his friends he was a pleasant companion. The final verdict is, however, quite just. "Destiny had been cruel in ordaining that a man of his temper and temperament should be emperor of a great nation. Throughout his reign he had never shown any grasp of the serious responsibilities of kingship, never once, for all his sincere patriotism, had he rendered any true service to his country, nor ever had he failed to use his great abilities in the cause of European disquiet. Save for those moments of hysterical exaltation when some impetuous and imprudent impromptu had satiated his craving for imperial gestures, he had been the prey of fear and jealousy and deep-seated self-mistrust. . . . If only Providence had consecrated him to be a squire of ample means and estate, just outside some county town in England, what a pleasant and useful existence might have been his! ... " As it is, the Squire of Doorn has found almost his right level. 
~The Sydney Morning Herald, 28/11/1936
After the invention of colour
Kaiser William possessed in a high degree all those characteristics which least recommend themselves to the British. He manifested on every occasion tendencies which in English preparatory and public schools are given disobliging names and systematically extirpated. Sneaking, swanking and bullying, that triple anathema of the Lower Fourth, figured strongly in his repertoire. When thwarted, he bit no bullets, but shouted and stamped and swore. When pleased, he gave way to extravagant displays of emotion. Really, thought grandmama Victoria, looking round on the family circle of crowned and coroneted Coburgers, Willy was the naughtiest boy in Europe.
Much of the bitterness has passed from the minds of those who in the strained atmosphere of 1918 were ready to shout "Hang the Kaiser ! " But the impression remains that William was something of an ass and something of a cad ; there is an unpleasant edge to the laughter which greets his appearance in back numbers of Punch—a journal for the suppression of which he once pleaded, eagerly but in vain. It is therefore the more satisfactory that a writer such as Mr. Benson should have undertaken to present the Kaiser in his most difficult, most pathetic aspect. For there is no malice in Mr. Benson's pen, nor is he liable to sentimental extenuations. Using the best and sanest method of psychological approach, he has substituted a human being for the pompous and fantastic lay-figure. The Kaiser and English Relations leaves no room for ens.
Much importance is given to the deformity which handicapped William from birth, the torn left shoulder which made riding so difficult for him, though he strove so pluckily and so successfully to overcome the disability. To this can be traced the overwhelming sense of inferiority for which his tasteless and fatuous arrogance and sabre-rattling were a perpetual compensation. This mental condition of insecurity and instability in turn gave rise to suspicion and jealousy, to dread of "encirclement," to a conviction that only in the unassailable superiority of German arms could he place his trust.
Such was the man who sent the Kruger telegram, who landed—' 'a reluctant and timorous Mephistopheles"—at Tangier, and sanctioned the despatch of the Panther to Agadir. They are singularly futile, singularly irresponsible gestures. The whole of William's foreign policy was of the same order ; it seemed to have been conceived by a destructive child. His ambition was to break down the mutual confidence of other nations rather than to construct alliances for his own. Herein lay the difference between William and Edward VII. He always hated Uncle Bertie, whose genial friendliness revealed a poise which his own twisted nature could never hope to achieve. Mr. Benson ably contrasts the manner and method of the two sovereigns : "Each of them claimed exclusive rights of political cruising, and regarded the other as invariably engaged, under the pretext of a recuperative holiday, with sinister designs. The King's method on these excursions was very different from his nephew's ; his visits to any country were intended to promote cordial relations by his jollity and geniality ; the Emperor's, by a display of majesty and giants, to typify the might of Germany and to sow suspicions in his host's mind as to the sincerity of some country with which he had friendly relations."
William always had a sincere affection for his grandmother, Queen Victoria. She understood him. "William's faults," she told Edward, "come from impetuousness (as well as conceit) ; and calmness and firmness are the most powerful weapons in such a case." Calmly and firmly she dealt with his most outrageous actions, writing to him after the Kruger incident the famous letter which ends : "I hope you will take my remarks in good part, as they are entirely dictated by my desire for your good. Victoria R.I." ; and to the Tsar the letter which, in the same level tones, shattered the intrigue known as the Willy-Nicky correspondence.
As he loved the Queen, so William loved England. It was a love which England could neither understand nor repay, but years later, at Doorn, when the tragedy of the War had separated him from England for ever, it was still alive. In a penetrating and sympathetic epilogue, Mr. Benson makes us aware of this. "Hate without such furnace of underlying longing can never remain molten," he writes. If hate is the feeling with which Kaiser William's name is most readily associated in English minds, we should remember it is hate based on rejection.
~The Tablet, 12/12/1936

An emperor in exile
There is a charming picture, at the beginning of this vivid new biography, of Victoria, Princess Royal of England, receiving ~ by the management of her parents ~ a proposal of marriage from Prince Frederick William of Prussia, before she was fifteen. The desire of Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort for a growing friendliness between Germany and England, however, received small help from the union, for the young bride ~ English in Prussia and Prussian in England ~ was not liked by Bismarck. To that stern Chancellor her eldest son, William ~ psychologically as well as physically injured at birth ~ was strongly drawn. William's nature was hardened but not strengthened by his disability. The inferiority complex which it caused grew into a love, as extravagant as any Oriental's, of the superficial trappings of power. Greedy for uniforms and spectacles, self-deluding, screwing himself to dismiss Bismarck because that mighty shadow dwarfed his own, his lact act at the outbreak of the Great War is entirely in character ~ the resigning of his English military and naval rank. A grand study of the man, his relations, and his surroundings, which cannot but enhance Mr Benson's already high reputation.
~Western Daily Press and Bristol Mirror, 02/01/1937

The interesting thing to note in this book is that the biographer of Queen Victoria and Edward VII writes critically not only of the kaiser but of the kaiser's English relations, his mother who was Victoria's daughter, and his uncle Edward VII. There is an apparent disillusioned note in this new book by the former apologist for royalty.
~The New Masses, 12/01/1937

A chatty, superficial and inaccurate record.
~Dr. G. P. Gooch in Notes on New Books, 1937?  [Haha ~ don't dress it up, mate!]

The Kaiser and English Relations caused [Benson] some bother, as he had originally had 'William II' in the title, and referred throughout the text to 'the Emperor'. His publishers maintained that the reader would be confused into thinking that 'William II' referred to a different emperor from the one everybody referred to as the Kaiser. Fred did not think this at all reasonable. “The mentality of anyone who maintains that the title 'The Kaiser' connotes William II, but that the title 'William II' connotes somebody else, is, frankly, outside my comprehension.” Nevertheless, he was overruled and his title amended.
~Brian Masters in The Life of E. F. Benson, 1991

Friday, 13 February 2015

The Everlasting Silence

Fiction, kind of ~ short story or prose poem or something
First published in Lady's Realm, January 1898
Collected in Sea Mist, 2005
(First read 13/02/2015)

The story ~ such as it is ~ goes something like this: before God created Eve to keep Adam occupied, his best pal was ... erm ... a thing called Silence, and the pair of them had a whale of a time together.  Now Eve, being a woman like what she was, talked, and Silence didn't like this, so took umbrage ... or something ... then spent the next few thousand years observing the Sons of Adam and their wicked ways ... until ... erm ... did I mention that Silence looked rather like the Sphinx? ... or may actually have been the Sphinx? ... well anyway, the centuries passed and Silence carried on with his dudgeon, then one day he was dug up ~ okay that's enough ...
What to make of this muddy twaddle? what can the gentle readers of Lady's Realm have made of it in 1898? what is the point of it? what was EFB thinking?  Perhaps it's best just to draw a veil of silence over it ...

Thursday, 5 February 2015

The King and His Reign VII: Aftermath

Post-War German hyper-inflation
Non-fiction ~ article
Published in The Spectator, 5th April 1935
1,200 words
(First read 05/02/2015)

Benson talks about the brief period of euphoria following the end of the First World War, which was so soon followed by the realization that the whole sorry, miserable, wretched, calamitous affair had really benefited precisely no-one.  The affair was estimated to have cost (max.) a truly stupendous £66,000,000,000 [sixty-six billion pounds], in today's money around £1,400,000,000,000 [erm, is that 1.4 trillion? not sure].  Depressing stuff.
Anyway, it's available online here.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

The King and His Reign VI: The War

Queen Mary seems to curtsey before EFB*
Non-fiction ~ essay
Published in The Spectator, 29th March 1935
1,450 words
(First read 03/02/2015)

Benson has nothing but praise for the King's record during the First World War, coming pretty close to defining what he considered the True and Perfect English Gentleman: a man who conducted himself always with quiet, sober dignity and compassion, with the minimum of pomp and fuss (unlike that shocking Kaiser-cousin of his!), etc.  Also singled out for encomiums are the King's mother (Queen Alexandra), wife (Queen Mary), and even his son the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII).  The essay's emphasis is definitely on the royal family here, though there's stuff about the war itself too.
The article is available online here.

* Benson was visited by Queen Mary at Lamb House (Rye) on 11th March 1935 ~ "I was in the area, y'know" ~ about three weeks before this article was published.  I daresay he spent the entire visit trying to divert her attention away from his collection of antique silverware, notorious kleptomaniac that she was.
She's not really curtseying to him in the photo, by the way.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015


Fiction ~ novel
Published 4th March 1922
(First read 27/01/2015)

As I said in my recent post on Limitations (1896), no matter how bad the E F Benson novel, and no matter how bad my ~ or other folk's ~ reviews might make them sound, I can almost always find something good to say about them, and do generally enjoy them, even if only masochistically.  They may have ropey or downright idiotic plots, be stuffed with loathable cardboard-cutout characters, feature reams of guff about Art or Music or Ancient Greece, contain dodgy, clumsy writing, or a mixture of these, but there's usually some redeeming feature.  Limitations was the exception to this rule¹; Peter isn't.
Yes the plot's hackneyed ~ even EFB has done it before, in [I can't for the life of me remember which one ... it's the one where the spare wheel smoothes everything over for the hero and heroine by walking off a cliff] ~ 'poor' boy marriages rich girl; other girl threatens to ruin everything; all turns out well in the end.  Yes the heroine is your stereotypical Bensonian 'saint'.  Yes the whole thing lacks any kind of drive or tension.  [in progress]

¹ Scarlet and Hyssop came extremely close. 

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

The King and His Reign V: 1914

Mr & Mrs Franz Ferdinand shortly before their murder
Published in The Spectator, 22nd March 1935
1,420 words
(First read 07/01/2015*)

Benson narrates in some detail the circumstances that led to the outbreak of the First World War, though obviously not in as much detail as he'd already done in his somewhat-late-in-the-day book The Outbreak of War 1914 (1933!).  It's fairly interesting if you're fairly interested in the role that the British sovereign played ~ or didn't play ~ in the business.
As a great fan of the Forgotten People of History I'd like to pay tribute to EFB for remembering to mention the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand's wife, the poor old Duchess of Hohenberg [who?!], who was gunned down with him at Sarajevo on 28th June 1914.
You can read the article online here.

* Yes, I do realize I'm reading these in a somewhat haphazard order.

Saturday, 3 January 2015


Fiction ~ novel
First published in book form October 1896
(previously serialized in Temple Bar magazine, April-October 1896)
(First read 03/01/2015)

Limitations is the story of a rich young man who, on a trip to Greece ~ yawn, decides to become an Artist ~ yawn.  Not for him the shocking modernity of Art Nouveau or even anything a bit more old-hatteau than that: he decides to be a sculptor in the Ancient Greek style ~ yawn.  Along the way he falls in love with and marries a young woman who either is or isn't suitable for him, depending on how you look at these things ~ she's about as interested in Greek art as I am ~ yawn.  By doing this he shoves some other young woman's nose out ~ yawn.  Then by one of those curious Bensonian plot twists (by which I mean that they only seem to happen in EFB novels) he becomes 'poor' ~ yawn ¹, so he's forced to jettison his Artistic Ideals² and become 'commercial' ~ yawn.  And he lives glumly ever after.  Yawn.
If I've made the novel sound dull, that's because it is dull ~ it's fearfully dull, narcoleptically dull, calamitously dull (etc.).  I can usually find something good to say about Fred's novels; in this case I can't.
The whole sorry thing is available online here.

¹ As an indicator of how 'poor' he and his wife become, they're reduced to just the one maid and one nurse for their baby.  
² All these capitals are ironic, by the way.

The son of a rich man, Mr Carlingford, is about to return to Cambridge for his third year. Tom Carlingford and his father have a chat on the eve of the departure. Says the father:
“There is only one thing I should object to, and that is if you made a fool of yourself. Don't do that, Tom. Many people, when they make fools of themselves, think that they are doing what nine-tenths of the human race have
done since the beginning of the world. More than nine-tenths, probably. Adam
and Eve both made fools of themselves; so did Cain and Abel ~ Abel particu-
larly.” … “One can make a fool of oneself at Cambridge, if it comes to that,”
says Tom. “No, not very easily. Public opinion is against it, whereas in most
places the fools themselves constitute public opinion. … Folly's quite the
worst investment you can make. … There are no such things as bruties: there
are only wise men and fools ~ chiefly fools. … The best preparation is to lead
a healthy life and think about cricket.”
And so the conversation rattles on. The tale, Limitations, is by Mr E. F. Benson, son of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and appears in Temple Bar. It sparkles as well as interests. Whether Mr Carlingford would admit that Whitechapel has found a brute in the murderer of poor old Mr Levi and his housekeeper we do not know. Probably he would say that the exception proves the rule.
~The Cornishman, 09/04/1896. Obviously this is a review of the serialization, not the complete novel.  See also below, 03/12/1896
Mr Benson has written an interesting and truly human book. His range is much wider than it was, his character-drawing has gained in depth, delicacy and precision; while the sparkling dialogue which we enjoyed in Dodo has lost none of its old brilliancy.
~The Daily Telegraph, quoted in newspaper ad of 29/10/1896
It is so splendidly told. Limitations will stand a good chance of being the novel of the season.
~The Glasgow Herald, quoted in newspaper ad of 29/10/1896
The best that Mr Benson has yet given us.
~Westminster Gazette, quoted in newspaper ad of 29/10/1896
Above all, there is that incommunicable charm which is the happiest possession of a novelist and a passport to success.
~The Globe, quoted in newspaper ad of 03/11/1896

Mr Benson has not wholly succeeded in what he has apparently attempted, namely, defection from his old ideal of the smart-society novel. Dodo would be sensational and cynical and worldly or nothing; but since then youth has learned a little, and young blood has grown older, and life has seemed even unto Mr Benson to be none so humorous and immaterial and irresponsible as it once appeared. The consequence is that Limitations is a sad and serious effort after grave human factors, but not quite to sad and serious as the author probably intended. If the truth be told, it is least successful where it most solemn, and more tolerable where it is merely flippant, like the Mr Benson of yore. The rattle of the undergraduate Carlingford is quite amusing, and meaningless. The battle of this same Carlingford with life is merely uninteresting, and no more convinces us of Mr Benson's genuineness than the spectacular tragedies of a doll's house. In fine, Limitations is still written by the undergraduate, the clever undergraduate, who knows better than any one how much of a favourite he is, and what a clever dog he is. It is a pity, however, that he should fly at sentiment, which is always a rank pitfall (if you don't mind broken figures) for youth and irresponsibility. The essential plot of Limitations is by no means novel. It is the tragedy of the artistic life ~ the soaring genius, the drab wife, and the rest. But we find it very hard to believe in Carlingford's genius. He is a babbler, 'an agreeable rattle', a University Extension lecturer, anything but a real artist. Nor are the remaining characters more persuasive, save the wife herself, who is, to be frank, the only real character in the novel. They have all the air of artifice, as if they had never been observed, but were rather constructed out of Mr Benson's inner consciousness. Now that the dust that Dodo kicked from fashionable carpets is decently laid with tea-leaves, we may be permitted to hope that Mr Benson will stick to his craft and diligently pursue its particulars with a mind unembarrassed by the glorious but fallacious glitter of an accidental success.
~ Pall Mall Gazette, 17/11/1896

A plotless novel, strictly a narrative in fiction rather than an exciting story of action and motive, is the most difficult form of fiction to make interesting. That Mr E F Benson has succeeded under these conditions is the high praise we can bestow upon Limitations […]. The principal in the story, Tom Carlingford, married the girl he loved, and another girl who loved him had to refuse a man who passionately loved her. In the early bliss of his marriage Tom's father was ruined, and he died with the cynical remark on his lips, “I'm stone broke, Tom, and it's lucky for you that you learned to break stones.” Tom was a sculptor for love of the art, and in this sense he was able to 'break stones' for his bread. There had been plenty of limitations up till now, but there came one limitation greater still. For Tom's ambition was to make Greek gods. He tried, and everyone admired, but no one bought. So he had to make statuettes and pretty modern things, his genius being limited by modern taste. Happily he bowed to the inevitable, and earned for the family opulence, if not wealth. The theme is cleverly worked out, but the charm of the book is the delightful conversation. There is Maude [sic] Wrexham, the disappointed one, whose talk justifies Tom in describing her as experienced, but fresh. It is Maude who says, “Compliments are a cheap way of paying debts. They are like
apologies.” And again, “If men hadn't professions, they would bore themselves to death. That is why they take to the Stock Exchange and politics ~ they do anything to make them forget their own selves. I don't say that women are any better, but they find themselves more interesting than men do.” With this sort of conversation we glide agreeably through the book. But it is not always frivolous. Beneath the cynical geniality there is seriousness, and there are occasions of pathos, as when the baby is born, and when Tom's wife has her moment of jealousy.
~The Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 19/11/1896

Mr Benson's latest novel of contemporary society, Limitations, is, in our judgment, in every sense a more worthy performance than Dodo, though possibly it may not receive quite so wide a welcome. Let nobody imagine from that, that it is a dull book; on the contrary, it is vivacious and clever, whilst less vulgar and sensational than its famous predecessor. Mr Benson still has his own 'limitations' in the direction of good taste, and he is still far too fond of that vacuous and rather silly banter which is [confused] in the undergraduate world with wit. Far too many pages of his book are filled with this exasperating padding, and the small talk of people who make assertions rather than think, ought ~ in fiction as in real life ~ to be administered in homoeopathic doses. Novelists ought to remember that though in actual life men cannot always pass to another room, but must silently endure the infliction of bantling wit, it is always possible to pass to the next book ~ a temptation which, though it assailed us in the present case, we are glad to have resisted. Tom Carlingford is the hero of Limitations, and let us say at once that it is impossible not to like him. We meet him at the outset in his rooms at King's College, Cambridge, light-hearted, feather-brained, well-intentioned, and with such considerable expectations that the world for all practical purposes seemed already at his feet. Coleridge says somewhere that all men born into this world have in them the making of a disciple either of Plato or Aristotle; and when Tom Carlingford suddenly awoke to the majesty of Greek art, he became as ardent an idealist ~ in certain directions at least ~ as is perhaps possible to a young man moving in modern polite society. He wished to be a sculptor, and a visit to Athens strengthened the desire into an unalterable purpose, and nothing would suit him but the grand, classical antique style. He married a girl who was practical, somewhat severe, rather unemotional, but with high ideals of her own, though towards religion and philanthropy rather than art. The young people had a mutual friend, a girl called Maud Wrexham, who possessed the artistic temperament, and about whom Tom had dreamed during his days in Athens. She might have been his evil genius; but if there is a crisis, there is no catastrophe in the book, for the girl no less than the man has her great qualities. The book is a veritable study of temperaments, and of temperament[s] at the moment when they are passing through the eclipse of disillusionment. Tom Carlingford had to take in sail. He was not a great sculptor even in the making, though he could model cleverly enough artistic statuettes. The artistic temperament is always chafing against its 'limitations', and until people accept the inevitable there can be no peace. Money grew suddenly scarce with Carlingford, and the statuettes ~ well, it was no use despising them, even though a grand block of Carrara marble had been chipped into a statue of Demeter, all in vain, before the eyes of an unbelieving generation. There is vision in the book, a vein of pleasant irony, no lack of audacity in moral judgment, and more common sense than Dodo ever showed.
~The Leeds Mercury, 21/11/1896

It is not altogether easy to say why this story enchains the attention of the reader, as it undoubtedly does. Nothing particular happens. The people who live and move and have their being in its pages are quite ordinary folk, yet we follow their unsensational fortunes from beginning to end with undiminished interest. The dialogue is good, indeed in some places is remarkably clever, but this hardly accounts for the charm of the story. Merely smart word-fencing is apt to grow wearisome, which the conversations here never do. It has to be put down to the art of the story-teller, of which Limitations is really a very fine example. Tom Carlingford is a capital example of the robust yet impulsive young Englishman, who has 'crises' in his life, and lives through them in a sensible, manly fashion, despite his turn for 'art' of a strictly classical character. The author has a very pretty knack of describing 'scenes', whether they be of an English covert-side or of the blue waters of the Ægean, seen from the Acropolis, with Salarmes in the distance. He is able also to depict the 'true pathos and sublime of human life', as witness the closing incident of the career which Tom had marked out for himself, and which he gave up with so much pain. We have great pleasure in commending this novel to the notice of that portion of the reading public that is not wedded to sensationalism.
~The Liverpool Mercury, 02/12/1896

Reviewing Mr E. F. Benson's just-published book, Limitations, The Academy says:~ “Unfortunately, you cannot make a novel out of a pepper-pot full of epigrams and a nice touch in verbal landscape.”
~The Cornishman, 03/12/1896.  See also first review above

[…] much above the general level of fiction.
~The Morning Post in 'Books of the Year', 31/12/1896
A real novel with depth as well as sparkle, and no small degree of literary merit.
~Chicago Tribune, quoted in front endpapers of The Vintage
A strong, interesting story of English life to-day, with plenty of humor but much underlying seriousness and suggestion … The novel has something more than cleverness to it.
~Hartford Courant, quoted in front endpapers of The Vintage

[After The Judgment Books Benson] returned to King's College, Cambridge, and contrived a yarn about a young man who resists advice to choose a profession, gives his soul to art, and falls on hard times. Written after the discovery of Athens and Fred's complete surrender to the Greek ideal, Limitations has a hero, Tom Carlingford, who is in many respects drawn from Fred himself. At Cambridge he makes a virtue of loafing about and doing nothing in particular save dine at the Pitt Club, even boasting that to be totally idle requires some talent; getting a degree is a wretched nuisance, an interruption of life's pleasures. He is a breezy outdoor type, inordinately fond of cricket; he plays the piano reasonably well; he skates. All this is recognisably E. F. Benson as a young man. The parallels become closer as the story develops, and Tom goes to Athens rather than get a job. There he is smitten by the beauty of Greek sculpture and determines to become a sculptor himself. Art will be his religion.
The story departs from autobiography when Tom marries (and incidentally affords us one of the few successful love scenes in the whole of the Benson œuvre), but there are pages of discussion about the nature and purpose of art which mirror Fred's post-Athenian preoccupations, and there is even a heart-to-heart talk between Tom and his father which gives some clue to the interview Fred had with [his own father] Edward about the lines of his future career. We only know that Edward recommended a job of some kind, perhaps in the Education Service, but from this and other Benson books we may safely surmise that when Fred declared his intention to be a writer he had to defend the artistic life against the remonstrations of a very sceptical father. Scenes in later novels, including The Challoners, support this supposition. Limitations was written in 1896, and published two months after the Archbishop's death.
 ~Brian Masters in The Life of E. F. Benson, 1991