Wednesday, 21 October 1992

Mrs Ames

Fiction ~ novel
Published 1912
Approx. 116,000 words
(First read 21/10/1992)

Sunday, 26 July 1992

Trouble for Lucia

Fiction ~ novel
Published 1939
82,300 words
(First read 26/07/1992) 

Saturday, 18 July 1992

Mapp and Lucia

Fiction ~ novel
Published September 1931
105,100 words
(First read 18/07/1992) 

Mapp and Lucia is the fourth in the Mapp and Lucia sequence of novels and (obviously) the first one in which our eponymous 'heroines' get together and lock horns.

In Mapp and Lucia, Mr E. F. Benson is in his gayest and most irresponsible mood. He has no story to tell, but his description of the deadly and long-drawn-out duel between Miss Mapp and Mrs Lucas for the social leadership of the pleasant but scandal-loving town of Tilling is replete with rich humour. Nobody with a sense of the ludicrous can fail to find excellent entertainment in a volume in which Mr Benson is at his best.
~The Western Morning News and Mercury, 14/09/1931
E. F. Benson, author of Miss Mapp and Queen Lucia, has achieved a great success by bringing these two entertaining characters together in his latest novel, Mapp and Lucia […]. With charming insincerity they almost fall on each other's necks, and in an equally charming manner they manoeuvre and skirmish in a 'war to the death' for struggle for leadership of a quiet old village.
~The Daily Mail [Hull], 26/09/1931
After [the effort of producing Ferdinand Magellan, The Inheritor and As We Were (1929-30)], Benson was able to relax with another frivolous adventure, bringing together his two outrageous heroines [in] Mapp and Lucia. [With this novel the two characters] reached the apogee of their absurdity [and] Benson, too, reached the summit of his powers. […] It was a bold stroke to risk the clash of Titans in Mapp and Lucia, effected in the simplest manner by having Mrs Lucas rent Miss Mapp's house in Tilling for a period of two months. No sooner is the redoubtable lady ensconced than, by 'showy little dinners and odious flatteries', she manages to supplant Mapp's position in the town, as a result of which the two women are locked in combat. Quaint Irene, with her 'dismal directness', observes the fun and remains the only character not to take these people seriously. It is much to Benson's credit that he contrives a preposterous climax without losing the reader's sympathy: a sudden flood sweeps Mapp and Lucia away on an upturned kitchen table! Fred read the scene aloud to [his friend] Steven Runciman on the evening of the day he wrote it, to test reaction. He was encouraged.
~Brian Masters in The Life of E. F. Benson, 1991

Thursday, 16 July 1992

Miss Mapp

Fiction ~ novel
Published October 1922
78,400 words
(First read 16/07/1992) 

Miss Mapp is the second in the Mapp and Lucia series of novels and short stories, and is (fairly obviously) the first to feature Miss Elizabeth Mapp (later Mrs Elizabeth Mapp-Flint), and the first to be set in EFB's fictional version of Rye, i.e. Tilling.
I've read all these umpteen times and have long been a confirmed 'Mappite' rather than 'Luciaphile'.

Clever, amusing, E. F. Benson's new novel, Miss Mapp, is a chronicle of the doings of a group of women and men in a seaside township. Of this group, Miss Mapp is the dominating personality. Not too passe, she has set her mind on one day marrying one Major Flint, retired. The book is a great example of the versatility which enables the author to create new characters in new settings, all types of diverse human nature, and each in their own way delightful. The characterisation and dialogue are of Mr Benson's usual high order. The reader is carried along easily; it all makes entertaining reading, true to life as lived by the comfortably placed human beings in an English township.
~Western Daily Press, 14/10/1922

In her delineation of small-town life in Cranford Mrs Gaskell kept her eyes mainly on the sunny, lovable side of human character. Mr Benson does precisely the reverse. In this story of leisure, comfortably-placed elderly people in a little English seaside town he can see only the meanness and pettiness and scandal-loving natures of people in whose hands too much leisure is a curse. His central figure is Miss Mapp, a middle-aged spinster of independent means who lives in perpetual smiling warfare with her female neighbours. All of them are cats, but none of them have the claws so well sharpened or the Cheshire grin so prominent as she has. There is an unceasing interchange of feline amenities over rival tea-tables, dress designs and the like, particularly between Miss Mapp and her deadly rival, Mrs Plaistow, whom she addressed with acrimonious fondness as 'dear' or 'darling Diva'. Her cattish inclinations towards her own sex are aggravated by the proclivity Miss Mapp has for a member of the sterner sex, the old bachelor Major Flint. Not too passé, she has set her mind on marrying the retired Major, and how the latter ultimately falls a victim to her blandishments is matter for the purest comedy.
Mr Benson's study is clever, amusing, almost amazingly shrewd in its observation of human nature. But at times throughout the book one is inclined to wish that he would concern himself just a little less with the meanness and vanity of petty human beings. There is not one of the characters in this study who is not as vulgar and stupid, as jealous and curious as Miss Mapp herself. The tabbies are of both sexes, and the vicar at least among the men seems to favour the feminine side. Clever and amusing as Miss Mapp is, it palls at times in its exasperating emphasis on all that is most mean, stupid, and petty in middle-aged character.
~Aberdeen Journal, 16/10/1922
In Miss Mapp by E. F. Benson, we have a cleverly written account of life in a seaside township.
Miss Mapp is the dominating figure. The reader will find much enjoyment in following her little adventures in small town society.
A real true to life story with real human beings with all their little foibles and failings.
~The Courier [Dundee], 09/11/1922
Gentle social comedy such as English villages exist to provide.
~The Bookman's Guide to Fiction, 03/1923
[…] I picked up Queen Lucia, by E. F. Benson. I really liked David Blaize, and the Mapp and Lucia books are supposed to be Benson’s best work, but I have a hard time seeing why one would enjoy these books, unless one likes really hateful characters.
That said, I’m still reading them. I’m halfway through Miss Mapp, which is book two, and apparently Mapp and Lucia don’t meet up until book four. I’m not sure I’ll last that long. It’s not much fun to spend time with  characters who hate each other, and Miss Mapp is an even worse offender on that front than Queen Lucia is.
~'Melody' at Redeeming Qualities, 04/10/2010

The Male Impersonator

Fiction ~ short story
Published 1929
5,575 words
(First read 16/07/1992)

Sunday, 28 June 1992

Lucia in London

Fiction ~ novel
Published 1927
85,300 words
(First read 28/06/1992)

The most important character in Mr. Benson's latest novel is Lucia Lucas, a social climber, a hypocrite of the first order, a poseuse of infinite variety—and a success in whatever she undertakes. Coming into the estate of an unwept-for aunt, Lucia and her husband (he lives in total eclipse) find themselves with a London house on their hands; Lucia sees her opportunity to rise above her rural triumphs in Riseholme and share space in the newspapers with Duchesses and (God being good) a Princess or two. Lucia plays London conquests against Riseholme victories; both places apprehensively watch her progress and suffer from her manipulations. She is a notable character as Mr. Benson draws her, for she possesses the blindness, the singleness of purpose, the unscrupulous egoism, and the force of the great mischief-makers. Given a place in a novel of unusual stature, she might well live as long as Pamela or Becky Sharp. Even in her present situation she is well worth knowing. We also meet Georgie Pillson; he is a handmaiden of Lucia's in Riseholme, an individual bom to say 'yes,' and altogether too much of a perfect lady for us to feel comfortable in his presence. Then there is Stephen Merriall, another perfect lady; this one writes, over the signature of Hermione, a sweet column of daily gossip about Mayfair. There are two choruses to this main trio: the first is made up of the rustics and semi-rustics of Riseholme, whose general methods and manners remind us of George A. Birmingham's amiable Irish rascals; the other is a slightly caricatured London high life. Both contain grotesques and drolls, and little of common humanity.
As a result of Mr. Benson's taste in character, the novel becomes partly satirical, partly farcical, and never wholly sure of itself or its progress towards a goal. We are unable to give Lucia in London high praise. The plot, largely episodic, lacks continuity and logical development; therefore the success of the novel depends entirely upon character and local color. Although it is only in the central character that we have real vitality, the strength in that place is sufficiently pronounced to be memorable. If only Lucia had been placed in a novel conceived and carried out in her own grand manner! Then we should have had something worth shouting about.
~Amy Loveman in The Saturday Review, 21/04/1928
[Lucia in London] in which one of E. F. Benson's most entertaining characters re-appears, is none the less a shrewd study of a woman because it happens to be sheer farce. Lucia—tyrant, poseuse, and social climber—is a gorgeous invention, and one shares the feeling of her country neighbors, who watch resentfully her dizzy successes in London, that Lucia may be insufferable but that she does make life exciting. Throughout this pleasant piece of foolery Mr. Benson never allows one to tire of the formula.
~Edith Walton in The Bookman, 05/1928

Most readers will find Mr E F Benson's Lucia in London […] as entertaining a book as his admirable Miss Mapp, with which it has a good many points in common. To begin with, we have Lucia as the dominating leader of the select, well-to-do society of a village, with the amusing comedy of its social jealousies and competitions. Then Lucia falls into a fortune and goes to London, where she becomes a social climber. The narrative of her whole-hearted efforts to climb into high society is pure comedy. There can never have been in real life such a climber as Lucia, and if Lucia in London is not so good a book as Miss Mapp, it is just because of this exaggeration. But it is quite amusing.
~The Courier and Advertiser [Dundee], 22/09/1927

Monday, 15 June 1992

The Return of Frank Hampden

Fiction ~ short story (spook)
First published as The Case of Frank Hampden in The Countess of Lowndes Square and Other stories, 1912.  Subsequently published under its new title in Pearson's magazine, December 1915
Approx. 6,500 words
(First read 15/06/1992)

Sunday, 14 June 1992


Fiction ~ short story
First published in The Storyteller, July 1917
Subsequently collected in The Countess of Lowndes Square and Other Stories, 1920  
(First read 14/06/1992)

As with various other 'paranormal phenomena', EFB could never quite make up his mind whether or not he believed in mediums, séances, the living contacting the dead, etc.  'Through' is a good example of this dithering in action.  The hero, Richard Waghorn¹, is a self-avowed mediumistic fraud: he and his sister use the full panoply of gadgetry and trickery to ply their trade.  And yet, there are moments when he seems genuinely able to see inside the heads of his sitters.  The story deals with one such occasion, when, in fact, he has his first genuine full-blown trance and his client's dead brother speaks 'through' him.  Not a bad story ~ the pace is good and it doesn't outstay it's welcome.  You can read it online here.

¹ Why EFB didn't go the whole hog and call him Richard Wagner is unclear.  And immaterial.

Wednesday, 10 June 1992

The China Bowl

Fiction ~ short story
Published December 1916
3,485 words
(First read 10/06/1992)

A spook story in which our intrepid heroes [EFB?] and Hugh Grainger solve the mystery of the revenant ghost infesting the spare bedroom of the former's new house in Barrett's Square, London.  To my mind a very routine and somewhat humdrum supernatural/crime yarn.  I marked this in it because it struck me as odd (the bolding is mine):
I was expecting the arrival of my friend Hugh Grainger the next week, to stay a night or two with me, and since the front spare room, which I proposed to give him, had not at present been slept in, I gave orders that a bed should be made up there the next night for me, so that I could test with my own vile body whether a guest would be comfortable there.
As it turns out, [EFB?] and pal Hughie end up sharing the room to do their ghost-hunting.  But why 'my own vile body'? ~ very curious.  The story is available online here.

Friday, 29 May 1992

The Friend in the Garden

Fiction ~ short story
Published August 1912
(First read 29/05/1992)

Dodo's Progress

Fiction ~ short story
First published in Lady's Realm, May 1897, as The Progress of Princess Waldeneck*
Collected in Desirable Residences and Other Stories (1991)
Approx. 5,100 words
(First read 29/05/1992) 

"Pull yourself together, woman!"
This story picks up exactly where the previous one, The Return of Dodo (1896), ended.  The day after her triumphant relaunch into London Society, Dodo goes to see her old pal Edith to try and make friends again.  During their interview Her Dodiness has a genuine moment of weakness: she breaks down in tears ('hopeless, desolating sobs', in fact) and tells Edie about the state of her horrible marriage to Prince Waldeneck.  Dodo and Edith are reconciled ~ well, whoop-di-doo.

As I said in my write-up for The Return of Dodo, I suspect EFB may have had a serialization in mind when he produced these two stories.  The fact that Lady's Realm left a gap of six months between the first and the second suggests that they weren't keen on the idea ~ if indeed it was an idea.  As far as I know, Dodo's next outing was the first sequel novel Dodo the Second (1914), so Fred may have realized that the whole world in fact wasn't itching to know what happened to his creation next.

* Why the editor of Desirable Residences felt he needed to change the title is anyone's guess. 

Dodo explains to Edith why it was she was swept away from marrying Jack at the end of Dodo: A Detail of the Day:
'I was blind, deaf, dumb: I could not, I was morally incapable of resisting.  If Waldeneck had told me to throw myself out of the window instead of coming to Paris with him, I should have done it.  I might have begged for a minute to put on my hat, but I should have done it.  He is strong ~ good heavens! he is strong.  You don't understand what that means ~ to find someone stronger than yourself, and who can beat down resistance as an iron bar can beat down a weaker thing.'
Yeah, whatever, Dodes.
[Mr Anthony Hope Hawkins, whose somewhat laboured attempt in a recent lecture to draw a clear distinction between a romance and a novel was not very successful, intends to produce a sequel to his romantic novel The Prisoner of Zenda. It is to be hoped that he will not afford such] an object-lesson of the dangers of 'continuations' as Mr E. F. Benson has lately offered us with regard to Dodo.
~The Morning Post, 20/05/1897

Wednesday, 27 May 1992

Sea Mist

Fiction ~ short story
Published 20th November 1935
Approx. 5,200 words
(First read 27/05/1992)

Monday, 25 May 1992

The Light in the Garden

Fiction ~ short story
Published 23rd November 1921
Approx. 3,100 words
(First read 25/05/1992)

Saturday, 23 May 1992

The Satyr's Sandals

Fiction ~ short story
Published 20th March 1920
Approx. 1,900 words
(First read 23/05/1992)

Friday, 22 May 1992

Number 12

Fiction ~ short story
First published in Eve, 10th May 1922
Collected in Desirable Residences and Other Stories (1991)
Approx. 2,000 words
(First read 22/05/1992) 

Our Unnamed Narrator has always dreamed of living in a particular house in a particular London square.  He eventually gets his wish, moves in, discovers there's a ghost in residence, and moves out.  That's it.  It's as brief and sketchy as that.  There's nothing more to be said of it.
Collected in Desirable Residences and Other Stories (1991).

Dicky's Pain

Fiction ~ short story
First published in the Windsor Magazine, April 1927
Collected in Desirable Residences and Other Stories, 1991
Approx. 4,200 words
(First read 22/05/1992) 

Like The Case of Bertram Porter (1911) in this same collection, Dicky's Pain is a tale of acute progressive hypochondria.  Unlike poor Bertie's, Dicky's outcome is a happy one, though.  After consulting a clutch of doctors (one of whom bears the bizarre name Janitor), and being recommended a different course of 'treatment', mainly dietary, by each, and having finally been advised that his mystery ailment is all down to his teeth so he ought to have them all out, Dicky decides to have one last blow-out before his gnashers go to meet their maker.  The one last blow-out turns into a couple of blow-outs, then a week of blow-outs, and eventually he slips back out of hypochondria.  And his teeth are saved ~ yay!
Certainly more fun than its thematic predecessor, but kind of instantly forgettable too.  

As is fairly often the case with these 'throwaway' stories, the set-up in the first paragraph is the most memorable.  Extract:
Dicky Pepys, up to the age of fifty, had lived an extremely happy, selfish, and innocent life.  He had lost two tiresome parents while he was yet in his 'teens, and at the age of twenty-one had come into a very ample fortune, unencumbered with the wretched hardships of rank and of land-owning, except for that portion of the earth's surface upon which stood his charming house in Berkeley Square. 

Thursday, 21 May 1992

The Drawing-room Bureau

Fiction ~ short story
First published in Woman at Home, December 1915
Collected in Desirable Residences and Other Stories, 1991
Approx. 3,000 words
(First read 21/05/1992) 

One of my favouritest E F Benson short stories: it tells a complete tale without a shred of padding.  The story itself ~ of two society dames who, rather than doing anything at all useful, try to outvie each other as to who can produce (from literally nothing) the best and recentest news of the War, for dissemination in their drawing-rooms ~ is inspired twaddle.  The characters are sublime ~ ridiculous but not ridiculed.  The tone is light.  The comedy is delicious.
All this is, of course, what EFB gives us in spades in the Mapp and Lucia novels ~ but here it has the added advantage of being all over and done with in 15 minutes*.
In my opinion: perfect.

*I'm not suggesting that those novels outstay their welcomes, just that a lot of Benson's short stories last far too long, given the foundations they're built on.

Wednesday, 20 May 1992

The Passenger

Fiction ~ short story
Published March 1917
(First read 20/05/1992)

Tuesday, 19 May 1992


Fiction ~ short story
First published in The Windsor Magazine, December 1924
Collected in Desirable Residences and Other Stories (1991)
Approx. 3,100 words
(First read 19/05/1992) 

Music is, to use a favourite word of E. F. Benson characters, delicious: charming light satire from front to back and side to side.  Just listen to our introduction to this canny, cunning, ruthless social climber:
When Elizabeth Nutter¹ came to London with a view to perching herself on the very topmost bough of the pleasant tree of Society which grows by the Thames, she possessed the usual equipment of such amiable invaders.  She had an amusing face, gowns from Paris, pearls from the Orient, an iron, inflexible will, any amount of money, a variety of complexion to suit all lights, and no husband.
I'd love to quote the whole thing but this will have to do ... oh no, go on, Ewie, let's have a bit more.  Here's E.N. on the possibilities of picking up a new husband in London (she's already disposed of one such back in the 'Argentine Republic'):
[...] it would be well to make herself at home in London before she chose this permanent addition to her life's appurtenances, otherwise he might not suit her social colour scheme, which at present was undetermined, and it was well to see what sort of possible husbands were stocked just now in London before she selected one.
Anyway, she launches herself into the fray and is moderately successful, but soon realizes she's climbing horizontally rather than vertically: she wants to reach the pinnacle rather than content herself with collecting dull Cabinet politicians and uninspiring aristocrats ("For being a duchess," thought the astute Elizabeth, "doesn't prevent your being a dowdy.")  What she needs is a stunt.  It's a bit of a risk but, despite her innate dislike of music, she
The Divine Novello, without piano
decides to 'adopt' a young ~ and blond, and handsome ~ pianist who's a countryman of hers².  This chap, known professionally as Smirkowski³, has just one drawback: he can't play a note.  Still, thinks Our Liz, that won't matter, she can pass his style off as 'modern' and Society won't know any better.  And lo! ... well, you can probably guess the rest.

When, as here, Benson is at his very best, his comic stories are twenty times more amusing than his ghost stories are spooky or his dramas are dramatic.
Not one single word of Music goes to waste: it's perfect.

(Daft, obviously ... but perfectly daft.)

¹ A couple of hundred years ago I had a great-great-great-great-aunt who was née Elizabeth Nutter.  Not relevant ~ just thought I'd mention it.
² E.N. and her protégé are obviously ex-members of the English 'beef barony' of Argentina: there's nothing remotely Hispanic about them.
³ Stokowski was Big Stuff in 1924.


Desirable Residences

Fiction ~ short story
Published February 1929
Approx. 2,300 words
(First read 19/05/1992)

Monday, 18 May 1992

The Hapless Bachelors

Fiction ~ short story
First published in Pearson's Magazine, March 1921
Collected in Desirable Residences and Other Stories 1991
Approx. 4,600 words
(First read 18/05/1992) 

A bit of a mishmash of a story: part lament over changing post-War attitudes; part hymn in praise of modern gadgetry cum condemnation of folk's dumb dependence on same¹; and part gentle comedy of very English manners.
Mr Bradley and Mr Beaumont ~ 'two gentlemen sharing' ~ 'lose' their utterly indispensable housekeeper and, falling victim to the serious shortage of domestic staff that followed on the end of WWI, are subjected to a herd of incompetent cooks, maids, gardeners, etc.  In despair they decide to invest in a whole host of modern appliances, from the miraculous 'Ichabod' oven to an electric duster. 
'Course, being middle-aged hapless Englishmen, they haven't much of a clue how to work all this marvellous machinery ... but in the nick of time rescue arrives in the shape of Beaumont's widowed sister Mrs Glover², or rather in the shape of Mrs G's perfect French maid Hortense.  Order is restored and the story ends in the blink of an eye.
Most of the comedy is: (a) at the expense of the crap servants, who include a "crippled soldier with the resounding name of Fotheringay [who] would make beds and empty slops [into the bath], which was sordid employment"³; and (b) derived from the 'pathetic obstinacy' with which our two gents try to get to grips with all this new kit.
Verdict: fun, but perhaps not as much fun as it might have been had it been written by someone more used to writing about fun.  (If you see what I mean.) 

Bradley and Beaumont on the merits of femalepersons:
"Women may be, in fact, they are, ornamental little things; they have a brightness, a charm about them.  For the purposes of the propagation of the species, they seem to be essential."
"Doubtless; but you and I do not propose to propagate the species."

¹ Heaven only knows what EFB would make of today's world.
² Who Bradley ends up by marrying.
³ It seems not to occur to Beaumont and Bradley (or possibly to EFB) that a large part of the reason servants became so rare is that they finally woke up to the sordidness of so much domestic service.  Fotheringay, you'll be pleased to hear, eventually melts away and is no more seen. 

Sunday, 17 May 1992

Philip's Safety Razor

Fiction ~ short story
Published in Pearson's Magazine, March 1919; collected in The Countess of Lowndes Square (1920) and in Desirable Residences (1991)
Approx. 4,800 words
(First read 17/05/1992) 

This is EFB at his catty¹ best.  The objects of his contumely on this occasion are Philip and Phoebe Partington, husband-and-wife authors of lurid newspaper serial stories à la Madame Corelli.  Mr P, newly bought a brand new safety razor by his lovely wife, "in order to save cotton wool and his life-blood," soon becomes obsessed with the thorny (well, sharp) problem of how to dispose of the used blades of said instrument.  Having first merely thrown it out of the window into a flowerbed, he ends up moving it round and round the house and neighbourhood to various locations, each one fraught with risk: the cat, wife, housemaid, dog, bathing children (etc.) might come across it by accident and cut themselves.  Finally, on a trip to a munitions factory, he hits on the perfect place for it: a bomb destined for the Western Front.
Jolly fun ~ the ending's a bit of a disappointment² but the rest makes up for it.  Read it online here.

¹ Both front paws, but claws sheathed.
² I imagine (no evidence for this) that Fred wrote this while the War was still going on, as a piece of propaganda lite, but that he missed the deadline.

Friday, 15 May 1992

The Return of Dodo

Fiction ~ short story
Published in Lady's Realm, December 1896
Collected in Desirable Residences and Other Stories (1991)
Approx. 5,400 words
(First read 15/05/1992) 

At the end of Dodo the novel (1893) the eponymous witch, having pretty much ditched her fiancé Jack (who'd been pining for her throughout the novel, despite her previously marrying his cousin) at the altar and taken as her second victim-I-mean-spouse the Austrian diplomat Prince Waldeneck, sent herself into a kind of self-imposed exile.  In The Return of Dodo ~ unsurprisingly ~ she makes a triumphant re-entry two years later onto the London Society scene, after being invited to open a charity bazaar¹.  The story deals with this comeback: the success of Dodo and, for the titillation of the Lady's Realm readers, the concomitant failure of her marriage.
I suspect ~ but have no evidence ~ that EFB may have intended this as the opener of a magazine serial².  Dodo is okay in small doses like this, particularly when she doesn't actually show her face till halfway through the story.

¹ It's a great pity she didn't stay in Paris just six more months and attend this ill-fated bazaar, then I might not have had to wade through the two sequel novels.
² For more on this see the entry for the next Dodo story, The Progress of Princess Waldeneck [aka Dodo's Progress], which followed in May 1897 in the same magazine.

A favourite joke of EFB's:
Dodo had been out of England for two years, and it might have been supposed that London, or rather that momentous fraction of it called 'All London', would have entirely forgotten about her.
As I said earlier, the first half of the story, before Dodo turns up, is actually quite good fun.  In this passage Benson has a little dig at the Society charity bazaar phenomenon:
All London had suddenly realized that the greatest of all things was charity, and it had pricked its fingers terribly over the discovery.  Everybody brought little silk bags out to dinner with them, in which they kept their work, and after dinner sewed away diligently at squares of silk bedcovers and embroidered stoles.  [...] Several young men even followed the fashion, and sat them chastely at their needlework in the manner of Penelope, and talked about rucking and tacking.
Finally, EFB slips into Dickens mode with the woman who was to have been the star attraction of the bazaar until Dodo deigned to accept her invitation:
[At the bazaar] no change was to be given, no silver taken, no untitled lady except Miss Anastasia M. Blobs, who was the rage just then ~ she could whistle through her fingers ~ was going to hold a stall [...]

Aunts and Pianos

Fiction ~ short story
First published in The Windsor Magazine, August 1926
First collected in The Funny Bone (1928); re-collected in Desirable Residences and Other Stories (1991)
Approx. 2,800 words
(First read 15/05/1992) 

In this writer's opinion Aunts and Pianos is the perfect EFB comic short story, an unalloyed delight: it's brief and it's simple; every word is juste; the characters are very funny; the climax, though visible from Saturn, is a hoot; and it pulls off the trick of being both comical and (mildly) satirical.  What more could you want?
Our hero Bobby is ... well, sublimely summed up in the first Quotable below.  His life revolves around his 'aunts' (and a 'cousin'), genteel ladies all, each blessed with a piano at which Bob takes pleasure in entertaining them ...

The whole thing is eminently quotable but here are just a few of my favourite moments, starting with the opening sentence:
Bobby Deacon at the age of fifty-five was a very busy young man; no one had so many engagements to little lunch-parties and tea-parties and dinner-parties.
Echoes of Lucia and Georgie here ~ 'Aunt Judy' is one of Bobby's favoured old ladies:
Aunt Judy, as usual gave him a remarkably good dinner, and Bobby, who was greedy, liked that.  A crossword puzzle succeeded, and as he had done a little work at it already (though it was not necessary to mention that), he was very brilliant about it.
Bobby is not above the odd base thought:
[Aunt Fanny] was the most devoted of all his aunts, and the richest and the least robust, and sometimes Bobby when he was not thinking what he was thinking about allowed himself to think about Aunt Fanny's entire lack of relations ...
Aunt Judy is the larger Hermie-and-Ursie style of female person; Aunt Fanny, by contrast,
... was very small and all the furniture with the exception of her grand piano was small and fragile, and Bobby trembled to think how awful would have been the crash if Aunt Judy had sunk exhausted on that chair, or indeed anywhere in Aunt Fanny's house except on the floor.
This speaks for itself.  Bobby is at Fanny's piano [wow that sounded smutty!]:
Bobby slid into a fluid little morsel by Debussy, which was a favourite of Aunt Fanny's, though Aunt Judy declared that it sounded to her like a child whimpering next door.  It made Aunt Fanny feel ill and unhappy, which she liked, for one of the greatest joys of her life was feeling ill and thinking she was going to die.
For health reasons Aunt Fanny has decided to go south for the winter:
She talked about her journey a little more, as if it had been the conveyance of a corpse to its final resting-place.
I could go on, but won't. 

Wednesday, 13 May 1992

The Bridge Fiend

Fiction ~ playlet/dialogue
Published in Lady's Realm, November 1903
Collected in Desirable Residences and Other Stories (1991)
Approx. 3,100 words
(First read 13/05/1992)  

As with others of EFB's 'special interest' stories¹, you don't absolutely have to be an expert or at least an initiate ~ but it would certainly help.  All it is is a game ('rubber') of bridge in dialogue form.  There's a bit of the usual epigrammatic banter between Lady Witham, the fiend of the title, and her pal Mrs Spencer at the beginning, and the interplay between the four players ~ the two men turn out to be far more vapid and distracting chatterboxes than the ladies ~ is vaguely amusing, but if you happen not to know how to play bridge², about 80% of it will go over the top of your head.  It is at least fairly brief.

¹ The ones I can think of off-hand are George's Secret (1894: fishing) and The Valkyries (1903: cretinous operas).
² I tried teaching myself once but had to give it up due to a lack of: (1) three other people to play with; (2) an ability to absorb anything in How To Play Bridge; and (3) an overwhelming sense of tedium.  Yes, I've always felt at something of a disadvantage when reading E. F. Benson, where the game often features pretty highly.

After dinner and before they sit down to their game, the bridge fiend and friend comment on the trials of house-party life.  The fiend speaks thusly:
Really, I think that to join in a flow of polite conversation is the most fatiguing thing that can happen to one ~ so enfeebling to the intellect, too, especially sitting in the open air.  I have been flowing, leaking rather, for the last hour and a half.  Well, a rubber will restore us, I hope.

Monday, 11 May 1992

The Queen of the Spa

Fiction ~ short story
Published September 1926
Approx. 3,100 words
(First read 11/05/1992)

Sunday, 10 May 1992

The Puce Silk

Fiction ~ short story
Published November 1907
Approx. 4,400 words
(First read 10/05/1992)

Saturday, 9 May 1992

Sir Roger de Coverley

Fiction ~ short story
Published December 1927
(First read 09/05/1992) 

[Benson's] own ambivalence toward, and abiding fascination with, the supernatural, means that a healthy edge of scepticism undercuts even his lighter, more whimsical tales, like the first two [in the collection Sea Mist], dealing with time-slips and mediums - Sir Roger de Coverley and The Box at the Bank.
~Alexis Lykiard. Quoted from his review of Ash-Tree Press' Sea Mist, first published in All Hallows magazine, 06/2005


Fiction ~ short story
Published in The Windsor Magazine, January 1928; collected in Desirable Residences (1991)
Approx. 3,700 words
(First read 09/05/1992) 

Alas! this is the last of the Amy Bondham stories¹.  In this one she's come into a vast sum of money from an eccentric uncle and is determined to put it to best use to advance her 'career'.  Devoted husband Christopher longs for a yacht and has a stab at persuading his seasickness-suffering better half of the advantages that would accrue from swanning about
the Med between Monte Carlo and Naples.  Obviously, though, Mrs B has a better idea, that of taking a house in the country for the winter so she can keep in with her County friends.
'But I should be expected to hunt,' said Christopher in some dismay.  'So would you.'
'Well, I don't see why you shouldn't hunt,' said she.  'Anyhow you can see what it's like first, and then if you feel you can't manage it, you can easily get out of it.  If there's a meeting of the hunt ~ don't they call it a meeting? ~ anywhere close, you can have a cold or be obliged to go up to London.  As for me, I shall certainly say that I don't hunt, but why should that cut me off from all my friends?
And so it comes to pass.  Christopher spends a large part of the winter on the train back and forth between Leicestershire and London while The Good Lady tries to inveigle herself into hunting circles.  Alas!² Amy Bondham is, like her more famous cousin Lucia, a hilarious blend of the deeply cunning and the woefully ignorant and ... horrors! she blows it!  I won't say any more as the whole thing is a hoot I'll leave you to discover (if you haven't already read it).  Available in Desirable Residences and Other Stories (1991).

¹ I mean "the last one I've revisited recently" rather than the last chronologically, though it 's that too.
² Oops, must stop saying that.

Friday, 8 May 1992

To Account Rendered

Fiction ~ short story
First published in The Storyteller, June 1925
Collected in Desirable Residences and Other Stories (1991)
Approx. 4,300 words
(First read 08/05/1992) 

There are three ways the reader might approach this story.  (1) Those who've already read EFB's novel Rex (1925¹) will think, "This is the plot of Rex, pretty much ~ why bother repeating it?"  (2) Those who haven't read Rex can just read the story and save themselves the misery of reading that novel ... or (3) they can read the story then go on to delight in the
full expanded novel version.
In brief, then, Hugh Ranworth is a young London playwright who's spent the past decade or so trying to come up with something produceable.  He started out full of the joys (?) of creative expression but ended up writing whatever mindless pap he thought the market would want.  At the age of 32 he suddenly cracks it and is an overnight sensation, having jettisoned all his youthful ideals.  Problem No. 1: He'd always promised his old mum, safely tucked away on the Norfolk coast, that when he made it big she was to come and live with him in the Big Smoke.  Problem No. 2: All that youthful disappointment has turned him into an empty husk of a chap, devoid of affection or any other worthwhile emotion ~ all he is is a writing-machine ...
The End².
Available in Desirable Residences and Other Stories.

¹ The novel appeared in late March or early April.  Just why Benson thought the public might want to read the same story all over again a mere three months later is beyond reckoning.
² Obviously there's more to Rex than this ... but that's basically it in a nutshell.

Incidentally, à propos de rien, EFB does a bit of self-referencing in this one: the only play of Hugh's mentioned by name is titled The Bread of Deceit, which was also the title of a 1903 story by Fred.  

I intend, though it will probably never happen, to devote a whole section of this blog to EFB's rather dismal 'career' as a playwright.