Herbert Ernest Bates was one of the most prolific British writers of the twentieth century. He published dozens of novels and novellas, but his reputation rests primarily on his first love: the short story. Bates was born in the Midlands shoemaking center of Rushden, England; both of his grandfathers had been shoemakers, and his father, a stern Methodist, owned his own shoemaking business. Yet as a young man Bates did not look upon the trade with fondness, and he tried to escape the factories through education. He was a good student, but not quite good enough to win a scholarship to the public school at Wellingborough. Bates was so discouraged by this early failure that he eventually forfeited an opportunity to attend Cambridge University and instead embarked on a series of odd jobs.
Bates stole time from one of these jobs, as a warehouseman, to write stories and poems. These early works were rejected by journal after journal until, in 1926, he finally had a novel published by Jonathan Cape. The book, The Two Sisters, received warm reviews but was not a financial success. In 1931, Bates married Marjorie Helen Cox and purchased a converted granary in Kent, where he lived with his wife and children until his death in 1974. To support himself and his family, he wrote more than one volume of fiction every year, in addition to producing reviews, essays, monographs on country life, and a column for The Spectator.
This massive output did not always bring critical or commercial success; indeed, for Bates the two seem almost to have been mutually exclusive. With only a few exceptions, his finest work in both the short story and the novel was written in the 1930’s. Fame did not come, however, until the 1940’s, when, under the pseudonym “Flying Officer X,” Bates wrote two collections of stories about the military air force. (The collections had been commissioned by the British Air Ministry.) During the next decade, Bates wrote a series of commercially successful novels set in World War II, of which the first, Fair Stood the Wind for France, became the best known. These novels were harshly reviewed by critics, who, ironically, tended to ignore the much finer efforts written in the same period (among them Dear Life, which may well be Bates’s most undervalued novel).
Bates was so embittered by the critics’ attacks that he more than once threatened to stop writing novels. Nevertheless, for the last two decades of his life his production continued unabated, and he even found two new genres in which to work, film scripts and novellas. Bates’s last major published work, the novella The Triple Echo, may well be his finest piece of fiction.
Bates is best known for his mastery of the familiar modernist short-story devices: indirection, psychological penetration of character, and an unadorned style. Not only do his finest stories demonstrate these characteristics but so, too, do such apparently atypical efforts as the often comical Uncle Silas tales. His novels are hardly daring technically but rely instead on a rich evocation of time and place—most frequently the Midlands of the early twentieth century—and a colorful cast of characters.
Regardless of the genre, setting, or characters involved, one theme appears repeatedly in Bates’s fiction: freedom versus constraint. Constraint comes in many forms, physical and spiritual, and includes poverty, religious fanaticism, class consciousness, government bureaucracy, and soulless urban sprawl. Freedom to Bates means individuality, sexual liberation, and, always, nature.
Bates’s reputation suffered after World War II. Out of economic necessity he wrote continually, but the aesthetic quality of what he wrote suffered. He repeated his themes, settings, and character types until they lost their effectiveness, especially in the novels. Even in his strongest genre, the short story, it can hardly be argued that Bates grew much after his achievements in the 1930’s. Those achievements are, however,...
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