Published July 1904
Approx. 100,000 words
(First read 08/08/2014)
Like most E F Benson novels, The Challoners is a simple tale ~ so simple, in fact, that it's a wonder the author managed to make it so long. It tells the story of twins Martin and Helen Challoner and their relationships with ~ or rather: against ~ their widowed clergyman father.
In the Reverend Sidney Challoner EFB gives us a sort-of-portrait of his own august parent and namesake, Edward White Benson, these days best remembered ~ probably only remembered ~ as the father of E F Benson. But he produced better portraits, most notably in Our Family Affairs (1920): Rev. Challoner is much smaller fry. Though the two men share the same somewhat grim, single-minded, slavish devotion to His Almighty Upstairsyness, Challoner has none of the spontaneous warmth which EWB could and did (apparently, occasionally) exhibit towards his children. He wants no more for his son than that he be a brilliant scholar and [dang! I've forgotten what his ultimate aim for Martin was, probably the clergy], and no more for Helen than that she devote her life to the service of the Church and ... well, him, really.
The snag is that the son is a dunderhead when it comes to your Greek and Latin ~ but a musical prodigy. The dad has as much appreciation of music as, say, Caligula had of charity work. While Helen's 'rebellion' is to commit the crime of falling in love ... with an atheist!
So Martin goes off to be a concert pianist, against his dad's wishes. His teacher, Herr Something-or-other, delivers what is without doubt the most interesting ~ and revealing ~ speech in the whole book. His general instructions to his pupil:
Work, and live also. Do not forget that any experience in life, so long only as it is not sensual, — for whatever is sensual blurs and deadens the fineness of any gift —, gives richness and breadth to your power in music.I don't really need to add any emphasis here, do I? Along the way he falls in love (most non-sensually, it goes without saying) with a girl, and, the most genuinely rebellious thing he does, converts to Roman Catholicism, entirely ~ it has to be said ~ because they have better tunes, etc. "Aha!" you may be thinking, "the perfect opportunity for EFB to imagine how EWB would have reacted, had he lived, to finding out that one of his own sons (Hugh) did exactly the same thing!" Alas, no, this is E F Benson: he pretty much completely evades that particular issue. Anyway, long and short, Martin is a resounding success as a joanna-player ... but not for long.
Helen, meantime, is much more timid in her rebellion against the pater: she tries to bring him round to the idea of having a no-better-than-a-heathen for a son-in-law, is impossibly virtuous and noble à la victorienne about it all, and has some success on that front.
Well, I'm not going to labour this review any longer ~ see below for more plot details. There's a happy ending ... kind of.
The main and major drawback of it all, for me at least, is that Benson spent far far far too much time on Martin, who I found comprehensively boring, and on his ruddy music, ditto, and not nearly enough on Helen and Sidney, who I found far more ~ potentially ~ interesting.
But, like all Benson novels [this is the moment where I sound positively schizophrenic] it has a certain old-fashioned charm ... not a lot, mind you ... and is a pleasant enough read.
And the critics (see below) seem to have loved it, so what do I know?
The novel is available online here.
The theme is a father’s concern lest his children become contaminated by what he considers an unwholesome social atmosphere. The book is filled with Mr. Benson’s clever observations on the English smart set, and the love-story shows him at his best.
~quoted in endpapers of the US edition of The Angel of Pain
It is an admirably written story, given us by a man who thinks, feels, and observes, who expresses himself with a brilliancy which never fails him, yet does not spare us the sometimes bitter truths that belong to the life he is depicting.
~The Sketch, quoted in front endpapers of An Act in a Backwater and Sheaves
Mr. Benson has here more of a serious purpose and less of surface smartness than in some of his stories. His main theme is the absolute need of individual character and independent action. He pictures the anguish of a saintly, and at heart, affectionate clergyman who is a Philistine as regards art, literature, and imagination, when his son becomes a professional musician and a Roman Catholic, and his daughter marries an agnostic. The merit of the novel is that this situation is not treated roughly or with excessive emotion, but finely and with real feeling. The play of circumstance upon character, of temperament upon prejudice, and of Puritanism upon æstheticism,is subtly and truthfully worked out.
~The Outlook, 30/07/1904
He has written a very simple, a very moving, and a very beautiful story about a situation that is in the present day continually real. A story in which the inevitableness of the tragedy is the keynote.
~The Daily Chronicle, quoted in front endpapers of An Act in a Backwater
The story, as may be seen, is essentially serious, but, being by Mr Benson, it is, of course, also very interesting. The characterisation and dialogue are, as usual, excellent. There is a Lady Sunningdale, who is as amusing as the irrepressible 'Dodo,' but is a much more lovable creature, and frequently displays streaks of unexpected wisdom and breadth of view. Mr Benson's style is full of vitality. […] Of course, he never is dull; but in The Challoners he has gone further than producing a vivid and amusing book. It is full of suggestion, and permeated throughout with a generous philosophy of life.
~Pall Mall Gazette, quoted in front endpapers of An Act in a Backwater
It is a fine story [...] The story, simple in its development, is very touching and deeply interesting […] The literary merit of this beautiful story reaches a high mark […] The care and completeness of the character drawing by action and in speech are remarkable; each invididual is known to us and remains with us […] The consistency of Mr Challoner's action throughout the story is maintained with great skill, the struggle with his feelings reaching its utmost pitch of agony at the end. One of the finest scenes in fiction within our knowledge ~ is a grand and solemn study of the human heart.
~World, quoted in front endpapers of An Act in a Backwater
The Challoners […] must be pronounced not only the best book he has given us, but one of the best novels published so far this year. Well known as an accomplished author, with an unusually wide range, he shows a surer touch, a deepening maturity, if the expression may be allowed, with advancing years.
~The Daily Mail, quoted in front endpapers of An Act in a Backwater
Not counting the head of the family, Lord Flintshire, who plays but a minor part in the story, the Challoners are three in number: the Reverend Sidney, who is a widower, his son Martin, and his daughter Helen. Sidney is a profoundly religious man, of rigid and somewhat bigoted piety.Martin is a musical genius wholly out of sympathy with his father's Puritanical ordinances, as his father is opposed to all his aspirations, and considers his passionate devotion to music nothing but a sinful waste of time. Helen, who teaches in the Sunday school and helps in the parish work, is a girl of some individuality, and has also strayed far beyond the limit of her father's narrowly conventional ideas, and stirs him to bitterest anger by insisting on living by her own light, even to the extent of engaging herself to the man she loves, though he confessedly has no belief in God. Although these three love each other and shrink from hurting each other, “the result was tragedy, tragedy in no grand and great style, but a pitiful little tragedy of misunderstanding and estrangement." Their differing characters are analysed with subtlety and insight. Lady Sunningdale is a delightfully humorous creation—she and her ridiculous pet dogs move through the book to a never-failing accompaniment of good-natured laughter. It is an intensely human story, written at times with epigrammatic cleverness, and at times with a larger humour, and with occasional touches of pathos that always ring true. Altogether a novel of marked originality and interest.
~The Bookman (UK), 08/1904
Mr Benson has broken some fresh ground in his latest novel. Always clever and amusing, he has the knack of blending the light with the serious things in a well-judged proportion that renders him one of the most charming writers of the present day. But in this book he gives the serious element the upper hand, and the result has the merit not only of success, but of comparative novelty […] Mr Benson's work throughout the book is so excellent […] He has produced, indeed, a not unworthy comparison to his brilliant success of the past, and that is saying a good deal.
~St James's Gazette, quoted in front endpapers of An Act in a Backwater
Of Helen Challoner and her brother it need only be said that their virtues and failings make them a fresh and fascinating couple, and they play their part as the storm of the story in a manner which holds the interest of the reader. Altogether, the novel is one that is sure to be read with pleasure and amusement, and, we believe, with profit.
~The Daily Telegraph, quoted in front endpapers of An Act in a Backwater and Sheaves
When we remembered that E. F. Benson was the author of Dodo, a book about which everyone was talking a few years ago, we expected to find that he had given us something pretty good in The Challoners. We read it, breathlessly and absorbedly, and then we were of the opinion that he had given us a novel that is better than the book which made him famous.
~Newark Advertiser, quoted in endpapers to US edition of The House of Defence