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.

The Superannuation Department, AD 1945

Fiction ~ short story
Published January 1906
Approx. 4,400 words
(First read 08/05/1992)

The Chippendale Mirror

Fiction ~ short story
Published May 1915
(First read 08/05/1992)

Thursday, 7 May 1992

The Case of Bertram Porter

Fiction ~ short story
Published in The Windsor Magazine, March 1911
4,355 words
(First read 07/05/1992) 

A simple and mildly diverting twist-in-the-tale about a chap suffering from acute hypochrondria.  Erm ... that's pretty much all there is to it, actually.  Available in Desirable Residences and Other Stories (1991) and online here.
See also Dicky's Pain (1927), another tale of galloping hypochondria.

... in the sad case of Bertram Porter, his one defect gradually invaded and blotted out his other merits [...]  His defect ~ to put the reader out of suspense, and to assure him that no attempt is being made to interest him in the career of some moral delinquent like a cannibal or a second-rate pianist ~ was that he thought about his own health.
That 'second-rate pianist' is a nice touch.

The March Windsor Magazine is particularly strong in complete stories by famous novelists, and all of them are finely illustrated. Here, for instance, within the cover of this one issue, are to be found a complete story of exceptional interest by E. F. Benson […]
~Burnley Gazette [UK], 01/03/1911

Wednesday, 6 May 1992

The Top Landing

Fiction ~ short story
Published in Eve, 7th June 1922
Collected in Desirable Residences and Other Stories (1991)
Approx. 1,800 words
(First read 06/05/1992) 

The Top Landing is one of EFB's 'classic' spook stories ~ but in miniature.  Two gentlemen friends, the one an author, the other a composer, rent a Queen Anne house overlooking Romney Marsh (Kent)¹, which comes complete with housekeeper.  Its one distinguishing feature is that the resident ghost makes itself very physically felt at the end ... oh and it ends extremely suddenly.
I usually moan about Benson's spook stories being too long; this one's actually too short.  Ha!  Still, it's quite effective in its quiet way.

¹ Favoured haunt of Charles Dickens.  No, it's not the ghost of him, luckily.  If it had been, the story would've had to be at least 30,000 words.  [joke]

Y'know how, in 83% of ghost stories ever written, household pets, farm animals, etc. are meant to be specially 'attuned' to the presence of spooks?  Well, EFB seems to have had a notion that household servants also had this 'gift' ~ it's the narrator's 'man' who first voices everyone's fears, with calamitous results for our gent's toilette:
Next morning a domestic bombshell exploded.  My servant Manders, who had been with me for ten years, came to me after breakfast and asked if he and my housemaid might go back to London.  It was reasonable to ask for an explanation.
"We can neither of us stand it any longer," he said.  "I'm very sorry, sir, but I can't stop here, and it's the same with Edith." [...]
"And what's to happen to us if you and Edith go?" I asked.
To which Manders didn't reply, "How about you dress yourself in the morning for once? and light your own fu_king fire?"
This isn't the only story in which Benson used this (erm ...) device, but obviously I can't remember where else he did.

The Disappearance of Jacob Conifer

Fiction ~ short story
Published in The Windsor Magazine, October 1927
Collected in Desirable Residences and Other Stories (1991)
Approx. 2,700 words
(First read 06/05/1992) 

This one's a bit of an oddball, difficult to categorize ... let's call it 'allegorical satirical speculative fiction'¹ with a bit of a detective mystery thrown in for good measure ... try to imagine a Conan Doyle story rewritten by H. G. Wells then rewritten again by E. F. Benson. (!)
Well anyway, it tells the story of Mr Jacob Conifer, an American millionaire, "one of that amiable company of Transatlantic cousins whose mission in life appears to be to make the English folk of London acquainted with each other and with them."  Conifer sets out to conquer Society ("forcible feeding was his method"); his rise to the top of the crème is a total success.  Why then did he suddenly disappear one day? and what has become of him?²  This is what our narrator and his pal set out to discover; after comparing notes about their impressions of him, the narrator realizes a curious fact about Conifer's appearance:
I saw him once bowing to a Princess, and he looked immense.  I scorn to argue that it was a small Princess.  Let's agree that both you and I thought he looked small on some occasions and big on others.
And the 'joke' turns out to be that Conifer was such a terrific snob that merely being in the presence of aristocrats and the like caused him to increase in size ... and vice versa.
The big mystery for me, though, was this: "Why did EFB choose to make him an American?"

¹ The Satyr's Sandals (1920) is another piece that falls into this weird category.
² Apologies for the weird shift of tenses here.

Tuesday, 5 May 1992


Fiction ~ short story
Published in The Windsor Magazine, August 1925
Approx. 3,900 words
(First read 05/05/1992) 

An Amy Bondham story.  In this one our social-climbing heroine, "whose career was to collect round her all who were famous for intelligence, artistic ability, social distinction, or even birth," sets her sights on the prophet of the Next Big Thing*, by name Mr Vincent Fleet who happens to be spending Easter at Slepe House in the town of Tillingham.  Foregoing her own usual Easter bash in Le Touquet, Mrs B takes herself off to Tillingham where she finally succeeds in bagging her man, or capturing her moth, to look at it another way.  But is her moth the right moth?  Highly recommended, to lovers of Mapp/Lucia and Benson's other Mapp-and-Lucia-y stuff.  Available in Desirable Residences and Other Stories (1991).

* 'New Psychology': it doesn't matter what it is.  

Monday, 4 May 1992

The Godmother

Fiction ~ short story
Published in Nash's Illustrated Weekly, 6th December 1919
Collected in Desirable Residences and Other Stories (1991)
Approx. 4,700 words
(First read 04/05/1992) 

Evie Shuttleworth seemingly has everything a 40-year old Benson widowlady could wish for: flawless and entirely natural good looks; a 'delicious doll's-house in Mayfair'; a flourishing hat shop; a talent for producing crayon portraits of her many friends ("Her women all looked thoughtful but dewy, and the men all looked like women"); a boy at Eton; and so on.  Naturally, though, she wants more: she wants ~ though EFB is never so vulgar as to put it in so few words¹ ~ more money, and she wants to hook herself a sound second husband.
E.S. picks V.J. up at the Ritz
With the first aim in mind she 'adopts' Violet Jordan, a stinking-rich widow recently arrived from Canada², and makes her her protégée, introducing her to everyone worth knowing, finding her a country house, etc.³  Unfortunately in doing so she inadvertently introduces Violet to the dull faceless diplomat she's set her 'heart' on as Hubbie No. 2.
The problem with The Godmother is that it's really all situation and no comedy: it toddles along fairly amiably, and not at too great a length, but isn't as funny as it might have been if Benson had been able to think up some plot for it. 

¹ In fact I'm just assuming this is her motive: I can't think of any other.
² Yes, Canada.
³ Benson reprised this theme in one of his 'Old London' novellas, Friend of the Rich (1937).

Evie decides to adopt Violet:
With an insincerity that was as characteristic of her as her beautiful bones, she put it to herself that here was this really charming little woman quite alone [...] in London where, as she so naïvely said, she did not know a soul.
Evie's obscure motives ~ this quote follows on directly from the last:
It was clearly, then, the part of any decent Christian to attempt to brighten so dreary a situation.  That there might conceivably be other lonely women in London, without the alleviation of the Ritz and rivers of diamonds, had not previously presented itself to Evie's mind nor roused the Christian spirit, but it was never too late to begin.  Besides (here sincerity popped out its head like a Jack-in-the-box), who knew what insidious people might get hold of Mrs Jordan [...]?
Evie apparently doesn't scruple to resort to bribery to get rid of the woman who would have been Violet's 'godmother' if she hadn't been delayed in Paris:
The companion from Paris, so luckily delayed in the first instance, proved to be no more than the widow of some perfectly unknown baronet, ... [who] after the briefest sojourn in town [...] returned to Paris with a suitable cheque, astonished to find how London had changed since her day. 

A Breath of Scandal

Fiction ~ short story
Published in The Storyteller, July 1932; collected in Desirable Residences and Other Stories (1991)
Approx. 4,600 words
(First read 04/05/1992) 

Set in the Dorset village/town of Aldwyn, A Breath of Scandal's protagonist is a perfect E. F. Benson creation.  The Revered Mrs Malden (or 'the Reverend Isabel', as one character calls her, though not to her face) is the archetypal busybody.  Benson's summing-up of her is a comic masterpiece:
Though she made no direct claim that the world was her parish, her husband's parish was certainly her world.  It was her spiritual garden far more than his, and in it she laboured unweariedly with comforts and consolations for those who ailed in body or soul, and, no less, with a copious supply of weed-killer, for the extirpation of evil was quite as important as the cultivation of virtue.  [...] She strongly encourage ill-treated wives to be separated from their husbands, even when they would have much preferred to take the thick with the thin, and muddle along somehow; and she got them situations where they could earn their bread in tranquillity and self-respect.  This was useful in times when domestic servants were so hard to obtain, and most of the houses round the Green had a parlour-maid or a house-maid or a cook whom Mrs Malden had torn from her home.
So, the ideal set-up for a social comedy.  Unfortunately that isn't what we get.  What we get is a pretty much 'straight' tale about a malicious gossiping busybody and daft social prejudices.  It's more Act in a Backwater than Mapp and Lucia.
A bit of an oddity.  Not bad, just a bit of an oddity.
It's available in Desirable Residences and Other Stories (1991).

Saturday, 2 May 1992

When Greek Meets Greek

Fiction ~ short story
Published in The Windsor Magazine, December 1926
Approx. 2,700 words
(First read 02/05/1992) 

An Amy Bondham story.  In this one Amy's social-climbing rival bears the splendiferous name of Theodosia Foxinglove.  Having failed to wangle herself an invitation to Theo's 'Elizabethan Fair' (now where have we heard that before?), Amy resolves to get herself into it at any cost.  Meanwhile 'The Foxinglove' is panting to have a real-life princess (it's that trusty Princess Isabel again!) attend her bash.  La Bondham hatches the cunning plan to 'accidentally' send Theodosia a note she's written to the princess saying how delighted she is the royal personage will be able to attend for dinner on the night of Foxy's fayre.   Needless to say, this Machiavellucian ploy pays off and once again Amy scores the point.  Delightful fun.  Available in Desirable Residences and Other Stories (1991).

Friday, 1 May 1992

The Peerage Cure

Fiction ~ short story
Published in The Windsor Magazine, July 1926
Collected in Desirable Residences and Other Stories, 1991
Approx. 2,900 words
(First read 01/05/1992) 

Another story starring that most blatant of social climbers, Mrs Amy Bondham.  Mrs B is having a break from her 'literary, artistic and histrionic friends' (see Entomology and others) and is concentrating on blue-bloods.  Through sheer persistence she's finally managed to bag herself an invitation to the Duchess of Whitby's 'magnificent Norman pile'.  Unfortunately she overdoes it on the ice-skating rink at Doncaster Castle, but is quite happy to come home and develop pleurisy followed by pleuro-pneumonia: it was worth it.  Her devoted (and really rather nice) husband ~ 'Christophero mio': ring any bells? ~ tries to bring her back from the delirium in which her mind wanders constantly over her recent triumph, until finally he hits on the ideal thing: he reads to her out of Burke's Peerage.  That's it: it doesn't sound like much because it isn't much ~ but it's great fun, as are all the Amy Bondham stories.

The Witch-ball

Fiction ~ short story
Published in Woman's Journal, December 1928
(First read 01/05/1992)

The Guardian Angel

Fiction ~ short story
Published in Woman, April 1928
Collected in Desirable Residences and Other Stories (1991)
Approx. 3,800 words
(First read 01/05/1992) 

Another mildly diverting bit of Society froth from the late 20s.  Mrs Attwood is another in EFB's long line of widow-women living in 'poverty', which is to say in a delightful little house in Mayfair with a full retinue of servants.  In exchange for free lunches, dinners, and holidays on the Riviera, she makes it her business to act as guardian angel ~ and matchmaker ~ to her friends, such as that 'dear kind thing' Peggy, Lady Rye.  But this episode in her 'busy' life involves another pal Julia Soningsby who, unhappily married to a man she adores, has agreed to divorce him provided that he names himself as the guilty party.  Mrs A, having rented her house out for the Spring, goes for a holiday to Brighton where an entirely predictable (and credibility-stretching) misunderstanding ensues.  Needless to say, it all ends as prettily as you'd expect, and Adultery pops its head back below the parapet.

Mrs Attwood has gone to have dinner with her chum Julia.  Notice how Benson has a dig at flappers ... without being in the least bit insulting about it:
Julia came downstairs some ten minutes after G[uardian] A[ngel] had arrived at her house, looking like a handsome boy who had chosen to cut his hair shorter than usual, and to wear a sapphire-coloured sack which very nearly came to his knees.  [...] Julia always made Mrs Attwood feel Victorian: she felt even more so as the meal, which consisted chiefly of caviare and cocktails, proceeded.