H. E. Bates writes about war, romance and that delightful thing we know as English eccentricity with equal facility and with skill that makes one understand what is meant by the term “fine writing.”
As I have made clear, I am a great fan of the writing of Somerset Maugham. He represents a school of English – and American – literature that daintily dances along the line dividing deliciously readable middle brow fiction of the sort I’ve written about here and here. Whether he’s detailing the muddle between high brow and middle brow literature or skewering a self-proclaimed “magic man,” Maugham delivers eminently readable, often profound observations on the human condition. He also inspired a number of younger writers to follow in his footsteps.
One of the best of these “sons of Maugham” is H.E. Bates. He is best known to the American audience, perhaps, because of Masterpiece Theater’s broadcasts of London Weekend Television’s adaptation of his novel Love for Lydia, an adaptation well known for helping launch the careers of actors such as Jeremy Irons and Peter Davison, among others.
I was fortunate enough to find a copy of New Directions Publishing’s re-issue of Bates’s A Month by the Lake and Other Stories recently at my favorite used book shop. As I hoped, it is a delight.
The title story of the collection, “A Month by the Lake” is a story of middle aged romance that has been made into a an enjoyable film with Vanessa Redgrave, Edward Fox, and Uma Thurman. It concerns a “sort of” love triangle involving a successful but lonely businessman, Major Wilshaw, a self-reliant but lonely English woman, Miss Bentley, and a brash young woman who complicates matters and eventually makes Wilshaw and Bentley admit their attraction to each other, Miss Beaumont. It’s a charming romance that ends as one would want it to – with good sensible English persons realizing that they belong together.
While “A Month by the Lake” is the title story, it is by no means the most important story in the collection. That honor might go to another story, “The Song of the Wren,” a lovely, delicate satire which skewers the idea that collecting data will lead to an understanding of human behavior. Bates argues, quite beautifully and persuasively, that understanding human behavior is more a matter of understanding the human heart than of gathering data to feed into a computer. As the main character, Miss Shuttleworth notes, there are questions that data cannot answer for us:
Now I’ve a question for you. I was asked it by a small boy the other day. He comes into the garden sometimes with his fishing rod and a bent pin and a worm and tries to catch fish in the stream. And the other day as he was putting a worm on his hook he asked me if I thought a worm had a heart? Now there’s a question for your computer.
Bates is an acknowledged master of the short story form, and this collection provides ample evidence of why he is. There are moments of lovely writing throughout this collection, as in this description from Bates’s story “The Flag,” a tale of unhappy marriage, loneliness, isolation:
All the loveliness of spring came down the hill past us, in a stream of heavy fragrance, and at the top, when I turned, I could feel it blowing past me, the wind silky on the palms of my hands, to shine all down the hill on the bent sweet grasses.
In another story, “Country Society,” Bates details the story of a successful cocktail party as a middle aged husband remembers the excitement of romance after meeting a young woman whose enthusiasms for life remind him of how we drift along in the routines of life until something or someone reminds us of lost youth:
With a tenderness he did not want to pursue into anything deeper he remembered how much the girl had liked all things that were white. He remembered how she had thought everything was beautiful.
Another wonderful story, “The Evolution of Saxby,” narrates the story of a man whose wife is unfaithful to him – not with other men, but with houses which she insists they remodel and then sell every couple of years. Finally, there is the story “The Maker of Coffins” which is as good an explanation of the complexity of the relationship between parent and child as one will find anywhere in literature. The eldest son of a family is not like his younger siblings who have achieved the goals set out by the mother – but she loves him anyway because he has achieved much with those gifts he has. While the younger children are smarter and more accomplished, the eldest son is a good carpenter, happily (if complicatedly) married, and still willing to entertain his mother by playing the violin in his own sincere if primitive fashion:
She always felt that she could hear the sound of the strings long after they were silent. They were like the sound of pigeons’ voices echoing each other far away in summer trees, and in the sound of them was all her love.
Those who love the short story will love this collection by Bates. The same can be said of those who love fine writing.