Wednesday, 30 April 2014

'Oh, to be in England ...'

Non-fiction ~ article
Published in The Spectator, 10th November 1928
955 words
(First read 30/04/2014)

Benson talks about Browning (1812-89), giving us a glimpse of the poet's visit to the Archbishop's family when Fred was a lad.  The article is mostly about Browning the man, though EFB does have a bit of a dig about Browning the playwright ~ fine one he was to talk.  The article is available online here ~ this was the second of two articles Benson wrote on this subject: for the other see here.

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Reading in Bed

"Wow! this Persuasion is hot stuff!"
Non-fiction ~ essay
Published in The Spectator, 5th May 1928
1,035 words
(First read 29/04/2014)

One of those "It does exactly what it says on the tin" jobs: EFB ruminates on the pleasures of reading in bed, advises on what to read and what not to read ~ Jane Austen falls into the first category, Wuthering Heights into the second, but he of the no-doubt-stripey jimjams favours above all else things like 'the note-books of Samuel Butler' (whoever he was) and the Essays of Elia (whatever they might be).  Still, it's mildly diverting.  It can be read online here, in or out of pyjamas.

Thursday, 24 April 2014

Early Brontë

Non-fiction - review
Published in The Saturday Review, 10th June 1933
690 words
(First read 24/04/2014)

EFB reviews Legends of Angria, a collection of Charlotte Brontë's juvenilia about the fantasy world she created with her brother Branwell, and which obsessed her to such a degree that "her contributions to it exceeded in length the whole of the work which made her a classic in English literature."  Fred sums up:
What of the intrinsic merit of these stories?  It may be said at once that if the manuscripts [...] had been found in some spider-webbed cupboard, [...] and that if their authorship was unknown, they would never have been fully deciphered, [...] nor would they have even found a publisher.  But they were known to be by Charlotte Brontë, and that made all the difference.  [...]  [Though they] chiefly illustrate the faults of Charlotte's classical work (or even because of that), they are immensely interesting.  The fire is there, and that passionate devotion for her art, but she was learning still, and she could not yet confine and curb the fire so that it glowed with the intense white heat of Jane Eyre and Villette: it flares and smokes and makes a great to-do, but the incandescence is lacking.
The whole thing can be read online here.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

'O lyric love half-angel and half-bird'

Non-fiction - article
Published in The Spectator, 3rd November 1928
945 words
(First read 30/04/2014)

This was the first of two articles EFB wrote for The Spectator on the subject of the poet Browning (1812-89).  The tone of both is fairly gossipy, particularly so for this one in which Benson talks about the poet's relationship with his wife, which is mildly amusing in parts, and of his feud with another dead poet Fitzgerald* who apparently didn't reckon much to Mrs B.  I'm afraid I'm a hopeless philistine when it comes to poetry: I entirely see why it appeals to people ... but it doesn't appeal to me.
Anyway, the article is available online here.  For the follow-up article see here.



*He wasn't dead at the time, obviously.

May 29th, 1928

Non-fiction ~ article
Published in The Spectator, 1st June 1928¹
835 words
(First read 20/04/2014)

29th May 1928 was, apparently, one of those days, like the one we had a couple of years ago², when the kind of folk who believe in ropey old prophecies (Nostradamus etc.) believe that the world is going to end.  Speaking with the authority of someone who knows what he's talking about, which he does, and in his best quietly sarcastic style, EFB pooh-poohs the very notion that the precise or, as he wittily points out, precise-ish measurements of the Great Pyramid foretell anything whatsoever.  The article is available online here and jolly good fun it is.


¹ The article was collected in Sea Mist: Collected Spook Stories Volume 5 (2005).
² 21st December 2012.

Monday, 14 April 2014

There Arose a King

Faction ~ sketch
Published in The Countess of Lowndes Square and Other Stories, 1920
Approx. 4,500 words
(First read 14/04/2014)

As I said in my post on David Blaize and the Blue Door, it's a real shame EFB didn't write more stuff about animals as he always excelled himself in charm and ~ particularly here ~ humour when he did so.  There Arose a King picks up where 'Puss-cat' finishes and recounts the formative years of his Persian cat Cyrus, king of the household from day one.  As I say, it's very funny in parts ~ in large parts: it actually had me laughing out loud.  I'll just give one example ~ this happens during a heatwave:
The heat also increased [Cyrus'] somnolence, and one morning, when he came up to breakfast with me, he fell asleep on the sofa before I had time to cut off the little offering of kidney which I had meant to be my homage.  When I put it quite close to his nose he opened his mouth to receive it, but was again drowned in gulfs of sleep before he could masticate it.  So it stuck out of the corner of his mouth like a cigarette.  But eventually, I knew, he "would wake and remember and understand."
The story is available online here.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

The Ape

Fiction ~ short story
First published in The Storyteller, May 1917
Collected  in The Countess of Lowndes Square and Other Stories, 1920
Approx 6,400 words
(First read 13/04/2014)

We're firmly on Image in the Sand territory with this tale of the supernatural.  The action takes place in Luxor/Karnak in Egypt; it's the everyday tale of a rich young gent (Hugh: no relation) who acquires a whatchacallit ... a talisman, in the shape of a monkey, which, so we're told, the owner merely has to say the name of three times, while carefully clicking together the heels of his ruby slippers*, in order to become 'lord of all apes'.  This poor sap has the misfortune to be in love with Benson Bitch Type No. 1, a posh young lady "whose mission in life appeared to be to make as miserable as possible the largest possible number of young men."  Having arranged to go and gawp at Karnak by moonlight with Hugh, she throws him over at the last minute for the newly-arrived man she really intends to marry.  She even has the brass neck to ask our Hughie if she and her marital victim can borrow his horses to make the same excursion!  At this our hapless hero feels himself to be 'one shaking black jelly of wounded anger'.  (I rather like that.)  In despair (presumably) he asks the heartless hag to marry him; she fobs him off; he lends the pair his geegees but decides to follow them to Karnak in secret.  Coming across them snogging in one of the temples there he does the incantation thing, summoning a zillion apes which are entirely in his power, it's all (for once) fairly exciting, and then ... Benson bottles it.
A crushingly disappointing tale.  It's available online here.

*Okay, I invented this bit.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Rex

Fiction ~ novel
Published March/April 1925
Approx. 109,000 words
(First read 12/04/2014) 

[21/04/14] It's now well over a week since I finished Rex and I'm still trying to think of something good to say about it ... 
[24/04/14] This isn't what you'd call a 'good' thing: it's just something that came to me while I was lying there racked with insomnia (etc.) at 3.30 this morning.  When EFB had finished writing Colin (1923) and Colin II (1925) he found he had about 100,000 words left over: these he published under the title Rex.
Okay, serious now.  The plot: Rex is a young chap (24 in this case) who wants to be a playwright.  When he's not living in London and working as a solicitor's clerk, or something like that, he lives with his parents in Norfolk, or somewhere like that, somewhere with a beach nearby.  He and the said father, who's Benson Father Type A (much older than his
wife; cold; forbidding; cantankerous, etc.) don't get on at all; in fact they live in a state of
constant hostility.  During one of his spells in London, Rex meets a woman, a divorcée of 32 years, a certain Mrs Winton; he doesn't reckon much to her at first, but is happy enough to live rent-free in her flat while she goes off on holiday for a couple of months.  The pater finds out about this; incensed that his son should be living off a woman, he confronts Rex; there's a Big Scene, after which he just has enough time to cut the troublesome son off without a penny, get the train home, have tea with his wife, during which he tells her the news, then drop dead on the drawing-room carpet.
This comes more or less exactly half way through the book ...
... and is the point at which it turns into just another Bensonian 'drama', with not the least shred of humour, about a not-especially-interesting young man pursuing a not-at-all-interesting career.
Rex has a best friend named Oliver who is ~ I'm not going to beat about the bush here ~ a poorly repressed homosexual who's in love with our hero.  His declarations to Rex, coming from a supposedly straight man, are toe-curlingly embarrassing.  Rex, having no great liking for anything other than his 'work', finds Oliver a nuisance at best, and they have a falling-out, then eventually a reconciliation of sorts.  So that's one thing that happens.
The other ~ the Big One ~ is that Rex, despite having no soul to speak of, gradually realizes he's 'in love' with his divorcée, and convinces himself that it's reciprocal.  In a scene which I can only describe as 'risible', he declares himself, and goes into a clinch with said woman; after which, she turns round¹ and says to him, "If you think I'm in the least bit in love with you, you're a total div ~ I was just messing with your head."²  Rex is devastated and has a kind of nervous breakdowny affair.  He says to Oliver, of Mrs Winton:
She's a spiritual Sadist, of great intellectual and physical refinement, but with a passion for the torture and heart's blood of nice young men like you and me.
No, like you, Rexie.
Does any good come of all this?  Well, yes and no.  Mainly the latter.  Our hero, who's been plugging away at plays all this time only to have them all rejected, suddenly realizes that he needs to pander to the public's love of cruelty and cynicism, so he dips his pen in bile and pens a piece about a cruel and heartless woman etc.  And it's a hit!  (The funny thing is that from what EFB tells us of Rex's work before and after his Road to Damascus experience, it's all exactly the same!)
Is that the end?  No, the end is that Mrs W conveniently develops some mysterious illness or other; Rex visits her on her deathbed; and he forgives her.
Rex is, not to put too fine a point to it, a hopeless farrago of idiotic plotting, unbelievable characters you couldn't care less about, dead ends, red herrings, extremely feeble attempts at humour, missed opportunities, turgid dialogue, creaking moralities (difficult to believe EFB and, for example, D H Lawrence even inhabited the same planet, let alone the same country and time) ~ in short, it's a mess. 


¹ Oops, this sounds rather like he was kissing the back of her head.  He wasn't.
² This isn't a direct quote, obviously. 




THE CRITICS

There are some writers whom it is somewhat difficult to place. Mr E F Benson is one of them. He can be ethereal one minute and mundane the next. You never quite know ~ when you hear that he has a new book on the stocks ~ whether he is going to describe the stars or discuss the slums ~ as witness his several David books and Dodo the Second. But whether it relates to the heavens above or the earth beneath, a new book by him is a great literary event. In Rex […] we are moved by high moral considerations at one moment and are brought down to such everyday problems as the evacuation of the Ruhr the next. The title of the book is the Christian name of its chief character.
Rex Goodwin and his doings and his sayings provoke thought and reflection. No ordinary man is this, and the study of his character as portrayed by Mr Benson not only provides delightful reading, but stern teaching. My advice to those who like to think while they read is ~ read Rex. It is a really great novel.
~'The Bookworm' in The Western Morning News and Mercury, 06/04/1925
It is a hard thing to say about the author of the once daring Dodo (by the way, isn't Dodo's granddaughter almost ripe by now for analysis?), but Mr. Benson is an incorruptible Victorian. One has a rather Rip Van Winklish feeling about the people of his latest novel—that they went to sleep sometime in that relative age of innocence, the naughty 'nineties, and on awaking in the age of flapper went on behaving themselves as though nothing had happened. Rex Goodwin is not really of this day and generation, but of Mr. Benson's own, and it was about the time of the Boer War that he should have come down from Cambridge with an Ibsen in his pocket and in his heart the determination to go and do likewise. Even the successful play that he finally writes with a cynical snarl, prostituting his art because a lady has been unkind, is the sort of play that was ridiculed by the young intellectuals of the beginning of the century.
If Rex is a Victorian, or at latest an Edwardian, heredity may account for it, for more Victorian figures than his parents could hardly be imagined—an irascible, unreasonable father, a sweet, docile mother, palpitating with love and sacrifice for both the superior, and mutually irreconcilable, males of her family. There may still be fathers like Rex's, but one prefers not to believe it.
After all, however, Mr. Benson has a perfect right, if he pleases, to postulate Victorian survivals in a post-war world; and in this case it happens that the play is not the thing (Rex could have been an insurance broker just as well as a dramatist), but the character of the playwright. In Rex Goodwin the author has drawn a character probably more unusual in fiction than in life— hard, glittering, intellectual, able to stimulate love, but seemingly incapable of feeling it. As foils and victims are his mother and a man friend of school and Cambridge days. The interplay of the three characters, with the preposterous father appearing and disappearing as a diabolus ex machina, is dexterously handled and interesting to watch. The experienced reader would no doubt guess the dénouement even had the publisher's blurb not obligingly given it away. Love cavalierly treated will have its revenge, and in Rex's case the vampire lady chosen as the instrument of vengeance makes a remarkably good job of it The conclusion is just the sort of thing that Rex and his sophisticated young intellectuals (of the 'nineties) would have become ribald over, and if the novel were ever filmed there would undoubtedly be a title about the 'cleansing fires of love'; but there it is,— and Mr. Benson has again given us an entertaining novel in his second best style.
~The Saturday Review, 20/02/1926
Mr Benson's novels are always so fresh, full of the sage of life, and Rex is one of those stories, that, once begun must be finished. It savours of undergraduate repartee being so rich in finesse. It concerns parental responsibility and filial devotion. Parents would learn from it much wisdom, and sons and daughters much understanding of their duty and age. It clearly shows that the demands made by age from youth should not be demanded so much as a right but received as the bouquets from human understanding and direction. Rex is a highly-strung boy who whilst ready to be friends is quite as keen to be at variance with his father. He wants a reason for every action demanded of him. He is a sort of Cassabianca standing always on the burning deck, and even when friendly is always on guard for an undiplomatic word which will give him his chance. Mr Benson has [gauged] the psychology of youth in aspersed fashion. The criticisms are healthy, affording a much desired mental tone. Rex has his problems to face and faces them, even maintaining his sang froid against all the conventions. He accepts the flat of a woman friend who bears all expenses, yet sees nothing wrong, until his mother sees his predicament. Rex is selfish, always taking, and at times he thinks it is too much trouble even to receive.
~The Daily Mail [Hull], 20/03/1925. A curiously incoherent bit of writing. When he says 'Cassabianca' does he mean 'Cassandra'?  Also: I get the distinct impression the reviewer only read about one third of the book.  EDIT, after doing a bit of that research thing: No, the reviewer meant Casabianca ~ he just didn't know how to spell it.



 

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

A Superfluous Loyalist

Fiction ~ short story
Published in Pall Mall Magazine, October 1902
(First read 08/04/2014)

A View of Rotten Row, Thomas Blinks, c.1900
Benson goes back over very well-trodden ground for this love-triangle quickie.  Dick Somethingorother, toff, part-time MP, and rider of horses in The Row, finds out that his cousin Madge (toff, full-time idler, and rider of horses in The Row), who he's loved in secret for x amount of time, has just become engaged to his best pal Jim (toff etc.).  Now unfortunately Dick and Jim spent some time together in Paris in their youth, for the purpose of learning French¹, during which time Jim sowed rather more than his fair share of wild oats ~ so we're told.  This leaves Dick in a beastly dilemma: should he tell Madge about Jim's sordid past as a way of shunting Jim out of the picture, so allowing himself the chance of a crack at her? or should he tell Madge about Jim's sordid past in order to save her from marrying a bounder? or should he persuade Jim to come clean himself? or should he just go out for another ride in The Row?  I'm pleased to report it all ends happily for everyone.  Except Dick.
The story is available online here ~ scroll along the bottom line till you hit page 225. 

¹ A language spoken by foreign johnnies, apparently.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

A Woman's Ambition

Fiction ~ short story
Published in The Windsor Magazine, December 1900
Reprinted in Bensoniana No. 2 (Hermitage Books, 1993)
3,930 words
(First read 03/04/14)

Another preposterous EFB heroine does the noble thing ...  Actually, this one's doubly preposterous in that not only is she the cynosure of London society and (we're told) kind to the poor but ~ for crying out loud ~ she's Russian to boot!  Marie Laridoff is a 24-year-old divorcée, stinking-rich for no particular reason, in love, for reasons not explained, with diplomat Sir Herbert Vivian (40).  Her love is requited but, also for reasons not explained, she's vowed never to remarry until the death of her first husband, who ~ no, I swear I'm not making this up! ~ rather bizarrely got her implicated in a revolutionary plot and banished from Russia ... ermm ... so as to be able to divorce her ... or something ~ details are sketchy, at best.  Anyway, in the best traditions of Bensonian and other fiction, the news that Hubby No. 1 has popped his clogs¹ and the news that Herb has landed the plum job of ambassador to Petersburg happen to arrive on the same day, and obviously Marie can't blah blah yadda yadda ... the usual.  The story is available online here.

¹ I daresay he was run over by a 'bus.