Sunday, 4 February 2007

As We Are: A Modern Revue

Non-fiction (kind of) ~ social history
Published October 1932
Approx. 87,000 words
(First read 04/02/2007)

Not in fact a novel at all, though there are times when it feels like it's in danger of turning into one, as I remember it.  My review at the time was sketchy and somewhat skathing:
A kind of history of the UK in the years 1918-31.
  Entertaining in one way, pretty dull in another.
To do it 'justice' I should really reread it but, to be honest, I don't have happy memories of it and would really rather not ...

THE CRITICS
When E. F. Benson wrote that fascinating study of Victorianism, As We Were, it was inevitable that he should follow on with his views on the present.
This he has given us in As We Are […].
This is no peep-show like his previous work, but a revue. He holds up for our entertainment and thought the war and the post-war period ~ sometimes in the guise of parable, sometimes in direct review.
He sums up the effect of four years of war on the social, economic, and religious conditions of the nation. And what is his verdict?
In every respect except with regard to the enfranchisement of women,” he writes, “the change has been destructive, and not a single constructive betterment or illumination had resulted.”
Whatever one's conclusions may be after digesting Mr Benson's work, one must at least congratulate him in making the immediate history so attractive. The book is full of wisdom, anecdote, and wise observations.
 
~The Courier and Advertiser [Dundee, UK], 21/10/1932
[…] Mr E. F. Benson has written two most interesting books. One is As We Were, a Victorian peepshow. It is a picture gallery of great personages in the Queen's record reign; and the other now given to the public is As We Are, a modern revue […]. We have, carefully drawn by the writer, one of the little territorial kings of England, Lord Buryan, and his countess. We see society modelled on the old scale, with the peer boasting of his mansions, his land, his retainers, and his boundless hospitality. There is the countess, who is lady bountiful. The characters are well drawn, and can be recognised by mature readers. On the other hand, there are the young people to whom old-time usages and stiff hospitality are a bore, and so, too, is at least one of the Commandments. Mr Benson sketches brilliantly the great change that has come over Britain with the disappearance of the great house, the sale of the land and furniture, and heirlooms. The young people concerned see the whole affair go without a sigh; their only concern is the financial proceeds and well-lined pocket-books. Change there must be. Does it make for high character and that sound morality which stands the test well in a crisis? That question is always arising as one reads Mr Benson's witty and biting survey of the new society.
Mr Benson has not a great deal that is personal to say; but in a chapter on 'Eminent Men' he protests against the persecution of Sir Ernest Cassel and Sir Edgar Speyer during the Great War, and he writes in most appreciative terms of Lord Balfour and Archbishop Davidson. […] The author is critical of literary developments, and notes that a feature of post-war fiction has been the flood of novels which were wholly concerned with sex, and which treated it with a frankness and wealth of physical detail. Nor does he welcome the appearance of excessively long novels. In considering the war period Mr Benson says that in every respect, except to the enfranchisement of women, changes were destructive, and not a single constructive betterment or illumination resulted. His brief review of politics or what passes to-day as statesmanship is not cheerful. He argues that to-day, while the nations are still suffering from exhaustion and disorganisation, and while their representatives at Geneva are trying to render war impossible, precisely the same provocative causes are at work again, making it every day more possible, and in the long run as inevitable as it was in 1914.
~Edinburgh Evening News, 24/10/1932, abridged


It was close upon forty years ago, when I was sub-editing the New Review, that it fell to my lot to write to Mr. E. F. Benson and ask whether he would "do" us an article upon "Country-House Parties." Both the subject suggested and the choice of author were my own ideas; and I remember thinking it rather a creditable decoration in my sub-editorial cap when Mr. Benson responded with a lively, chatty article, attracting the immediate attention which articles of that sort always do attract from journalists avid for topical "copy." For those were the days of Dodo, when the drawing-rooms of rural manors were fluttering with curiosity and protest. "Do people really do such things?" And "if they do, ought those who know to tell?" . . . "It is so bad for the shopkeepers and the servants to have such things to talk about!" . . . Faint echoes of forty years ago; they come drifting back on the breeze of memory, and once more the wind blows from the Benson quarter—a gentle, tonic autumn wind at first, stiffening with a touch of frost and winter bitterness towards the finish. For this "modern revue" of "as-we-are" is quite as much a peep-show of "as-we-were"; and, to be frank, the more distant the prospect the pleasanter the vision. It may be a weakness of middle-age, when the historian grows sentimental about the past, but "the weakness is so strong," as Celia says in Iolanthe, and the sentiment so universal that everyone but the prig and the pessimist must share them. At any rate, they lend to the earlier part of this richly reminiscent and very human book a charm of maturity and urbane grace which vanishes all upon a sudden when the author turns his searchlight upon the scene around him. To idealise the past is more companionable than to scold the present.
[...]
the last section of the book is noticeably inferior to the first.
[...] His "revue" is a keen and moving entertainment for the hour, and it would not be surprising if it took its place among those records from which a world that we shall not know will refresh its imagination of the days and the ordeals which were ours. If that happens, the picture it derives will be both illuminating and true. Indeed I cannot at the moment think where it would be likely to find a truer one.
~Arthur Waugh in The Bookman, 11/1932 [Very heavily edited: Mr Waugh's review is pompous, long-winded and decidedly boring.  You can read the whole thing online here.]

Mr Benson calls his book a modern revue, the fictional portion of which exemplifies the passing of the old Edwardian and Victorian regimes, as example by the Earl and Countess of Buryan and their ancestral home ~ Hakluyt. The Buryans have a son and heir whose war-time experiences intensify a natural tendency to decry family traditions and its inherited formalities. The week-end parties he introduces to Hakluyt are as incongruous as a clog dance with a stately minuet setting. He takes to marriage, followed by a course of extravagance and infidelity, culminating in a double divorce and the premature death of the Earl. The estate is disintegrated and sold, Hakluyt becoming a country club ~ tragically typical of the passing of the old order. The remaining chapters are mostly devoted to shrewd comments on types before, during and after the war, and a chapter is given to 'Eminent Men', which is Bensonian to a degree. Arthur Balfour and Archbishop Davidson are specially reviewed, and in the author's opinion their vocations should have been reversed. One incident in connection with the Archbishop and the non-publication of the third series of Queen Victoria's Leaves from my Diary will be news to many. The book is very readable, but over all hangs the shadow ~ Ichabod.
~Western Daily Press [UK], 12/11/1932
A delightfully urbane volume.
~The Evening Telegraph [Angus, UK], 06/12/1932
TWO GENERATIONS
GULF WIDENED BY WAR
Not long ago Mr E. F. Benson presented the public with As We Were, a Victorian peep-show. He has followed this with a modern revue, As We Are, in which ho discusses some of the changes which have occurred in England since the first decade of the century. There is in this volume an unevenness of writing and the 'we' of the title is a restricted we. The masses of English men and women were but indirectly concerned with much that is narrated. Often, however, the author attains a high level, the first chapter being exceptionally good. Here we have a picture of upper-class Edwardian society. The occasion is a week-end party given by Lord and Lady Buryan at their country seat, Hakluyt. The host and hostess belonged to that class,"with broad lands and exalted titles, who in their hearts knew that God was the real head of the Tory party.” As we follow the doings of this gathering we are given a glimpse of social traditions which were soon to disappear. This is Mr. Benson at his best. The author tells the story of the parable house, as he terms Hakluyt, and shows the changes that it underwent. After a party to celebrate her son's engagement Lady Buryan was puzzled, she was disquieted: the young generation, when in force like this, was very hard to understand, and she felt she had set up no kind of relationship with any of them." 'With time the gulf between the two generations widened. Indeed, when wo take leave of Hakluyt, its ancestral park has already been converted into golf links, croquet lawns and tennis courts, and tho house into a residential clubhouse. Possibly, had it not been for the war," says Mr. Benson, the habit and outlook of tho generation then passing through the decade of its twenties would not have grown more widely divergent from those of their fathers, than those of their fathers had been from tho generation that preceded them." The war changed everything. In the last 100 pages Mr. Benson turns to other topics. He discusse's A. J. Balfour and Archbishop Davidson. "It is quite conceivable," he might have rendered even greater services to their generation and beyond, if tho politician had devoted, himself to philosophy and the archbishop to politics." Various literary movements of to-day are analysed: the Book Society and the methods of James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, D. H. Lawrence, Lytton Strachey and Arnold Bennett. There are in As We Are passages which the reader will wish to re-read as soon as he has finished the book.
~The New Zealand Herald, 10/12/1932

The successor to the widely popular As We Were, Mr. Benson doesn't think very highly of modern morals and manners, but his account of them ~ partly under the guise of fiction ~ is extremely readable. The best sections deal with the decline of a once great Victorian house.
~The Forum, 01/1933
As We Are ~ But Are We?
[...] As We Are, sets out to describe a period extending from just before the war down to our own day. The book is divided into two parts that differ as much in method as, I venture to suggest, in merit. In the last three chapters
Mr. Benson writes, as he did in his last book, about people and things of which he has positive knowledge, and about which he is attempting to say no more than he positively knows. His portraits of Mr. Balfour, of Archbishop Davidson, of Sir Ernest Cassel, of Sir Edgar Speyer, are not only delightful to read, but are contributions to history of the highest value. His account, by no means flattering, of recent developments in literature, is as stimulating a piece of criticism as we should naturally expect from one who was already a novelist of note in the nineties, and to whom years have brought no diminution of vigor. And the almost unrelieved pessimism of his final chapter, in which he takes stock of the present situation, must surely command our respect, if not necessarily our agreement.
But for the rest of the chapters, ten out of thirteen, Mr. Benson is experimenting with a new and different method. So anxious is he to depict in the most vivid colors the changes that have taken place since pre-war days, that he abandons the safe path of the historian, and peoples his stage with frankly imaginary characters. He takes a great country mansion, that he calls the Parable House, and proceeds to trace the fortunes of its inmates and of those intimately connected with them. But a parable house, and still more a parable family, are dangerous things for the historian to start creating. For it is the nature of parables not to deal with real people or things, but with types. And to be of any historical value, the types must be in the fullest sense typical. If Mr. Benson was writing a novel, it would be open to him to select the most exceptional characters, and present them in the most unique circumstances he could conjure up. It is no criticism of Dodo to say that the heroine is not a typical woman of the nineties. But it is an entirely legitimate criticism of Mr. Benson's parable puppets that they are not normal but newspaper types, that they are, in fact, just such striking abnormalities as make excellent copy and—let us concede at once—excellent reading.
[...] 
Mr. Benson no doubt could, if he had stuck to his role of historian, have given us a fascinating account of this diseased excrescence on the social system. But instead he takes up his unfortunate parable as if the whole youth of England were infected.
All the great majority of modest, well-mannered young people that one meets everywhere today might never have existed at all so far as Mr. Benson's parable is concerned.
If only Mr. Benson had not hit on this unfortunate device of a story that is neither history nor straightforward fiction, and had fashioned his first ten chapters on the model of his last three, how immeasurably this book would have gained in value as a chronicle of the time! Even as it is, with all its faults of distortion and exaggeration, it makes excellent reading, and if it is not exactly history, it is no doubt what will pass for history at some future day.
~Esmé Wingfield-Stratford in The Saturday Review, 07/01/1933 [Also heavily edited, for much the same reasons as Alec Waugh's was.  The whole thing is available online here.]

[…] Benson's novel [sic] ~ I think it is his masterpiece ~ is more up to date [than Archibald Marshall's Two Families]. His parable house is one of the stately homes of England, and its noble owners are not driven out of it by taxation. But when the old earl dies, heartbroken by a matrimonial scandal in his family which, as he thinks, has brought disgrace upon an honourable name, his son and the divorcée whom he has married refuse to live in it, and the mansion is broken up, to be turned into a country club.
This is what is happening all over the country. It is not only, perhaps not even chiefly, a question of money. When a great house like Benson's 'Hakluyt' comes into the market it is no longer snapped up by a profiteer.
~Dr W R Inge in 'The Stately Homes of England' in The Yorkshire Evening Post, 11/08/1937
In As We Are [Benson] contrasts the ways of the modern post-war world with those he knew before, without loud lamentation because he did not realise how much there was to lament. He observes and records an annoying shift in manners, but little more.
~Brian Masters in The Life of E. F. Benson, 1991
 

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