Saturday, 3 January 2015

Limitations

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 CRITICS
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

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