Showing posts with label E.F. Benson. Show all posts
Showing posts with label E.F. Benson. Show all posts

Friday, 18 May 2012

The Oakleyites by E.F. Benson

If you open The Oakleyites hoping to step into one of E.F. Benson's witty satires of upper-middle-class social life between the wars, you will not be disappointed.  But you will also get something unexpectedly serious as well.

Oakley-on-Sea is quite obviously Rye, or Tilling as it becomes in the Lucia books, and the Oakleyites themselves are a leisured, mainly female group centred around Dorothy Jackson.  Dorothy is cheerful, active and vigorous, and deeply involved in local life; she leads a Dante reading group, sits on the Art Society committee, and enjoys a good game of golf.  In her early thirties, she remains unmarried, having spent her twenties nursing her mother who died of tuberculosis.  The Oakleyites are happily involved in their clubs, their sport, and the engrossing business of letting their houses for the summer, but are disrupted by some new residents.  The first new arrivals are Wilfred Easton, a popular novelist, who takes a house in Oakley for the winter, bringing his mother to live with him.   Kindhearted Dorothy opens her house to her younger sister Daisy, fleeing an improvident marriage to an adulterous and violent, but titled, husband. 

So far, so proto-Lucia; but Dorothy has none of Lucia's guile, Daisy's motivations are simple and transparent, and while Wilfred may live with his mother he is miles away from Georgie.  The novel very quickly sets up a triangular relationship between these three people.  Dorothy, who had considered her chances of marriage entirely behind her, falls in love with Wilfred, and he begins to show signs of affection for her.  But Wilfred's heart was broken in his youth by a woman uncannily like Daisy; and Daisy herself seeks attention and affection from Wilfred in the aftermath of her failed marriage.  E.F. Benson manages to extract both humour and tragedy from this situation.  The narrative presents Daisy as fairly frightful, for example, self-interested and frivolous, but it does not suggest that she has not truly suffered in her marriage.  Dorothy often recognises the ridiculousness of her own situation even while it is making her miserable.  There are blackly humorous sub-plots that involve the three daughters of Dorothy's neighbour, Mr Audley, squabbling over his will - and the account of the annual Art Society exhibition is as funny here as it is in the Lucia stories.

Dorothy, Wilfred and Wilfred's mother Mrs Easton are all attractive characters, and Wilfred is particularly interesting as a portrait of the writer of popular novels in early twentieth century society - his books feature the wicked doings of Marchionesses who are no better than they ought to be  - who acknowledges that "my work has nothing to do with Art.  It is trade".  He and Dorothy discuss about the dilettante dabblings of the Oakleyites in art and literature, often to hideous effect, and compare this to his own production of decidedly unliterary fiction.  In addition to all this, there are some occasionally unexpectedly lovely bits of writing, especially about the beauties of Oakley itself:

"Outside, serene saffron-coloured lights hung in the West, amazingly luminous, so that though the sun had set, the illuminated sky still dimly outlined the shadows of chimneys and gables onto the westward-facing walls of houses opposite.  In the narrowing street up which Miss Dorothy walked briskly to her home, a clear twilight as of translucent water flowed deeper and deeper, but when, passing though the darkling house, she came out for a stroll in her garden, which stood on the very top of the hill-plateau, it was like emerging into some enchanted place.  A yellow unreal light flooded it, making the grass look orange-toned and the familiar and splendid hues of her October flowerbeds seemed as if they had been painted anew."

This is not what I usually expect from Benson, although his love of Rye and in particular this house, inhabited by EFB in real life and Dorothy, Miss Mapp and Lucia on the page, invariably characterises his books.  Expected or not, I found it very enjoyable to read.  It seems to be out of print, although there are facsimile versions around and it is available online.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Secret Lives by E.F. Benson

This 1932 comedy of manners is set in Durham Square, a respectable if not yet fashionable London address populated with exactly the sort of people you might expect to find in an E.F. Benson novel.  Chief among these is Mrs Mantrip, who owns most of the freeholds in the square; her clergyman father, with reformist zeal and deep pockets, bought up the property in order to evict the prostitutes who were lowering the local moral tone.  Her neighbours (who are often also her tenants) include Elizabeth Conklin, who breeds Pekinese dogs; playful Jimmie Mason, with his extravagant musical parties and exotic guests; and lately Miss Susan Leg, who has furnished her house extravagantly and is irritating the Square with her love of writing to the accompaniment of very loud gramophone music.  The source of Susan's apparently vast income, like her social origins, is obscure.  Mrs Mantrip is the highbrow social arbiter of Durham Square but she nurtures a secret passion for the decidedly lowbrow works of Rudolph da Vinci which feature kidnappings, swarthy foreigners and an unusually large amount of flagellation.  Through a complicated dance of pseudonyms, impersonations and revelations, Rudolph's true identity will eventually be revealed.

Besides this main narrative runs a series of sub-plots extracting the maximum humour from the Square's residents, their snobberies, allegiances, quarrels and reconciliations.  Benson has a lot of fun with a campaign to enforce the rule against walking dogs in the Square's private gardens, as the opposing sides canvass opinion, co-opt supporters, and rig ballots, as well as depicting a vast number of dogs, some of which are made of wood and have wheels.  The Square has its fair share of quirky eccentrics: there is Mr Gandish with his overwhelming enthusiasm for badminton, Lady Eva who can see a halo around the head of any person, and read their character accordingly, and the Vicar who is devoted to yoga and theories of reincarnation.   All this will be familiar to readers of the Mapp and Lucia books; if this book doesn't reach the comic heights of those works, it is still very funny, and it also reaches beyond the upper-middle-class householders, bringing in Susan's admirable butler Bosanquet and her erstwhile colleague Minnie Mimps as players in the comedy.  Benson is particularly good at showing how forgiveness of slights and offences is much easier when it is socially expedient, because a neighbour has influence or just a very good cook.

Most interesting to me is the way Benson deals with lowbrow writing in a comic middlebrow text. His depiction of the self-important MP and literary critic Arthur Armstrong, who denounces Rudolph da Vinci's Rosemary and Rue in the strongest terms, suggesting it should be "annihilated", and is rewarded with a satirical portrait in Rudolph's next novel, is both funny and ironic, pointing out the hollowness at the centre of Armstrong's loudly-voiced opinions.  Rudolph's publisher reflects sadly that it would never do if his author "began to long for the appreciation of educated people, and in the effort to attain it might seriously imperil the gusto with which [he] wrote".  Even the lowbrow writer, Benson suggests, hopes for critical endorsement, although critical censure proves to be much better for sales.  By the end of the novel Mrs Mantrip's secret shame about her reading preferences is no longer, and she is able to speak frankly about her love for the works of Mr da Vinci, and remove the little curtain that has kept them out of sight in her library.

This book seems to be out of print although copies of the Hogarth Press paperback are available secondhand.

Friday, 23 December 2011

The Blotting Book by E.F. Benson

This little 1908 novel is the story of a murder; rather unexpected from E.F. Benson who I know best for the Lucia books.  Morris Assheton is a young man from a wealthy background; his inheritance is held in trust until his twenty-fifth birthday, unless he marries before that date.  The trustees are Mr Taynton and Mr Mills, the family solicitors.  Mr Taynton is an agreeable, avuncular sort; charitable, religious and fond of his routines, he contrasts with the much pricklier Mr Mills.  Beneath the surface, however, they are more alike, since they have made some ill-advised speculations with Morris's money, hoping for personal profits.  When it becomes clear that Morris is in love, and likely to marry, Taynton becomes alarmed.  Can he buy enough time to restore Morris's inheritance, ensure his reputation and his prospects for a comfortable retirement?

The novel is set in Brighton, where I live, and many of the locations are still recognisable, although the murder scene, a quiet path over the downs from Falmer to Brighton, is much less rural nowadays and probably less conducive to violent crime.  Benson's book is not really a whodunit - it's fairly obvious who the murderer is - but it still makes use of typical tools of the genre.  Letters, railway timetables, calendars and the eponymous blotting book are all either clues or misdirections.  Again, while the book doesn't include the psychological analysis you get in Golden Age detective fiction, it is interested in the boundaries between fantasy, memory and forgetting.  

I thought Benson could have done more with the character of Mrs Assheton, Morris's mother - she felt very undeveloped to me, particularly in the context of Benson's more famous female characters - and the mouth-breathing Superintendent Figgis is a caricature.  But the social milieu - upper-class luxury on the Edwardian scale - is very well evoked, and the book is an enjoyable, if slight, read.  The Blotting Book is available in a print-on-demand edition - but the very nice Hogarth Press paperback can be had for a penny on Amazon.   Or you can find it on Project Gutenberg.