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,...
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Herbert Ernest Bates was born and reared in what he later described as the “serene pastures” of the Nene Valley in the Northamptonshire village of Rushden, which later furnished subject, setting, and themes for much of his fiction. From a workingclass family, he grew up in a period of transition, often mirrored in his stories, in which one finds the contrast between rural and urban values, the individual up against the dehumanizing influence of the factory, and industrial blight clashing with the natural beauty of the Midlands. He entered school in Rushden when he was four; in a few years, he was “voraciously reading” the works of Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Wallace, unconsciously assimilating methods and techniques that, later, emerged as “guiding principle[s] when [he] began to handle the short story.” After failing an examination for a fellowship to a private school, Bates entered the grammar school at nearby Kettering, where his “solitary ambition was to become a painter.” Subsequently praised by one of his teachers, he “suddenly knew,” he wrote years later, that he “was or was going to be, a writer.”
After leaving school before his seventeenth birthday, Bates worked briefly for a newspaper (which he hated), became a competent amateur athlete between jobs, labored in a warehouse, and subsequently “discovered” Stephen Crane, the first of a group of “chosen idols” which included Ivan Turgenev, Anton Chekhov, Guy de Maupassant, and Joseph Conrad. It was to Crane, Bates said years later, that “I really owe my first conscious hunger to begin writing.”
The Two Sisters, his first novel, for the most part written at the warehouse, was published when Bates was...
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