Tuesday, 13 November 2012

An Autumn Sowing

Fiction ~ novel
Published November 1917
Approx. 80,000 words
(First read 13/11/2012)

I had such good memories of An Autumn Sowing first time round that I've just taken the unusual step of reading it again after an interval of less than a year and a half.  I wasn't disappointed: I still consider it one of Benson's best novels, of the 33 I've read to date¹ [02/04/14].
It tells the story of a 50-year old provincial businessman's doomed love for his 30-ish secretary.  (As a matter of fact, the age gap isn't an issue here; EFB apparently only considers it an issue when it's older-woman/younger-man.)
Thomas Keeling's business ~ The Stores in Bracebridge ~ is a roaring success; he has more money than he knows what to do with; he lives in comfort, even luxury, in a suburban villa with his odious wife, vacuous daughter, and (sadly) rather invisible sons; he goes to church; he goes to work; his life isn't unhappy, but nor is it happy.  His one pleasure in the world is his book collection, but he's not
interested in first editions or medieval manuscripts; instead he collects brand-new deluxe editions of old works, Omar Khayyam and the like, especially illustrated ones.
He's put the overseeing of this hobby in the hands of The Stores' book buyer, a young chap named Propert.  When Keeling finds himself in need of a shorthand-typist, Propert proposes his sister Norah, who is duly employed.  At first he finds her somewhat cold and aloof and she finds him a cad, but his feelings for her gradually change, as do hers for him.  After much soul-searching he declares himself; Norah reciprocates; he plans to throw everything up and run away with her; she, however, like many another Benson heroine and hero, is made of nobler stuff, and rather than (a) wreck his home, and (b) embroil the pair of them in a frightful scandal, throws him up and leaves him, at the end of the novel, in exactly the same situation we found him in.
Boiled down to its bones like this it doesn't sound much unlike a lot of Benson's other somewhat tedious romantic melodramas (Sheaves, Rex, Juggernaut ...).  But there's so much more to it.  Where to start?
EFB's job on Keeling is not at all far off being a masterpiece of characterization: he's very skilfully and subtly drawn, and utterly unlike any other Benson protagonist I've yet come across ~ totally human, entirely believable, alternately quite likeable and a bit exasperating, with flaws and failings but principles too; in short, he's a man, not to be ranked among that endless Bensonian parade of stuffed plaster saints²; and not only that ~ he's a common man of the 'self-made' variety, not a gentleman with some vague 'post' at some ministry or other and 35,000 acres in Berkshire, not some golden-haired tofflet who quite fancies being a poet or a playwright and whose daddy happens to be the Earl of Limpsfield.  [You're raving now, Ewie.]  Thomas Keeling is a fully-rounded 3D character: you can walk all the way round him and view him from every angle; he's different from front and back; there are no gaping holes in him; unlike such a lot of EFB's characters, he makes sense.





¹ Only another 30 to go ...................
² Oops, there's no such thing as a 'stuffed plaster saint', is there? ~ ah well, we'll leave it. 


THE CRITICS

The author's skill in character-drawing is shown at the outset of the book, and there is a good deal of humour in the narrative, as for instance the man who, being struck with the type in an ├ędition de luxe of Omar Khayyam, suggests that it might be enlarged and used as an advertisement of a summer sale! It is one of the most interesting of E F Benson's stories, and is sure to be in great demand […].
~Hastings and St Leonards Observer, 17/11/1917
Mr E F Benson has selected for the chief personage of his novel An Autumn Sowing a successful tradesman of middle age and his lady typist. The man has prospered owing to the force of his character and his marked ability; he has become wealthy as the result of his enterprise, and possesses literary interests that help him to rise above mere business concerns. His wife is far inferior to him with her outlook and attitude towards the world around her. The best in the man finds no sympathetic response in the woman. There comes along the typist ~ a lady by instinct and training, and one who is able by her influence to help in the development of her employer's character. Such a relationship, however pleasant, has its perilous side, and possibly it has been Mr Benson's purpose in writing the book to illustrate this aspect of woman's intervention in the affairs of the business world. The two afford an interesting study, but readers may become impatient of the pettiness of some of the other personages in the story.
~Western Daily Press, 24/12/1917
Mr. Benson has no longer any surprises for us, but this is a very good example of his work, altogether the best thing he has done lately. I could not feel that he himself took his Oakleyites with any sort of seriousness. In that and others among his later novels he has seemed to be spinning his yarn languidly and perfunctorily, out of habit, and with no strong impulse to begin anywhere or get anywhere. Sometimes he has seemed to be merely yielding to the stream of his fluency, often lapsing into dilution and sheer garrulity, and lulling or disgusting with his amiable babble, according to the mood and intelligence of his hearers—of whom he appeared to expect little. Traces of this laxity and rather insolent nonchalance appear in the present narrative; but they are relatively few. There is a story to be told here. On the surface it looks stale enough: the middle-aged, married man falling in love with his stenographer. The self-made Mr. Keeling, with his universal stores, his dull marriage, his smug success, is fair game for a romancer who likes to try his hand at homely materials. What we are really to watch here is the spectacle of a smug fellow, a Philistine and a cad, being remoulded and made a man of by a profound experience of the heart. And this does not mean that he is to have his way of love, for better or for worse. One knows how Mr. Wells would have handled the situation (he must have handled it somewhere by this time!)exulting in the triumph of personal liberty over convention—or Mr. Bennett, in a vein of whimsical comedy with an inconclusive and ironic curtain. Mr. Benson would not do that. He is still thought of, to be sure, as the author of Dodo, which is vaguely recalled as a rather daring little story. But he is essentially a conservative and a man of sentiment. He has, let us say, an old-fashioned belief in character as the really significant and determining thing in life. When poor Keeling and his Norah reach the moment of decision, as to whether they shall take their happiness in the face of all other things, they are not turned back by cowardice or a feeble habit of conformity. What decides matters is something in them, some force or spirit which they both resent and rely upon and cannot go on without. “We belong to each other,” cries Keeling, after his discovery that Norah loves him too, “that's all I know. I have you now. You needn't think I shall let you go. You will leave that damned place this evening with me … There is no other way.” Even as he spoke, that silent, inexorable tug, that irresistible tide of character which sweeps up against all counter-streams of impulse which do not flow with it, began to move within him.' The stronger tide in her is needed for the final conquest: the point is that for them it is to this conquest that Something, the greater good or the greater happiness has called them. Victorians? Very well (this storyteller would seem to admit smilingly): perhaps the world still needs a few of those worthies 'in its business.'
~H. W. Boynton in The Bookman, 06/1918
Although Mr E F Benson's new novel, An Autumn Sowing, has a commonplace theme ~ the love of a married merchant prince for his typist ~ the author has made his people so real and has described their characters with such penetrating insight that the book will take a high place among Mr Benson's work.
~Birmingham Gazette, 07/12/1917
 
An Autumn Sowing (1917) shows E. F. Benson at his very best, the satirist with insight and the stylist with sparkle. It is every bit as perceptive and amusing as the Lucia books, and it is with good reason that this delightful romp was republished in 1988. Fred has realised that the story must be subservient to the characterisation, if his sharp and saucy view of human follies is to be allowed room to flower instead of being constrained by too rigid a plot. Thus, what happens in An Autumn Sowing is not memorable and aims at no compelling point of view. But its characters are glorious, drawn with wit and precision, especially Mrs Keeling and Mr Silverdale. As one might expect, their glory resides in their being perfectly insufferable.
~Brian Masters in The Life of E. F. Benson, 1991





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