Saturday, 23 January 2016

The Weaker Vessel

Fiction ~ novel
Published March 1913
Approx. 138,000 words 


Mr Benson has written his latest novel in a serious mood. There is little of his usual froth and bubble, and no Lady Sunningdales enliven the pages. Nor does the story possess the vitality and delightful humanness of The Challoners and some of his fellows. Eleanor and Harry Whittaker are very interesting to read about, but the Eleanor of the first few chapters who peruses The Second Mrs Tanqueray in secret, and rebels against her duty loving stepmother is much nearer the reader's heart than the Eleanor who says “I forgive you, Harry dear,” at frequent intervals. Harry is often in need of forgiveness. When, as tutor in the house where Eleanor is governess, he wins her love, he possesses good looks, qualified by a weak mouth, and a gift for play writing. Unfortunately this gift requires to be stimulated to do its work well. Half a glass of whisky will enable it to achieve in a couple of hours, what a whole day's solid work has left undone. “From habit, just as people will take a little more bread at breakfast which they do not want, in order to put on it the butter on their plates, which they do no want either,” he gets into the way of finishing the glass. As a matter of course the habit grows. Eleanor discovers it some time after a successful play enabled Harry to marry her. Then the fight begins ~ Eleanor's love versus the drink which gives Harry such happy moods of inspiration. The battle is fierce, for a long time the enemy, reinforced by the actress Maria Anstruther, is victorious, and it is only a chance street accident that gives Eleanor the final victory. In The Weaker Vessel the author displays all his delightful insight into human nature and the little trivialities of life, and while this quality continues to pervade his books they will never contain an uninteresting page.
~The Manchester Courier, 07/03/1913

There are many people, we imagine, who will consider Mr E. F. Benson's latest story, The Weaker Vessel […], the best he has yet written, and certainly its character-studies very nearly approach the high-water mark in modern fiction. Eleanor Ramsden, daughter of a clergyman of peculiarly lovable character, leaves home owing to a disagreement with her stepmother, and accepts a position as governess in the family of an acquaintance. In this same family Harry Whittaker, son of Lord Prinstead, a drunken peer, is acting as tutor, and in and between his tutorial duties is engaged upon the writing of a play, the composition of which owes a good deal to Eleanor's criticism and suggestion. The play is produced, makes a sensation, and Whittaker and Eleanor are soon afterwards married. For a time they are blissfully happy, until at last the young wife discovers that the brilliant passages of her husband's plays ~ written always after she has retired for the night ~ are induced by alcoholic over-indulgence. She exerts herself to save him, and only partially succeeds. While under the spell of her wonderfully subtle influence Whittaker is enabled to ward off the demon but presently another equally potent and less beneficent influence enters his life in the person of the leading actress for whom his play has been written, but whose influence is eventually conquered by the splendid patience and tactful winsomeness of his wife. The character of Eleanor Ramsden is indeed a magnificent creation, and one upon which its creator may well be congratulated. The conception is striking and is the more convincing on account of its very unconventionality, and it is no small tribute to Mr Benson's literary skill that even the wayward Harry Whittaker, with all his faults and with all his failings, never for one moment exasperates or forfeits the sympathy of the reader. The book, indeed, is in every sense so far removed from the commonplace and so brilliantly written throughout that it must be reckoned certainly amongst the most important novels of the present publishing season, and is, moreover, probably one of the few novels of modern production for which the discriminate reader is likely to find a permanent place in his bookshelf.
~ The Liverpool Echo, 08/03/1913
Mr E. F. Benson has perhaps been more praised and more blamed than any other living novelist. He has, of course, the defects of his qualities, and it is impossible for any of us to be always on the heights. But despite occasional adverse criticism, each of Mr E. F. Benson's novels is eagerly welcomed, for in certain senses he gives us what no other writer can do. His latest book, The Weaker Vessel, is one of his longest novels, and he gives a powerful picture of the heights of heroism and unselfishness to which a woman can rise to shield and help her 'Weaker Vessel'. Harry, with his brilliant brain and wholly unbalanced temperament, would not retain the tolerance, far less the love, of any ordinary woman, but Mr Benson's unerring skill makes Eleanor's attitude and large-heartedness simply the outcome of a natural soul. No one can describe London life and society with a wittier and happier pen than Mr Benson, and the creation of Mrs Ramsden along would make the book a joy. Who does not recognise in her the patient, exasperating, unselfish, posing martyr who renders life intolerable to those round her. The Weaker Vessel is distinctly one of Mr E. F. Benson's typical and excellent novels.
~Aberdeen Daily Journal, 10/03/1913

Mr E. F. Benson has made wonderful strides as an author since he wrote the story of undergraduate life at Cambridge, Babe B.A. [sic]. That was bright enough in its way, but it scarcely foreshadowed the brilliant work which was to follow. To-day Mr Benson is unquestionably one of our most popular novelists, and a new work from his pen is eagerly welcomed. It is not difficult to discover the reason for this popularity. Mr Benson's novels depict life [as] it really is; his characters are so thoroughly human. His heroes and heroines are not those perfect beings whom one so frequently finds in the realms of fiction, but ordinary, everyday people, with faults and failings like the rest of mankind.
In The Weaker Vessel, his latest novel, Mr Benson is at his best. The character who furnishes the title is Harry Whittaker, an amiable but weak young man, who when we first make his acquaintance is acting as a private tutor, but soon afterwards blossoms forth into a successful playwright. There is, however, one great drawback. He finds he can only do good work under the stimulus of alcohol. “He had no craving for alcohol in itself, he merely employed it as a means towards an intellectual end, to give him the sparkle and freedom of brain that were necessary to the creation of incisive dramatic writing.” Time and again he resolves to do without it, and to use no spur except that of his own desire, but in the end it proves too strong for him.
Acting as governess in the same house as Whittaker is Eleanor Ramsden, a high-spirited girl, with whom he finds he has many traits and tastes in common. While his ambition is to write a play that shall be accepted by a great actor-manager, she is tremendously keen on becoming an actress, and has already given proof of her talent. Their marriage follows the production of Harry's first play, and for a time there seems nothing to mar their happiness, but it is when her husband is at work on his second play that Eleanor discovers his weakness. To his wife he explains the position:
There's nothing to be said of the habit I have got into. But the matter is that I can't write unless I've been drinking. Drink ~ I don't mean getting drunk ~ sets something loose in my brain, that which we used to call the elf or the Uncontrollable. And when it's loose ~ very often just one whisky and soda lets its loose ~ I get so keen about my work that I just must keep it loose. And that means drinking more. So it goes on, I drinking instinctively and working, utterly happy because I know I am doing good work, and that the best part of my brain is active. You remember my reading you The Dilemma in the schoolroom at the Wilkins? And how you put your finger on certain bits of slack stuff? All that, just that, and nothing else, was written without ~ without help. All that you thought was good was written with help. In consequence, I did no good work. Of course, it was a rotten plan to trifle with such methods at all, but it was so easy to persuade myself that I would just finish this act, or just finish this play, and that then I would give it up.”
This is what Harry is always saying: “I will give it up when I have done this,” but he has not the strength of will to leave it alone for long. Through it all, however, Eleanor is his good angel. He repeatedly falls away, but she never turns from him, even when faced with a worse trial in the form of a dangerous intimacy between her husband and a leading actress for whom he was been writing a play. She is ever striving to lift him up to higher things, and in the end she has her reward.
The Weaker Vessel, while quite unlike the customary stage novel, gives one an interesting glimpse of the work involved in the writing and production of a play, and reveals something of the terrible nervousness experienced both by dramatist and actor on a first night.
~The Cambridge Independent Press, 14/03/1913
There is a world of irony in the title Mr E. F. Benson has chosen for his latest novel. Eleanor [Ramsden] marries a man who has made a brilliant success of his first play, and is proud of her husband and his work. The awakening comes when she learns that the cannot write save under the stimulus supplied by intoxicants. He is, indeed, the weaker vessel, but her large-hearted love prevents the catastrophe that seems inevitable. Worse is to come, but still she sacrifices herself for the sake of the man she loves. Mr Benson has given us a masterly analysis of temperament and character. He probes the full depths and measures the heights of human nature, and in both he is equally successful.
~The Courier [Dundee], 20/03/1913
This is a contrast in its quietness to the liveliness of the book which first attracted attention to Mr. Benson as a novelist. Dodo had more sparkle, but The Weaker Vessel has far more fidelity to life. It is a serious and truthful study of social conditions and of individual temperament. Particularly exact in its realism is the character of the self-sufficient and narrow-minded rector's wife who makes miserable the life of her cheerful, ambitious, and gifted stepdaughter. Equally good in its depiction is the character of the man the girl marries—a genius as a writer of plays only when he is under the inspiration of alcohol, and therefore inevitably a weak though lovable character, whose life trends naturally downward. While his power weakens, his wife's strengthens; and she becomes a fine embodiment of honor and faithfulness.
~The Outlook (US), 05/04/1913

In Mr. Benson's new novel he draws five admirably contrasted principal characters. The father of Eleanor, the heroine, Mr. Ramsden, a wise and benevolent country clergyman, has that knowledge of the world which comes from the Church not having been his first profession. In striking contrast to him is his well-intentioned wife, who succeeds in being the most disagreeable person who has appeared in fiction for a long time past. The other three characters are the gentleman who enacts the name part of the piece (the novel is so concerned with theatrical matters that it is impossible to help slipping into theatrical language); Eleanor, his wife, who, besides being by far the better man of the two, is a heaven-born genius on the boards; and the Circe of the book, who leads Harry Whitaker astray. She, however, is a far more conventional figure. Harry himself is a striking study, and Mr. Benson almost persuades his readers that his hero was right in yielding to the temptation of giving way to drink when it enabled him to write such admirable dramas. Eleanor Whitaker is herself a well-drawn and credible figure, though the reader would like to hear the opinion of a professional actor-manager on the possibility of her taking the town by storm on the stage without ever having learned the rudiments of her art. The book cannot be called epoch-making, but it is pleasant reading, though the unfortunate Harry is obliged to be half-paralysed before his moral character can be rescued.
~The Spectator, 26/04/1913
In this novel there are two weaker vessels, namely, the father and the husband of the heroine; and for some time we were unable to make up our minds which weaker vessel was intended to give the title to the book. If this were a play, the leading female part would not be that or the heroine, but that of her step-mother—the very virtuous, correct, and managing clergyman's wife. A clever actress might make a great deal of the character. Whether the story would make a play we are not so sure. The vicar's wife gave much of her goods to feed the poor; and she once cheerfully gave her body—at least, her hands—to be burned, by putting out the flames in the clothes of a little boy, who had set himself on fire at a Christmas tree. "The child was not hurt at all, so prompt was her aid ; but he was hurt afterwards when Mrs. Ramsden repeated the occurrence to his mother, adding that she had repeatedly warned the children not to touch the candles. But in no reasonable mind could there be any doubt as to the overwhelming weight that duty occupied in the spiritual economy of Mrs. Ramsden. She put out the small male infant, with risk to herself, as cheerfully and as ungrudgingly as she repeated his misconduct afterwards to his mother." This is the key to her actions and sayings, whenever she comes on the stage; and they usually "bring down the house." As to the lengthy descriptions of the married hero's gradual falling in love with an objectionable actress, and his equally gradual taking to drinking, we found them dull, although cleverly described. By the way, the hero's wife was also an actress, and a very fine one. After seeing her perform, in her greatest character, Mrs. Ramsden said: "The audience were very much pleased, but to me she did not seem to be acting at all. She spoke and did things as she might have in the vicarage at home." And when told that this was the highest tribute she could give her, Mrs. Ramsden replied: "You mean that Harry wrote the part for her, so that there was no acting to be done. I am sure that was very clever of him." The woman is really splendid all through.
~The Tablet, 14/06/1913
E. F. Benson, who customarily avoids problems, presents in The Weaker Vessel an extraordinarily strong and searching study of the man who yields to the devil and the flesh. Whoever desires, without personal experiment, familiarity with the mechanism of surrendering to temptation, cannot do better than to consider the ways of the hero.
~The Atlantic Monthly [US], 11/1913

The Weaker Vessel (1913) contains two women characters who are essentially Bensonian: they may be copied from life, but they do not live. One is the daughter of a viscount and the wife of a country clergyman, and she has all the aggressive qualities that one expects of such women. She lives in an atmosphere of Sunday schools and choir practices, and she is convinced of her absolute righteousness. She exhibits a monumental lack of humour, and her bright, hard verbosity has a stunning effect both on the reader and on Eleanor, her step-daughter. Eleanor is the heroine who, rebelling against her narrow life in the parsonage, marries Harry Whittaker, an alcoholic playwright who has leapt to fame with his first play. Without any training or experience of life Eleanor becomes a famous actress, portraying subtle and varied parts with consummate triumph, taking London by storm. Also among the characters is Marian Anstruther, the stage siren, who wears rose-madder cloaks, and Louis Grey, a high-minded actor-manager who is in love with Eleanor, but at a respectful distance. Not only is Eleanor a great actress, she is wise, large-hearted and loving, and when she discovers her husband's shameful secret she sets out to save him; and she does not desert him even when the siren influences him to descend even further into the depths of degradation.
Harry injures his spine in a motor accident and will never be able to walk again, and Eleanor gives praise to God for delivering him into her hands ~ no more naughtiness for Harry, and no more rivals for her. Marian disappears into outer darkness, though not before Eleanor forgives her for being Harry's mistress. The book ends with a hint of spring in the air after a bitter winter. Harry is about to start another play and Eleanor to resume her acting.
~Geoffrey Palmer and Noel Lloyd in E. F. Benson As He Was, 1988

Typical of the notices [E. F. Benson was getting in the pre-war years] are those which greeted The Weaker Vessel (1913), whose characters include an alcoholic playwright, a temperamental actress, and the stock clergyman's wife stuffed with nauseating piety. The Gentlewoman wrote, “They are essentially Bensonian creations. They might quite possibly be copied from life, but they do not live.” The reviewer went on to lament Fred's 'surface polish, the Benson Brilliantine', because it obscured the talent beneath. New Age, having depicted Fred as 'a servile scribbler', wondered whether he was not, in fact, a satirist in disguise, which was true though not generally acknowledged. Similarly, the Western Gazette remarked that “Mr Benson attacks no problem, but merely paints portraits remorselessly; but the problem nevertheless peeps through between the lines.”
~Brian Masters in The Life of E. F. Benson, 1991

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