Our library just had its annual book sale. Needless to say, notwithstanding the fact that my book shelves are already full, I succumbed to temptation. One of the books I bought was The Daffodil Sky a collection of short stories published by H. E. Bates in 1955. My copy is obviously an original 1959 Penguin edition in its traditional orange and buff stripe cover. The previous owner’s name is pencilled in at the top right hand corner of the half title page and the original price of what I imagine was probably 2/6 has been obscured by a small sticker indicating 50c. I couldn’t help pondering the history of the book and of its owner who must, given the absence of other price notations, kept the book until fairly recently.
H.E. Bates is one of those writers who gained what the blurb writer at the back of my Penguin calls “an international reputation.” The same blurb refers to what was then “his most recent novel . . . “The Darling Buds of May.” That novel—the first of five about the Larkin family that were made into the 1990s television series that helped launch the career of Catherine Zeta-Jones—is, I suspect, for some readers, or should I say television watchers, today their only exposure to Bates. Love for Lydia was made into a television series in 1977 with the young Jeremy Irons. But consider how long ago in some respects 1977 is. My Uncle Silas with Albert Finney had two seasons on PBS in the early 2000s. A quick review of the web reveals that if you are looking for H. E. Bates, his work is available for ereaders, but hard copies of his work are rather harder to find outside of second hand dealers. He does not make the reading list of any of the courses offered by either the university where I studied or of the institution where I taught. I must admit I did not teach him. And yet there was a time when he was a highly respected writer receiving positive reviews from such luminaries as Angus Wilson, (but then it’s hard to find his books now, too).
What is it about the publishing world that keeps some authors constantly in print—think Jane Austen with or without zombies, Dickens, James Joyce—while others disappear until “rediscovered” perhaps by a press like Virago, for example, or they become academically popular as they return to university reading lists for whatever reason? Bates’ writing career spanned nearly fifty years and included novels, short stories, novellas, articles and essays, and yet I would argue he is no longer a well-known writer. In fact, there is a website dedicated to changing this situation http://www.thevanishedworld.co.uk/index.html. Perhaps the very prolific nature of his output renders him in the minds of some as suspiciously close to the transient world of journalism.
It was with all these thoughts in mind that I sat down to read the short stories in The Daffodil Sky. I found myself taken back in time, not only in the settings of the stories but also something about the style, about the sentence structure took me back to a more leisured time. Bates allows himself to use long paragraphs and relies heavily on limited third person narration. His stories, too, of course, are set in the mid-twentieth century, a time without cell phones, without lap tops and smart phones. His characters must rely on land line telephones or no telephone at all.
These stories are tightly constructed narratives focussing for the most part on one event or situation and ending with if not always a Joycean epiphany with a resolution that is in some way satisfactory, even expected. Bates captures the sense of provincial Britain in the fifties: its pubs, its country fields, its class anxieties, its suffocating social restrictions. His characters are all too human, flawed, anxious, longing for something, disconnected from those around them, harbouring secrets they cannot share, unable to break free from their situations, but they are created with empathy and compassion and on occasion understanding humour.
What struck me most about the stories is the mood of the stories is for the most part gently melancholic and often created by his descriptions of landscape. Most of the stories end with a concise, lyrical and evocative description that provides an emotional end cadence to his story.
As no doubt you can sense, I found these stories highly satisfying and would argue that they stand the test of time as well as do the stories of Chekhov, de Maupassant, and Joyce’s Dubliners.