Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1341
Throughout his autobiography, Bates reveals the qualities which distinguish his best writing—clarity, economy, directness, and honesty. His writing is imbued with rich descriptive power; some of the finest passages in The Vanished World, for example, are those in which life in the English countryside during the Edwardian era is recorded in exact, minute, appreciative detail. Such passages, with their accompanying feeling of a childhood paradise now lost, recall the autobiographical reminiscences of Bates’s contemporary the English poet Kathleen Raine in her Farewell Happy Fields (1973).
True to his working-class background, Bates reveals himself as pugnacious and sometimes blunt, always ready with a strong opinion. He is quick to like or dislike both people and ideas. His scorn can sometimes be extreme, as when he took an instant dislike to a nameless member of The Atlantic Monthly editorial board (“talentless, phoney, pompous, the worst kind of literary snob”) and when he attended a session of the Bengal Assembly in 1945 (“never . . . had I seen the mark of evil and corruption so indelibly bitten into so many human faces at one time”). He loses few opportunities to contrast the days of his own youth with the horrors of modern life: Drugs and violence have replaced the innocent fun of street games, the quality of workmanship is everywhere on the decline, and, as far as the “present generation of young writers” is concerned “many . . . appear never to have taken the trouble to learn anything of the use of language.” Literary critics also arouse Bates’s contempt, and he likens them to wasps, stinging everyone in sight for no reason other than spite. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Bates was disappointed by the adverse critical reaction to much of his postwar work, which for the most part acquired the label “popular fiction.” The notion that popularity might be one of the deadly sins was not one that Bates could accept.
The most important aspect of Bates’s autobiography is probably the light it sheds on his development as a writer, and on the creative process itself. His early reading was in Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling (whom he professed to dislike), and other writers now forgotten. This early literary education taught him the value of economy in the use of language, which he took as a guiding principle for his short-story writing.
Later he absorbed the work of Joseph Conrad (who was the major influence on The Two Sisters), Arnold Bennett, H.G. Wells, John Galsworthy, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, and Stephen Crane. To Crane Bates owed his first conscious desire to write stories. After The Two Sisters, he developed an interest in Ivan Turgenev, Anton Chekhov, Guy de Maupassant, Maxim Gorky, Gustave Flaubert, and Knut Hamsun. Flaubert was the major influence on Bates’s second novel, Catherine Foster (1929).
In the 1930’s, Bates admired the work of W.H. Hudson, Edward Thomas, Ernest Hemingway, and Sherwood Anderson. Yet, on the other hand, he had harsh words for a number of other writers of high reputation. A particular animus toward D.H. Lawrence is noticeable on more than one occasion. Women in Love (1920), for example, is described as “absurd and grossly overpraised, . . . the worst novel ever written by a writer of international reputation”; Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928) is “that silliest of books.” The attack on Lawrence is so virulent (Lawrence “hadn’t enough imagination to invent Mickey Mouse”) that one can only wonder at its cause. Thomas Hardy, whose novels resemble Bates’s in more ways than Bates chooses to acknowledge, is “one of George Eliot’s many miscarriages,” and Bates remarks somewhat immodestly that as early as the 1920’s he himself was getting more atmosphere into ten words than Hardy and his kind (who are never identified) could in a page. Such controversial opinions lose some of their credibility through Bates’s error of chronology when discussing writers active in the 1930’s—he includes both Lawrence, who died in 1930, and Hardy, who died in 1928.
Although Bates is sure of his own worth as a writer, he also reveals that the price of distinction is ruthless self-criticism. In spite of his prodigious output, which amounted to about one book per year for nearly fifty years, he destroyed many short stories and three entire novels simply because he thought they were not good enough. He managed to combine the virtues of the disciplined craftsman with those of the commercial writer, for whom speed is of the essence. He claims, for example, that he wrote twelve thousand words of The Two Sisters in one day while at his job in the warehouse. Sometimes he would be under such pressure that he would bash out a story between breakfast and lunch, an article between lunch and tea, and a review between tea and supper.
Bates never minimizes the exacting demands of his profession, and his comments on his own craft are frequently illuminating. He likens a short story to a horse race; it is the beginning and the end which count the most, and of the two, the beginning is probably the more important. The success of a novel or story often rests on the ability of the writer to sense at the very outset, like a composer, the right key for the work. Setting it in the right key will make the difference between a story which flows effortlessly and one which continually causes difficulty for the writer.
One of Bates’s most important points is that a highly developed imagination is far more useful for a writer of fiction than acute powers of observation. The writer deals not in truth but in lies, but he so shapes the lies to make them appear more true than life itself. Bates returns to this idea again and again: He points out that The Two Sisters, unlike most first novels, did not have a single autobiographical element in it. None of the characters was based on living people—the novel was pure invention from start to finish. (This idea seems to be the root of his argument with D.H. Lawrence, whose novels, Bates claims, were always autobiographical. Lawrence never had to invent much because he always had a hero at hand: himself.)
The same principle, fidelity to imagination over observation, informs Bates’s novel Fair Stood the Wind for France (1944), which takes place in the French provinces during wartime. At the time, Bates had never set foot in France, but he trusted his imaginative instincts to guide him. The novel turned out to be one of his most successful. Bates cites as the best example of his principle Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage: An Episode of the American Civil War (1895), in which Crane captures the atmosphere of the American Civil War, although he had not even been born when the war took place.
In addition to Bates’s comments on the creative process, he gives many insights into the origins of particular works. The basis for his most popular character— Uncle Silas, featured in My Uncle Silas (1939)—turns out to have been Bates’s roguish granduncle, who made a deep impression on him in childhood. It was typical for Bates to store impressions for many years before they emerged in his work. When the right creative stimulus occurs, which cannot be predicted or planned, the story unfolds. His story “The Hessian Prisoner,” from the collection The Black Boxer (1932), was based on an incident from Bates’s childhood, when a German prisoner of World War I turned up in Bates’s hometown of Rushden. The incident remained with Bates some twenty years before finding its place in the story. Similarly, what may well be Bates’s finest novel, Love for Lydia (1952), was based on his experiences as a reporter for The Northampton Chronicle thirty years previously. These examples present the other side of Bates’s creativity—he was not only a highly imaginative writer but also one whose work was as often as not firmly rooted in his own experience and his own environment.
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