Monday, 12 December 2016

The Climber

Fiction ~ novel
Published 1908
Approx. 138,000 words
Available online here

THE CRITICS
From certain points of view the heroine of Mr. Benson's new novel, The Climber, may be likened to the immortal figure of Becky Sharp. Like Becky, Lucia is absolutely unscrupulous, cold-hearted, and selfish. Like Becky, she is brilliantly successful in the early part of her career, and, again like Becky, she comes to absolute grief in the end. She has not, however, Becky's financial excuses for her downfall, her brilliant marriage and subsequent magnificent establishment being extremely unlike Becky's elopement and the house in Curzon Street owned by Mr. and Mrs. Rawdon Crawley. The whole of Mr. Benson's story is occupied with the figure of the heroine; and if it is necessary to portray in great detail so unattractive a figure, it must be acknowledged that Mr. Benson's study
is eminently successful. But this is where we find the great difference between clever modern novels and that great classic to whose heroine we have compared Lucia. In Vanity Fair Becky Sharp, though marvellously drawn, is only one figure in a gallery of masterly portraits. In a modern story, if the author takes the trouble to give one character drawn in careful detail, he builds up the whole structure round this figure and makes the rest of the book entirely subsidiary to it. Therefore, while Vanity Fair is read with ever-renewed pleasure, books like The Climber are merely painful and morbid studies of social disease. Mr. Benson has his good heroine ~ her name is Maud ~ but she is only drawn in outline, the one attractive figure in the story being Lucia's aunt Cathie. The Climber is not an immoral book in the sense of vice being triumphant, but, inasmuch as the overthrow of the heroine is due to the imprudence of being found out, it can hardly be said to what our forefathers would have called “improving reading.”
~The Spectator, 21/11/1908

Mr. Benson evidently believes there is still a serious novel-reading public. He has written a solid book which refuses to be skimmed, and which might even bear a second reading. Yet it exploits no virgin field, has no dubious scene, no purple patches, and no apparent purpose other than the dramatic representation of character. The social group to which most of the persons belong is a cultivated section of the English upper class, or—more democratically speaking—of the 'smart set.'
The Climber, Lucia Crimson, is a near spiritual relative of Mr. Pinero's Iris and Mrs. Wharton's Lily Bart. Living in quiet boredom with her two tea-drinking, patience-playing maiden aunts—capitally drawn and differentiated—she nourishes a dream of luxurious self-realization. She finds her opportunity in the priggishly æsthetic, very correct young Lord Brayton, who is not only affected by her personal charms, but is also persuaded that she can make his home the centre of a 'New Set' devoted to a very refined type of culture. This æsthetic lord seeks the beautiful in life and art with curious self-conscious and humorless gravity. Lucia, clear-headed and hard-hearted, conducts a Napoleonic social campaign, winning every battle, fulfilling every self-indulgent desire, till at last real passion touches her. Then, relentlessly, as she took Lord Brayton from her best friend, she takes away her best friend's husband. High tragedy cannot befall the two diversely fervid egotists of the drama; but such disaster as their souls are capable of comes swiftly upon them.
No other novel of Mr. Benson's shows such sobriety and maturity of workmanship. The story moves firmly, harmoniously, if somewhat slowly, forward under the conduct of a critical intelligence. The earlier chapters, indeed, make one a little impatient. The author is in no haste to get into action. He describes his field with excessive particularity as if assured of an attentive hearing. He has the bad habit of explaining the precise significance of every important speech, and he gives the reader a sharp nudge when the speech is clever. He has worked with such laborious conscientiousness that he cannot bear to let any good stroke pass unnoticed. Yet his characters are complexly alive, they develop, and they meet in sharp dramatic conflict. One may detest them all; but they survive the closing of the book.
~The Nation, 25/02/1909
Formerly the social climber was the parvenu, the vulgar person, recently enriched, who sought by means of her wealth to associate with people of position. That is the class of person held up to ridicule in such books as The Yellow-plush Papers, Ten Thousand a Year, and The Potiphar Papers. Nowadays the social straggler must enter the fray with a far more complete outfit than that of mere money, or she stands no chance of success. Intelligence, a certain amount of culture, real or imitation, never-ending perseverance and a goodly proportion of that cleverness that is quick to perceive and profit by the weaknesses of others—these are the weapons with which the climber of to-day seeks to capture the desired position.
In describing the career of Lucia Grimson Mr. Benson has given us one of his best stories and drawn some of his best characters. First of these is Lucia herself, beautiful, clever and condemned to that hopelessly dull existence which is the lot of the British alone among the nations of the earth, and from which matrimony seems to offer the only escape. Lord Brayton appears upon the scene, and to secure this eligible husband Lucia exerts every effort and ruse. Brayton is something of a prig, but a good fellow withal, desirous of doing his duty as a citizen, and sincere in his wish to have his influence, his house, and his name stand for something higher than mere fashion. His appreciation of culture is real, though perhaps a little conscious and laboured, and it is by playing skilfully upon this trait of character that Lucia wins him, and deliberately, although she knows that her best friend, Maud, is in love with him.
After a few years of married life she begins to find her husband rather tiresome and realises the difficulty of keeping up her pose of caring only for the higher things of life, but she has gained so much by her marriage that these are but trifles. Up to this time her heart, such as it is, has been entirely untouched when, suddenly, comes her emotional experience. Maud has married a cousin of Lord Brayton's and is very happy. Charlie is attracted by Lucia, as all men are; she begins by liking to exert her power over him, and before she knows it, the mischief is done and each is aware of the other's sentiments. No feeling of loyalty to the man who had given her so much, no touch of pity for the woman whom she is again robbing, assails Lucia. She encourages Charlie and draws him on, with the usual result of detection, exposure, and the Divorce Court. Maud sends her husband away for six months, at the end of which time he is to choose between his wife and Lucia. Should his choice be the latter, Maud will do what she can to make their marriage possible; should he decide in favour of his wife, she will take him back. Lucia goes back to the dull home in Brixton to await her sentence, which comes, six months later, in the form of a paragraph in the paper announcing that Mr. and Mrs. Charles Lindsay are in town for the remainder of the season. Her doom is sealed, and from thenceforward her life stretches on before her like a dusty road, dull and hopeless.
Lucia is plainly the descendant of Dodo, the author's earlier creation, though a little more modern, a little better educated, and far more of a manoeuverer. Her selfishness is a little more decently covered, but she is just as hard and worthless. The characters of the two old aunts are wonderfully well drawn: Aunt Cathie, with the severe appearance and demeanour and the tender heart, and Aunt Elizabeth, soft in manner, but really as hard as nails. Mr. Benson is a very prolific writer, but it is long since he has given us as good a story as The Climber.
~Mary K. Ford in The Bookman, 03/1909
Mr. Benson's book is a study in selfishness. One Lucia Grimson, poor, discontented, but ambitious, schemes deliberately to 'grab' the things in life that she considers worth while. Her wants are insatiable. To quote her own extravagant language, "I want the Pleiades to wear in my hair; I want to wear the moon as a pendant round my neck; I want Saturn and Jupiter to shine in my girdle; I want Venus." By ingenious deception, a titled husband, wealth, and social standing are secured, but these are not enough. Finally, the dangerous experiment of winning the affections of her friend's husband is tried, and this marks the beginning of the end.
The theme is not a pleasant one. The book contains few lovable or interesting characters with the exception, possibly, of the ridiculous but whole-souled Aunt Cathie with the queer dress and manners of a dim past. Even the goodness of the wronged wife is of the milk-and-water variety and calls forth little admiration.
The end of the story finds several lives wrecked and Lucia back in the small world with its round of monotonous duties from which she had struggled so frantically to escape. The outlook is hopeless for all, and it is with a sense of dreariness that the reader closes the book with the question in his mind if the society life of to-day is really as bad as it is painted.
~The Literary Digest, 06/03/1909
 
In his latest novel Mr. E. F. Benson shows himself in a graver and sterner mood than is habitual with him. The Climber is a merciless and very clever vivisection of an utterly unscrupulous and self-centred nature.
~The Outlook, quoted in endpapers to Juggernaut
In all the people whom he introduces he interests us, and his story is written with striking effect. It contains many passages one would like to quote, there are some fine descriptions in it, and those little Bensonian touches which reveal the author's wonderful power of observation are to be found on almost every page.
~The World, quoted in endpapers to Juggernaut

An unsparing analysis of an ambitious woman's soul ~ a woman who believed that in social 
supremacy she would find happiness, and who finds instead the utter despair of one who has 
chosen the things that pass away.
~?, quoted in endpapers of In the Morning Glow by Roy Rolfe Gilson
In The Climber by E F Benson, we are pleased to welcome the author in familiar mood. Lucia Grimson, who lives in comparative poverty with her two aunts, deliberately sets herself to capture the wealthy Lord Brayton, with whom she knows her friend Maud to be in love. Having climbed, her business [is] to keep waving the flag her husband hoists. But after two or three years with a man whom she does not love, and to whom she is opposed in all her tastes, she is quite ready to yield to the passion she feels for her husband's cousin, Charlie Lindsay, even though she is the husband of the friend she wronged so deeply before. She is divorced by Lord Brayton, Charlie Lindsay returns to his wife, and Lucia goes back to live with Aunt Cathie. This is the bare outline of a story that is full of good things. Vividly interesting characterisation which touches many sides of life, brilliant dialogue, and well pictured scenes all contribute to make this one of the most realistic and excellent of Mr Benson's novels. No one is more adept at unfolding a tale than this author, and, though there is no striking originality of plot in The Climber, the book holds attention from the first page to the last.
~The Manchester Courier, 06/11/1908





Friday, 14 October 2016

The Life of Alcibiades

Non-fiction ~ biography/Ancient Greece
Published 1928
Approx 82,000 words

There are things of EFB's that I will never ever read, that wild horses armed with Kalashnikovs couldn't induce me to read.  This is one of them.  If you have the stomach for this kind of thing, the whole book is available online here.

THE CRITICS
Athens of the fifth century B.C. is an episode of human history of which the world is never likely to grow weary, and, as long as people care more for brilliance than for stability, Alcibiades is sure to be the most attractive figure in the latter half of that century. We are well informed as to his character and works, chiefly by Thucydides, who wrote as his contemporary, and by Plutarch, the professional biographer, to whom the fifth century was already ancient history. No one, perusing those two sources, could fail to have a vivid impression of Alcibiades, favorable or otherwise; but, of course, the readers of Thucydides and Plutarch are no longer common, and Mr. Benson has decided to publish a biography combining the evidence of antiquity with the inferences which he thinks may fairly be drawn from that evidence.

Now the first question that presents itself is "How far should such a biography be supplemented by imagination?" And this is a question of considerable importance. Alcibiades is exactly the kind ofperson whose mental processes one longs to know. He was a roué, a spendthrift, and a traitor, yet he exerted an almost magic fascination over his contemporaries. For these facts we have plenty of evidence, implicit or explicit; but for the actual emotional texture of his life we must rely largely on our imaginations, and their contributions are, of course, fiction.

Either the fact or the fiction might dominate: Mr. Benson has tried to hold the balance even, and the result is neither a good novel nor a good biography. It is not a good novel because the fiction is too scanty and generally too slight to add very much to what is contained in the historical sources or to create a character which is a true work of art. Moreover, the style is repetitious and hyperbolic and sometimes cheap. We are told half a dozen times that Alcibiades advised the fortification of Decelea; the superlatives in the language not sufficing, the word 'supremest' is created, and 'superbest' (!); and it is charitable to suppose that such a phrase as "the Bolshevist committee (the Council of Four Hundred!) must commit hari-kari" is due to haste of composition.
 
~Alfred R. Bellinger in The Saturday Review, 20/07/1929 [much abridged: the original is 1,315 words]

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Lovers and Friends

Fiction ~ novel
Published 1921
Approx. 84,000 words
Available online here

THE CRITICS
One wishes that Mr. E. F. Benson would devote less time to plot in his stories and more to the delineation of character, for in that line he has an able touch. His latest book Lovers and Friends [...] opens with an enchanting sketch of a well-born egoist who might have proved a dangerous rival of 'Queen Lucia' had he moved in the same circle with that delectable person. Philip Courthope is a man of good family who in early life had studied art in Paris. Altho[ugh] not especially gifted he had a distinct knack at catching a likeness that stood him in good stead, and it was while painting the portrait of a rich American woman some eight years his senior that he decided to make himself comfortable for the rest of his life by a rich marriage. The lady was the widow of a Prussian Junker, and in spite of a dreadful experience with one husband she was soon in love with the good-looking young artist whose portrait of her was so flatteringly like. They were married, but in two years her fire had quite burned out and she was ready to pay him two thousand pounds a year and give him the care of their infant daughter Celia on condition that he did not interfere with her in any way. The arrangement was made with equal satisfaction to both.
Courthope settled in the little watering place of Merriby where, at the opening of the story he is a person of importance in all social affairs. President of the County Club, Treasurer of the Golf Club, and Secretary of the Lawn Tennis Club, his position is sufficiently important to satisfy even his vanity, while his 'Soirées d'Ennui,' given every other week during the Merriby season, with music, dancing and supper so carefully thought out as to seem unpremeditated, are a great success. In the meantime Mrs. Courthope is enjoying herself tremendously in London where she is achieving the main object of her life, which is to know every one. Finally it dawns on her that her daughter is among the few desirable persons whose acquaintance she has not yet made, so she writes to Courthope and proposes to drop in on him shortly for dinner on her way to Exmouth, and see for herself what Celia is like. The inspection proves so satisfactory that she instantly suggests to her husband that Celia shall come to her for an indefinite stay, and offers to make it so well worth his while financially that he consents, tho[ugh] this part of the negotiation is not made public.
From this moment the interest in the book begins to wane. Philip, with his vanity, his egotism and his amusing affectations, gives place to Celia, a modern young woman; a tribe of rattle-pated friends, and her serious-minded lover, Lord Matcham. Like so many present-day heroines, Celia's idea is to take all she can get without much thought as to any return being made. Lord Matcham has a good deal to offer beside his love and devotion and Celia accepts all without caring much for the giver. The usual result follows. She finds her husband rather a bore and bestows her affections on a handsome young materialist who is frankly out for the best he can get in life. It would not be fair to the author to say how the book ends—as a matter of fact the closing scene leaves the reader a good deal of liberty to settle things for himself, but as a story it drags, one reason being that it is impossible to feel much enthusiasm for Celia in spite of her beauty and unhappiness. In fact, the modern heroine is getting to be something of a nuisance with her general crabbedness and discontent. Insisting upon having a child if she is single, refusing to bear one if married, never in love with her husband, no matter what his merits, and generally attaching herself to the most worthless man of her acquaintance, she is rapidly becoming a bore of the first water. Lord Matcham is faintly reminiscent of Lord Brayton in The Climber, tho[ugh] he is not such a prig; Mrs. Courthope is an inconsequent person, and her conversation recalls that of the gifted Dodo, only it is more foolish, less pretentious and consequently more amusing. In Philip Courthope Mr. Benson has given us another of those characters whom he sketches so well, and our chief regret is that there is not more of him in the book and less of the tumultuous Celia.
 
~The Literary Digest, 28/01/1922

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Saturday, 23 January 2016

The Weaker Vessel

Fiction ~ novel
Published March 1913
Approx. 138,000 words 




















THE CRITICS

Mr Benson has written his latest novel in a serious mood. There is little of his usual froth and bubble, and no Lady Sunningdales enliven the pages. Nor does the story possess the vitality and delightful humanness of The Challoners and some of his fellows. Eleanor and Harry Whittaker are very interesting to read about, but the Eleanor of the first few chapters who peruses The Second Mrs Tanqueray in secret, and rebels against her duty loving stepmother is much nearer the reader's heart than the Eleanor who says “I forgive you, Harry dear,” at frequent intervals. Harry is often in need of forgiveness. When, as tutor in the house where Eleanor is governess, he wins her love, he possesses good looks, qualified by a weak mouth, and a gift for play writing. Unfortunately this gift requires to be stimulated to do its work well. Half a glass of whisky will enable it to achieve in a couple of hours, what a whole day's solid work has left undone. “From habit, just as people will take a little more bread at breakfast which they do not want, in order to put on it the butter on their plates, which they do no want either,” he gets into the way of finishing the glass. As a matter of course the habit grows. Eleanor discovers it some time after a successful play enabled Harry to marry her. Then the fight begins ~ Eleanor's love versus the drink which gives Harry such happy moods of inspiration. The battle is fierce, for a long time the enemy, reinforced by the actress Maria Anstruther, is victorious, and it is only a chance street accident that gives Eleanor the final victory. In The Weaker Vessel the author displays all his delightful insight into human nature and the little trivialities of life, and while this quality continues to pervade his books they will never contain an uninteresting page.
~The Manchester Courier, 07/03/1913

There are many people, we imagine, who will consider Mr E. F. Benson's latest story, The Weaker Vessel […], the best he has yet written, and certainly its character-studies very nearly approach the high-water mark in modern fiction. Eleanor Ramsden, daughter of a clergyman of peculiarly lovable character, leaves home owing to a disagreement with her stepmother, and accepts a position as governess in the family of an acquaintance. In this same family Harry Whittaker, son of Lord Prinstead, a drunken peer, is acting as tutor, and in and between his tutorial duties is engaged upon the writing of a play, the composition of which owes a good deal to Eleanor's criticism and suggestion. The play is produced, makes a sensation, and Whittaker and Eleanor are soon afterwards married. For a time they are blissfully happy, until at last the young wife discovers that the brilliant passages of her husband's plays ~ written always after she has retired for the night ~ are induced by alcoholic over-indulgence. She exerts herself to save him, and only partially succeeds. While under the spell of her wonderfully subtle influence Whittaker is enabled to ward off the demon but presently another equally potent and less beneficent influence enters his life in the person of the leading actress for whom his play has been written, but whose influence is eventually conquered by the splendid patience and tactful winsomeness of his wife. The character of Eleanor Ramsden is indeed a magnificent creation, and one upon which its creator may well be congratulated. The conception is striking and is the more convincing on account of its very unconventionality, and it is no small tribute to Mr Benson's literary skill that even the wayward Harry Whittaker, with all his faults and with all his failings, never for one moment exasperates or forfeits the sympathy of the reader. The book, indeed, is in every sense so far removed from the commonplace and so brilliantly written throughout that it must be reckoned certainly amongst the most important novels of the present publishing season, and is, moreover, probably one of the few novels of modern production for which the discriminate reader is likely to find a permanent place in his bookshelf.
~ The Liverpool Echo, 08/03/1913
Mr E. F. Benson has perhaps been more praised and more blamed than any other living novelist. He has, of course, the defects of his qualities, and it is impossible for any of us to be always on the heights. But despite occasional adverse criticism, each of Mr E. F. Benson's novels is eagerly welcomed, for in certain senses he gives us what no other writer can do. His latest book, The Weaker Vessel, is one of his longest novels, and he gives a powerful picture of the heights of heroism and unselfishness to which a woman can rise to shield and help her 'Weaker Vessel'. Harry, with his brilliant brain and wholly unbalanced temperament, would not retain the tolerance, far less the love, of any ordinary woman, but Mr Benson's unerring skill makes Eleanor's attitude and large-heartedness simply the outcome of a natural soul. No one can describe London life and society with a wittier and happier pen than Mr Benson, and the creation of Mrs Ramsden along would make the book a joy. Who does not recognise in her the patient, exasperating, unselfish, posing martyr who renders life intolerable to those round her. The Weaker Vessel is distinctly one of Mr E. F. Benson's typical and excellent novels.
~Aberdeen Daily Journal, 10/03/1913

Mr E. F. Benson has made wonderful strides as an author since he wrote the story of undergraduate life at Cambridge, Babe B.A. [sic]. That was bright enough in its way, but it scarcely foreshadowed the brilliant work which was to follow. To-day Mr Benson is unquestionably one of our most popular novelists, and a new work from his pen is eagerly welcomed. It is not difficult to discover the reason for this popularity. Mr Benson's novels depict life [as] it really is; his characters are so thoroughly human. His heroes and heroines are not those perfect beings whom one so frequently finds in the realms of fiction, but ordinary, everyday people, with faults and failings like the rest of mankind.
In The Weaker Vessel, his latest novel, Mr Benson is at his best. The character who furnishes the title is Harry Whittaker, an amiable but weak young man, who when we first make his acquaintance is acting as a private tutor, but soon afterwards blossoms forth into a successful playwright. There is, however, one great drawback. He finds he can only do good work under the stimulus of alcohol. “He had no craving for alcohol in itself, he merely employed it as a means towards an intellectual end, to give him the sparkle and freedom of brain that were necessary to the creation of incisive dramatic writing.” Time and again he resolves to do without it, and to use no spur except that of his own desire, but in the end it proves too strong for him.
Acting as governess in the same house as Whittaker is Eleanor Ramsden, a high-spirited girl, with whom he finds he has many traits and tastes in common. While his ambition is to write a play that shall be accepted by a great actor-manager, she is tremendously keen on becoming an actress, and has already given proof of her talent. Their marriage follows the production of Harry's first play, and for a time there seems nothing to mar their happiness, but it is when her husband is at work on his second play that Eleanor discovers his weakness. To his wife he explains the position:
There's nothing to be said of the habit I have got into. But the matter is that I can't write unless I've been drinking. Drink ~ I don't mean getting drunk ~ sets something loose in my brain, that which we used to call the elf or the Uncontrollable. And when it's loose ~ very often just one whisky and soda lets its loose ~ I get so keen about my work that I just must keep it loose. And that means drinking more. So it goes on, I drinking instinctively and working, utterly happy because I know I am doing good work, and that the best part of my brain is active. You remember my reading you The Dilemma in the schoolroom at the Wilkins? And how you put your finger on certain bits of slack stuff? All that, just that, and nothing else, was written without ~ without help. All that you thought was good was written with help. In consequence, I did no good work. Of course, it was a rotten plan to trifle with such methods at all, but it was so easy to persuade myself that I would just finish this act, or just finish this play, and that then I would give it up.”
This is what Harry is always saying: “I will give it up when I have done this,” but he has not the strength of will to leave it alone for long. Through it all, however, Eleanor is his good angel. He repeatedly falls away, but she never turns from him, even when faced with a worse trial in the form of a dangerous intimacy between her husband and a leading actress for whom he was been writing a play. She is ever striving to lift him up to higher things, and in the end she has her reward.
The Weaker Vessel, while quite unlike the customary stage novel, gives one an interesting glimpse of the work involved in the writing and production of a play, and reveals something of the terrible nervousness experienced both by dramatist and actor on a first night.
~The Cambridge Independent Press, 14/03/1913
There is a world of irony in the title Mr E. F. Benson has chosen for his latest novel. Eleanor [Ramsden] marries a man who has made a brilliant success of his first play, and is proud of her husband and his work. The awakening comes when she learns that the cannot write save under the stimulus supplied by intoxicants. He is, indeed, the weaker vessel, but her large-hearted love prevents the catastrophe that seems inevitable. Worse is to come, but still she sacrifices herself for the sake of the man she loves. Mr Benson has given us a masterly analysis of temperament and character. He probes the full depths and measures the heights of human nature, and in both he is equally successful.
~The Courier [Dundee], 20/03/1913
This is a contrast in its quietness to the liveliness of the book which first attracted attention to Mr. Benson as a novelist. Dodo had more sparkle, but The Weaker Vessel has far more fidelity to life. It is a serious and truthful study of social conditions and of individual temperament. Particularly exact in its realism is the character of the self-sufficient and narrow-minded rector's wife who makes miserable the life of her cheerful, ambitious, and gifted stepdaughter. Equally good in its depiction is the character of the man the girl marries—a genius as a writer of plays only when he is under the inspiration of alcohol, and therefore inevitably a weak though lovable character, whose life trends naturally downward. While his power weakens, his wife's strengthens; and she becomes a fine embodiment of honor and faithfulness.
~The Outlook (US), 05/04/1913

In Mr. Benson's new novel he draws five admirably contrasted principal characters. The father of Eleanor, the heroine, Mr. Ramsden, a wise and benevolent country clergyman, has that knowledge of the world which comes from the Church not having been his first profession. In striking contrast to him is his well-intentioned wife, who succeeds in being the most disagreeable person who has appeared in fiction for a long time past. The other three characters are the gentleman who enacts the name part of the piece (the novel is so concerned with theatrical matters that it is impossible to help slipping into theatrical language); Eleanor, his wife, who, besides being by far the better man of the two, is a heaven-born genius on the boards; and the Circe of the book, who leads Harry Whitaker astray. She, however, is a far more conventional figure. Harry himself is a striking study, and Mr. Benson almost persuades his readers that his hero was right in yielding to the temptation of giving way to drink when it enabled him to write such admirable dramas. Eleanor Whitaker is herself a well-drawn and credible figure, though the reader would like to hear the opinion of a professional actor-manager on the possibility of her taking the town by storm on the stage without ever having learned the rudiments of her art. The book cannot be called epoch-making, but it is pleasant reading, though the unfortunate Harry is obliged to be half-paralysed before his moral character can be rescued.
~The Spectator, 26/04/1913
In this novel there are two weaker vessels, namely, the father and the husband of the heroine; and for some time we were unable to make up our minds which weaker vessel was intended to give the title to the book. If this were a play, the leading female part would not be that or the heroine, but that of her step-mother—the very virtuous, correct, and managing clergyman's wife. A clever actress might make a great deal of the character. Whether the story would make a play we are not so sure. The vicar's wife gave much of her goods to feed the poor; and she once cheerfully gave her body—at least, her hands—to be burned, by putting out the flames in the clothes of a little boy, who had set himself on fire at a Christmas tree. "The child was not hurt at all, so prompt was her aid ; but he was hurt afterwards when Mrs. Ramsden repeated the occurrence to his mother, adding that she had repeatedly warned the children not to touch the candles. But in no reasonable mind could there be any doubt as to the overwhelming weight that duty occupied in the spiritual economy of Mrs. Ramsden. She put out the small male infant, with risk to herself, as cheerfully and as ungrudgingly as she repeated his misconduct afterwards to his mother." This is the key to her actions and sayings, whenever she comes on the stage; and they usually "bring down the house." As to the lengthy descriptions of the married hero's gradual falling in love with an objectionable actress, and his equally gradual taking to drinking, we found them dull, although cleverly described. By the way, the hero's wife was also an actress, and a very fine one. After seeing her perform, in her greatest character, Mrs. Ramsden said: "The audience were very much pleased, but to me she did not seem to be acting at all. She spoke and did things as she might have in the vicarage at home." And when told that this was the highest tribute she could give her, Mrs. Ramsden replied: "You mean that Harry wrote the part for her, so that there was no acting to be done. I am sure that was very clever of him." The woman is really splendid all through.
~The Tablet, 14/06/1913
E. F. Benson, who customarily avoids problems, presents in The Weaker Vessel an extraordinarily strong and searching study of the man who yields to the devil and the flesh. Whoever desires, without personal experiment, familiarity with the mechanism of surrendering to temptation, cannot do better than to consider the ways of the hero.
~The Atlantic Monthly [US], 11/1913

The Weaker Vessel (1913) contains two women characters who are essentially Bensonian: they may be copied from life, but they do not live. One is the daughter of a viscount and the wife of a country clergyman, and she has all the aggressive qualities that one expects of such women. She lives in an atmosphere of Sunday schools and choir practices, and she is convinced of her absolute righteousness. She exhibits a monumental lack of humour, and her bright, hard verbosity has a stunning effect both on the reader and on Eleanor, her step-daughter. Eleanor is the heroine who, rebelling against her narrow life in the parsonage, marries Harry Whittaker, an alcoholic playwright who has leapt to fame with his first play. Without any training or experience of life Eleanor becomes a famous actress, portraying subtle and varied parts with consummate triumph, taking London by storm. Also among the characters is Marian Anstruther, the stage siren, who wears rose-madder cloaks, and Louis Grey, a high-minded actor-manager who is in love with Eleanor, but at a respectful distance. Not only is Eleanor a great actress, she is wise, large-hearted and loving, and when she discovers her husband's shameful secret she sets out to save him; and she does not desert him even when the siren influences him to descend even further into the depths of degradation.
Harry injures his spine in a motor accident and will never be able to walk again, and Eleanor gives praise to God for delivering him into her hands ~ no more naughtiness for Harry, and no more rivals for her. Marian disappears into outer darkness, though not before Eleanor forgives her for being Harry's mistress. The book ends with a hint of spring in the air after a bitter winter. Harry is about to start another play and Eleanor to resume her acting.
~Geoffrey Palmer and Noel Lloyd in E. F. Benson As He Was, 1988

Typical of the notices [E. F. Benson was getting in the pre-war years] are those which greeted The Weaker Vessel (1913), whose characters include an alcoholic playwright, a temperamental actress, and the stock clergyman's wife stuffed with nauseating piety. The Gentlewoman wrote, “They are essentially Bensonian creations. They might quite possibly be copied from life, but they do not live.” The reviewer went on to lament Fred's 'surface polish, the Benson Brilliantine', because it obscured the talent beneath. New Age, having depicted Fred as 'a servile scribbler', wondered whether he was not, in fact, a satirist in disguise, which was true though not generally acknowledged. Similarly, the Western Gazette remarked that “Mr Benson attacks no problem, but merely paints portraits remorselessly; but the problem nevertheless peeps through between the lines.”
~Brian Masters in The Life of E. F. Benson, 1991