Tuesday, 1 January 1980

The Climber

Fiction ~ novel
Published 1908
Approx. 138,000 words
Available online here

THE CRITICS
From certain points of view the heroine of Mr. Benson's new novel, The Climber, may be likened to the immortal figure of Becky Sharp. Like Becky, Lucia is absolutely unscrupulous, cold-hearted, and selfish. Like Becky, she is brilliantly successful in the early part of her career, and, again like Becky, she comes to absolute grief in the end. She has not, however, Becky's financial excuses for her downfall, her brilliant marriage and subsequent magnificent establishment being extremely unlike Becky's elopement and the house in Curzon Street owned by Mr. and Mrs. Rawdon Crawley. The whole of Mr. Benson's story is occupied with the figure of the heroine; and if it is necessary to portray in great detail so unattractive a figure, it must be acknowledged that Mr. Benson's study
is eminently successful. But this is where we find the great difference between clever modern novels and that great classic to whose heroine we have compared Lucia. In Vanity Fair Becky Sharp, though marvellously drawn, is only one figure in a gallery of masterly portraits. In a modern story, if the author takes the trouble to give one character drawn in careful detail, he builds up the whole structure round this figure and makes the rest of the book entirely subsidiary to it. Therefore, while Vanity Fair is read with ever-renewed pleasure, books like The Climber are merely painful and morbid studies of social disease. Mr. Benson has his good heroine ~ her name is Maud ~ but she is only drawn in outline, the one attractive figure in the story being Lucia's aunt Cathie. The Climber is not an immoral book in the sense of vice being triumphant, but, inasmuch as the overthrow of the heroine is due to the imprudence of being found out, it can hardly be said to what our forefathers would have called “improving reading.”
~The Spectator, 21/11/1908

Mr. Benson evidently believes there is still a serious novel-reading public. He has written a solid book which refuses to be skimmed, and which might even bear a second reading. Yet it exploits no virgin field, has no dubious scene, no purple patches, and no apparent purpose other than the dramatic representation of character. The social group to which most of the persons belong is a cultivated section of the English upper class, or—more democratically speaking—of the 'smart set.'
The Climber, Lucia Crimson, is a near spiritual relative of Mr. Pinero's Iris and Mrs. Wharton's Lily Bart. Living in quiet boredom with her two tea-drinking, patience-playing maiden aunts—capitally drawn and differentiated—she nourishes a dream of luxurious self-realization. She finds her opportunity in the priggishly ├Žsthetic, very correct young Lord Brayton, who is not only affected by her personal charms, but is also persuaded that she can make his home the centre of a 'New Set' devoted to a very refined type of culture. This ├Žsthetic lord seeks the beautiful in life and art with curious self-conscious and humorless gravity. Lucia, clear-headed and hard-hearted, conducts a Napoleonic social campaign, winning every battle, fulfilling every self-indulgent desire, till at last real passion touches her. Then, relentlessly, as she took Lord Brayton from her best friend, she takes away her best friend's husband. High tragedy cannot befall the two diversely fervid egotists of the drama; but such disaster as their souls are capable of comes swiftly upon them.
No other novel of Mr. Benson's shows such sobriety and maturity of workmanship. The story moves firmly, harmoniously, if somewhat slowly, forward under the conduct of a critical intelligence. The earlier chapters, indeed, make one a little impatient. The author is in no haste to get into action. He describes his field with excessive particularity as if assured of an attentive hearing. He has the bad habit of explaining the precise significance of every important speech, and he gives the reader a sharp nudge when the speech is clever. He has worked with such laborious conscientiousness that he cannot bear to let any good stroke pass unnoticed. Yet his characters are complexly alive, they develop, and they meet in sharp dramatic conflict. One may detest them all; but they survive the closing of the book.
~The Nation, 25/02/1909
Formerly the social climber was the parvenu, the vulgar person, recently enriched, who sought by means of her wealth to associate with people of position. That is the class of person held up to ridicule in such books as The Yellow-plush Papers, Ten Thousand a Year, and The Potiphar Papers. Nowadays the social straggler must enter the fray with a far more complete outfit than that of mere money, or she stands no chance of success. Intelligence, a certain amount of culture, real or imitation, never-ending perseverance and a goodly proportion of that cleverness that is quick to perceive and profit by the weaknesses of others—these are the weapons with which the climber of to-day seeks to capture the desired position.
In describing the career of Lucia Grimson Mr. Benson has given us one of his best stories and drawn some of his best characters. First of these is Lucia herself, beautiful, clever and condemned to that hopelessly dull existence which is the lot of the British alone among the nations of the earth, and from which matrimony seems to offer the only escape. Lord Brayton appears upon the scene, and to secure this eligible husband Lucia exerts every effort and ruse. Brayton is something of a prig, but a good fellow withal, desirous of doing his duty as a citizen, and sincere in his wish to have his influence, his house, and his name stand for something higher than mere fashion. His appreciation of culture is real, though perhaps a little conscious and laboured, and it is by playing skilfully upon this trait of character that Lucia wins him, and deliberately, although she knows that her best friend, Maud, is in love with him.
After a few years of married life she begins to find her husband rather tiresome and realises the difficulty of keeping up her pose of caring only for the higher things of life, but she has gained so much by her marriage that these are but trifles. Up to this time her heart, such as it is, has been entirely untouched when, suddenly, comes her emotional experience. Maud has married a cousin of Lord Brayton's and is very happy. Charlie is attracted by Lucia, as all men are; she begins by liking to exert her power over him, and before she knows it, the mischief is done and each is aware of the other's sentiments. No feeling of loyalty to the man who had given her so much, no touch of pity for the woman whom she is again robbing, assails Lucia. She encourages Charlie and draws him on, with the usual result of detection, exposure, and the Divorce Court. Maud sends her husband away for six months, at the end of which time he is to choose between his wife and Lucia. Should his choice be the latter, Maud will do what she can to make their marriage possible; should he decide in favour of his wife, she will take him back. Lucia goes back to the dull home in Brixton to await her sentence, which comes, six months later, in the form of a paragraph in the paper announcing that Mr. and Mrs. Charles Lindsay are in town for the remainder of the season. Her doom is sealed, and from thenceforward her life stretches on before her like a dusty road, dull and hopeless.
Lucia is plainly the descendant of Dodo, the author's earlier creation, though a little more modern, a little better educated, and far more of a manoeuverer. Her selfishness is a little more decently covered, but she is just as hard and worthless. The characters of the two old aunts are wonderfully well drawn: Aunt Cathie, with the severe appearance and demeanour and the tender heart, and Aunt Elizabeth, soft in manner, but really as hard as nails. Mr. Benson is a very prolific writer, but it is long since he has given us as good a story as The Climber.
~Mary K. Ford in The Bookman, 03/1909
Mr. Benson's book is a study in selfishness. One Lucia Grimson, poor, discontented, but ambitious, schemes deliberately to 'grab' the things in life that she considers worth while. Her wants are insatiable. To quote her own extravagant language, "I want the Pleiades to wear in my hair; I want to wear the moon as a pendant round my neck; I want Saturn and Jupiter to shine in my girdle; I want Venus." By ingenious deception, a titled husband, wealth, and social standing are secured, but these are not enough. Finally, the dangerous experiment of winning the affections of her friend's husband is tried, and this marks the beginning of the end.
The theme is not a pleasant one. The book contains few lovable or interesting characters with the exception, possibly, of the ridiculous but whole-souled Aunt Cathie with the queer dress and manners of a dim past. Even the goodness of the wronged wife is of the milk-and-water variety and calls forth little admiration.
The end of the story finds several lives wrecked and Lucia back in the small world with its round of monotonous duties from which she had struggled so frantically to escape. The outlook is hopeless for all, and it is with a sense of dreariness that the reader closes the book with the question in his mind if the society life of to-day is really as bad as it is painted.
~The Literary Digest, 06/03/1909
 
In his latest novel Mr. E. F. Benson shows himself in a graver and sterner mood than is habitual with him. The Climber is a merciless and very clever vivisection of an utterly unscrupulous and self-centred nature.
~The Outlook, quoted in endpapers to Juggernaut
In all the people whom he introduces he interests us, and his story is written with striking effect. It contains many passages one would like to quote, there are some fine descriptions in it, and those little Bensonian touches which reveal the author's wonderful power of observation are to be found on almost every page.
~The World, quoted in endpapers to Juggernaut

An unsparing analysis of an ambitious woman's soul ~ a woman who believed that in social 
supremacy she would find happiness, and who finds instead the utter despair of one who has 
chosen the things that pass away.
~?, quoted in endpapers of In the Morning Glow by Roy Rolfe Gilson
In The Climber by E F Benson, we are pleased to welcome the author in familiar mood. Lucia Grimson, who lives in comparative poverty with her two aunts, deliberately sets herself to capture the wealthy Lord Brayton, with whom she knows her friend Maud to be in love. Having climbed, her business [is] to keep waving the flag her husband hoists. But after two or three years with a man whom she does not love, and to whom she is opposed in all her tastes, she is quite ready to yield to the passion she feels for her husband's cousin, Charlie Lindsay, even though she is the husband of the friend she wronged so deeply before. She is divorced by Lord Brayton, Charlie Lindsay returns to his wife, and Lucia goes back to live with Aunt Cathie. This is the bare outline of a story that is full of good things. Vividly interesting characterisation which touches many sides of life, brilliant dialogue, and well pictured scenes all contribute to make this one of the most realistic and excellent of Mr Benson's novels. No one is more adept at unfolding a tale than this author, and, though there is no striking originality of plot in The Climber, the book holds attention from the first page to the last.
~The Manchester Courier, 06/11/1908





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