Monday, April 11, 2022

A Rediscovery: H. E. Bates's "A Month by the Lake & Other Stories"


I used to be a fan of the costume dramas on Masterpiece Theater (now called Masterpiece).  I remember the original host, Alastair Cooke, sitting in a leather chair as he introduced each episode, giving detailed background on the books and authors, sometimes commenting on the episodes or the actors.  I loved a series of film adaptations of the short stories of H. E. Bates and A. E. Coppard.  Their books were hard to find, possibly out-of-print, but I tracked down a couple of collections of stories at a used bookstore. 

We have moved often over the years, and we have  parted with many books, but  I recently came across a New Directions paperback of H. E. Bates's A Month by the Lake and Other Stories (1987), introduced by Anthony Burgess.

Let me start with Burgess's curmudgeonly introduction, which is entertaining, if digressive.  He begins: "The Sixties were not a bad time for the British." Then he complains about literary writers who received government subsidies. Burgess and H. E.  Bates wrote letters to the TLS denouncing the subsidies.  Burgess explains, "Writers who wrote for a living, and, of necessity, wrote much, who  never debased themselves by begging for money from the State and lived on earnings from the open literary market seemed to be looked down upon.  Herbert Ernest Bates was one of these, and I was another."

Many people (presumably writers) denounced Bates after his letter to the TLS.  Bates (1905-1973) admitted to Burgess that he never made much money.  His books sold, but reviewers belittled his popular Darling Buds of May, which did bring in some income.  And Bates identified with Edwardian writers like Arnold Bennett and H. G. Wells.  Burgess also compares Bates to Chekhov. 

Bates's stories are smart,  lyrical, entertaining, and show an unusual range.   Even in the shortest stories, the characters are deftly-drawn and the dialogue is pitch-perfect.


My favorite is the novella, "A Month by the Lake."   The insightful heroine, Miss Bentley, a middle-aged woman vacationing alone in Italy, decides to stay on another month, because the autumn is so beautiful.  One by one, the other guests leave, and finally it is time for Major Wilshaw to go.  Miss Bentley regrets his departure: she likes him, and is curiously attracted by his small flat pink ears.  I am amused by her explanation about ears.


All the attraction of mood and response and character and emotion lay, of course, in the eyes:  everyone knew that.  But ears were, Miss Bentley thought, far more wonderful.  Ears were unchanging and undying.  They remained, in some strange way, uncoarsened, undepraved, unwrinkled and unaged by time.

Major Wilshaw is about to climb into a taxi when a jolly family of former guests, the Bompianis from Milan, arrive at the hotel.  They are accompanied  by Miss Beaumont, a new governess for their daughters, who are thrilled to see Major Wilshaw because he performs magic tricks.  Miss Beaumont is so young and pretty that Major Wilshaw decides to stay on for another week.  And Miss Bentley is exasperated by Major Wilshaw's foolish infatuation.

Miss Bentley subtly competes with Miss Beaumont. Miss Bentley has the better figure, is a better swimmer, attracts a young man while she is swimming in the lake, and makes Major Wilshaw jealous.  Miss Beaumont begins to seem superficial to him.  But it is not until the end of the story that Miss Bentley again admires Major Wilshaw's ears. 

"Sergeant Carmichael" may be the best war story I have ever read.  As an English plane flies over France, something goes wrong with the motor.  It crashes in the ocean.  The survivors manage to climb into the dinghy, but Carmichael has broken his arm and has to be helped.  The salt and heat are terrible. Carmichael is ill; his mouth is raw from the sea water. A plane flies over them and doesn't stop.  We feel the horror of the waves crashing over the dinghy, of baling of the water, and of the slow deflation of the dinghy. 

In "Where the Cloud Breaks," Colonel Gracie, an old man, is slightly befuddled, and does not know what day of the week it is.  His neighbor, Miss Wilkinson, has been away visiting her sister, but is back, and the colonel decides to semaphore her with his signaling flags.  She will know the day of the week.

Colonel Gracie is proud of their semaphore communication.

In the army from which he was now long retired, signaling had been the  Colonel's special pigeon.  He had helped to train a considerable number of men with extreme proficiency.  Miss Wilkinson, who was sixty, wasn't of course quite so apt a pupil as a soldier in his prime, but she had nevertheless been overjoyed to learn what was not altogether a difficult art.  It had been the greatest fun for them both; it had whiled away an enormous number of lonely hours.

Miss Wilkinson reminds him via semaphore that he is having tea with her.  He is confused and forgetful - leaves his egg boiling on the stove - but he is eager to spend time with her again.  Unfortunately, they argue about the introduction of technology into her home.  Colonel Gracie risks their friendship.

I enjoyed this collection, though it is missing some of the most famous stories, like "The Watercress Girl." Bates was prolific, like most writers who must make a living, and I must keep an eye out for his other books.


  1. I think Bates's books probably made him a decent income - they sold well and some were filmed - but he probably didn't get much praise. Someone who "identified with Edwardian writers like Arnold Bennett and H. G. Wells" would probably be critically disregarded.

    I can't remember who, but someone suggested that a much better use of Arts Council money would be paying some writers not to write their books. There is a long tradition in the UK of granting "deserving" but financially unsuccessful writers Civil List grants or pensions. There were some surprising beneficiaries - James Joyce, for example.

    1. Anthony Burgess does go off the rails here, but does think Bates was short-changed by the reviewers. I've always been in favor of arts grants, though there is less government funding for the arts here than there used to be.