Saturday, 25 October 2014

Thorley Weir

Fiction ~ novel
Published September 1913 (previously published in serial form in Cornhill magazine)
Approx. 84,000 words
(First read 25/10/2014)

Thorley Weir is the story of an art patron's 'adoption' of two young geniuses, one a painter, the other a playwright, and of his attempts to win the hand in marriage of a young lady.  And, or maybe or, it's the story of a young painter's adoption by an art patron, and of his love for a young lady.  Then again it's the story of a young playwright's adoption by an art patron, and of his subsequent disillusionment.  At the same time it's the story of a hypochondriac, his elderly nymphomaniac mother, and his virginal young daughter.  Have I mentioned the pinkish donkey? ~ it's also the story of a pinkish donkey.  What I'm trying to convey is that, like several other E F Benson novels, the thing lacks focus.
The art patron (Arthur Craddock) is an interesting character, as well as being not at all EFB's type ~ we're constantly reminded that he's fat, fifty-ish, very pale, with soft hands and black hair worn in a comb-over, etc.  A professional art critic of long-standing, discovering untapped genius is his favourite sideline after fleecing Americans out of their bucks for British art.  He's so inured to devious business-dealing that the habit has spilt over into his private life.  Despite all this, he is at heart a good egg, and certainly a shrewd, generous, and enthusiastic promoter of young talent.
Not that kind of painter, dummy
The painter (Charles Lathom) is merely Benson Male Type A, the devastatingly handsome and youthful genius, so it's only natural that EFB should be most drawn to him.  Unfortunately, as we all know, Benson Male Type A is only matched in dullness by Benson Female Type A: the impossibly sweet and virginal young gel.
The love interest (Joyce Wroughton) is Benson Female Type A.
Joyce's dad (Philip W) is the perfect Bensonian hypochondriac: petty, mean-spirited, niggardly, self-obsessed, querulous, etc.  He's also very funny.
Philip's mum (for some reason called Lady Crowborough) is another in EFB's long line of 'spunky' old dames, don't ya know, much given to talking in what passed for slang in the 1860s, and to flirting with chaps a quarter her age.  She isn't very funny.
The pinkish donkey [see below under Quotables] is part of the hired help when Arthur, Philip, Joyce and Lady C are having a totally unnecessary holiday in Egypt about halfway through the proceedings.
"That's not really 'ugly', is it, Ewie?"
Who does that leave?  Ah yes! ~ the most interesting character in the book.  Frank Armstrong, the playwright, is so rara an avis in the works of E F Benson that he doesn't even have a Type.  That other struggling young dramatist Rex Whatsisname (of Rex fame) is a mere shadow next to Frank, a petulant-brattish scribbler.  Frank is ~ believe it or not ~ an Angry Young Man, forty years before his time.  Not only is he ugly on the outside¹, he's a seething mass of violent mood swings, careering through life with a massive chip on each shoulder, believing that the world owes him a living, that his patron, despite launching his career very nicely indeed thankyou, is the embodiment of evil, etc.  Ah if only Benson had written Frank rather than the dreary Rex!
The plot goes like this: Arthur realizes he's getting on and lonely so falls in love with Joyce; at the same time she falls in love with Charles, Arthur's new protégé, and he with her; Arthur tries to put her off him but fails; Charles and Frank become good pals, then discover the 'truth' about Arthur, that he's attempted to blacken Charles' name so as to win Joyce's hand, and that he's been exploiting them ~ a bit; Charles forgives him; Frank doesn't; The Happy End.
If you're planning on reading Thorley Weir², prepare yourself for a long leisurely read in which virtually nothing happens and what does happen is blown out of all proportion.
Needless to say, I quite enjoyed it! ~ I've made it sound a lot worse than it is.
It's available online here.

¹ His ugliness, as Fred never tires of telling us, seems largely to consist of his having a big black beard.
² I should probably add that the actual weir in the novel might as well not be there: it doesn't drown or even almost drown anyone.

QUOTABLES
EFB goes into homoerotic overdrive describing Charles' portrait of his brother Reggie diving into the river:
 […] his face and the side of his body seen almost in profile were brilliantly illuminated by the glint from the shining pool below him. But underneath these surface lights there had to be indicated the building and interlacement of the firm muscles and supple sinews of his body.
 Arthur Craddock commits the sin of Not Being Young:
It was not until he had walked as far as Hyde Park Corner that he knew he was waging a war instead of merely conducting a child's education. He was at war, he with his obese person and half-century of years, with the generation that had sprung up after him, and was now realising the zenith of its youthful vigour. Already it trod on his heels, already he seemed to hear in his ears its intolerable laughter at his portly progress, and his first acute attack of middle-age stabbed him like the lumbago from which he occasionally suffered.
A telling image of Charles:
To-day he had no touch of [guilt or anxiety]: he felt entirely untrammelled: his soul stood nude and unimpeded, like some beautiful runner or wrestler. There was nothing to hinder its leap and swiftness.

On holiday in Egypt the rather prissy Craddock and the rather prissy Philip are selecting their donkeys for a trip into the desert ~ this is the comic highlight of the book:
[Craddock] highly approved Philip's penchant for the pinkish donkey, and selected for himself a small one that resembled in some essential manner a depressed and disappointed widow. His large legs almost touched the ground on either side of it, he could almost have progressed in the manner of the ancient velocipede.
Craddock on Philip Wroughton [same scene as previous quote]:
Till he heard this rapid staccato speech, Craddock felt he had never really known what egotism meant. Here it was in excelsis: almost grand and awe-compelling in this gigantic and inspired exhibition of it … crowning it “Do not leave my donkey, Mohammed.”
Charles and Joyce wax 'philosophical':
She was silent a moment.
In a way an injury done to oneself is easier to forgive than an injury done to somebody else.”
Charles rudely interrupted.
Painfully noble sentiment?” he enquired.
Yes; perhaps it was. Let us be careful: we might die in the night if we became more edifying.”
Quite. 


THE CRITICS
Mr Benson at his cheeriest. An excellent novel.

~The Times, quoted in a newspaper ad of 19/09/1913.  (I suspect this reviewer hadn't read the whole novel: it's certainly not my idea of 'cheery'.)
This is very good. Written in a light and cheerful vein, in a spirit of delightful comedy.
~Daily Chronicle, quoted in a newspaper ad of 19/09/1913.  (Ditto)
The best book he has published for years.
 ~Daily News, quoted in a newspaper ad of 19/09/1913
Those who want the safely pleasant should put down Mr E. F. Benson's new novel, Thorley Weir. It is very like the other Benson books, but quite without the uncomfortable attempts to deal with big problems that has spoiled the later ones. The heroine is a dear, and there is an even dearer old lady, nominally eighty, but essentially about eighteen ~ a Mrs Wroughton.
 ~Derby Daily Telegraph, 20/09/1913
Mr E. F. Benson in Thorley Weir has added another success to his list of fine novels. No one else gives us quite the same sort or the same quality of books. They abound with gaiety, and they are full of delightful people. There is always a fascinating romance, and as a rule charming dissertations on music and painting. His subjects vary much, and he never can be charged with monotony, yet his novels are all of the Society type, and his characters always include one delightful, inconsequential old lady, who is thoroughly welcome once again in Thorley Weir. As a writer, too, Mr Benson is by no means always equal. Indeed, he can at time be very thin, but Thorley Weir belongs to the best of his works.
'Thorley Weir' is the name of the house in which the heroine, Joyce Wroughton, and her father live, and into the district there come on holiday Charles Lathom and his brother, Reggie. The former is a painter of very considerable promise. While visiting the Wroughtons, the villain of the book, Mr Craddock, a connoisseur in art and the drama, sees Charles's work, and, acting as a 'middleman', purchases his pictures, and makes a business agreement with him, very much to his own advantage. The same thing happens to Frank Armstrong, an unknown but talented dramatist. Charles Lathom and Craddock are both in love with Joyce, but Craddock does not scruple about disparaging his rival to Mr Wroughton, so that the door of Thorley Weir may be closed to him. Here, however, comes in Mrs Wroughton, Mr Benson's favourite type of elderly lady referred to. She helps to disentangle the situation, and the end is interesting. The book is fresh and bright, and written with all the peculiar charm which the author can infuse into his novels.
~The Aberdeen Daily Journal, 22/09/1913
Now that Mr. A. C. Benson has found his power as a novelist, it is open to Mr. E. F. Benson to step into his place, and betake himself to a gentle philosophy. It might be a good experiment. Mr. Benson has changed much as a writer of late years: his novels are no longer of the school of Dodo. We are far less concerned with what Mr. Benson's puppets do, or even with what they think; we look rather for his view of this world of ours, for his opinion of men and women, for his knowledge of art and music and the drama—in short, for his gentle philosophy of life. Thorley Weir is good; it shows no sign of that exhaustion and exaggeration which are the danger of the prolific novelist; it has a good central plot woven round the super-dealer in the arts, the trafficker in men's brains, who meets his final defeat at the hands of the young dramatist and the young artist; it has a pleasant, out-of-door, early-morning setting of the river and loose-strife and kingfishers; it has some charming pieces of writing, and it has several of Mr. Benson's early friends, and ours, thinly disguised under new names. Here is Lady Sunningdale as Mrs. Wroughton, and Hugh Grainger has given up his music and taken to art; here is Bensonian dialogue and freshness and freedom. The book has its faults, of course. Mr. Benson must beware of exaggeration in his drawing of character, for Philip Wroughton's neurotic tempers are on the edge of farce, and the atmosphere of farce is by far too coarse and heavy for Mr. Benson's spirit of pure comedy; we wonder why such a word as "eyne" should find a place in his vocabulary; and we grow almost a little weary over the repeated transports of the young artist. But, when all is said, it is Mr. Benson, and Mr. Benson at his best, which is good enough for the most blasé reader of novels.
~The Spectator, 04/10/1913
A novel kind of a villain is the 'middleman' in this story. He is a connoisseur in art and also knows a lot about the stage. So when he finds a struggling young artist or play-writer of genius, he pets him, buys his first work, and then exacts an option-contract by which he gets future good work at a trifling price. He buys masterpieces, too, from friends after he has bargained to resell them to rich collectors at an enormous profit. All 'within the law,' but mean and tricky. The novel has a delightful old lady and a pretty love story. It is not Mr. Benson's best book, but it reads easily and is amusing.
~The Outlook (US), 01/11/1913
With pleased marvel at the freshness of a pen which has to its credit twenty-eight successful novels, I have been reading Thorley Weir, Mr Benson's latest. In his father's house were many Bensons, four being regular and prolific contributors to the literature of the day. The author of Thorley Weir is E. F. Benson, who, some years ago, captured the attention of the town by the publication of Dodo, a novel which the lady whom the public insisted had served as lay-figure for the heroine* once told me she had never read. The scene of his new story shifting to Egypt, the glow and colour of which flood his pages, Mr Benson writes how the lover of the charming Joyce told her of Sen-mut, the architect of Deir-al-Bahari, to whom the queen showed all her heart, and entrusted with the secrets of her will, and how Thothmes, on his mother's death, erased from the inscriptions all mention of the low-born fellow. [the writer then wanders off onto a different subject and never comes back to this one]
~'Our correspondent' in the 'London Letter' column of Gloucester Journal, 28/02/1914 [from BNA]. * i.e. Margot Asquith, née Tennant (1864-1945).
The title of Mr. Benson's new book is not descriptive, for, as usual, he is concerned with the development of one character, the presentation of a certain type of man who, this time, is embodied in a middle-aged, stout, and not overattractive Arthur Craddock. Craddock possesses discriminating taste and judgment, seeming to know by instinct the best in literature, music, and art, and particularly what would be commercially available. He utilizes this power to bind to himself the
young artist who has not yet 'arrived,' and so makes for himself a fortune and reputation. When he decides to win Joyce Wroughton, however, his methods become involved and his means questionable. Two of Craddock's victims hasten the catastrophe that finally reveals his underhand methods and duplicity. He overreaches himself, and Joyce, in spite of Craddock and his contracts, is allowed to be happy with the young artist Charles.The strength of the story lies in its clear and subtle analysis of the different characters, whose development presents to us many interesting and exciting episodes.
~The Literary Digest, 21/03/1914
Thorley Weir (1913) is a simple romance and nothing more. No titled ladies, no society chatter, no supernatural goings-on: it is the story of an artist who finds fame, and of the girl he loves, restored to him after a series of understandings.
~Geoffrey Palmer and Noel Lloyd in E. F. Benson As He Was, 1988

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