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.