Tuesday, 1 May 2012

As We Were: A Victorian Peepshow

Non-fiction ~ memoirs
Published September 1930
Approx. 112,000 words
(First read 01/05/2012)

Like As We Are, not actually a novel: a straight book of memoirs, memoirs of other people, that is.  If you're at all interested in late Victorian England, I highly recommend it.  My 'review' at the time was short but sweet:
"A very gossipy affair which I found highly entertaining, weirdo that I am.  In it EFB tells one anecdote about Gladstone talking about a book called George Eliot's Life.  Quoth Mr G: "It is not a life at all.  It is a Reticence, in three volumes."  Pretty much the same could be said of As We Were ~ Fred himself only appears sporadically, and the appearances are brief.  (Mind you, it wasn't supposed to be autobiographical, I admit.)
I would definitely at least think about reading it again. 

You can read it online here.




THE CRITICS
MODERN WOMAN: Outspoken Criticism By Noted Author
E. F. Benson, the author and writer of Dodo, has an outspoken criticism of modern woman in his memoirs published by Longman's to-day, entitled As We Were. Lipsticking in public, kippering of arms, legs, bosom and back on the sands of Lido and inability to remain in one place more than a week are not habits of the great lady in the Victorian and Edwardian times.
The great ladies at least possessed dignity. They had not any push, because there was no one to push. They did not want their daily doings mirrored in the papers. The professional beauties of the Edwardian era liked their photographs in shop windows, but they were not the great ladies. To-day society has so broadened out that it has become quite flat. King Edward, when Prince of Wales, was the chief cause of the breaking up of the mid-Victorian social tradition of frozen dignity with all its reticences and repressions. He beckoned in quantity lively and gay young persons.
~The Auckland Star [New Zealand], 11/09/1930
A book full of racy anecdotes.
~The Evening Telegraph [Angus], 28/11/1930


Those of my readers who, like myself, are able to call themselves Victorians, who remember the great Queen's Golden Jubilee as if it happened yesterday, and who have a lively memory for the gay nineties of the last century when bicycle riding was a crazy joy, will find delightful entertainment in As We Were by E. F. Benson [...]. Mr. Benson, now a grizzled veteran, then a callow youth, is a member of one of the most famous families of that period, the son of the Archbishop of Canterbury [...] To his home came many of the leading men and women in society, in politics, and in letters; his father was friend of Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort, of the Prince of Wales, of Gladstone, and of other great ones of the earth, and he tells not only interesting stories about these celebrities, but in racy chapters informs us how Victorianism ate, slept, made love, amused itself and died. Incidentally, he provides us with vivid portraits of his father and mother and gives a compact sketch of the Archbishop's career. [...]
~The Winnipeg Tribune [CAN], 13/12/1930

[As We Were] is delightfully urbane, but never smug; a good-humoured, witty picture of eminent Victorians ~ Jowett of Baliol, Alfred Austin, Swinburne, and very many others.
~The Evening Telegraph [Angus, UK], 26/12/1930, in 'Best-Sellers' of 1930
Mr Benson, in this fascinating volume, comes to bury Victorianism, not to praise it. Into the clamour of the critics of the Good Queen's long reign he steps like another Antony. One almost hears him, in suave tones, declaring that he comes not to dispute what Brutus spoke, but is here to speak what he does know.
The lean and hungry Cassius Strachey and the general mob of Neo-Georgians may have reported their enemy rightly or wrongly: this witness is not concerned with their testimony, but merely to deliver his own. And, as the son of that Archbishop of Canterbury who owed his elevation to his first See to the appreciation which Victoria and her Albert had had of his work as the first Head of Wellington School, Mr Benson saw with eager eyes not only the reign and its customs as they shaped themselves in the last few decades, but the Queen as she influenced it. [...]
Much of the charm of Mr Benson's book is in the continuity of its own mood, a mood of slightly cynical tolerance for the idiosyncrasies of all generations and of humorous readiness to recall the gaucheries and misjudgments of ingenuous youth; but much of its charm is also in the atmosphere he re-creates, his pen portraits of celebrities, and his easy re-narration of familiar events[s]. [...]
After weighing his judgment in scrupulous psychological balances, Mr Benson is forced to reaffirm that the statesmen and hostesses of the Victorian times seem to him to have been greater figures ~ men and women of more cosmic mould ~ than are his contemporaries. To one who, reading these pages, recalls the objects of his gaze in much the same mood, that judgment seems sound.
But even to those younger, who see the perspective inverted, to whom contemporaries appear far to transcend the dull, inhibited bourgeoisie of Victorianism in cosmic stature, this book will give no cause for irritation. It is too full of humorous pictures and anecdotes, of frank unveilings, of equally frank adulations, to be a gage flung into the Georgian arena.
It is, rather, an invitation card, lighly flicked between the contestants, inviting them to abandon for a time the wrangle about period significances and to view from a comfortable and well-upholstered seat the pageant of a past which, while it too aggressively paraded its prophets, priests and kings, its charlatans and its pretenders, had also its beauties and its clowns, its conscious farceurs and its flaneurs.
In a word, Mr Benson's book is what he calls it, a peepshow and not an arraignment. It does not arrest the Victorians to judge them. Rather does it arrest the Georgians to entertain them.
~The Yorkshire Post, 11/09/1930 [much abridged]
Messrs. Longmans, Green have issued cheap editions, priced at 5s each, of two outstanding works, first published within the past year or two. One is Mr E. F. Benson's As We Were, a book of truly charming studies of Victorianism, with biographical and autobiographical details. In delightful fashion he re-creates the days that are gone and the people of those days.
~Aberdeen Press and Journal [UK], 26/02/1932
the most amusing of all Victorian memoirs …
~Raymond Postgate in The Spectator, 03/05/1962

The following is from a column entitled 'The Westcountry Bookman' and signed C. D. B. Mr B begins: “The following article introduces a fresh series on newly published books calculated to interest the Westcountry reader.”
Mr E. F. Benson looms large in my first list, and, having been a Benson enthusiast from my youth up, I am not sorry that it should be so.
Neither As We Were nor Charlotte Brontë has made such demands on my devotion as, for instance, that ponderous romance The Capsina ~ to have read which I consider the ultimate qualification of the Benson enthusiast.
Both volumes are eminently readable. The first named (which is a cheaper reprint of the volume of reminiscences originally published in 1930) is in the intimate, anecdotal, yet earnest style which first won me to the author through The Book of Months. […]
Here [readers] have the story of the appointment of Mr Benson's father as the first Bishop of Truro, his zealous attack on the colossal task of organizing the diocese and building a Cathedral, and his meteoric promotion to the Archbishopric of Canterbury in December, 1882. There is only space for the quotation of one story ~ and that I cannot omit. Writing of the 'queer pastors' his father met in Cornwall, Mr Benson says:~
The most remarkable of all was a vicar who never set foot in his church at all, far less held any kind of service there. Occasionally some neighbouring parson came over to minister to his unshepherded parishioners, but their rightful parson would not even then consent to attend church as a member of his own congregation. It was quite in vain that the patron of his living pleaded with him.  “I don't ask you to do anything,” he said, “but for the sake of example couldn't you just go to church yourself sometimes?” But it was no use: he preferred to stroll to the garden gate of the vicarage which adjoined the church clad in a flowered dressing-gown and smoking a hookah, and when his parishioners came out he chatted with them very amiably. There he was, living in the vicarage, a beneficed priest performing no duties of any sort, and there was no ecclesiastical process by which he could possibly be deprived of his house and his income.
~The Western Morning News and Daily Gazette, 25/05/1932. For the continuation of this article see under Charlotte Brontë
bright and engaging …
~Brian Masters in The Spectator, 12/05/2001







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