Approx. 108,000 words
(First read 14/08/2013)
SHORT VERSION: A young man of great beauty believes that (1) he is cursed, and (2) he needs to get away from the modern world and 'back to nature'. Things don't turn out well for him so he goes for the simple unhappy ending option. I guess this one might be classed 'a supernatural[ish] psychological melodrama', with the usual caveat about the Benson brand of melodrama.
LONG VERSION: Blimey! ~ never has an author taken so long (316pp.) to tell a story so insubstantial.
It kicks off at Cambridge University, more precisely at King's College [surprise!]. Steven Gervase, a student¹ is 20 years old [surprise! again] and [surprise! ~ okay, that's enough of that] has the looks of a Greek god and is a popular chap. One of the dons watching over his career is Maurice Crofts, who is 25 ~ how he's got to be a don at that age isn't explained, maybe it was perfectly normal in those days. 'Those days', by the way, are 1929-30 ~ EFB mentions a date again, though really all his books are set in one and the same time: Benson Meantime, somewhere between 1890 and 1914, a magical period in which, though an occasional 'motor' might flash by on its way to a 'cinematograph', nothing really ever changes.
Where was I? Ah yes. This post-adolescent Maurice², this donkin is, despite his tender years, pretty much the stereotypical elderly Oxbridge don: rather stuffy, a shade over-devoted to the academic life, a confirmed bachelor dismissive of persons of the female persuasion ...
Maurice thinks he sees hidden depths in Steven, or rather, he thinks he sees another mysterious side to his character. Steven, who has just unceremoniously dumped his best pal (who is known as 'The Child'!) and is on the look-out for a new one, obligingly gives Maurice a glimpse of what that other side is ... by charming a squirrel out of a tree. [No, I'm not making this up.] It turns out that this Greek god of a young man is ...
Steven is wonderfully, miraculously, sublimely gorgeous, and Maurice loves-adores-worships him ~ despite not really knowing him to any great extent ... OH BUT IT'S NOT SEXUAL!
I was meant to be summarizing, wasn't I? Well, Maurice goes for a holiday at the Gervases' ancestral home in Cornwall, over which there hangs a preposterous I-can't-be-arsed-to-dream-up-an-explanation-for-it curse. He proves to be de trop and is effectively told, like 'The Child' before him⁴, to sling his hook. He does.
After various tribulations (most notably marriage, y'know, to a woman), during which yet another perfectly blameless but sadly inconvenient character is summarily bumped off, Steven attempts to reform himself, but fails. The End.
P.S. If I was a serious literary critic with psychoanalytical tendencies [possibly a contradiction in terms] and, more importantly, if I gave at least half a stuff, I could perhaps cobble together a theory which would feature the phrase 'a metaphor for E. F. Benson's homosexuality' very heavily. But I'm not, and I don't, so I won't.
² It has to be said that if Benson had made him 60 years old, the traditional age for your average literary don, the whole thing would've been creepy beyond belief.
³ After 50 pages or so you feel like punching Steven's perfect mush. The feeling lasts until the last page.
⁴ Who EFB sees fit to kill off while he's off-stage, for no reason whatever.