H. E. Bates’s primary concern as a writer was for the individual and the forces that threaten his or her happiness or fulfillment. Bates is not, however, a political, social, moral, or philosophical theorist; ideas as such play almost no part in his fiction. Most of his protagonists are “ordinary” people—farmers, laborers, waitresses, housewives, children, pensioners, and young men of no particular education or accomplishments.
Curiously, Bates approaches his material from two very different, almost contradictory, points of view. Many of the stories and a few of the lesser novels are essentially Romantic in outlook, glorifying nature, promoting individual achievement and freedom, assuming the essential goodness of people. On the other hand, many of his stories and novellas, and virtually all of his most successful novels, are naturalistic in their portrayal of individuals at the mercy of forces they cannot understand or control, of nature as indifferent or even hostile, or of life itself as an almost Darwinian struggle. These two viewpoints coexist from the very beginning and contribute to Bates’s great versatility. At the same time, the style is always clear and straightforward, uncomplicated by the experimental techniques of modern writing, the story line remaining strong and simple. These features of style and plot, together with the generally rural settings of his fiction, make Bates appear somewhat anachronistic among contemporaries whose themes and techniques are more “modern.” Although Bates broke no new ground for fiction, he kept vigorous the historical trends of Continental and American story writing, while in the novel he continued along lines suggested by Joseph Conrad and Thomas Hardy.
The most ambitious of Bates’s early novels, The Poacher, is essentially a Bates family history in which the central figure, Luke Bishop, is modeled on Grandfather Lucas, and Bates and his father are seen in Eddie Vine and his father, Walter. Luke Bishop is born about 1860 to a shiftless, poaching, shoemaker father whose ways he follows until the father is killed by a gamekeeper and Luke marries. Like Grandfather Lucas, he takes a small farm on poor soil and wrests from it a living, growing produce, grain, pigs, and chickens. Meanwhile, industry moves to Nenweald (Rushden), ending the freewheeling days of the cottage shoemakers, and brings with it the railroad, shops, and a new social tone of middle-class respectability. Bishop’s wife, who becomes a schoolmistress, embodies these new values, while Bishop clings to the old, imparting them to Eddie. At age sixty, Luke is convicted of poaching and jailed. After serving his jail sentence, he returns to Nenweald only to realize that he no longer belongs there or anywhere; his world has vanished in the steam of factories and railroad engines and in the smoke of World War I.
The Poacher is a powerful and moving personal history that seeks neither glamour nor pity for its central character but takes an unflinching look at the changes in England’s farms and small towns between 1880 and 1920. Bates is at his best in the taut, swift scenes of poaching and in re-creating the inner life of his unimaginative, uncouth, and bewildered protagonist. Essentially passive, Bishop is unable to cope with the changes that swirl around him; he is a product of the nineteenth century, ignored by “progress” and changes in mores. Through Bishop, Bates engages the reader’s sympathy for those trampled by such progress, but because the novel’s point of view is restricted, Bishop’s story is not fully integrated into its setting. At times the novel seems claustrophobic, at the edges of the reality it attempts to re-create. It is less effective as social commentary than as personal history; nevertheless, Luke Bishop is a vivid human presence, representing a vigorous but now departed way of life.
In the dramatic opening scene of Spella Ho, Bates’s most successful prewar novel, Bruno Shadbolt watches his mother die of cold and consumption in an unheated hovel standing in the shadow of Spella Ho, a mansion of fifty-three chimneys. Throughout, the ugly, illiterate, determined, amoral Shadbolt and the aristocratic mansion are the poles between which the action moves. The story traces Shadbolt’s slow and uneven rise from carter to wealthy industrialist. Along the way, he is aided by four women who change him in various ways—educating him, teaching him manners, altering his tastes—but who paradoxically leave untouched his essential nature, his monomaniacal drive to overcome poverty and anonymity.
In his pursuit of wealth and self-fulfillment, Shadbolt represents nineteenth century industrialists at their worst, but Bates’s novel is not a one-sided attack on Victorian greed and materialism. By raising himself, Shadbolt brings prosperity and change to Nenweald (Rushden), providing jobs, goods, housing, transportation, and services to people who eagerly desire them. If Shadbolt’s factories exploit workers and despoil the countryside, they also transform the local standard of living. In taking this evenhanded approach, Bates is not so much interested in being fair to England’s captains of industry as he is in exploring a final crushing irony: that Shadbolt’s legacy will be judged in the end as a monstrosity of ugliness and filth, while nothing of his personal triumph or his finer side will remain. Even Spella Ho, which he buys and restores, testifies not to his achievement but to that of refined aristocrats.
In addition to Shadbolt, the novel features a convincing cast of minor characters, individually rendered in detail. Once again, however, Bates fails to place his characters and action in a convincing context; for a novel concerned with social change, Spella Ho is curiously weak in period details. Between its opening in 1873 and its close in 1931, the novel changes little in scenery. The factories, gasworks, bus lines, and houses that Shadbolt builds are said to transform Nenweald utterly, but these changes are merely glimpsed. Once again, therefore, Bates provides a character study of great passion and interest, a fascinating grotesque utterly authentic in personality. In addition, there are vivid and arresting portraits of late...
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