Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 706
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 twenty; his second collection of short stories, Day’s End, and Other Stories, was published two years later; he married Marjorie Helen Cox in 1931 and subsequently moved to Little Chart, in the green and golden meadowlands of Kent (where he and his wife would live until Bates’s final illness and death in Canterbury). The next few years were among the most productive—and significant—of Bates’s career. In addition to several novels, he published eight collections of short fiction in the 1930’s, rounding out the decade with two radically different collections: My Uncle Silas, which includes fourteen brisk tales centering on a robust ninety-three-year-old rascal based on the author’s recollections of his great-uncle, and The Flying Goat, the least impressive of Bates’s early collections.
In the summer of 1941, Bates received a commission as a writer in the Royal Air Force; out of this grew two small collections, as much reportage as fiction, published under the pseudonym of Flying Officer “X.” These pieces mark a turning point in Bates’s career and were immediately popular in England, a popularity that became international with Fair Stood the Wind for France, an American Book-of-the-Month Club selection, and The Purple Plain, the first of his novels to be made into a motion picture. For various reasons, Bates then virtually abandoned the short story for several years but returned with Colonel Julian, and Other Stories in 1951. He vowed that he would “never, never write another novel” (a vow, incidentally, soon forgotten) and returned in 1955 to his “first love, the short story” with The Daffodil Sky, an impressive collection and apparently the one which Bates valued the most. The Watercress Girl, and Other Stories, thirteen stories concerned primarily with children, or with an adult’s recollections of childhood experiences, contains half a dozen or more stories that are among his best work. His remaining collections—including Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal, and Other Stories, The Wedding Party, The Wild Cherry Tree, and the posthumous The Yellow Meads of Asphodel—added relatively little to his by then established reputation as one of the major twentieth century writers of short fiction.
Following the success of the first of the Larkin family series, Bates devoted more and more of his energy to the novel. Though he occasionally returned to stories of rural and village life and would resurrect Uncle Silas from time to time, these later collections are for the most part less important than those of his earlier years. He was made Commander of the British Empire shortly before his death in Canterbury on January 29, 1974.