The Osbornes by E.F. Benson

I’ve been off for a week in a beautiful chateau in the Loire Valley – this one, to be precise, in case you want to follow suit – though I left a couple of scheduled posts to tide me over. There were 17 of us, most of whom I’d only met a few times or not at all – but it was such a wonderful week. Beautiful surroundings, wonderful people, lots of fun, and lots of reading. I read four books in the five days we were there (because the first and last days were basically all driving) and one of those was The Osbornes (1910) by E.F. Benson.

The Osbournes

This is only the third book I’ve read by E.F. Benson that falls outside the excellent Mapp and Lucia series (which I’ve read twice). My shelves have plenty of his books on them, though, and I’d decided to stop buying them until I’d sampled some more – and loved Daisy’s Aunt around this time last year. Unintentionally, I picked a novel from the same year – yes, he had three novels published in 1910; check out his Wikipedia page to see how astonishingly prolific he was. Even more astonishing, both novels are really rather good.

The Osbornes considers a question that has echoed throughout English literary history almost from when it began: what happens when you love outside your own class? From Pamela to Lady Chatterley’s Lover and onwards, this topic has (in its different forms) been a peculiarly English preoccupation. And it is at the forefront of The Osbornes, where Dora falls in love with the Adonis-like Claude. Claude’s family is the Osbornes of the title – nouveau riche, and not ‘quite quite’.

Nobody disputes that he and his family are kind and good, but their money has not brought them a sense of what is right to say and what is not. Not that they have come from the gutter; Claude went to Eton and Cambridge, and the list of things that Dora’s family object to make for rather mysterious reading, over a century since the novel was written. Here is Dora’s (selfish, grabbing) brother on the topic of Claude:

“I think Claude has masses of good points: he simply bristles with them, but he gives one such shocks. He goes on swimmingly for a time, and then suddenly says that somebody is ‘noble-looking’, or that the carpet is ‘tasteful’ or ‘superior’.”

It’s not exactly spitting on the floor, is it? But it is enough to irritate Dora once they are married, and once the gleam of lust has worn off. She is very fond of his parents, but cannot help seeing the same things in them – Mr and Mrs Osborne (senior) come with them on a trip to Venice, but are more impressed by the metalwork they see than by the architecture. The size of the paintings in a gallery astonishes them, rather than the artists’ genius. It prickles Dora over and over.

You could draw a gallon of pure fresh kindness from that well-spring which also was inexhaustible, but even before you had time to put your lips to it, and drink of it, some drop – quite a little drop – would trickle in from the source of his vulgarity and taint it all. It was even worse than that; there was a permanent leak from the one into the other; the kindness was tainted at the source.

More on the kindness in a minute. But this did make me think – obviously we laugh at this sort of snobbery now, particularly when it’s so hard to see the nuances that bothered them so much. But I wonder if it has been replaced with other sorts of things – codes that we are used to in our families, and can’t imagine making new relations outside of that perimeter. This struck me when the topic of humour came up – I certainly wouldn’t say I looked down on people who had a completely different sense of humour from me, but it would make forming close bonds very difficult. We may feel angry with Dora and Jim from our 21st-century vantage (agreeing with the character who says “how God must laugh at our divisions of classes. We must look like children arranging books by the colour of their covers instead of their contents”) but that is to miss the point of the contemporary setting, perhaps? Any seismic class shift in England was still around forty years away.

The strength of this novel doesn’t lie, though, in this moral maze. It’s in the Osbornes – not Dora and Claude by Claude’s parents. I loved hearing all your suggestions for happy marriages the other day (and keep meaning to reply, not least because some of them certainly don’t meet my mental criteria!) and here is certainly one. Eddie and Mrs O (as they call each other) have one of the most beautiful marriages I’ve ever read about – and Benson treads just on the right side of saccharine for the reader to swallow it. They have been together since they had little, but in their riches want no more than each other’s company, laughing at the same weak family jokes that have occupied them for decades. There is a little wisdom in them, but only really a little – mostly, Benson paints strengths of character and, yes, kindness.

His wickedly funny cynical side doesn’t emerge in this novel, and an unkind reader might think there are moments in here that are too sentimental – but either I was beguiled by the beautiful French countryside, or Benson manages to get away with it. He remains funny throughout, and dodges a tricky societal quandary by having a bit of an easy out in the end, but somehow the ingredients all add up to another delightful offering from a pen that doesn’t seem able to do anything but delight.

Note: I accidentally wrote ‘Osbournes’ every time in my initial version of this post – thanks for noticing, Tony!

Daisy’s Aunt by E.F. Benson

I have so many E.F. Benson books on my shelves – they’re not tricky to pick up in secondhand bookshops, if you’re patient – but almost all of them are unread. Besides the excellent Mapp and Lucia series, which I’ve read twice (though not for years), I’ve only read Secret Lives. And I thought it was about time that I remedied that. I’m so glad I did – Daisy’s Aunt (1910) is faintly ridiculous, but entirely enjoyable.

Daisy's Aunt

The opening scene, and opening paragraph, is classic Edwardian insouciance of the variety that Benson does charmingly:

Daisy Hanbury poked here parasol between the bars of the cage, with the amiable intention of scratching the tiger’s back. The tiger could not be expected to know this all by himself, and so he savagely bit the end of it off, with diabolical snarlings. Daisy turned to her cousin with a glow of sympathetic pleasure.

If you are not instantly charmed by both author and character, then I don’t know if I can help you. The scene has no other purpose – she almost instantly leaves the zoo, with her subservient friend Gladys in tow, and the incident is scarcely mentioned again. But it has set Daisy up as reckless, amusing, and rather lovable – which is just as well, as we have to take it as read that she is charming for much of the subsequent novel.

The novel, indeed, has all the benefits of the typical Edwardian novel, as well as its drawbacks (if such they be). It is frothy and indulgently charming (that word again) – and the plot makes almost no sense. But I’ll do my best. Look away if you want no spoilers at all, but these are the main facts which lead to the bulk of the plot:

  • Daisy’s young aunt Jeannie (after whom the US title for this novel, The Fascinating Mrs Halton, is named) is returning from a year abroad, and finds that Daisy is hoping a Lord Lindfield will propose.
  • Jeannie knows that Lord L was (ahem) a cad with Daisy’s sister in Paris – but had made a deathbed promise to the sister never to disclose this.
  • Oh yes, the sister (Diana) is dead, but most people thought she’d died five years before this.
  • The only solution Jeannie can see is to flirt with Lord Lindfield until Daisy sees that he is no better than he ought to be, and foreswears him.
  • There’s another gent who loves Daisy, and one who’s secretly engaged to Jeannie.

Phew! There we have it. Obviously Jeannie’s plan is ridiculous, even given the mores of the day, and there is any number of better plans, but she apparently can think of none of them – and does all this from love of Daisy. Jeannie Halton is, indeed, a kind and lovable woman, otherwise sensible and (yes) charming. Little does she know that Daisy has gone from thinking she might as well marry Lord L as anyone, to actually loving him…

Tangled webs, and all that. We see most things from the perspective of either Jeannie or Daisy, and the events of the novel chiefly take place during a house party in a beautiful riverside cottage – lots of the idle rich staying for a few days together, and gossiping about each other. One of my favourite sections of the novel, actually, was the indulgently long time Benson spends describing this idyllic house – from informal, winding garden to the welcoming rooms. And particularly this bit:

At the other end, and facing it, the corresponding kitchen range of the second range had also been cleared out, but the chimney above it had been boarded in, and a broad, low settee ran around the three sides of it. Above this settee, and planted into the wall, so that the head of those uprising should not come in contact with the shelves, was a bookcase full of delectable volumes, all fit to be taken down at random, and opened at random, all books that were familiar friends to any who had friends among that entrancing family. Tennyson was there, and all Thackeray; Omar Khayyam was there, and Alice in Wonderland; Don Quixote rubbed covers with John Inglesant, and Dickens found a neighbour in Stevenson.

My version of this library would be updated by a couple of decades (I have to confess to never having heard of John Inglesant), but doesn’t it sound wonderful?

And so the novel goes – never sensational, and always at least a little witty, but with genuine stakes for those involved. But the reader has no real anxiety. We know that such a novel, from such an author, can’t end but happily. It reminded me rather of Herbert Jenkins’ delightful Patricia Brent, Spinster; it is the same sort of delicious silliness that passes a sunny day beautifully. I’m glad that I’ve finally looked in more depth at my Benson shelf – and must make sure to return to it before too long.


Reginald in Russia – Saki

Most of the times that I’ve mentioned Saki in the past few years, it’s been about his novellas.  Quite a few of us were reading The Unbearable Bassington a while ago, and earlier this year I read When William Came.  It’s about time that I return to the form which introduced me to Saki, and for which Saki is best known: the blackly funny short story.  I’ve only read Beasts and Super-beasts in full (and love it to pieces) – Reginald in Russia filled in 1911 for A Century of Books.

I haven’t actually read the earlier collection called simply Reginald, so I was prepared to be rather bemused by his adventures in Russia, but it turns out that (unlike that first collection) Reginald only appears in the first story, arguing with a Princess.  The rest of Reginald in Russia covers vast territories – including someone accidentally shooting someone else’s fox, a feud between next-door neighbours, a werewolf, and a man trying to extricate a mouse from his trousers in a train carriage. It’s all rather mad, and often dark, but delightfully so.

My favourite story (‘The Baker’s Dozen’) is actually in the form of a play, where a widow and widower (once in love) meet again on a boat and decide to re-marry – but realise that between them, they now have thirteen children and stepchildren.  This, naturally, is an inauspicious start to marriage for the superstitious, and one of their tactics is attempting to palm off a child on fellow passenger, Mrs. Pally-Paget:

Mrs. P.-P.: Sorry for me? Whatever for?Maj.: Your childless hearth and all that, you know.  No little pattering feet.Mrs. P.-P.: Major!  How dare you?  I’ve got my little girl, I suppose you know.  Her feet can patter as well as other children’s.Maj.: Only one pair of feet.Mrs. P.-P.: Certainly.  My child isn’t a centipede.  Considering the way they move us about in those horrid jungle stations, without a decent bungalow to set one’s foot in, I consider I’ve got a hearthless child, rather than a childless hearth.  Thank you for your sympathy all the same.  I daresay it was well meant.  Impertinence often is.
You see the sort of frivolous style that Saki excels at – which makes the darkest topics he approaches (including a boy being eaten by a werewolf, for example) never feel remotely scary or even unsettling.  It’s all just delightful, because Saki is so brilliant at that peculiarly 1910s combination of whimsy, hyperbole, and litotes – the sort of thing which Wodehouse managed to stretch out for decades, but which thrived most in those innocent pre-war days.

He reviled and railed at fate and the general scheme of things, he pitied himself with a strong, deep pity too poignant for tears, he condemned every one with whom he had ever come in contact to endless and abnormal punishments.  In fact, he conveyed the impression that if a destroying angel had been lent to him for a week it would have had very little time for private study.
These stories are between two and six pages long each – brief, fun, easy to chuckle and turn to the next one.  Reginald in Russia isn’t as good as Beast and Super-Beasts, for my money, but you don’t have to take my word for it – if you click on either of those, it’ll take you to Project Gutenberg where you can sample them yourself.  Perfect for a winter evening.

In a German Pension – Katherine Mansfield

One of the first times that I thought (forgive me) that I might actually have some sort of literary astuteness was in relation to Katherine Mansfield.  Our Vicar’s Wife and I were off to a lecture day at Oxford on Modernism – this was two or three years before I started studying university – and I’d been reading a Collected Short Stories of Katherine Mansfield that my friend Barbara had given me.  I’d never heard of Katherine Mansfield before, and I immersed myself in the book.  Most I loved, some I didn’t so much, but there was one I definitely liked best – and I read it out loud to Mum as we drove from Worcestershire to Oxford.  It was ‘The Garden Party’.  Little did I know that it was her most famous and acclaimed short story; I didn’t even know it was the title story for one of her collections.  When I found out, I thought – huh, maybe I can tell when something is good and when it isn’t.

Excuse that slightly trumpet-blowing story (it doesn’t feel trumpet-blowing, since it’s about me-a-decade-ago, a very different person to me-now) because it does have some relevance to my post.  When reading that Collected Short Stories, the stories which didn’t particularly grab me were those from In A German Pension (1911) – Mansfield’s first book.  A few years ago I bought a beautiful Hesperus edition (tautology, of course – all of their books are beautiful) and I decided that it was about time that I gave In A German Pension another go.  I was actually a little pleased to see that my opinion hasn’t really changed.  It doesn’t prove that I was right a decade ago, but at least it means I’ve stayed fairly consistent in my tastes.

In A German Pension is chiefly interesting as a suggestion of what Mansfield would become – the markings of her extraordinary talent are there, but she is not yet a writer confident of her own particular abilities.

The stories were inspired by Mansfield’s time spent in Europe, and are mostly from the perspective of a wry English woman, crowded with absurd characters and baffled by their foibles and anxieties.  Foolish people lecture one another, a dressmaker is mistaken for a baroness, young women flirt and retreat.  It all feels very Edwardian.  What strikes oddest is the way in which Mansfield tries to be funny.

At that moment the postman, looking like a German army officer, came in with the mail.  He threw my letters into my milk pudding, and then turned to a waitress and whispered.  She retired hastily.  The manager of the pension came in with a little tray.  A picture postcard was deposited on it, and reverently bowing his head, the manager of the pension carried it to the Baron.

Myself, I felt disappointed that there was not a salute of twenty-five guns.
This is all well and good – but it is not where Mansfield excels.  The dry, sardonic quip, the understatement, is a far cry from the subtle, clever examination of sorrow or guilt or self-awareness that Mansfield paints in delicate shades in her finest work.  Instead there are caricature women criticising one another – the sort of ribaldry and comedy-writ-large which one would expect from Jerome K. Jerome, perhaps:

“Of course it is difficult for you English to understand when you are always exposing your legs on cricket fields, and breeding dogs in your back gardens.  The pity of it!  Youth should be like a wild rose.  For myself I do not understand how your women ever get married at all.”
As a brand of humour, it can be very successful – but it feels awkward from a pen that is already learning some sensitivities.  It’s certainly not bad at all – it is even good.  It’s just the wrong fit for Mansfield.

Only one story of the thirteen approaches her later triumphs, to my mind: ‘The Swing of the Pendulum’.  It’s about a woman who is about to be thrown out of her flat, since she can’t afford the rent.  A young man knocks at the door, looking for someone she’s never heard of – he seems to leave but, bored, she hopes he is waiting outside the door – and, a little later, he unsuccessfully tries to rape her.  More dramatic than some of her best stories, which focus on the minutiae of experience, but it does demonstrate the subtlety and perception that would later become the cornerstones of Mansfield’s writing.

She heard him walk down the passage and then pause – lighting a cigarette.  Yes – a faint scent of delicious cigarette smoke penetrated her room.  She sniffed at it, smiling again.  Well, that had been a fascinating interlude!  He looked so amazingly happy: his heavy clothes and big buttoned gloves; his beautifully brushed hair… and that smile… ‘Jolly’ was the word – just a well-fed boy with the world for his playground.  People like that did one good – one felt ‘made over’ at the sight of them. Sane they were – so sane and solid.  You could depend on them never having one mad impulse from the day they were born until the day they died.  And Life was in league with them – jumped them on her knee – quite rightly, too.  At that moment she noticed Casimir’s letter, crumpled up on the floor – the smile faded.  Staring at the letter she began braiding her hair – a dull feeling of rage crept through her – she seemed to be braiding it into her brain, and binding it, tightly, above her head…
Of all the writers taken too early, I think Katherine Mansfield’s death at 34 is the most tragic, and the most frustrating.  Her talents were not in decline – indeed, in the two years before she died of tuberculosis she wrote not only her best stories, but the best short stories I have ever read.  Who knows what she could have written had she lived another 30, 40, 50 years?  Still – in those 34 years she achieved quite astonishing brilliance and beauty with her writing.  If In A German Pension isn’t quite up to the level of her best work, then at least it serves to show us, a little, how she got there.