Tuesday, 21 January 2014

A Reaping

Fiction ~ novel (kind of)
Published 1909
Approx. 72,000 words
(First read 21/01/2014)

... is the sequel to The Book of Months and is really just more of the same, only longer: it's no better, no worse, just more.
The 'action' picks up two or three years later: our faceless, originless, characterless, surnameless author-hero has now been married two years to the woman (Helen) he selected at the end of Months and Months for pretty well the sole reason that she was the dead spit of the departed Margery.  The couple mooch about between London and their house in the country (mostly the latter), often accompanied by Jack's cousin 'Legs', a kind of elongated 20-year-old puppychap, very likeable.  Jack has lost none of his chronic habit of tedious maundering.  I won't bore the pants off everyone by recounting any of the 'plot', just give selected 'highlights':
(1) September¹: Jack and Legs ~ and the dog Fifi² ~ have a mildly supernatural experience involving a so-called revenant.  It's a lot less interesting than it might sound.

(2) October: Jack and Helen do some gardening.
(3) November: Jack and Helen do some more gardening.  Legs nearly gets engaged.  And ... into this teeth-grindingly dull farrago of dusty drivel EFB sees fit to drop A Comic Character, in the shape of Mr Holmes, one of their neighbours in the country.
"He is a kind little gentleman, about forty-five years old, who lives with his sister, and does not do anything whatever³.  He is generally known as the Bun-hander, because no tea-party has ever been known to take place for miles round at which Mr. Holmes was not handing refreshments to the ladies.  That is his strength, his forte.  His weakness is just as amiable ~ though, perhaps, hardly so useful ~ for his weakness is Rank."
Before anyone gets excited at the prospect of an undiscovered Bensonian comic hero, I hasten to point out that Mr H isn't actually all that funny: as with the character of Mrs Murchison in Mammon & Co., EFB describes with glee everyone's (especially Legs') reaction to him without bothering to make the character himself especially comic.  Oh and he's gone in a flash.
(4) February: Edward Frederic Benson murders Legs for no reason whatsoever.
(5) April: Jack and Helen, but mainly Jack, goes on holiday to Greece and bores us rigid with that for what feels like 300 pages but is in fact only 14.  As an example of how supremely turgid the Benson prose gets when he's waxing lyrical about the ancient world, I'll quote this stupefyingly bad sentence:
"Never, so we must believe, during that wonderful century and a half, when from the ground, maybe, of the lifeless hieratic Egyptian art there shot up that transcendant flower of loveliness, of which even the fragments that remain to us now, battered and disfigured as they are, are in another zone of beauty compared to all that went before or has come afterwards, was anything ugly produced at all, except as deliberate caricature."
I defy anyone not to turn blue with tedium reading this section.
Okay enough! ~ I've already wasted far more time than I intended to on this.
NOT RECOMMENDED, but if you're feeling very brave it's available online here.


¹ Like it's predecessor, A Reaping is divided into twelve month-long chapters.  But for no discernible reason it starts at June this time.
² Yes: Fifi.
³ Jack presumably hasn't heard the thing about casting the beam out of one's own eye ...

THE CRITICS
A Reaping (1909) is not a novel to shine.
~Brian Masters in The Life of E. F. Benson, 1991 


There is nothing to hold against the Benson brothers but their unfailing industry. Nothing can swerve them from the path of producing a book or two a year. It remains, therefore, for their readers to accept the fact that the matter contained in the books must be slight. A Reaping, by E. F. Benson, is slighter than usual. It is unconventionally invented, the chapter headings bearing the names of the months and the structure being of a rather straggling and casual kind. The usual ingredients, however, are to hand; meditative à la A. C. Benson; the third brother's unfailing interest in the god Pan; also his lasting interest in women's hair, which the author brushes and describes much as he has done in The Climber and other volumes. There is also a ghost, a warning, reflections upon death, à la R. H. Benson, as well as a great deal of charming landscape and light laughter. The doctrine is Stevenson's of cheer and kindness at all costs; excellent doctrines, but not gripping nor vitalizing. It is sad, but somehow the ultimate amiability of all things was always and remains still a tepid inspiration. The book is very gentle, sweet-spirited and kindly, and if it were by a young and unknown author we should hail it with pleasure and delight; but Mr. Benson must submit to the criterion of his past. Our demand upon him is like that the little schoolgirl made of the readier elder sister who wrote her compositions for her week by week: "Now be sure and make me improve a little since last time," she would urge. We want Mr. Benson to improve a little each time. He is still quite young enough, and we recommend a stern experience of deprivation and misery or a very undermining course of reading; not so much that he may, as Nietzsche might say, hold more correct views, but that he should liberate himself from what is customary either successfully or disastrously. It is a great doctrine to set one's faith upon, that a big failure is better than a slight success.
~The North American Review, April 1910 (edited for crap spelling etc.)

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