Form and Content
In The Vanished World, English novelist and short-story writer H.E. Bates describes his early life, up to the point when his first novel, The Two Sisters, was accepted for publication by Jonathan Cape in 1926. Bates was born in 1905 in the small town of Rushden, Northamptonshire, in the English Midlands. In this first volume of his three-part autobiography, he describes two formative influences in his working-class upbringing.
The first formative influence was his close relationship with his grandfather, a shoemaker who became a small farmer when the days of the handcraftsman in the shoe industry came to an end. Bates owed his love of music to his grandfather, and also the paradisiacal days of his early childhood, many of which were spent on the five acres of land that his grandfather worked hard to make productive. The second formative influence was that of his father, a stern Methodist who devoted himself to music but who frowned upon such pastimes as cardplaying, drinking, and dancing. Bates and his father would take long walks in the countryside, and the joy of these walks still remains with him as he writes, more than fifty years later. Bates’s love of the English countryside, and the way of life in the Edwardian villages of the Midlands, is apparent throughout The Vanished World. Indeed, it is this world, which disappeared forever with the coming of World War I, which gives the book its title.
Bates was a fine student at a local working-class school and was quickly given work of far greater difficulty than that given to the other pupils. Yet this progress did not continue at Kettering Grammar School, where Bates went in 1916 after failing to win a scholarship to a prominent private school. He recalls that at the time he was an apathetic, rather rebellious student who was not interested in literature, who had no grasp of scientific or technical subjects, and whose only ambition was to be a painter. In 1919, however, a new teacher of English awakened him to the power of the English language, first through John Milton’s Areopagitica (1644) and the authorized version of the Bible and then through a whole stream of English poets—from Geoffrey Chaucer to John Keats. That was the first intervention, according to Bates’s interpretation of the events of his life, of that “Divinity which shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will” (William Shakespeare’s words). This benevolent, shaping power is seen in dramatic events which change the course of an individual’s life, events which cannot be willed, foreseen, or resisted. It provides Bates with a loose organizing principle and injects a feeling of drama and destiny into his life’s story.
Bates left school at the age of sixteen, declining to pursue a place at the University of Cambridge. That was a decision, he says, that he never regretted. For a brief period he worked as a junior reporter on The Northampton Chronicle, and he evokes the Dickensian atmosphere of the newspaper office with a novelist’s skill. He was bored there, however, and to his relief was fired after a few months. After that he became a warehouse clerk, a job which required him to do very little, and he took advantage of the situation by reading voraciously. It was while he was a clerk that he began his first novel, at the age of seventeen, writing surreptitiously while at work. The resulting work was a...
(The entire section is 1396 words.)