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...
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