Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Arundel

Fiction ~ novel
Published December 1914
Approx. 115,000 words
(First read 18/06/2013)

As with The Relentless City [qv], I came to this one completely blind.  'Arundel' is the name of the suburban house where most of the 'action' takes place.  The novel is set very specifically (EFB actually mentions a date) in 1912-13.  I'd classify it as a 'romance with social comedy'.
It opens in ~ of all places! ~ India, where the 18-year-old music-loving Elizabeth Fanshawe lives with her English colonel father and stepmother.  The last of these has some comic potential: a thoroughly selfish and self-indulgent 'married merry widow' ~ she doesn't reappear till near the end, but her return is worth the wait (more anon).
Elizabeth is, like every good Benson girl-heroine, utterly devoted to her daddy ... but not to the extent of really objecting to being sent back to England for the summer for no discernible reason.  So off she trots.
Next we are introduced, in fine detail, to the metro town of Heathmoor, specifically to the inhabitants of 'Arundel'.  Mrs Hancock, a widow, and her 20ish-year-old daughter Edith, who are Elizabeth's paternal aunt and cousin.  Heathmoor is a place of perfect smug comfort and contentment, never a hair out of place, never a feather ruffled, and Mrs Hancock is the embodiment of that ethos.  Here is one of EFB's comic meistermonsters: Mrs H is only 48 but she always comes across as about 30 years older ~ her entire existence revolves around ensuring and perpetuating her own comfort, both physical and emotional (not that she actually has any emotions), to the exclusion of all else, including other people's comfort.  And she contrives to do all this while maintaining the fiction that she never thinks of herself: a typically Bensonian conceit ~ her whole life is an elaborate lie.  On top of this she is extremely miserly, only prepared to spend money on things that will conduce to her own all-important comfort ~ a scene in which she sits down with herself to decide what settlement to make on Edith for her marriage, starting with £400 p.a. and gradually whittling it down to £0 p.a. is very funny.  Luckily, she's no minor character: a good half the book is hers.
Anyway, next door to the Hancocks lives Edward, a young stockbroker (he's about 27: EFB's heroes and heroines are rarely the same age) who ~ and EFB makes no apologies about this, indeed he gives it emphasis ~ is a kind of 'paragon of averageness' ... except in two respects: (1) [Experienced Benson readers will already have guessed] He's extremely good-looking; and (2) [They won't have guessed this one] He has a dreamy passion for music.  Sadly he has no such passion for Edith Hancock, nor she for him, but, it being universally 'expected' that they shall marry, he proposes to her and is accepted.  Alas for Edith! the moment she becomes engaged she starts to fall in love with him.
Into this supremely comfortable ~ and dull ~ world steps Elizabeth Fanshawe on her visit from India.  And ~ alas for Edith again! ~ as soon as Edward hears Elizabeth play the piano after his own disastrous performance (one presumes that if EFB had given him actual performing talent, it would have been 'unmanning'), he realizes she is the other half he's always dreamed of, and that he's made the greatest mistake of his life in proposing to Edith.
The remainder of the novel deals with this impossible love, which is (obviously) utterly sexless, formulaic, Victorian and, frankly, pretty unconvincing.  There's a passage towards the end where Elizabeth, having finally renounced all hopes of having Edward (well, he's gone ahead and married Edith, she having refused to 'release' him), goes to a concert and has some kind of Road to Damascus experience in which the meaning of ~ possibly ~ the entire universe becomes clear to her: it's impossible to say just what happens because EFB goes into Waffle Overload here ~ it's kind of mystical ... or something ... or maybe not.
Just when you think (p. 379 of 382) the story can't possibly have a happy ending (!), Benson performs his once-in-a-million-years-of-literature ~ or in his case once-every-other-novel ~ sleight of hand and the pregnant Edith is taken suddenly ill.  Did I say 'suddenly'? ~ it's practically in mid-sentence.
And lo! within one paragraph of this, she's dead, the baby's dead* ... and the survivors all live happily ever after.
Almost forgot: Mrs Fanshawe's return is worth waiting for because near the very end she and Mrs Hancock meet and spar in a scene reminiscentish of Mapp and Lucia**, the big difference being that Hancock and Fanshawe are kind of trying to outdo one another at exactly the same game, trying to 'out-sweetness' one another.
Like so many of Benson's other novels, Arundel contains quite a lot that is good (Mrs Hancock, the subsidiary inhabitants of Heathmoor) but rather a lot more that is bad (the hero, the heroine, the plot, EFB's extremely dodgy notions of what 'love' is ...). 

The whole novel can be read online here.

STOP PRESS: For a sequel to Arundel, see the short story The Economies of Mrs Hancock (1925).

*No, EFB doesn't even draw the line at infanticide when the infant in question would be 'inconvenient'.
**Dang! ~ I mentioned them! 

THE CRITICS


Mr Benson at his subtle best.
~Pall Mall Gazette, quoted in newspaper ad of 18/12/1914
Arundel is truly E F Bensonian. That is, it is full of delightful chatter, more or less irresponsible, about a group of people who are all socially charming, though one or two of them may be trying to live with. They enjoy croquet, love Wagner, become engaged, marry, and even die ~ and we are entertained, in fact, quite touched, by their adventures, but we know that all is for the best, and that their ineptitudes will be more kindly dealt with by Mr Benson than they would by life. [...] The story is most readable throughout.
~Manchester Courier, 28/12/1914
Mr E F Benson is much too practised a novelist to write a book which is not clever and interesting. In Arundel the womenfolk are undoubtedly the most convincing, and while Mrs Hancock is not the principal person in the somewhat limited community into which we are introduced, she is certainly the most amusing, and her inconsequential volubility, endeavouring as she does to [illegible: probably 'hide'] her intense desire that all should minister to her comfort, is thoroughly entertaining. The hero is a strange creation. Mr Benson has imagined a Stock Exchange man of so little knowledge of himself that you would have believed he had always lived a quiet and retiring life. [...]  [Edith and Elizabeth] are very human, and the strength of characterisation is equal to the powers which Mr Benson has already shown himself to possess. “And for those who follow the gleam there is always light sufficient to show them their way” quotes Mr Benson, and this is the text of a good story.
~Western Daily Press, 04/01/1915

Arundel (Fisher Unwin) is one of those stories that begins with a Prologue; and as this was only mildly interesting I began to wonder whether I was going to be as richly entertained as one has by now a right to expect from Mr. E. F. Benson. But it appeared that, like a cunning dramatist, he was only waiting till the audience had settled into their seats; when this was done, up went the curtain upon the play proper, and we were introduced to Arundel itself, an abode of such unmixed and giddy joy that I have been chortling over the memory of it ever since. Arundel was the house at Heathmoor where lived Mrs. Hancock and her daughter Edith; and Mrs. Hancock herself, and her house and her neighbourhood and her car and her servants and her friends—all, in fact, that is hers, epitomize the Higher Suburbia with a delicate and merciless satire that is beyond praise. I shall hurry over the actual story, because that, though well and absorbingly told, is of less value than the setting. Next door to the Hancocks lived a blameless young man called Edward, whom for many reasons, not least because their croquet-lawns, so to speak, "marched," Mrs. Hancock had chosen as her daughter's husband. So blamelessly, almost without emotion, these were betrothed, walking among the asparagus beds on a suitable May afternoon "ventilated by a breath of south-west wind and warmed by a summer sun," and the course of their placid affection would have run smooth enough but for the sudden arrival, out of the Prologue, of Elizabeth, fiercely alive and compelling, the ideal of poor Edward's dreams. Naturally, therefore, there is the devil to pay. But, good as all this is, it is Mrs. Hancock who makes the book, first, last and all the time. She is a gem of purest ray serene, and my words that would praise her are impotent things. Only unlimited quotation could do justice to her sleek self-deception and little comfortable meannesses. In short, as a contemporary portrait, the mistress of Arundel seems to be the best thing that Mr. Benson has yet given us; worth—if he will allow me to say so—a whole race of Dodos. For comparison one turns instinctively to Jane Austen; and I can sound no higher praise.
~Punch, 03/02/1915

One piece of superb characterisation lifts Arundel […] to the plane of its author, Mr E. F. Benson's best work. The story in itself is excellent. It is at least a human situation, when a young man somewhat hurriedly becomes engaged without loving to his full capacity, without even waiting for friendship to turn to love at all, and then meets the perfect she who can evoke his deepest feeling and stir him to passion. This situation Mr Benson handles with a transcendental regard for love, and with rhapsodical devotion to music, particualrly Wagner's. The interest in the story is well maintained. But it is not the story which lifts the book to greatness ~ it is the perfectly-drawn figure of Mrs Hancock. It may seem strange that the delineation of an odiously selfish woman should do what ideal thinking and fine eloquence fail to achieve; but Mr Benson has sung of love and Wagner's Siegfried before now. The ecstasies of Arundel may be matched elsewhere in his works. Not so the wonderful Mrs Hancock. Here is an absolutely selfish person, yet she is no mere personification of a single quality, an abstraction clothed in human form. She is individual and alive. Her whole life is a selfish concern for her own comfort; her entire energy is devoted to securing that comfort in all the trivial details of well-to-do suburban existence, and yet she is forever pretending even to the point of fussiness to be concerned for the happiness of others. Mr Benson indulges in no direct attack upon the lady, no note of bitterness mars the suave gravity, almost geniality of his depiction of Mrs Hancock. Yet despite the author's unbroken graciousness, the matron rustles through the pages one of the most worthless beings that ever arrayed herself in the finest pink of all the proprieties. Mrs Hancock is a rare achievement, and would make remarkable any story, and Arundel is sufficiently good a story to be able to do without her. But what a difference her absence from the pages would make.
~The Liverpool Daily Post and Mercury [UK], 24/02/1915
 By no means the best of Mr. Benson's many stories—two selfish and talkative women of middle age are too much for any one novel. Nor are the unhappy love affairs of the humdrum man and young woman of a quiet English village very exciting, even when the brilliant, witty, and highly energetic lady from India converts their tepid affection into a tragedy of the passions.
~The Outlook (US), 31/03/1915
Mr. Benson has written a musico-psychological novel in a prologue, three books, and 350 closely printed pages. It is all about a young girl who, in addition to all the virtues, moral and physical, that young womanhood ought to possess, has a passion for music and much skill in its execution. Into her life enters a young man, also endowed with a musical, but inarticulate, soul. The obvious plan would have been for the two to get married and spend the rest of their lives going to the opera together—as, being in prosperous circumstances, they could very well have afforded to do. This, however, would have entailed a short book and an unpsychological one; so the author astutely arranges that the young man, shortly before his first meeting with Elizabeth, shall have carelessly engaged himself to her cousin, and many pages are devoted to a conscientious analysis of the feelings of the three parties to this blameless triangle. Truth to tell, the result is a somewhat dull book, written in a style of laborious realism, reminiscent of Arnold Bennett in his most determined moments, and only in part redeemed by illuminative sketches of some of the minor characters, and by occasional flashes of the humor that we know Mr. Benson can display. One feels on laying the book aside that the reward has been incommensurate with the pains, for one remains unconvinced of the reality of any of the three principal characters.
~The Nation, 13/05/1915

Arundel (1914) opens in Peshawar in India but subsequently moves to London. The story is banal and the prose thick, and there is a lack of the amusing peripheral characters that Fred often uses to lighten a turgid atmosphere*. The best scenes are those set in India**; they bring out all the scents and colours of the country that Fred had absorbed during his stay there with Francis Yeats-Brown a couple of years before.
 
~Geoffrey Palmer and Noel Lloyd in E. F. Benson As He Was, 1988. * !!! ~ I can only imagine Mrs Hancock had completely slipped Messrs Palmer and Lloyd's memory when they wrote this. ** i.e. the first two chapters, about 50 pages of the 370.





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