Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1396
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 rambling, immature effort, as he soon found out after submitting it for expert opinion. He immediately wrote another novel, also in the warehouse, which was to become his first published work, The Two Sisters. By the age of twenty, Bates had written short stories, poems, and plays, in addition to his novel, which was rejected by ten publishers, before Cape gave him his first success.
In The Blossoming World, the second volume of his autobiography, Bates describes his entry into the literary world and the growth of his skill and reputation as a writer up to the end of World War II. This volume opens with Bates in the first flush of early success. He had sold a one-act play to the British Broadcasting Corporation and short stories to The Nation (then edited by Leonard Woolf ), New Statesman, The Adelphi, and The Manchester Guardian. He began to meet some of the notable literary figures of the day, including Edward and Constance Garnett, who became his mentors, benefactors, and close friends. Edward Garnett at the time was a reader for Jonathan Cape, and his wife was a translator of Ivan Turgenev and Leo Tolstoy. Bates provides memorable and affectionate portraits of both the Garnetts. He also describes an amusing incident involving T.E. Lawrence, his meetings with Graham Greene, and his friendships with Sir Rupert Hart-Davis and David Garnett.
Bates was married to Marjorie Helen Cox in 1931, and he and his new wife moved to a converted barn in the southeastern county of Kent. Bates decided that he wanted to be nothing else but a writer and would therefore never accept another job. Not surprisingly, he often found himself in financial hardship and would write reviews and articles for quick money while his next novel was in progress. Throughout the inevitable vicissitudes of the writer’s life, he showed considerable resilience and determination, and a complete dedication to his chosen craft.
In 1938, his novel Spella Ho became his first commercial success both in Great Britain and in the United States, where it was serialized in The Atlantic Monthly. Bates traveled to the United States in order to supervise personally the cuts needed for serialization. He makes some acid comments on American insularity, appalled at having been asked to amend the Midlands dialect of his novel in order to make it more acceptable to American readers. He appears not to have been much impressed by the United States; the only thing he enjoyed was a trip to watch the Boston Red Sox play baseball.
Bates concludes The Blossoming World with an account of his experiences during World War II, up to 1941. He gives a fascinating account of life in Kent during the early stages of the war: how the sight of the German bombers darkened the sky like a gathering of giant starlings on their way to London; how remote and unreal the Battle of Britain appeared when viewed from the ground, and how the natural world seemed to take on a heightened beauty when human life and civilization had so suddenly become uncertain and precarious.
In 1941, Bates was commissioned by the Royal Air Force (RAF) in the unusual capacity of short-story writer—the first such commission in the history of the armed forces. The story of his success in this unusual endeavor—to bring the exploits of heroic RAF pilots home to the public in a more vivid way than statistics or newspaper reports ever could—is the subject of the first chapters of volume 3, The World in Ripeness. These wartime stories, written under the pseudonym Flying Officer X, were so successful that they were soon published in book form, with an initial printing of 100,000 copies.
Much of The World in Ripeness is a travelogue. Bates visited France just after it had been liberated from Nazi rule, and in February, 1945, he traveled to India and Burma, commissioned by the RAF to write stories for the American market about the war in the East. He was shocked by the squalor and chaos he discovered in Calcutta, and he found the heat oppressive. Traveling to the cool of the north, within sight of the Himalayas, he found himself charmed by the sweetness of Indian culture, if somewhat puzzled by its fatalism. From India he flew to Burma, where he encountered many of the refugees driven out of Rangoon by the invading Japanese. He was impressed by the quiet grace of the Burmese, and his experiences in Burma were recorded in his novel The Purple Plain (1947), which was later made into a film starring Gregory Peck.
The World in Ripeness is shorter than the other volumes, and Bates covers the twenty-five years of his life after the war in the final fifty pages. These pages describe an enjoyable trip to Tahiti and the genesis of his highly popular series of novels about the boisterous, unconventional Larkin family, beginning with The Darling Buds of May (1958).
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 33
Baldwin, Dean R. H.E. Bates: A Literary Life, 1987.
Choice. Review. X (June, 1973), p. 671.
The New Yorker. Review. XLVII (January 8, 1971), p. 86.
The Times Literary Supplement. Review. October 8, 1971, p. 1217.
Vannatta, Dennis. H.E. Bates, 1983.
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