H. E. Bates’s major literary achievements are, without much question, his short stories. He was also a successful and prolific novelist; among his best and most representative work in this form are The Two Sisters (1926), The Poacher (1935), Fair Stood the Wind for France (1944), The Purple Plain (1947), Love for Lydia (1952), and The Darling Buds of May (1958). Other works include several juveniles; books of verse; The Modern Short Story: A Critical Survey (1941); and a three-volume autobiography: The Vanished World (1969), The Blossoming World (1971), and The World in Ripeness (1972).
H. E. Bates’s creative output was prodigious—approximately a book a year for almost a half century. In spite of this formidable productivity, Bates from the beginning was a demanding taskmaster who held himself accountable to a high standard. Inevitably, there is a temptation to think that any writer as prolific as Bates cannot match the quality with the quantity of his work. The temptation is misleading, however, and its conclusion is erroneous. There are, indeed, misses and near-misses among his hundreds of collected stories. Yet, in spite of his amazing productivity, Bates was from first to last a dedicated craftsman and a keen observer of the human condition.
H. E. Bates published approximately four hundred short stories in magazines, newspapers, special editions, and collections; in fact, he is probably better known as a short-story writer than as a novelist. Many of his more successful efforts were long stories, and so it is natural that he eventually turned to the novella as a favorite medium. His works in this form were published most often in collections but occasionally appeared as independent works, as with The Cruise of the Breadwinner and The Triple Echo. His first published work was a one-act play, The Last Bread (pb. 1926), and throughout his career he aspired to write for the stage, though with little success. His play The Day of Glory (pb. 1945) had a short run in 1945.
A major portion of Bates’s nonfiction works consist of essays on nature and country life. In this form he excelled, bringing to his subject a deep knowledge and understanding based on a lifetime of country living. In addition, he produced three volumes of children’s books, a memoir of his mentor Edward Garnett, and a highly regarded though unscholarly study titled The Modern Short Story: A Critical Survey (1941). His autobiography is in three volumes: The Vanished World (1969), The Blossoming World (1971), and The World in Ripeness (1972).
From the publication of The Two Sisters in 1926 until the outbreak of World War II, H. E. Bates was known principally to literati in Great Britain and the United States as an accomplished writer of stories and novels about rural England. In spite of good reviews in the highbrow and popular press and the enthusiastic recommendations of such critics and colleagues as David Garnett, Geoffrey West, Richard Church, Edward O’Brien, and Graham Greene, Bates’s books sold moderately at best—not more than a few thousand copies each. The one exception to this general neglect came in 1938 with Spella Ho, which was well received in England and serialized in condensed form in The Atlantic.
When war broke out, Bates was recruited for the Royal Air Force (RAF) and given a commission unique in literary and military history: to write short stories about the air war and the men who fought it. The result was two best sellers, The Greatest People in the World, and Other Stories (1942) and How Sleep the Brave, and Other Stories (1943); paperbound copies sold in the hundred of thousands. Following these, and coincident with a change of publishers, Bates produced a string of best-selling novels about the war: Fair Stood the Wind for France, The Purple Plain, The Jacaranda Tree, and The Scarlet Sword. To many critics of the time, it appeared that Bates had capitulated to popular taste, but...
Alderson, Frederick. “Bates Country: A Memoir of H. E. Bates.” London Magazine 19 (July, 1979): 31-42. Presents a personal account of Alderson’s friendship with Bates, including their times together in the Royal Air Force during World War II. Comments on Bates’s writings, calling his style “impressionistic.”
Allen, Walter. The Short Story in English. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1981. Part of this comprehensive commentary on short-story writers explores the short stories of Bates, whom Allen credits with “consist excellence.” Contains extracts from Bates’s work to illustrate his range of social types and scenes, with particular emphasis given to The Cruise of the Breadwinner.
Baldwin, Dean R. “Atmosphere in the Stories of H. E. Bates.” Studies in Short Fiction 21 (Summer, 1984): 215-222. Discusses Bates’s naturalistic and romantic stories, focusing on how Bates uses atmosphere; argues that Bates’s stories seem simple on the surface, but deserve more attention than they have received for the subtlety of their technique.
Baldwin, Dean R. H. E. Bates: A Literary Life. Selinsgrove, Pa.: Susquehanna University Press, 1987. Biography has proved to be a more reliable source of information about Bates than his own three-volume autobiography. Includes extensive commentary...