Sunday, 4 October 2009

"Autumn Sowing" by E.F. Benson

Yes, all right, it was inevitable that I would feature "Fred" Benson on the blog sooner or later, but the catalyst has turned out to be a very special book indeed, one that might even have to change our views about that nice Mr Benson who wrote the witty and captivating Mapp and Lucia books.

I found Autumn Sowing a little while ago, but have been holding off reading it for as long as possible. Incidentally, while finding it I also made a wonderful discovery that would surely have appealed to Fred himself; there is another writer called George Benson - no relation - who wrote a book on the law and practice of flogging, this esoteric tome nestling alphabetically beside a volume of Rambles and Reflections by Fred's brother, Arthur. A delicious irony this, as their father, a decidedly odd character who became Archbishop of Canterbury but who also groomed a very young teenage girl and might well have ended up on the child sex offenders' register had he been alive today, had a reputation for being a compulsive flogger during his days as headmaster of Wellington.

For those who are already aficionados of the Mapp and Lucia books, Autumn Sowing sets us down initially in very familiar territory. There is baby talk, and bibelots, and a mayor, oh and even a hospital in need of a new wing. There is the same deliciously waspish wit too. We learn that the mother-in-law of Thomas Keeling, the central character, enjoyed "admirable health, and the keen, spiteful temper which gives its possessor so indignant and absorbing an interest in life."

Yet, before long, strange new notes begin to break in discordantly on these harmonious scenes of visiting clergymen, Beethoven slow movements and Sunday lunch. Redolent of Barbara Pym, we discover that Keeling's daughter Alice is in love with a Georgie Pillson type young vicar whose own interests, despite him shamelessly encouraging her to adore him, lie elsewhere and whose only object of devotion is probably himself. With Barabara Pym these facts would be calmly noted and the narrative would then move sedately on. With Benson, usually, a deliciously catty observation would completely explode the vicar in our eyes, while a second would comfort us that Alice's passion was in reality but a passing fancy, and that no real harm had been done to anybody.

"Usually", but not here. Benson walks us late on in the book into a full frontal description of Alice's despair which is real enough to make one flinch from reading it. Even this is nothing, however, compared to what he has in store for Thomas Keeling who, we are led to believe in the opening chapters, is a stock figure from a social comedy, yet who is then taken on a roller coaster ride of powerful emotions which leave him devastated, drained, and changed for ever.

Keeling is a stock character in one respect. He is the middle aged man who has never known love, and when it strikes it hits him with all the viciousness of an emotion which has been pent up and unused for thirty years or so. This is a book of raw passion; not lust, but something much more dangerous - that idealised love which is made overwhelmingly powerful by the object's unattainability being part of that very perfection which triggers the feeling in the first place. An all consuming urge which makes thought of anything else - everyday business affairs, for example - all but impossible. A hopeless bubble of desire which, when it bursts, reduces every other aspect of life to insignificance compared to the dread awfulness of having to accept that the only thing in the world you really want is the one thing you will never be able to have.

All of which prompts an obvious question: how on earth did Fred Benson come to write a book like this? There is no clue to anything like this in his other books which have survived more or less in print: Mrs Ames, Paying Guests, or (despite its name) Secret Lives, for example. Passion is markedly absent from his oeuvre. When marriages arise they are sparked either by bluff masculine enquiries, or discussed decorously over needlepoint. In one case it is even mischievously implied that a man proposes out of embarrassment at having forgotten to put his jacket on before entering the drawing room.

Writing about Autumn Sowing, John Julius Norwich suggests that the book simply ran away with Benson, who ended up shocked and not a little horrified at what had transpired. This is pure supposition, of course, but may not be wide of the mark. There is a sense of a false ending at the end of Chapter Ten which, if allowed to stand, would be very bleak indeed.

The world had ceased spinning for him as he walked back. He lifted heavy feet as if he was going up some steep, interminable hill ...

Instead, it is as if Benson suddenly pulls himself together and tries to make the best fist he can of the mess he has created. While he is unable to lift the blackness which we know will hang over Keeling's life from now on, Benson does allow him a redemption of sorts in the shape of a reconciliation with his daughter, whose feelings, them both having loved and lost, he can now understand for the first time. "I never knew you before tonight", she says.

That is almost the last word, but not quite. The actual ending is almost too cruel for words. Without giving away too much of the plot, Keeling has enjoyed a figurative Secret Garden (yes, yet another Mapp and Lucia allusion) which has brought him his only real source of comfort. We are left in no doubt on the last page that this has now been tainted for ever because of its associations with his doomed love, and as the book closes he literally locks it away for ever and hangs the key upon a hook. Redemption of a sort, then, but no mercy.

"Poor father", Alice says. "I'm sorry, whatever it is."

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