The Four Beauties is another slim collection of short stories by H.E. Bates which was originally published in 1968. It contains four medium-length stories of about 30-40 pages each: The Simple Life, The Four Beauties, The Chords of Youth and The White Wind. The first two stories are probably more typical Bates stories, both in setting and style, whereas The Chords of Youth is almost like a Saki story and The White Wind a bit of a South Seas adventure.
The main characters in The Simple Life are the married couple Stella and Barty. It revolves around their attempt to get away from the city to a ‘simple life’. Bartholomew loves it and spends his time chopping wood, pruning apple trees, fishing etc. but Stella loathes these weekend breaks, she hates the Friday evening drive down, the cottage, the fresh air, the cold, the lack of modern conveniences. To cope, she starts drinking as early in the day as possible. Stella’s loathing of the cottage life changes once Roger, a seventeen year old local boy, starts to help Barty out around the house. Stella enjoys flirting with the rather shy boy when her husband is away. It looks like it’s going to end badly but Bates handles the story perfectly; it doesn’t quite end how you’re expecting but then it’s not a surprise ending either, it’s just masterfully done.
Probably my favourite of the four is the eponymous story, The Four Beauties. This is set in real Bates country, where the narrator recalls a time when he was working as a reporter for a local newspaper and got to know the Davenports. Mrs Davenport owned a café which the narrator would often visit and where he would often encounter the three lovely Davenport girls, Tina, Sophie and Christabel. All three girls were vivacious and attractive to the narrator; Tina who was only fourteen was mischievous, Sophie, at seventeen was both dreamy and passionate and Christabel (Christie), the eldest at eighteen, reminded him of a flamboyant lioness. In comparison Mrs Davenport seemed quite shabby and sad wheras Mr Davenport was rarely seen at all. The narrator ends up taking Christie out dancing, teasing Tina playfully, taking Sophie on a picnic when Christie was away and having talks with their mother about her life and ambitions. In a way he falls in love with them all:
One of the more curious things about the Davenports was the way, in the presence of one, I would be haunted by the absence of another.
But they drift apart and the Davenports move away. However, five years later the narrator encounters the Davenports again and…
The Chords of Youth is a more humorous story almost in the style of Saki or Wodehouse. It opens with the rather imperious Aunt Leonora claiming to the narrator that a visiting German dignitary called Otto is an old friend of hers. She can’t remember any details and it’s never really established whether Otto is the person she thinks he is. Anyway, Leonora invites Otto round for lunch as part of an Anglo-German cultural exchange. She’s determined to introduce Otto to the delights of a Steak and Kidney pudding (or ‘the old Kate and Sidney’ as Uncle Freddie constantly exclaims much to Otto’s confusion) and Christmas pudding, even though it’s summer. Although Otto starts to enjoy himself tempers start to fray, especially between Leonora and Otto’s English companion, Mr Wilbram. It’s an amusing story, probably a little dated, but funny nonetheless – and very controlled.
The final story is The White Wind and was probably the one I liked least, but it was still an interesting story. It takes place on a South Sea island which is visited by a pair of doctors who dish out pills to the local inhabitants. The main character though is a local boy who likes hearing stories from Fat Uncle about his youthful days of adventure in his boat. We get to know a few more of the island’s inhabitants before it is discovered that some of the islanders have typhoid. As the plane, which brought the doctors to the island, has left they have to try to get someone, maybe Fat Uncle, to sail the boat to the mainland to get help. In some ways The White Wind reminded me of Steinbeck.
I think it’s no surprise that along with my Maupassant fixation at the moment I’m also into reading H.E. Bates as they seem to me to be very similar, both in style and execution. In fact, the title story reminded me of a Maupassant story that I read recently called The Rondoli Sisters, which I hope to get around to reviewing at some point. Both Maupassant and Bates use a simple, realistic style to tell a story, with no waffling and no waste; both enjoy surprising the reader with the endings but both authors often do this subtly rather than blatantly. The telling of the story is just as important as the ending.