In this essay I shall discuss two writers, celebrated in their limited genres, who would never be thought of as major figures. E. F. Benson (1867-1940), one of those English men of letters who could turn his hand to any writing task, is known today for the Lucia books, six very funny novels about the rivalries and contentions among a small group of well-off citizens in a small English village. Our other author, Dornford Yates (1885-1960), wrote more than thirty novels of two types, lighthearted farces and adventure stories. We shall be concerned with the latter because they are remarkable for qualities that make them unusual in that genre.
I also want to investigate suspension of disbelief: how does a writer make us believe in, or accept, his world? That is, after all, the first task of any writer, because if the reader doesn't believe, the show's over before it has begun.
In a perceptive introduction to the Harper and Row collected edition of the Lucia books, Nancy Mitford notes a characteristic that helps to establish their reality -- their sexlessness. If you think about it, you must realize that through even the most staid novels there runs a thread of sexual interest because it cannot be avoided: the species is divided into two sexes, and nearly everything else flows from that fact. Remove all traces of sexuality and replace it with intense interest in quirks of personality, and you create a world that mimics ours, minus its one essential quality. The characters are not nullified by the absence of sex, but all their thoughts and actions are redirected, energized by their concern for trivialities as they move in a toy world. They play out their lives as caricatures where they must obey the conventions of that sort of world. They must never stand back to observe or judge it, but must relentlessly act out their allotted roles, no matter how often they repeat their lines or actions. So Irene must always be outspokenly sarcastic, Major Benjy on the lookout for a drink, Susan must always wear her sables and the Order of the British empire, and we never tire of the repetitions because we know them as puppets in a toy theater.
The central figure, the animator, in that world is Lucia, a cultural pretender who manages, by her energy and cleverness, to dominate her circle. The others often resent her, but they know that without her life would lose its savor. The readers' pleasure lies in observing her maneuvers and her pretensions. Whenever music is being played, for instance, she "puts on her Beethoven face," and she makes up Italian phrases to show fluency in the language, wholly spurious. The first book, Queen Lucia, establishes her and her set, but the second, Lucia in London, is not so successful because her magic works best in a limited provincial setting. Miss Mapp, the next volume, shifts to another village and another protagonist, the title character, a schemer like Lucia but without her good nature. This again treats the trivial happenings among a small group of middle-aged persons, but the readers feels that Benson is really setting up Mapp for conflict with Lucia, which takes place in the next book, Mapp and Lucia, continuing in the last two volumes, The Worshipful Lucia and Trouble for Lucia. These three are the best of the series, thanks to the duel between Lucia and Mapp, antagonists with "Napoleonic brains."
"Things are beginning to move, Georgie," said she . . . "Night marches, Georgie, maneuvers. Elizabeth [Mapp], of course. I'm sure I was right; she wants to run me, and if she can't (if!) she'll try to fight me. I can see glimpses of hatred and malice in her."
"And you'll fight her?" asked Georgie eagerly.
"Nothing of the kind, my dear," said Lucia. "What do you take me for? Every now and then, when necessary, I shall just give her two or three hard slaps . . ." --Mapp and Lucia
What Lucia does is to "render the trivialities of life intense for others," and so it is for the reader, who follows her Machiavellian moves with delight. "Never before had Tilling known so exciting a season."
Benson cleverly introduces two realistic characters, stand-ins for the readers, Olga Bracely, an opera singer, and Contessa, sister of one of the toy characters, and both are greatly amused by the characters' antics, impatient to hear the news on their occasional visits. Their amusement assures us of the fictional reality of Lucia et al., at the same time that it reinforces the mimic quality of the scene. Significantly, the characters are puzzled by their amusement, because it is one of the conditions of this society that they can never stand outside it, never see themselves as puppets. It is a measure of our suspension of disbelief that we never tire of the limited repertoire of the characters because we do not expect them to be of any depth. We accept them because they fit so well in their stage world. Benson achieves this by plunging us immediately into its petty intricacies which the characters never see as petty.
Tastes will differ widely over such unusual books. My wife watches me reading, laughing until the tears run, and she shakes her head sadly. But try them. If you don't begin with Queen Lucia, start with Mapp and Lucia.
Dornford Yates's novels have their flaws -- the endgame is often spun out to unconscionable length, some plot devices are overused, the involvement of women is sometimes cloying -- but, like Benson, he certainly creates a fictionally believable world, despite its essential unreality, and he does it by establishing its tone. The adventurers are Jonathan Mansel, the leader, Richard Chandos, who does the heavy lifting, and George Hanbury, supernumerary, plus their manservants Carson, Bell, and Rowley who can handle a pistol or drive a Rolls nearly as well as their masters. Upperclass gentlemen of leisure, their manners are impeccable and their behavior towards women chivalrous. Their wives, sometimes involved, are paragons of beauty, gentility, and sensitivity. The small touches of class are never ostentatious, but are part of the casually elegant tone.
And then at table one evening, after the cloth had been drawn, he bade us fill up our glasses and listen to what he said. --(An Eye for a Tooth)
"But I don't want to lie low for the next three months. Neither do you, William -- cubhunting's coming on." --(Were Death Denied)
The servants are great creations -- loyal, unobtrusive, super competent, essential parts of an upper class world.
Bell was a splendid servant. Whenever I wanted something, he always seemed to be there. --(An Eye for a Tooth)
Bell deserved his name, for he was the soundest man with whom I have had to do. In times of stress he was my rod and staff . . . he set my life above his, because, perhaps, he knew that I set his above mine . . . But Carson had caught from his master the precious trick of foresight . . . Working together, the two were incomparable: indeed, without their service, Mansel and I would never have taken the field. --(Cost Price)
A conspicuous and endearing feature is the use of cars. Sometimes there's a race across southern France as the rogues try to escape their pursuers or the reverse, a race that involves one or more Rolls Royces and perhaps a Lowland or Vane, for the novels take place in the 1920s and 1930s, the golden age of exotic cars.
Mansel rounded a bend at eighty, passed a car which was passing a charabanc, cut in between two waggons of six wheels each, and put the Rolls at a hill at 96.
The cars are always in use, quartering the countryside as they close in on the rogue's lair. They tend them lovingly, and notice the fastidious tone.
While . . . Carson set out some sandwiches, Bell . . . began to wash the Rolls; for the way had been long and, at times, the dust had been thick, and no one of us four could endure that a car which was travel-stained should await attention.
The most remarkable feature of the novels is the air of self-assured calm, bolstered by the details I have mentioned, that pervades them and radiates from the characters, especially Mansel. This is the self-assurance of a ruling class, of gentlemen who, although they can drop Latin tags, wear their sophisticated knowledge and mores lightly, never insisting on their superiority but showing it in everything they do. Correspondingly, the villains are usually coarse. Our heroes respect their cleverness and do not underrate them as adversaries, but they are contemptuous of them. The villains, on the other hand, hate the heroes with great intensity, as inferiors to superiors.
Once we accept the assured tone of a Yates novel the rest follows, and we believe in that world and its values.
It was, I remember, in the summer of 1930 -- that Jenny (my wife) and I had taken a villa at Freilles and that Jonathan Mansel was spending some days with us. Freilles was a little resort some thirty miles north of Bayonne on the Bay of Biscay. It was simple and quite unspoiled, but its sands were the finest for bathing I ever knew: they were broad and firm and they sloped very gently seaward without any "steps," thus making smooth the path of the great Atlantic rollers, that came prepared to do battle and played a pageant, instead.
How we three came to be there, I need not say; but Mansel and I were both tired and were glad to take it easy and, so to speak, put up our feet. Carson and Bell, our servants, were taking their ease with us, and indeed, our quiet establishment was more like a rest-camp in warfare than anything else.
And then, one summer everything, without the slightest warning, we found ourselves involved in a matter of life and death. This was the way of it.
That last sentence is perfect -- a gentleman reasonably explaining things.
The mistake of many writers of adventure stories is to try to make them too dully realistic. There's very little pleasure for the reader; far better to be swept up in a Rolls and borne away with some sterling gentlemen and their respectful manservants.
What have we learned about the suspension of disbelief? You will note that I chose two unlikely prospects, books that are, on the face of it, inherently unbelievable. But in literature nothing is unbelievable if the author can make you acquiesce, can make you temporarily suspend your disbelief. Furthermore, nothing is believable unless the author can somehow work his magic.
Realism in itself is no guarantee of success. We can all think of realist novels and stories that are unbelievable. First, the author must believe -- and you may sure that Benson and Yates, while they were writing, believed in their characters -- and then he must find the ways to make you believe. In fiction there is no truth until the author makes you believe it, and the ways he can do that are more than I can name.
These columns are not book reviews, but my attention was recently called to a book, Save the Males by R. F. Doyle (Poor Richard's Press, Forest Lake, Minn.) that deserves mention. Like all the privately published books I've ever seen, it has an amateurish tone, especially in the beginning, but once past the various prefaces, Save the Males is a thorough, sound, enlightening account of the concerted attack on masculinity (and corresponding promotion of feminism) that has been going on since the 1960s.
In the next issue: Albion's Seed by David Hackett Fischer. *
"I predict future happiness for Americans if they can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them." --Thomas Jefferson