Monday, 23 September 2013

Portrait of an English Nobleman

Fiction ~ novella / long short story
Published 17th September 1937*
Approx. 22,000 words
(First read 23/09/2013)

This is the first in Benson's quartet of novellas published under the title Old London.  There's no connexion between the four other than the setting.
This was quite good fun.  It's set in the Georgian period ... to be precise in the very last year of that period, 1829-30.  It's the kind of romp you'd expect of Georgian gents (mistress in a pied à terre in London; frosty wife and kids at home in the country ...), and with lashings of historical detail ~ hardly profound but entertaining enough.

*These four books were only published in the United States.
[10/2014] I saw one of the originals in a secondhand bookshop in Wales the other day ~ the only one I've ever seen.  I didn't buy it because I've already got a set of the modern reprints.   At least, I assume they're modern reprints ~ if not, they're in remarkably mint condition, notwithstanding the lack of any dust-jackets.

Thursday, 19 September 2013


Fiction ~ novel
Published 1911
Approx. 105,000 words
(First read 19/09/2013)

Juggernaut¹ tells the story of Margery Morrison's marriage to Arnold Leveson, of her cousin Walter's thwarted love for her, and ... well, that's about it, really.
When we first meet Margery she is sixteen-going-on-seven, bawling her eyes out over a kitten which has supposedly been drowned at the orders of her wicked aunt (Mrs Agnes Morrison, widow).  Marge is an orphan who has lived with said aunt and her cousins (Olive and Walter) for the past few years.  The latter is two years Marge's senior and Benson Type No. 1; the pair have grown up as thick as two short planks ~ oops, sorry, I mean 'as thick as thieves'.  But lo! over the course of a walk, during which it turns out the kitten hasn't been drowned after all (phew! that's a relief), Walter suddenly grows up and realizes he's in love with his couz.
Our heroine, as I've subtly hinted already, is a simple lass: to give her her due, she's the first to admit, on more than one occasion, that she's 'not very clever' ~ a bit of an understatement.  However, she makes up for her lack of brains by being sweet, flawlessly pretty, remorselessly optimistic, open-hearted, generous, pure in spirit and outlook, kind to animals, loving, virginal, saintly ... yes, she's Benson Young Female Type 1: so entirely good that you find it impossible to believe in her.  EFB does his best to convince us she's a bit of a tomboy (or maybe he uses the term 'romp'), but with little success: he's so obsessed with slathering on the 'tiny hands and feet', 'masses of silky hair', 'porcelain complexion' etc. etc. that you're left with the girliest tomboy that ever was. 
Into this cozy mix is thrown (very gently) Mr Arnold Leveson, an elderly bachelor (he's about 30 ~ joke!) and all-round dry-old-stick.  His great passion in life is writing incredibly long and tedious books about Ancient Greece ~ we're treated to a few quotes: they gave me the dry-heaves, I can tell you.  Margery raves about them and, now that Walter has been safely packed off to Germany (!), very soon ends up raving about Arnold himself.  They get married.  Marge is obviously ~ yes, obviously ~ so lacking in any kind of insight that when, on his return, Walter tells her he's over her and he's fine with her marrying Leveson, she believes him.  Walter proceeds to hang stoically around for the rest of the novel, confounded self-sacrificing idiot that he is.
Unfortunately, the marriage doesn't turn out well, to put it mildly².  It becomes clear that Arnold loves his Ancient Greek περίττωμα³ more than his wife.  Margery joins Walter in the Suffering-in-Silence corner.  The End.
No, I don't think I've forgotten anything ... other than: Margery's aunt.  Mrs Morrison is the closest Juggernaut gets to comedy: she's another of EFB's 'classic' middle-aged ~ but prematurely-agèd ~ embittered cows, a close relative of (e.g.) Mrs Hancock over at Arundel [qv].  The difference between the two is that Mrs M is actually pretty rubbish at her selfish manipulatings, constantly putting her foot in it, giving herself away, etc.  But she's nasty to everybody ~ her niece, her own kids, her neighbours, no-one escapes.  Sadly there isn't enough of her, though, to rescue Juggernaut from being a pretty tedious read: the plot is wafer-thin; Margery you just feel like punching; Walter is a moron; Arnold, though 'bad', is as dull and irritating as everyone else; only Walter's sister Olive shows occasional flashes of what might be called 'character', but she's a pretty minor character all told.   

¹ Published in the USA under the title Margery, which is far more sensible.  The UK title suggests a great deal of movement and noise: the novel has neither.
² Without giving too much away (!), I'll just tell you there's another heart-stoppingly callous Bensonian infanticide involved ...
³ The English is one syllable long and rhymes with grit.  Don't blame me if I've got this Greek word wrong: Greek isn't my thang ... obviously. 

"Juggernaut" in this book is performed by the man, who marries the very attractive heroine, and then allows his literary work so completely to absorb him that her married life becomes a complete failure. Even his wife's health is sacrificed by Arnold Leveson to his book; it is hard to believe that a sane human being could possibly be so absolutely egotistical. The book is written with Mr. Benson's usual powers of observation and analysis, but the nature of the theme is a constant source of irritation. It is impossible to avoid a wish that the scholarly Arnold should meet with some sudden disaster, as that would be the only possible way in which his unfortunate wife, Margery, could be restored to happiness. He declines to allow anyone to come to the house, for fear of disturbing his hours of work, and poor Margery is obliged even to drop her piano playing, in which she might have found an absorbing hobby. The minor characters are well drawn, and the portrait of Margerv's aunt, Mrs. Morrison, is so carefully studied that she is quite entitled to a place as one of the four principals of the book. But here, again, is a study of a purely self-centred egotistical person, and two characters of this sort in one book overweight it with non-conductors of sympathy.
~The Spectator, 04/11/1911
The central issue in Margery, by E. F. Benson, is whether a young woman, replete with the joy of living, can find happiness in marriage with a man who has never in his life known a passion warmer than his delight in Grecian urns and Tanagra figurines. Margery is the child of an ill-assorted marriage; and when, as a forlorn little orphan, she first comes to live with her father's relatives, her aunt Aggie takes good care not to let her forget that her mother was a mere vaudeville dancer. Margery is not malicious or vengeful, but just a sweet, wholesome, not over brilliant girl, whose innate goodness men unconsciously recognise. That was the explanation of the failure of all her Aunt Aggie's too obvious manoeuvres to keep Margery in the background, and marry off her own daughter, Olive. Almost simultaneously Margery has the task of refusing an offer from Cousin Walter, Aunt Aggie's only son, and from Arnold Leveson, whom Aunt Aggie already felt sure of as a son-in-law. Arnold Leveson had all his life been a student and a recluse. He had already written one epoch-making volume on the Alexandrine Age, and was now engaged on a companion work, the Age of Pericles. The wonder was that, in his absorption in antiquities, he ever raised his eyes high enough from books to rest them on Margery's face. But such happened to be the case, and presently they were married. And then, for a while, the experiment succeeded. But after the honeymoon and a brief season of London gaiety, Arnold felt a return of the old fever of study, the old impelling need of creative work. From that moment, Margery's loneliness began; and the rivalry was harder than that of another woman, because against a woman she could have offset her own charms, but she was powerless against ancient tomes and crumbling marble. Mr. Benson did not lack a big issue, but of his own accord he dodged it. What Margery and Arnold would in the end have made of their lives, he refused to tell us, because one fine day in Athens, antiquarian zeal led the man a step too high upon a tottering ruin, and when he and the ruin fell together, he was undermost. It is vexatious when a novelist has all the elements that go to make up a human problem of vital interest, and then deliberately shirks his task.
~Frederic Taber Cooper in The Bookman (US), 11/1911

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Mammon & Co.

Fiction ~ novel
Published 1899
Approx. 102,000 words
(First read 10/09/2013)

In his first decade as a professional writer (1893-1903), E F Benson produced no fewer than 16 [sixteen] novels.  Mammon & Co. is the ninth of them.  It falls into the category, now sadly neglected, of 'society (melo)drama set against a backdrop of stock-market stuff'.
The novel tells the story of five people ... no, six people ... no, seven people ... well, it tells the story of a bunch of people, most of them titled, who, to borrow and adapt a well-loved phrase, swirl about in a rich cesspool of their own making.  Jack and Kit, AKA Lord and Lady Conybeare¹ are a couple who have long since done with living beyond their own incomes and now live beyond other people's ~ and, my dears, they are perfect rotters: all their energies are devoted to their own amusement, at the psychological and financial expense of others.  Still, they make a good living out of it: house at a swanky London address, complete with maids, footmen, etc.; holidays-from-doing-nothing; balls; gambling; the usual.
Into their lives comes the somewhat enigmatic Mr Alington, a commoner of rather dubious origins, who lives and breathes the fetid atmosphere of the stock market.  He persuades Jack to join him in his new cunning plan which involves an Australian ~ literal ~ goldmine.
One evening Kit and one of her snot-nosed pals believe they catch Mr A in that most horribly scandalous of 19th-century crimes, viz cheating at cards.  (Reader, I literally almost got up from my chair to make a cup of tea.)  They plan to blackmail him accordingly ... or something ... I nodded off a bit during this storyline.  Before they're able to do so, Mr A sees Kit apparently doing exactly the same thing ~ a basic knowledge of baccarat would've come in handy here.  To cut a long story mercifully short, nothing comes of all this. [sigh]
Jack, meanwhile, has a brother, Toby, who, despite being kind-of-unattractive-in-a-large-muscular-way, is an utter brick, good egg, and the closest we get to a hero.  He falls for a stereotypical Bensonian heroine (i.e. a cypher) whose one claim to originality is that she's the daughter of an American ... well, two Americans, in fact.  Oh but it's allright, don't worry ~ she was brought up in England and is, consequently, as sublimely perfect an angel as it's possible to be without being employed directly by God.  Her mother, Mrs Murchison, provides the sole comic relief in this farrago of twaddle.  Mrs M is a latterday Mrs Malaprop: she can't open her mouth without producing 'octogeranium' or 'Sir George Eliot' ~ I can guarantee you will be convulsed with tedium at her amusing slips-of-the-tongue.  Listening to EFB describe how 'killing' people find them is far funnier.²
Meanwhile (again), Kit takes her harmless flirtation with a certain Lord Ted Comber just the eentsiest bit too far by permitting him to ~ ahem! ~ boff her, with consequences tragic both to herself and to the cause of English literature.
Mr A reappears and is just about to pull off the greatest coup in the history of insider dealing when ...
But enough plot.  Suffice it to say that a surprising amount of stuff happens in Mammon & Co.  Admittedly none of it is particularly exciting, but it's as eventful as an average non-supernatural (or supernatural, come to that) E. F. Benson.  Its main failing isn't so much an overabundance of dislikeable characters as a lack of focus for our distaste: Jack is cold and slimy; Kit is ... well, Kit is Dodo but, if anything, worse: at one point EFB makes mention of her 'worthless little soul'; Ted is a proto-Georgie Pilson but 50 times worse ~ EFB is utterly venomous about him; Mr A is devious, dishonest, and as slippery as an eel's rectum ...
Ach, what am I doing?! ~ I'm giving the impression I didn't enjoy Mammon & Co.  I did.  It's so full of loathsomeness ~ what's not to like?
But it is twaddle.

¹ No, I haven't made this name up. 
² At one point in her 'comical' drivel, EFB commits the fairly-unpardonable-IMHO sin of self-reference.  He has Mrs M say: '[...] what a wonderful dress she had on this evening!  She made me feel quite a dodo ~ I should say a dowdy.']

On the subject of Mammon & Co., Mr Brian Masters has this to say in his excellent biography of Benson (1991):

With the next book, Mammon & Co, Fred returned to a society theme, with happier results [than in The Vintage and Capsina]Lady Conybeare is a frivolous and heartless beast of the kind he would perfect in his more mature fiction, while Lord Comber is the first portrait of that vain and vapid male sub-hero who would achieve his finest incarnation in Georgie Pillson of the Lucia series twenty to thirty years later.  Comber repairs to the lavatory of his club to apply a little rouge to his make-up and considers the mirror his only uncritical friend.  Here at least Fred is relying upon observation for his characterisation, and one can only speculate which of his friends might have been used as model.