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H. E. Bates was born in 1905 at Rushden in Northamptonshire and was educated at Kettering Grammar School. He worked as a journalist and clerk on a local newspaper before publishing his first book, The Two Sisters, when he was twenty. In the next fifteen years he acquired a distinguished reputation for his stories about English country life. During the Second World War he was a Squadron Leader in the R.A.F. and some of his stories of service life, The Greatest People in the World (1942), How Sleep the Brave (1943) and The Face of England (1953), were written under the pseudonym of 'Flying Officer X'. His subsequent novels of Burma, The Purple Plain and The Jacaranda Tree, and of India, The Scarlet Sword, stemmed directly or indirectly from his experience in the Eastern theatre of war. Perhaps one of his most famous works of fiction is the bestselling novel Fair Stood the Wind for France (1944).
In 1958 his writing took a new direction with the appearance of The Darling Buds of May, the first of the popular Larkin family novels, which was followed by A Breath of French Air (1959), When the Green Woods Laugh (1960), Oh! To Be in England (1963) and A Little of What You Fancy (1970). His autobiography appeared in three volumes, The Vanished World (1969), The Blossoming World (1971) and The World in Ripeness (1972). His last works included the novel, The Triple Echo (1971), and a collection of short stories, The Song of the Wren (1972). H. E. Bates also wrote miscellaneous works on gardening, essays on country life, several plays including The Day of Glory (1945), The Modern Short Story (1941) and a story for children, The White Admiral (1968). His works have been translated into sixteen languages. A posthumous collection of his stories, The Yellow Meads of Asphodel, appeared in 1976.
H. E. Bates was awarded the C.B.E. in 1973 and died in January 1974. He was married in 1931 and had four children.
Author photo © Mark Gerson
August 2010 Guest Editor Veronica Henry on The Darling Buds of May... The Larkins are a total contrast to the Corleones, but equally compelling. The characters and the setting are so wonderfully vivid – you can taste actually taste the strawberries and feel the sun on your back. And Ma Larkin is the ultimate domestic goddess –Bates’ descriptions of her legendary feasts leave your mouth watering.
At thirty-four, H.E. Bates was deemed too old for active service in WWII. But as a successful author, was commissioned by the nascent RAP Public Relations unit to publicise the bravery of the fighter pilots. Bates was posted to Oakington and Tangmere air bases where, over drinks with the pilots, he gathered their stories and wrote them as Flying Officer X. The stories convey the pilots' personal qualities and the forces that motivated them. They blend the action and suspense of aerial battles, the tragedy of friendships cut off too soon, and life enduring against all odds. Collected into one volume for the first time, along with five previously unpublished stories from the era, this is a remarkable collection. Includes an introduction by Patrick Bishop, bestselling author of Bomber Boys: Fighting Back 1940-1945
Published in 1970, The Triple Echo was Bates's last significant novella, but one which he described as taking twenty-five years to complete.Set in the 1940s, the wife of a war prisoner lives in desperate loneliness and fear on an isolated farmstead. She encounters a young farmboy completely out of his element as a soldier, and the two carve out a relationship in defiance of the war around them. His decision to escape the military and to dress as his lover's sister to avoid detection eventually leads to tragedy. In a late essay Bates discusses the long evolution of the story's plot, conceived in 1943 with two sisters and completed in 1968 with just one, in what Bates calls 'an exceptional example of stumbling and groping or, if you will, of my own prolonged stupidity.' A film version starring Oliver Reed, Brian Deacon, and Glenda Jackson was premiered in November 1972, and issued in the United States with the title Soldiers in Skirts.
The Day of the Tortoise, a novella published in 1961, is a touching tale of a brief interlude of pleasure in the stale existence of Fred Tomlinson, a man nearing his sixties. A bachelor, Fred shops, cleans, cooks, and otherwise indulges the eccentric demands of his three spinster sisters until a chance meeting with the fun-loving Kitty who, without the sisters' knowledge, begins to disrupt the household's long-established routines. Penniless, heavy-drinking, and pregnant by a married man, Kitty introduces Fred to dance, drink, kisses, and song while lodging in the stable. With Kitty's inevitable departure, will Fred retain some of his newly-discovered capacity for rebelliousness and joy?
Published in 1972, The Song of the Wren contains some light entertainments in the style of the Uncle Silas tales, alongside some more serious stories concerning thwarted love, love triangles, and, in two of the cases, the violence that comes out of psyches twisted by love. 'The Song of the Wren' features the intriguing Miss Shuttleworth as she spars with a young sociologist conducting a survey on various issues, leaving him dumfounded by her apparently mad behaviour and no more appreciative of nature than when he started. She appears again in 'Oh! Sweeter Than the Berry' where she proves herself more than a match for a visiting minister. Convincing him to try one homemade potion after another, she engages the tipsy Reverend in a theological debate until, stunned, he wobbles away and falls to his knees to pray for her.Taking a darker, more abstract turn 'The Man Who Loved Squirrels' is a tale of a woodsman who works alone and lives with his mother, finding company only in the forest's squirrels. A chance meeting with a traveling London woman disrupts his life and ends in tragedy. 'The Tiger Moth' depicts an affair between an airman and a schoolteacher, whose husband is missing in action. The tale hearkens back to Bates's war-time Flying Officer X stories in style, flight accounts, and pilot jargon.The bonus story 'Music for Christmas', first published in 1951, is a comic portrayal of provincial rivalries, involving a musical snob with London tastes, a north Midlands woman favouring local talent, and, relaying gossip and innuendo between the two, a grocery deliveryman.
First published in 1968, The Wild Cherry Tree is a late collection of ten tales including comic vignettes, a humorous celebration of the sensual life, and several explorations of love, loneliness, and problematic relationships. 'The Wild Cherry Tree' sees the wife of a pig-farmer who dresses like a 'shabby, straddling scarecrow' as she tends her pigs by day, but, alone in the evenings, adorns herself in exotic clothes and jewels without leaving the house. That is until one day, when she has to deal with the consequences.'Same Time, Same Place' follows an impoverished spinster and a lonely bachelor who become friends, but when he drunkenly and clumsily proposes to her she avoids him, denying herself 'the possibility of friendship with a man who genuinely likes her.''The First Day of Christmas' observes a man with his lover on a festive evening out, surrounded by fellow drinkers and full of saucy dialogue, who is torn between asking her hand and burying his grief in drink. 'The Black Magnolia' celebrates the sensual life in a farce involving two voluptuous and liberated women and a repressed, tee-total bachelor. The bonus story 'A Waddler' is Bates's first published story, and is a village sketch with colourful dialogue. It follows a man as he deals with the death of his overly critical wife, as he is conversely complimented by a fellow widow on carrying his grief so well.
First published in 1968, The Four Beauties is Bates's last collection of novellas offering a mixture of comedy, adventure, a semi-autobiographical piece and an exploration of a dark love triangle.'The Simple Life' is set at a country cottage offering the joys of a humble existence, and focuses on a bitter alcoholic wife who finds temporary pleasure in a seventeen-year-old boy. A reminiscence of newspaper reporter, reflecting Bates's own experiences at the Northamptonshire Chronicle, 'The Four Beauties' concerns the narrator's complicated relationship with three lovely and highly-sexed daughters, as well as their mother. A television adaptation Country Matters was aired in March 1973.'The Chords of Youth' sees Bates revive the character of Aunt Leonora, first introduced in the 1965 story 'The Picnic', in this comic novella in which she entertains a visiting German, mistaking him for an old flame. Linguistic confusion, abundant food and wine, and a pompous English bureaucrat contribute to the humorous unfolding of the story.In contrasting tone, 'The White Wind' is a late novella featuring a young man coming to terms with life's realities, with considerable action and violence and an irascible man serving as the captain of a boat. The element of a dedicated doctor vainly trying to get Pacific islanders to take their medicines is based on Bates's own Tahitian travels.
First published in 1964, The Fabulous Mrs. V. is a late collection of twelve stories celebrating comedy and Bates's ability to paint amusing, idiosyncratic women.'A Couple of Fools' follows two fashionable young women, ripe for a luxurious Sunday afternoon outing, who find that their flamboyant hats win them attention and favours at every step. They and their male admirers become too drunk for anything but a taxi home. Another story similarly celebrates liquor, food, and sex. 'A Party for the Girls' is a comic celebration of life where a group of older women drink lavish quantities of alcohol at a luncheon and compete for the attention of the sole male guest.'The Trespasser' is a comic piece involving a near-sighted and eccentric spinster 'who looked not at all unlike a round fresh radish,' and a young man who watches with some disgust as his aunt orchestrates the seduction of her future husband. But it is not just the women who are given Bates's quirky treatment.'The Cat Who Sang' observes an overworked teacher who hallucinates that his black cat Susie is able to sing Schubert's 'Trout' theme. In 'A Dream of Fair Women' a body building adolescent boy engages in vivid fantasies about women risque enough to be reprinted in Penthouse Magazine in 1965. Also included with this cast of quirky characters is a retired Reverend in bonus story 'The Electric Christ', who becomes enamoured with a statue of Christ with an electric halo and purchases it for his home.The Times Literary Supplement found that the collection 'demonstrates that both his vigour and unique ability to evoke, visually, his settings and characters remain undiminished.'
Published posthumously in 1976, these stories include some familiar characters and scenarios, as well as an uncharacteristic vignette portraying urban hooligans.The title story, 'The Yellow Meads of Asphodel', looks at the apparently stagnant lives of a brother and sister, both in their forties, who live together in the country house left to them by their parents. Their lives are uprooted, however, when one of them falls in love.Two loved characters are revisited. Uncle Silas in 'Loss of Pride', where Silas recounts how he and his friends dealt with an obnoxious braggart and womanizer; and in 'The Proposal', published shortly after Bates's death, the story continues Bates's entertaining tales of Miss Shuttleworth.In 'The Lap of Luxury', a year after the end of war, two former pilots, Maxie and Roger, revisit France to trace Maxie's escape route from a prisoner of war camp. They separate, and Roger is taken in by a lovely, rich widow. But after nearly a year, his leisurely life ends with the arrival of the woman's true lover. The collection also features two bonus stories. First published in 1934, 'The Mad Woman' is a comic sketch about two boys, frustrated in the constraints of youth where everything is 'boring', who decide to spy on the local mad woman. The tale relates their wild speculations, their suspense and fear, and the stories they concoct after their adventure. 'From This Time Forward', first published in 1943, is narrated by a pilot, visiting the family of a recently deceased colleague, who learns a different side to his old friend's character. He discusses, with the aristocratic mother and sister of the dead pilot, their conflicting memories in a wrought and tender exploration of the fallacy of knowing.
First published in 1960, this collection of four novellas continue Bates's sensitive, often witty, explorations of unhappy love. The title story, 'An Aspidistra in Babylon', is a reminiscence of a girl's loss of innocence. Christine, who describes herself at eighteen as 'dull as one of the aspidistras that cluttered up ... our little boarding house' is seduced by the forty-year-old Captain Blaine, who charms her imagination with stories of a life on the Continent. 'A Month by the Lake' is a comedy of errors set in 1920s Lake Como revolving around two middle-aged vacationers unable to express their affection for each other. A film version starring James Fox, Vanessa Redgrave, and Uma Thurman was directed by John Irvin in 1995. Also featured in this collection is 'A Prospect of Orchards', as narrated by a familiarly mild-mannered Bates character, concerning unfolding affections and blossoming relationships in this quirky tale of extra-marital intrigue. In contrast to this is the darker tone of 'The Grapes of Paradise', where the narrator relates the tale of a fellow traveller in Tahiti, laced with callousness, jealousy, and violence. Included in this edition is bonus story 'The Duet', first published in 1935 and never before featured in any collection. It is the tale of a young choirmaster's son, eager for the autographs of two famous singers. Ignored throughout the day, he follows the players he now considers haughty to a private room where, though the keyhole, he spies an intimate and affectionate scene between them that changes his perceptions completely. The Spectator calls Bates 'a supreme anecdotalist, endowed with vast self-confidence and the gift of imagery ten times the size of life.'
The Black Boxer Tales, first published in 1932, H. E. Bates's third collection displays a growing emphasis on plot and characterisation, while amply displaying his established skill at creating plotless atmospheric pieces. Several stories explore a sense of a new and changing world of carnivals, economic challenges and traveling performers.The title story, 'The Black Boxer' is an intricate portrait of an aging boxer told against the backdrop of the colourful social lives of carnival workers. Having beaten a fighter twenty years his junior with a foul cut below the belt, he is left 'tired and stupefied and ashamed' in Bates's sensitive exploration of the human condition. Bates condsidered this tale, along with 'Charlotte Esmond', also in this collection, as accomplishing his difficult transition from a focus on mood to a focus on character, thereby projecting him 'into a new world' which he is clearly relishing and mastering. The rest of the collection is a thoughtful contrast portraying the landscape and people familiar from his previous Midlands tales, with themes of children and youth in 'A Flower Piece' and 'Death in Spring', farmland settings in 'The Mower' and 'Sheep', and looking at innocent and not-so-innocent flirtations in 'A Threshing Day for Esther' and 'Love Story' respectively.Additionally, as a bonus story never before featured in any collection, 'The Laugh' (1926) is one of Bates's early comic tales set in his trademark rural locale with charming dialect and witty, sensitive prose. The story follows a young man, the pending visit of his rich aunt, and a sweetheart who tests his love. The Spectator calls him 'a sensitive observer, with a quick eye for significant gesture, a tender imagination, and a sure way with words,' while the Times Literary Supplement comments on his 'mastery of both matter and manner.'
First published in 1961, Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal and Other Stories is a collection full of light and shade, setting sensitive character studies against Bates's signature vibrant, delicate imagery. A fussy and obsessive golfer encounters a troubled young woman at a wind-swept beach in 'Lost Ball', a retired Colonel, isolated and suffering from dementia, suddenly rejects the friendship of his charming neighbour when she acquires a television in 'Where the Cloud Breaks'.The title story, 'Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal,' takes its name from a Tennyson poem and is a picture of social change in post-war rural England. It draws a portrait of a sheltered and uncultured butcher's wife exposed to a new tenant in the countryside a flamboyant homosexual who delights in throwing large parties. Of the collection as a whole, the Times Literary Supplement says the stories 'all confirm Mr Bates's position in the first rank of contemporary short-story writers.'Also included in this collection is bonus story 'The Grace Note', first published in the Fortnightly in 1936. It is a humorous tale of the Chipperfields, a family of brass players devoted to music, but whose jealousy and stubbornness dashes their dreams of a Chipperfield band and tears the family apart.
In his second collection of novellas, first published in 1957, Bates tackles bitter romantic deceptions and love triangles in what the Times Literary Supplement calls 'Mr Bates at his best.'In 'Night Run to the West' a greedy wife plots the death of her invalid husband, as seen through the eyes of her lover, a civilised truck-driver who has been innocently drawn into her web. 'Summer in Salander' involves an inert shipping clerk and an attractive, demanding woman who visits his island. Having left her own husband, she selfishly sets out to destroy the young man she meets while on holiday. Bates cites this story as a rare case in which a work of imagination is later simulated in real life, when a similar woman appeared on board a ship where Bates and his wife were returning to the island he used as the story's setting. 'The Queen of Spain Fritillary' looks back at a summer flirtation a woman pursued with an older man when she was seventeen. Bates portrays the pastoral setting of their romance, and the foolishness and thoughtlessness that characterised their relationship.Also included in this collection is bonus story 'Victim of Silence'. First published in the Daily Mail in 1939 it follows a young man, new to London, who is offered lodging in an ominous building. With just a torch for light, he encounters a fellow lodger, 'a war-crazy man with a gun in his hand.'
In this collection of five novellas, Bates contrasts two comic stories with the atmospheric title story, and includes a complex psychological tale alongside the romantically bleak.'The Golden Oriole' features a fragile and troubled woman, frozen in a stultifying and unconsummated marriage, who finds her sensuality awakened by a virile admirer. In 'The Ring of Truth', a man seeks to understand a disturbing and recurring dream, learns the truth about the lives and marriage of his parents, and in the process falls in love.'The Quiet Girl' sees an isolated seamstress selfishly juggle two passionless affairs, only to fall in love with a man who is just interested in superficial romance.'Mr Featherstone Takes a Ride' is a comic story featuring an amoral and easy-going swindler and an innocent hitchhiking philosophy student. And 'The World is Too Much With Us' is another comic tale about a reclusive man and a hen, who live together in domestic bliss until a buxom widow disrupts their eccentric liaison. The collection also features bonus story 'Mademoiselle', the tale of a French maid, hired by an English family, and her romantic escapades.
Colonel Julian and Other Stories was Bates's first collection following World War II, containing stories he wrote between 1941 and 1951. The New York Times called the collection 'distinguished...Mr. Bates avoids the sensational or the melodramatic; through an unerring selection of the exact gesture or thought or act or incident, he reveals the very essence of his characters' thwarted personalities.'The title story 'Colonel Julian' sees an eighty-three-year-old veteran of service in India now hosting pilots in his mansion. Here the old generation meets the new. The Colonel is fond of a young pilot, but also bewildered: by his enthusiasm so different from his own business-like relationship with war, by his lack of perspective on his role in a larger military strategy, and by an apparent absence of ethics.'The Bedfordshire Clanger' sees the welcome return of Uncle Silas after a ten year hiatus. Bates has Silas regaling his young nephew with a typical tall tale, this one involving a buxom landlady and disappointing meal with a pudding that is 'hard as a hog's back' called the Bedfordshire Clanger, but with a conclusion in which Silas, from then on, is 'never in want fur the nicest bit o' pudden in the world.'The collection also features bonus story 'For Valour', where the narrator, on a visit to an old airfield some years after the war, meets a caf owner who shows him the medals she received after her pilot son was killed over Arnhem, and tells tales of countless soldiers, and now travellers, who continue to pass by.
Stories about children are not always for children. In The Watercress Girl, H. E. Bates masterfully depicts a childhood which, by proxy, reveals the mystifying world of the adult. Through a series of short, lyrical stories, the complexities of the world are seen with crystalline purity through the eyes of children. We experience the joyous and painful clarity of youth, full of fears, hopes and make-believe, and the trust and mistrust of the adult world. A little boy, charmed by the golden-throated Miss Mortenson, witnesses her fall from grace in 'The Pemberton Thrush'. Three children become entangled in a forbidden love when they witness a man attempting suicide in 'A Great Day for Bonzo', and a father reveals more of his past than he intends to in 'The Far Distant Journey'. First published in 1959, The Watercress Girl is a rich collection of stories, exploring a world full of wonder but also of unease; an unease of not yet understanding the world or being fully part of it.
H.E. Bates's fifth collection is a sparkling body of work full of stories of childhood. Geoffrey West observed the collection overall as "bright with life, with individuals alive and interacting, and with the sweeping beauties of broad country backgrounds."Often cited as one of Bates's best stories, 'The Mill' relates the misfortune of a young girl in service. Bates was inspired by the daughter of a travelling greengrocer who called on his family: "It seemed to me a face moulded out of yellow clay: a face born to tragedy. I believe it is true that Hardy saw his Tess only once and from that fleeting experience, haunted also by a face, created his celebrated novel. ? We get a glimpse into Bates's negative experiences of education in both 'Little Fish', where a boy observes his father, normally a man "terrifying everyone in spasms of half-theatrical anger" become, in the presence of a school administrator, furtive and apprehensive; and in 'Jonah and Bruno', a classroom tale involving an arrogant and dictatorial teacher, a rebellious smart-mouthed student, and the eventual humiliation of the teacher by an intervening soldier.Comic relief comes in the form of witty characterisation and dialogue in 'The Irishman', and in 'The Revelation', a charming tale where the young narrator observes the housekeeper giving an elderly Uncle Silas his weekly bath; between roasting "taters" and drinking wine, Silas relates his childhood follies, including the time he chased a young woman "across the meadow with my clothes under her arms," which leads to a tender twist in the tale.