Sunday, 18 December 2011

The Horror-horn

Fiction ~ short story
First published in Hutchinson's Magazine, September 1922
Collected in Visible and Invisible (1923)
5,360 words
(First read 18/12/2011) 

A horror story rather than a ghost story.  [Unidentified Narrator] is spending a holiday in Switzerland with his cousin 'Professor Ingram, the celebrated physiologist and alpine climber' ¹.  Prompted by news from the Everest expedition (which really happened, in 1922), during which, so he says, "they thought they came across the tracks of some naked human foot at a great altitude," Ingram recalls an occasion 20 years previously when he saw a 'wild man' on that mountain out there, the Ungeheuerhorn² ['Horror-horn'].  U.N.'s own encounter with this 'yeti' ~ or whatever you wish to call it: it doesn't matter ~ a few days later is far more, shall we say, hands-on.  Not a bad horror story in the Benson style, which is to say that it's all a tad repetitive, the horror takes a good while to appear and when it does is somewhat on the dull side; the chase scene is quite nicely handled, though.  It's available online here.

¹ I haven't made this up: it's actually a quote.
² This is made-up, by EFB.  The mountain described sounds rather like the Matterhorn to me, but I'm far from being an expert. 

Friday, 9 December 2011

Caterpillars

Fiction ~ short story
First published in The Room in the Tower and Other Stories, 1912
3,510 words
(First read 09/12/2011) 

At about half the length of one of EFB's regular spook stories, this is really more of a horror story or a ... erm ... psychomedical melodrama ...  Not sure what to call it.  Unnamed Narrator (let's call him Freddie) goes to stay with friends at their villa on the Italian Riviera.  Also living with them is a painter by the name of Arthur Inglis.  On his first night there, Freddie dreams ... is it a dream, though? ... of an infestation of hideous giant caterpillars in a particular unused bedroom.  The next day Inglis finds one of said bugs; he plans to keep it but Freddie is so horrified that he throws it into a fountain; the caterpillar survives its dunking but is eventually squished by Inglis.  Again that night Freddie dreams (¿?) of the infestation, but now it's on the move.  Well, the long and short of it is that the creepie-crawlies (if they exist) are harbingers of Inglis' death from cancer.  The story ends with the villa-owner ~ or the author ~ expressing the extraordinary belief that cancer is in some way infectious.
I'm fairly sure EFB uses the insects-as-cancer motif in something else I've read; he certainly uses the insects-as-consumption motif in Sheaves (1907).  The man himself died of throat cancer in 1940.  I'm not saying a single word about EFB having presaged his own death here.  That would be almost as daft as the story itself, whose main virtue is that it's shortAvailable online here




THE CRITICS


Caterpillars […] tells of a vile dream in which millions of the insects are crawling in through keyholes and covering the floor with their writhing mess, which on waking turns out to be a presentiment of cancer. [It] is such a long way from the arch humour of Benson's English village novels that it scarcely seems credible they were written by the same man …
~ Brian Masters in The Life of E. F. Benson, 1991
Other memorable stories [from The Room in the Tower and Other Stories] include Caterpillars, with its zodiacal pun (a relentless tide of huge, writhing caterpillars with crablike pincers instead of suckers, force their way into a painter's bedroom, after which the painter contracts cancer) …
~Richard Dalby in introduction to The Collected Ghost Stories of E. F. Benson, 1992

Friday, 25 November 2011

The Gardener

Fiction ~ short story
First published in Hutchinson's Magazine, August 1922
Collected in Visible and Invisible (1923)
5,260 words
(First read 25/11/2011) 

[EFB?] goes to spend the Christmas holiday with his friend Hugh Grainger and his wife Margaret (Hugh's wife, not EFB's, obviously).  On a stroll over to the golf club, EFB espies a
whitewashed cottage, apparently standing empty, except that he keeps thinking he sees lights in it.  It turns out from his hosts that it used to be lived in by the gardener attached to the house they're all staying in.  By a curious coincidence*, Margaret has been doing planchette of late and has only been able to produce one word: gardener.  Well, the long and the short is that Hugh and EFB ~ and even Hugh's 'man' ~ are visited by (erm) visitations; and Margaret learns the secret of the mystery over tea at a pal's house.  The End.  A very routine yarn, lacking in any real sense of dread.  Available online here.

*Or something. 

Saturday, 12 November 2011

David Blaize

Fiction ~ novel
Published 1916
Approx. 98,000 words
(First read 12/11/2011)

There's a longish passage in his autobiographical Mother (1925) where Benson, unusually for him, talks at some length about the creation of one of his books, this one:

[...] I had long thought to myself [...] to write a school story not about cheats and bullies and sopranos, [but] to deal with affairs that conceivably have happened: to imagine a boy clean-minded and instinctively revolting from sentiment, who is yet absorbed in such passionate friendship as is characteristic of the fiery age. [...] this had churned in my head for years past, and now, just now, what completer escape from the tragedy and boredom [of the First World War] could a scribbler find?  It was to be boyhood againbefore war was invented or sex manifested, [...] when perfect bliss could be enjoyed with half-a-dozen racket balls and a friend, and when anyone over the age of twenty seemed already ripe for the winding-sheet¹.
And then, with half a page written, and the half page torn up, and a page written and the page torn up, the door at which I was thus rapping swung open, and let me in to a domain where I had no need to invent but only to remember and rediscover.  For there, in the forest of years in which my boyhood had wandered and lost itself, I seemed to find it again, quite alive and happy and ready to talk, and the whole business of recording appeared to be taking down the dictation of some external agent. [...]  Now the door of that storehouse was open and it was lit within and full of lively folk, and chapter after chapter came bubbling on to the paper without effort or selection or arrangement on my part.  The lively folk had settled it all among themselves: I had only to put down what they told me.  So, on most evenings for six months or more, I locked out the war and tiptoed back to where David and his friends were waiting for me. ...  When it was published, I found, with a thrill of amazed pleasure, that at last I had written something which my mother hailed and rejoiced in².
¹ My bolding to highlight the reference to Benson's Golden Age.
² In a passage shortly before this one he'd been complaining ~ well, kind of ~ that his mother never liked any of his books.  For that episode see the entry for Mother.

Other critics
This is actually EFB's old pal Hugh Walpole.
The latest of our novelists to succumb to the temptations of the school story is Mr. E. F. Benson; and I am pleased to add that in David Blaize (Hodder and Stoughton) he seems to have scored a notable success. It is the record of a not specially distinguished, but entirely charming, lad during his career at his private and public schools. Incidentally, as such records must, it becomes the history of certain other boys, two especially, and of David's relations with them. It is this that is the real motive of the book. The friendship between Maddox and David, its dangers and its rewards, seems to me to have been handled with the rarest delicacy and judgment. The hazards of the theme are obvious. There have been books in plenty before now that, essaying to navigate the uncharted seas of schoolboy friendship, have foundered beneath the waves of sloppiness that are so ready to engulph [sic]  them. The more credit then to Mr. Benson for bringing his barque triumphantly to harbour. To drop metaphor, the captious or the forgetful may call the whole sentimental—as if one could write about boys and leave out what is the greatest common factor of the race. But the sentiment is never mawkish. There is indeed an atmosphere of clean, fresh-smelling youth about the book that is vastly refreshing. Friendship and games make up the matter of it; there is nothing that I could repeat by way of plot; but if you care for a close and sympathetic study of boyhood at its happiest here is the book for your money. Finally I may mention that, though in sympathetic studies of boyhood the pedagogue receives as a rule scant courtesy, Mr. Benson's masters are (with one unimportant exception) such delightful persons that I can only hope that they are actual and not imaginary portraits.
~Punch, 12/04/1916

Saturday, 18 June 2011

The Freaks of Mayfair

Fiction ~ sketches
Published 1916
Approx. 39,000 words
(First read 18/06/2011)

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Dodo Wonders

Fiction ~ novel
Published 1921
Approx. 66,000 words
(First read 05/05/2011)

THE CRITICS

One wonders whether the recent discussion of the memoirs put forth by the prototype of Mr. Benson's original Dodo have had an influence in leading him to give us a picture of Dodo in middle age, during and after the Great War. Whatever the reason, we are glad to find her still chattering away with the utmost cheerfulness, saying clever things half consciously and half instinctively, audacious, kind to every one, even to the intolerable German Prince and Princess she is called on to entertain just as war begins. Here is what Dodo at the age of fifty-five liked: "I like the fox-trot and going in an airplane and modern pictures
which look equally delicious upside down, and modern poetry which doesn't scan or rhyme or mean anything, and sitting up all night." Dodo, with all her liveliness and social impudence, is a large-hearted, generous soul. Readers liked her a generation ago, and they will like her now.
~R. D. Townsend in The Outlook (US), 05/10/1921

Monday, 4 April 2011

Dodo the Second

Fiction ~ novel
Published 1914
Approx. 102,000 words
(First read 04/04/2011)

THE CRITICS
Dodo the Second [...] by E. F. Benson. Doesn't the very title-page sound like a leaf from your dead past? I protest that for my own part I was back on hearing it in the naughty nineties, the very beginning of them indeed (the fact that I was also back in the school-room did little to impair the thrill) and agog to read the clever, audacious book that all the wonderful people who lived in those days were talking about. And behold! here they all are again—not the people who talked, but the audacious characters. Only the trouble is that we have all in the interval become so much more audacious ourselves that their efforts in this kind seem to fail to produce the old impression. This is by no means to say that I didn't enjoy Dodo the Second. I enjoyed it very much indeed; and so will you. For one thing, it was the jolliest experience to recognize so many old friends—Dodo herself (now of course the Princess Waldenech [sic]), and the wicked Prince, and the rest of them. Of Dodo at least it may be said, moreover, that she has matured credibly; this middle-aging lady is exactly what the siren of twenty years ago would have developed into, still beautiful, still alluring, and still (I must add) capable of infecting everyone else in a conversation with exactly her own trick of cheap and rather fatiguing brilliance. Added to all this there is now a new generation of characters, several of whom are quite pleasant company; for them and for one very impressive piece of descriptive work in the account of a gathering storm, this Twenty Years After may be heartily welcomed. Indeed one leaves Dodo of 1914 so vigorously alive that I am not without hope of her turning up yet again as a grandmother in 1934.
~Punch, 22/04/1914
It is twenty years since the author made a sensation with his Dodo. The book was talked of partly because it was alleged that some of its characters were taken from life, partly because Dodo was rather more than unconventional in her irresponsible talk. In the critical opinion of the day, the story was not so much immoral as fashionably improper. But that 'Dodo' was likable and amusing no one ever denied. She is still so in Mr. Benson's new story—far more than her over-sophisticated and excessively modern daughter. 'Dodo' still talks with lively inconsequence, and sometimes about things not commonly made the subject of general conversation. It is as if she had a prankish humor in shocking people. But there is no great harm in her; nor is there in the younger set now introduced, except that they rather tire and displease by their strained efforts to appear blasĂ© and clever.
~The Outlook (US), 02/05/1914
Here she is again, dear, delightfully irresponsible Dodo, forty-five years young, with a daughter of her own, Nadine. We are introduced to the party when bedtime has been officially announced "in order to get rid of bores who secluded themselves in their tiresome chambers." Nadine, Berts, and Esther are all lying on Nadine's bed, smoking and chatting, or 'chattering.' Mr. Benson has the gift of reproducing scintillating nonsense. There is many a clever word and thought voiced in the constant repartee of his varied characters. We wonder sometimes how people of such markedly Bohemian tendencies and elastic consciences should have such acute mental perceptions, apparently unaffected by late hours, cigaret-smoking, and social dissipations. There is no 'respecter of persons' among them. All love 'Aunt Dodo,' and Nadine speaks frankly of 'Daddy,' just divorced, and his chronic state of intoxication. She is also interested in 'Jack,' one of Dodo's discarded lovers who has again shown up and who, as a matter of fact, marries his old love with happiest results. The whole book is full of brilliant conversation on all kinds of subjects. Nadine's love-affairs nearly come to grief, but a tragic shipwreck reveals her true love, and all ends happily.
~The Literary Digest, 09/05/1914
Mr. Benson is supposed to have regretted Dodo as a youthful indiscretion, but his penitence on that score may be doubted since twenty years after he comes out, effervescent and unashamed, with Dodo's Daughter. His last novel is not nearly as shocking as was his first, but that is probably less poor Mr. Benson's fault than our own. The science of moral anti-seismography has been highly developed since Mr. Benson, an archbishop's son, tickled pleasantly the naughty aspirations of the British middle classes, and to-day it takes something particularly strenuous from Germany or the Scandinavian countries to make us feel even the semblance of a shock.
The bitter truth must be admitted; Dodo is not as naughty as we had pictured her through the telescope, no, opera glasses, of youthful recollections, and Dodo's daughter and her friends are
almost mid-Victorian in the propriety with which they marry and are given in marriage—Ouida would turn in her grave at the domesticity to which the British aristocracy has descended. For not only does Dodo's daughter, after some rather perfunctory misadventures with a character whom in essentials Mr. Benson has used in a previous book, contract a happy alliance with an ideally commonplace young man, but Dodo herself, having divorced Prince Waldenech [sic], the bibulous nobleman with whom we left her twenty years ago, marries her first love, the fiancĂ© whom she so unceremoniously jilted early in her career, and, of all bourgeois achievements, at the age of forty-five, presents him with an heir. As Dodo herself says, "Isn't it ridiculous?"
The author has not wholly lost his knack of social satire, and his tongue is in his cheek when Nadine and her friends patronize the Victorianism of the 'souls' among whom Dodo in her heyday was a daring leader. Dodo's Daughter is a readable book, and it is plain that Mr. Benson has mellowed with the years, but it is not as clever either as Dodo or as some of the other novels that he has written in the interim.
~The Nation, 14/05/1914







Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Dodo: A Detail of the Day

Fiction ~ novel
Published 1893
Approx. 84,000 words
(First read 01/03/2011)


THE CRITICS

We do not object to novels with some 'go' in them, but we feel obliged to say that Dodo, by E. F. Benson, is something more than 'breezy'—it is vulgar. We have heard that it has had considerable success in England. If that be true, then we do not think that Mr. Howells need to regret that he is anAmerican. Dodo is a loud, vulgar, stupid young woman, whose character we should suppose might have been sketched in the demi monde.
 
~The Outlook (US), 23/12/1893
Dodo is a delightfully witty sketch of the 'smart' people of society […] The writer is a true artist.
~The Spectator, quoted in front endpapers of The Luck of the Vails

(Hold on to your hats for the next one: it's looooooooong)
Mr. Benson has had the good fortune to involve himself in a controversy about social ethics and the functions of art. Some very 'smart' people are supposed to be indignant because his novel [Dodo] is a transcript of their interesting and useful lives. He is even charged with having made his heroine a literal portrait of what is called 'a well-known society woman,' a definition which is a valuable contribution to sociology and the English language. Deeply stirred by this unfounded accusation, Mr. Benson has written an article in one of the reviews, in which the whole duty of a novelist is laid down with academic precision. Nothing is more inartistic in fiction than to photograph your friends. You must study them, of course, with a view, not to an exact likeness, but to representation of types. If Jones accosts you at the club with “What d'ye mean by drawing me as a confounded idiot in your confounded book?” you must point out to him that the character to which he objects contains only one-fifteenth of Jones, the remaining fourteen-fifteenths being collected impartially from his acquaintances. The serious trouble is, as Mr. Benson lucidly explains, that when you represent a strongly marked type in a particular milieu the limitation of the survey increases the chances that some actual person will be singled out—of course, in the most wrong-headed way—as your one and only model. Your heroine may be a most artistically designed epitome of a certain variety of womankind, and yet some obstinate people may insist that she is one of those abnormal women who combine the qualities of the type and the portrait.
If this question has increased the general interest in Dodo, I am bound to say she thoroughly deserves it. She is a heartless little jade, but her piquancy, her facile vivacity, never flag, and her aptitude for reconstructing the world at a moment's notice to suit her temporary point of view—an eminently feminine capacity—amounts to genius. Dodo is the daughter of an ironfounder, generally supposed to be “looking after his affairs in the country while the rest of the family were amusing themselves in London.” Dodo's mamma and sister are merely satellites of that social luminary. Maud Vane has a great devotion to worsted, and when she marries a parson she makes more stockings than ever to supply the wants of his parish. Mrs. Vane's ambition is to bask in the glory of her brilliant daughter, especially when Dodo is engaged to a marquis. She receives visitors on the evening when the engagement becomes public property, “So kind of you to come. I know Dodo is dying to see you and be congratulated. Darling,” she says, turning to Maud, “run and tell Dodo that Lord Burwell has arrived. So good of you to come. And how do you do, Mr. Broxton? Of course, Dodo has told you of our happiness. Thanks, yes; we are all charmed with her engagement. And the Marquis is your cousin, is he not? How nice! May I tell Maud she may call you Cousin Jack? Such a pleasure to have you. Dodo is simply expiring to see you. Did she see you this morning? Really. She never told me of it, and my sweet child usually tells me everything.” That morning, in the Park, Dodo has acquainted Mr. Broxton with her destiny, much to his discontent, for he is very sweet upon her himself, and he is genuinely concerned about his very simple-minded cousin, Chesterford, who is going to marry this butterfly. “I must have lots of money,” she explains to the disappointed lover. “Yes; a big must and a big lot. It's not your fault that you haven't got any, and it wouldn't have been your fault if you had been born with no nose, but I couldn't marry a man who was without either.” As for Chesterford, “I shall be very good to him. I can't pretend that I am what is known as being in love with him—in fact, I don't think I know what that means, except that people get in a very ridiculous state, and write sonnets to their mistress's front teeth; which reminds me that I'm going to the dentist to-morrow … Ah, Jack! I wish that I really knew what it did mean. It can't be all nonsense, because Chesterford's like that and he is an honest man, if you like. And I do respect and adore him very much, and I hope I shall make him happy, and I hear he's got a delightful new yacht; and oh! do look at that Arbuthnot girl opposite with a magenta hat.” In the evening she is a little more serious. “Oh! my God, I don't know what to do. It isn't my fault, and I am made like this. I want to know what love is, and I can't—I can't.” This is the note of the tragedy—that is to say, the tragedy for Chesterford. He is an honest, guileless gentleman, who adores his wife, and when she has a child he adores the child. It lives only a few weeks, and dies one morning when Dodo is riding in the Row with Mr. Broxton. For a moment—she has her resourceful moments like the immortal Becky—Dodo is stricken with compassion for her suffering husband, but her “eminently practical way was to forget everything and absorb herself in something else.” She remembered King David's consolation when his child died. “What a sensible man David was! He went and oiled himself, which, I suppose, is the equivalent of putting on one's very best evening dress.” The untameable spirits of the woman surge over every serious thought. Three weeks after the baby's death she is preparing for a fancy ball. “I feel like a vampire who's got hold of blood again. I feel like a fish put back into the water, like a convict back in his own warm nest. No charge for mixed metaphors. Supplied free, gratis, and for nothing.”
It comes to her after a time that her life with Chesterford is unbearable. She discovers that she knows what love means, and that it means Mr. Broxton. That revelation is broken to him with the customary frankness, and he is not slow to reciprocate it; but Dodo has made a mistake. Here is the inevitable sequel of such a marriage; husband, wife, lover—the conjunction is not new; the disjunction is not unknown. But the very precipitatioj of Dodo's arrangements for an elopement saves her from that blunder. While she is explaining to Jack that she has ordered the carriage after dinner, at half-past ten, the disgrace of the position comes over him like a flood. His loyalty gets the better of his passion. “Think of your duty to him. Think of our love for each other. Let it be something sacred.” It is characteristic of the woman that she acquiesces with a burst of the irrepressible humour. “I believe I have an ideal—which I have never had before—something to respect and keep very close. Fancy me with an ideal! Mother wouldn't know me again—there never was such a thing in the house … Poor little ideal. I suppose it would endanger its life it you stopped, wouldn't it, Jack? It must live to grown up. Poor little ideal, what a hell of a time it will have when you're gone!” By an accident Chesterford has an inkling of what has happened. It confirms his suspicion that his wife is tired of him. The explanation between the two men is the strongest scene in the whole book, revealing by its simplicity and directness how great a model in fiction Mr. Benson has had in his mind. The tragedy for Chesterford is reaching its claimax. He has resolved to have no quarrel with his wife, who has recovered all her cheerfulness, and talks amusing nonsense with greater fluency than ever. But one day Chesterford is thrown in the hunting field, and dies after an operation. It is one of Dodo's brief seasons of genuine remorse. As she says of herself, she always rises to an occasion, and this is obviously the moment to confess all to the husband, who gives the last proof of his unfaltering devotion by begging her to marry Jack. Though the injunction consorts well enough with her inclination, this wayward creature never obeys it, for, in a fit of pique, after a tiff with her lover about an Austrian prince who pursues her pertinaciously, she rushes into a registry-office and emerges as 'her Serene Highness.'
The subsidiary characters are of little account, and the victorious Austrian is a mere shadow; but as a product of modern society Dodo, in her frivolity, her fleeting impulses, her rapid decision, her sparkling fascination, is so admirably lifelike and complete as to make Mr. Benson's novel a notable achievement.
~L. F. A. in The Sketch, 27/09/1893
Mr E F Benson's Dodo […] is not a biped of an extinct species; it is heartily to be wished she were. She is not even Antipodean ~ which, for the sake of distance, would be the next best thing to extinction. 'Dodo', to give her the only name by which she is known, is a girl without even a rudimentary heart or soul, coarse in mind, vulgar in manner, and selfish and licentious from hair to heel, yet with some mysterious charm about her which every man, woman, and child who has to do with her experiences, with the sole exception of the reader of her story. It is difficult to decide whether Mr Benson intended to satirise society by giving such success to so repulsive and contemptible a creature as Dodo, or whether he essayed the difficult but frequently successful task of compelling sympathy with an outrageously unconventional heroine, and found it too much for him. We incline to the former opinion, suspecting him of a belief that such unconventionalities on the part of even a pretty girl as bad language and tobacco are considerably more socially attractive than they actually are. Nobody, however, can safely say that Dodo is an impossibility, even when taken at her worst; and if she is inartistically exaggerated, Mr Benson deserves credit for a caricature which is not the less clever in its way for its failure to be interesting. He certainly writes with spirit, and his characters appear, at any rate, to be very real as well as very much alive.
~The Graphic, 15/07/1893



Wednesday, 16 February 2011

The Renewal

Fiction ~ short story
Published in The Cosmopolitan, November 1894
6,540 words
(First read 16/02/2011) 
Available to read on The E F Benson Webpage