With the exception of two collections of short stories, one of which was published posthumously, Bates’s three-volume autobiography was his last work. These volumes add yet another genre to Bates’s varied output, which includes not only novels and short stories but also essays, children’s literature, plays, general nonfiction—principally a survey of the modern short story—and biography (of Edward Garnett).
Bates’s autobiography gives the reader a fair idea of some of the topics and themes he treated with such distinction in his fiction, particularly the way of life in the small farms and cottages of rural England, which as he says in The Vanished World had at the time of his childhood changed little since William Shakespeare’s day. Because volume 1 captures so effectively a “moment in time” (to use the title of one of Bates’s novels) it is valuable as a social document.
Other Bates fictional themes which are apparent from his autobiography are the effects of war on both combatants and civilians (his indignation at the disgusting, pointless business of war is noticeable in all three volumes) and the effects of industrialization on the social fabric. His gift for evoking mood, atmosphere, delicate feeling, and the intensity of the strong emotions of joy, sorrow, love, and anger is everywhere apparent.
What the reader might not guess from the autobiography is that much of Bates’s best work is tragic. He often depicted people who were lonely, isolated, frustrated, or otherwise handicapped. He was as acutely aware of what life takes away as what it bestows; indeed, very few of his characters could share Bates’s own belief in the beneficent divinity that shapes the lives of men. Bates, by his own account a contented and fulfilled man, most resembles, as he points out, the carefree Pop Larkin of his Larkin family series: “a passionate Englishman, a profound love of Nature, of the sounds and sights of the countryside, of colour, flowers and things sensual; a hatred of pomp, pretension and humbug; a lover of children and family life; an occasional breaker of rules, a flouter of conventions.” Such might be Bates’s epitaph.