Thursday, 28 August 2014

Mr Teddy

Fiction ~ novel
Published June 1917
Appeared in the United States as The Tortoise
Approx. 83,000 words
(First read 28/08/2014) 

Mr Teddy is not at all badLike EFB's 'masterpiece' An Autumn Sowing, which appeared just a few months after this, it tells the story of a middle-aged man.  The hero of that book is 50; Mr Teddy has just turned 40¹.  Both novels offer intimate² portraits of gentlemen very conscious of the fact that they've reached the second half of their lives ~ and haven't had totally successful first halves.  Teddy ~ Edward Heaton in full ~ has dedicated his to the care and entertainment of his not-really-an-invalid mother.  In breaks from these activities he's made a career of being the life and soul of Society in the village on the Sussex Downs where the novel takes place in its entiretyA few years ago ~ well, fifteen, if we're honest ~ he came close-ish to developing an 'understanding' (no more than that) with the village's jeune première, Daisy Macdonald, now rapidly approaching middle age herself and still burning a candle for Mr T.  But alas, Mother came first.
Telscombe, East Sussex
The novel tells the story of the 'reuniting' of these star-crossed lovers.  Naturally, this being E F Benson, their path doth not run smoothlieth, but they get there in the end.  For once I'm not going to say any more about the plot ~ if you'd like more details, have a look at the reviews below.
The pace is, as ever, leisurely, but there's a sufficiency of plot for it not to appear dragging.  The characters are nicely drawn, particularly Daisy and her sister Marion, a very distant relative of Quaint Irene from Mapp and Lucia with a mannish maid-of-all-work named Parkinson³.  The humour is mostly gentle ~ EFB is kinder on Mrs Heaton (Ted's mum) than he was, for instance, on Mrs Hancock in Arundel (1914): the two are much the same character.  Everyone is impeccably EFB-Edwardian-English: gentlemanly, naïve, kind of innocent; only the vicar's wife ~ Mrs Vickary, who lives at the Vickary-age ~ comes in for anything like a vitrioling.
Its main defect ~ apart from the habitual excess of internal monologue, and even that's smaller than usual ~ is that, as often happens, Fred takes his eye off the ball to concentrate on the story's (true) Young Lovers for too long, and they're as hackneyed as all his other young lovers.
Oh and there's an ice-skating scene which goes on too long ... but does at least serve a purpose.
Apart from that, I recommend Mr Teddy.  But it doesn't appear to be available online, unfortunately.

¹ I'm tempted to believe that EFB wrote Mr Teddy in 1907 when he was 40, and kept it on the shelf for a decade, for unknown reasons.
² Very intimate in Teddy's case: we first meet him as he's contemplating his face while shaving on the morning of his 40th birthday.
³ Not the only Benson maid to bear that undistinguished surname ... which happens to be my surname [angry face].


It is my deliberate verdict that Mr. E.F. Benson is (as my old nurse used to express it) "in league with Somebody he oughtn't." I hope, however, that he will understand this for the extorted compliment that it is, and not magic me into something unpleasant, or (more probably) write another book to prove to my own dissatisfaction that I am everything I least wish to be. That indeed is the gravamen of my charge: the diabolic ingenuity with which he makes not so much our pleasant vices as our little almost-virtues into whips to scourge us with. All this has been wrung from me by the perusal of Mr. Teddy (Fisher Unwin). Even now I can't make up my mind whether I like it or not. The first half, which might be called a satire on the folly of being forty and not realising it, depressed me profoundly. I need not perhaps enlarge upon the reason. Later, Mr. Benson made a very clever return upon the theme; and, with a touch of real beauty, brought solace to poor Mr. Teddy and consolation to the middle-aged reader. I need give you only a slight indication of the plot, which is simplicity itself. Into the self-contained little community of a provincial society, where to have once been young is to retain a courtesy title to perpetual youth, there arrives suddenly the genuine article, a boy and girl still in the springtime of life, by contrast with whom the preserved immaturity of Mr. Teddy and his partner, Miss Daisy, is shown for an artificial substitute. Baldly stated, the thesis sounds cynical and a little cruel; actually, however, you will here find Mr. Benson in a kindlier mood than he sometimes consents to indulge. He displays, indeed, more than a little fondness for his disillusioned hero; the fine spirit with which Mr. Teddy faces at last the inevitable is a sure proof of the author's sympathy.
~Punch, 20/06/1917
Mr E F Benson must have written Mr Teddy […] in a very leisurely manner. It is a story which has scarcely any plot and the lightest of character sketching. There is something indefinite about all the persons who revolve in the orbit of Mr Teddy, who is a bachelor of forty, a dabbler in art, and the slave of a mean, hypochondriacal mother who tyrannises over the meek son. With her death he obtains freedom, and as he somehow contrives to look and act like a young man of twenty-five, he begins to plan the recapture of his sacrificed youth. So we follow Mr Teddy through a maze of tea parties, picnics, and tennis tournaments until he mentally resolves to marry. His late decision, however, is marred by the quicker wit of his young friend Robin, a delightful creature who makes all his companions seem like dolls in comparison. So in the end meek, indecisive little Mr Teddy takes a back seat and proposes to another lady in a bored moment. It is all very simple and clearly written, but Mr Teddy is not a man, but an amiable abstraction. Remembering Mr Benson in his more successful moments, our thankfulness for this novel is tinged with a little melancholy.
~Liverpool Daily Post and Mercury, 20/06/1917
There is nothing remarkable or ambitious in this quiet tale of middle-aged romance, but Mr Benson, with his inimitable power of satire and character portrayal, his exquisitely pointed epigrams and worldly wise generalisations, gives us a faithful study of English South country village life, its snobbishness, its unconscious humour, its petty gossip and easy-going pleasures. Mr Teddy, the heor, a happy-go-lucky artist of forty, has frittered away his early days and best opportunities in devoting himself to his somewhat querulous mother of many imagined maladies. After her death ~ and nothing in her life became her so well as her exit from it ~ Mr Teddy sighs for opportunities lost and gone, and on the entrance into the peaceful village circle of real youth, he endeavours to regain his lost youth. In this he is warmly seconded by a spinster friend; but seeing how youth goes out to youth, they recognise that the exuberant 'joie de vivre' of youth has passed from them, and they therefore sensibly console themselves with the ripe mellowness of autumn and leave the fragrant roses of June to the winsome boy and girl.
This quaintly picturesque novel, redolent of peaceful summer days in a sunny, rose-embowered cottage, is written with the touch of a true artist. None but Mr Benson could have given us the striking psychological portrait of Mr Teddy as so piquantly revealed in the first chapter; and who but Mr Benson could turn out such neat satires of snobbishness as he regales us with in every other chapter? Mr Teddy, though marked by little of the brilliancy of technique and finish of Dodo or Mr Blaze [sic], is yet a delightful production, fragrant and restful in these war days.
~The Aberdeen Daily Journal, 02/07/1917
Mr E F Benson writes every word of his charming stories with a fastidious pleasure that is quickly communicated to the reader, and it is good to find that in Mr Teddy […] he continues in this agreeable habit. He polishes the personalia of the minute village of Lambton with the quiet zest of a connoisseur of characterisation. The still fragrance of life as it surely is not lived now-a-days pervades the pages of his story, in which also Mr Benson does not scorn to give the tender spirit of romance and the mild, querulous humour of the elders a wise proportionate scope. One instantly appreciates Teddy, and traces his progress with leisurely satisfaction, while such delicate portraits as that of Rosemary, and the more robustly drawn Daisie and Marian, bear the authentic stamp of the artist in words. It is a book over which one lingers, not wishing to reach the end.
~The Yorkshire Post, 18/07/1917
A pleasant and peaceful little story of life in a provincial town. The hero, is a delightful person, but he was obviously a more than indifferent artist.
~The Spectator, 17/08/1917
[Mr. Benson's] pleasant England [...] is of the village neighbourhood rather than the 'county' aristocracy. Property and the social plane mean less to him than simple human nature as touched with personal whimsy and coloured by environment. His Honourable Mrs. Heaton, who is unable to forget that she is daughter of a peer, and exercises a sort of ex officio authority as 'invalid Empress of Lambton,' is one of the two persons in the present book to be drawn with a pen dipped in acid. For the most part, these friends and neighbours form an affectionate as well as close corporation for the conduct of the business of living; and the hand of satire with which Mr. Benson touches their foibles and quaintnesses is a gentle one. Teddy, the belated youth who at forty has not begun to live, is a delightful portrait. He is the 'tortoise' who, for all his sloth, is, after one desperate snatching at the vanished ecstasy of youth, to find quiet happiness in the person of his old 'pal' Daisy, waiting at his side. His mother the Honourable is a rather dreadful person, a lifelong 'mollusc,' toned down by a sort of death-bed repentance. The other members of the neighbourhood group are painted with deliciously good-humoured satire. The best of them all is Daisy's sister Marion, her labours as the literary genius of the community being not more absurd than her nature is doughty and loyal. Excellent also are the young pair who set the aging dwellers of Lambton to emulating their youthfulness, and are so blamelessly and hopelessly beyond emulation. This is a far better story than The Oakleyites, in which similar material was handled with less spontaneity and freshness. Mr.
Benson has no idea or 'message' to convey unless it be that the humours of ourselves and our neighbours are among the best sources of refreshment the Lord has given us, and that beneath them, we may flatter ourselves, there wells many a pure fountain of kind feeling and honest purpose.
~H. W. Boynton in The Bookman (US), 12/1917


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