The always vanishing world, remembered
Curiously, I have never read any H.E.Bates, though somehow I believed I had – a misremembered conflation with another author going by initials – L.P. Hartley, he of The Go-Between. So when NetGalley offered me Love For Lydia, I took it, and was swept away and absorbed from the off. I shall certainly be pursuing an acquaintance with more of Bates, based on this between the wars set novel, beautifully exploring a Northamptonshire set rural/small town world, the fictional Evensford, as the giddy twenties turns towards the great recession, Hunger Marches, and, later, war. Demarcations of class are beginning to break-down, though these are certainly still firmly in place at the start of the novel.
When Bretherton woke, beer-flushed, with belches of discomfort, at the sound of the caddy spoon on the side of the teapot, he looked like one of those porkers, fat and pinkish, squatting on its hind legs with an advertisement for sausages in its lap, that you see in butchers’ windows. The sausages were his fingers. They glistened, a pink-grey colour, as they grasped tremulously at each other and then at his tobacco-yellow moustache. They were tipped with black moons of dirt that presently scraped at the forefront of his thinning scalp while in the first startling unpleasantness of waking he banged his squat scrubby elbows on the desk, his thick white fingers flapping.
The central character and narrator, Richardson – his first name is never revealed, is looking back on his earlier youth. He was a young, callow, bookish man, both aspirational and dreamy, in his very late teens/verge of his twenties. He had a couple of firm friendships from his school-days. Tom Holland, a young farmer, symbolising a thoroughly decent, uncomplicated kind of Anglo-Saxon English yeoman, whose warm, large family have had their roots in the countryside, with a keen sense of home, for generations. His other friend, Alex Sanderson, no less innocent, is more highly strung. It is less clear, with both Richardson himself, and Alex, what their eventual place in the world will be. At the start of the novel, Richardson is working, not very successfully, not very willingly, as a reporter on the local paper, a job he throws up for a less demanding, more casual place as a clerk in one of the local leather and shoe manufacturing industries. There is a hint that more ‘bookish’ concerns will draw him – and his work background has similarities to Bates’ own. Alex is from a financially comfortable background, his father a businessman. The three friends are comfortable middle class, and certainly there is no real hint of poverty, struggle or want here. Peculiarly, the idea of less security is suggested by both the class above and below. Blackie Johnson is the son of one of the local garage car (or as it was, now changing rapidly) coach repairers and ‘cabs’ Blackie’s father is still respectful and subservient to those of higher status; Blackie himself holds no truck with forelock tugging.
Shaking up this more-or-less settled state of affairs comes Lydia Aspen. She is the niece (and eventual heir) of one of the district’s ‘aristocratic’ families – at least in status, though not in title, the Aspens. A distinct sense of having come down financially in the world adheres to the family, and Lydia’s origins are a little vague, some hintings that her father may have made a ‘marriage beneath’. Lydia is out of class for everyone, but, because class itself is changing, and there are few young people of her own class, geographically close, Richardson, and later his friends, will be the ones to show Lydia Evensford society. Lydia is magnetic, warm, voluptuous, fickle and in love with both her own strong, excited desire to embrace ‘life’ and in the love and devotion she lures out of all who come under her spell. She will wreak havoc with, change, and both destroy the stability of all of the young men, whilst also providing an awakening into the glories of first love and the pain of first loss.
Whenever I went through the gates and along the avenue there was a wonderful belling chorus of thrushes that expanded under a closing framework of branches, madly and most wonderfully in the long pale twilight when the air was green with young leaves and the acid of new grass after sunset and spring rain. Nearer the house there were random drifts of pale blue anemone, bright as clippings of sky among black clusters of butchers broom, and then, leading up to the house, daffodils in thousands, in crowds of shaking yellow flame
There is a wonderful story here. It has a kind of mythic, operatic Greek tragedy to it, but bound to an English restraint, a sense of things not spelt out, but inherent. Bates’ prose, particularly in description of the natural world, the land, the changing seasons is lyrical and strong – I was reminded of Laurie Lee, that same sense of writing about landscape from someone who had learned a relationship with it primarily through living with it and working it, not from reading about it. Bates is as observant and surprising in all his descriptions though, whether these are of hedgerows, landscapes through seasons, or the physical quirks and particularities of character. That sense of an English mythic, the relationship with land beginning to change, through the incursion of ‘modern’, and through ancient and formalised structures (like class) shifting, sometimes quite painfully, also reminded me of a writer a couple of generations earlier – Hardy, though Bates is, I think, more accessible, punchier, of course ‘modern’.
He began to get some idea of the monstrous iron that bound the McKechnie household. No cooking on Sundays, no music, no jokes, not even much talking, no papers, no reading except of sectarian things. A prayer-meeting once a week and often, especially in winter, twice or three times; a long dry scouring word of the Lord before breakfast every day. A hardness, an enamel of twice-fired prejudice and precept, held the family, the eldest son, a man of forty, in a kind of isolated and awful fealty
Bates’ writing has a very satisfying tension between feverish page-turning, a desire to know ‘what happens next’ and an equally strong ‘whoa, slow down, savour each moment’ quality, because he is so very adept at describing the texture of being in each moment : his writing is kinesthetic. And that tension mirrors beautifully what the narrator experiences – the desire to hold on to moments, whilst the sense of life inexorably driving onwards is happening – not to mention the fact that we (and he) know that past has gone, even though it might seem tantalisingly close, because Richardson is recounting all this, looking back from the knowledge of everything that has happened. He is writing from memory, and memory shapes the events of the past into patterns; patterns not seen whilst living within them
Nicola Benedetti with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Andrew Litton, playing Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending, which has nothing to do with Bates’ book, except for a powerful connection to an idea of ‘English Music’ – writing fed by a sense of the land seems to me such a part of another way of hearing ‘English music’
Bates’ strong story lines, wonderful dramatic characterisation and ability to give such a very present sense of time, space and realism of course made his writing a natural for TV drama – Love for Lydia became a 6 part drama series for Thames in the 70s. The Darling Buds of May and Fair Stood The Wind for France also were televised. I have never seen any of these – possibly wrongly, probably snootily sniffily, I have a tendency to avoid TV dramatisations (and often, films) of books I know have some kind of lit-ficciness about them, as I always want to read the book FIRST, in order to have a direct relationship with the writing, and the formation of my own sense of look, feel, texture.
However, since doing my normal blog review research into background, I discovered that a film I dearly loved – Michael Apted’s The Triple Echo was a dramatisation of a Bates novella. My memory of the film is shrouded in the mists of time, though I do remember a very beautiful young Brian Deacon. The film also starred Glenda Jackson and a magnificently over-powering Oliver Reed, long before Reed became a byword for a certain kind of self-destruction. I have discovered it is out there on YouTube, and I will no doubt be availing myself of that opportunity – but, first, of course, the novella must be sourced and devoured.
Bates (1905-1974) is someone who will definitely be appearing again on this blog! Love for Lydia was first published in 1952.
Thank you to Bloomsbury, who are re-publishing much of Bates, and to NetGalley. Strangely, these republishings are not showing this side of the pond, and only older versions, or eReads, seem available. Lucky Statesiders!