‘Seven by Five’ by H.E. Bates

This collection consists of stories from 1926, when Bates was only twenty-one, to 1961. There are thirty-five stories in total, hence the title, and I’m assuming that they appear in chronological order though little information is given about the publication date of the stories, which is annoying. I have only read short stories by Bates so far but he is quickly becoming a favourite author of mine and one who, in my opinion, ranks with the great short story writers from around the world. Bates is most famous for the The Darling Buds of May and Uncle Silas books (and TV adaptions), which I still haven’t read, but he wrote so much more, as I’m slowly finding out. His work seems to fit my reading requirements at the moment as I’m finding myself being increasingly drawn towards straightforwad realism; whether this is just a temporary situation or a more permanent one I’m not sure at the moment.

This collection has a good variety of stories; some are set in Larkin-land but others are set on the continent, at the seaside, or amongst the provincial middle-classes. What makes Bates so refreshing for me is that his stories concentrate on workers, farmers and the lower middle-classes, in an age when so much of the fiction from the U.K. was by, and about, the upper-classes or intellectuals. One of Bates’s earlier stories, and another one that was adapted for T.V. (in 1972), is The Mill and is amazingly frank for a story that was written in 1935 (for further info see the H.E. Bates Companion website). Alice is a rather vague emotionless girl, the daughter of a greengrocer/florist, and a girl who has low expectations in life. When her father announces that she is to start work at the Holland’s mill to help around the house she doesn’t question him and starts the following Monday.

It was about five miles to the mill, and she walked as though in obedience to the echo of her father’s command. She had a constant feeling of sharp expectancy, not quite apprehension, every time she looked up and saw the mill. But the feeling never resolved itself into thought. She felt also a slight relief. She had never been, by herself, so far from home.

Alice soon gets used to her chores which mostly consist of cooking Mr Holland’s meals and talking to Mrs Holland, who is mostly bedridden. Not much happens for a while as the three characters get to know each other. Used to obeying orders and with Mrs Holland’s request for her ‘to do all you can for Mr Holland’ she soon ends up submitting to Mr Holland’s sexual advances. Mr Holland is not violent or mean, rather he cajoles Alice into having sex with him. Of course, Alice becomes pregnant but seems oblivious to what’s happening to her and instead believes she’s caught Mrs Holland’s illness. When the Hollands’ son, Albert, returns she is initially ignored, she misses reading to Mrs Holland and the attention from Mr Holland, but Albert acts kindly towards her and takes her into town occasionally. It’s only when Albert realises that she’s pregnant and points it out to her that she understands what’s happening to her body. Albert then sends her home and it’s only when she returns that she begins to show some emotion and cry. This is a tale, simply told, but powerful in its portrayal of an emotionless and passive young girl.

Another story is The Evolution of Saxby, an amusing tale set during and after wartime. The narrator befriends Saxby at a railway station and after they get to know each other Saxby seems envious of the narrator living in the country with a garden. When he next meets Saxby the narrator discovers that Saxby now house a house with a garden and he is invited to visit. But when he does he notices that the garden is like a jungle and that Saxby’s wife, whom Saxby had described as an invalid close to death, is obsessed with renovating houses and selling them before moving on to the next one. Saxby just wants to settle down and to the narrator it looks like Saxby’s the one who looks more ill though he persists in the idea that his wife is ill.

One of my favourite stories in the collection was The Major of Hussars. The narrator is on holiday in the Swiss Alps, staying in the same hotel is the major:

The major was very interested in the mountains, and we in turn were very interested in the major, a spare spruce man of nearly sixty who wore light shantung summer suits and was very studious of his appearance generally, and very specially of his smooth grey hair. He also had three sets of false teeth, of which he was very proud: one for mornings, one for evenings, and one for afternoons.

The narrator and his wife see the major everywhere and soon befriend him. The major mentions several times that his wife, Mrs Martineau, should be arriving on the next steamer only for her to not arrive and so they start to believe that his wife is a fiction. The major, meanwhile, is very charming and easily befriends people, especially young attractive women, which is noted by the couple. But one day the major’s wife does indeed arrive and surprisingly she is about twenty-five years old; it is soon apparent that she is an overbearing argumentative woman who bullies and argues with her husband. On a trip up a mountain she complains and moans non-stop and the narrator and his wife decide to avoid them in future. But they can’t avoid hearing a huge row they have one day with pot plants, books and shoes being thrown about by Mrs Martineau, but she also throws anything else that is to hand.

   Back in the room Mrs Martineau began throwing things. ‘You’re always fussing!’ I heard her shout, and then there was the enraged dull noise of things like books and shoes being thrown.
   ‘Please, darling, don’t do that,’ the major said. ‘Don’t do it please.’
   ‘Oh! shut up!’ she said. ‘And these damn things too!’
   I heard the most shattering crash as if a glass tumbler had been thrown.
   ‘Oh! not my teeth!’ the major said. ‘Please, darling. Not my teeth! For God’s sake, not both sets, please!’

The next day the couple are seen leaving; the major, with his wrong teeth in, can only give a strange sort of smile to the narrator.

I’m not sure what my next H.E. Bates book may be; it could well be more short stories as I’m really enjoying those I’ve read so far but at some point I will try a novel by him. I also have the Darling Buds books to read as well as some non-fiction books that I purchased recently—see below.

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9 Comments

Filed under Bates, H.E., Fiction

9 responses to “‘Seven by Five’ by H.E. Bates

  1. I have a film adaptation of Uncle Silas and I wasn’t that keen on it to be honest. Not a good advertisement for H. E Bates. That said, I’ve been eyeing a few titles lately. A large number of short story collections have appeared on the kindle recently.

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  2. He’s an author I’d really like to try – probably with Fair Stood the Wind for France as a starting point as it’s the one I have on the shelves. These stories sound excellent, just my cup of tea, so it’s good to know there’s more to look forward to.

    Funnily enough, I was looking at two of the books in your recent acquisitions pile just the other week as they were on sale at the Royal Academy to tie in with with their bijou exhibition of Charles Tunnicliffe’s work. (As you probably know, Tunnicliffe did the illustrations for the books.) Have you been to see it by any chance? I thought the artworks were absolutely gorgeous!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan

      I hope to read FSTWFF as well as I’ve only read good reviews of it.

      I didn’t know about the exhibition at the RA. I’m off work in the first week of Oct so I may try and get there before it ends. I may read at least one of the books before then.

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      • Just to set your expectations…the exhibition is lovely, but very tiny – just one small room of artworks. That said, it’s definitely worth seeing, especially if you can combine it with something else at the RA. The Matisse, for example – also rather wonderful.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Jonathan

        Thanks Jacqui. I think I’ll combine it with a trip to the V&A. I’ve been meaning to visit the V&A for years now as, amazingly, I’ve never actually been inside.

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  3. I love your summary of the Major story! Sounds very much like some characters I have met in the Swiss Alps. Hmmm, I’m tempted to give H.E. Bates a go… Let’s see if my local library stocks him.

    Liked by 1 person

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