Good news! Next month Bloomsbury are reissuing novels and many short stories by H E Bates as e-books. I’ve already read Love for Lydia, courtesy of NetGalley. This is a five star book for me, mainly because of the writing. When I say that Bates was a great storyteller in the old-fashioned way, it’s a compliment.
I’d not read Love for Lydia before. I heard it read on Radio 4 years ago and wanted to read it then but it was hard to find a copy. It was first published in 1952 and is set (like The Feast of July), in the Northamptonshire of Bates’ own youth, in a grim town which shoe making and leather tanning have made dirty and smelly. At a distance from the town is the big house where the Aspens live, marooned in their own island of gardens and privilege. The hero narrator, ‘Mr Richardson’, hates the town, which is why he spends so much time walking in the local countryside. The English landscape is lyrically described; its changing seasons, its flowers and wildlife, its transience. It’s against this background that the story of young love, passion and tragedy is played out.
When her father dies, Lydia Aspen comes to live with her aunts and uncle. The aunts worry that she will be lonely and encourage Richardson to take her out. At first Lydia seems very young and awkward but she already has a strange attraction for men. Once she realises this, she exploits her power. She seem wilful, cruel sometimes, impossible to understand. Everything that happens, happens because of her. Richardson is looking back at the events; not nostalgically exactly, because some of the results are terrible, but in an elegiac way, regretting the lost world of the Aspen house and the countryside, already threatened in his youth, now further despoiled. There are echoes here of Great Expectations (Richardson is Lydia’s social inferior), Brideshead Revisited, even Le Grand Meaulnes. Lydia is Estella with an unexpected heart.
This is a fine novel, beautifully written. It could almost have been called Love for England. I hope Bates will find a new readership thanks to the reissues.
There’s a lot of information about H E Bates here, where you can download free the short story Castle in the Air. This is very slight but memorable, the character of Smiler cutting an almost Dickensian figure. I’m sure everyone reading this knows the Larkin series which began with The Darling Buds of May, even if it’s from watching the 1991 television production rather than reading the books. There’s so much more Bates to explore: Fair Stood the Wind for France, for instance, is very worth reading. Many of the short stories being republished have been out of print for years. H E Bates had a lifelong passion for nature and flowers and wrote non-fiction about gardening. I used to have a copy of A Love of Flowers, published in 1971. He also wrote The Seasons and the Gardener, and A Fountain of Flowers. This lovely photograph of H E Bates in his greenhouse is taken from here
Some of my previous comments on Bates here.