Friday, 8 June 2012

Penguin no. 2130: An Aspidistra in Babylon
by H.E. Bates

I first caught sight of him about three o'clock in the afternoon, at the start of a humid and torrential squall of rain on the waterfront of Papeete. He was tall, lean and English to the bone, with eyes of a transparent whitish blue and receding fair hair that made him look much older than he really was. The hair badly needed trimming at the neck. His shirt of pale lavender, sun-faded and worn outside his crumpled brown trousers and with a small design of darting indigo fish across it, was remarkably subdued for those parts and had not been washed for some time. It was too early to tell whether he was ill, drunk or troubled, or perhaps all three, but he was completely oblivious of the rain.

I'm sure it was the appeal of the Robin Jacques illustration on the cover which encouraged me to choose this H.E. Bates title from among the many sitting unread on my shelves. Now I look at it and wonder what is being depicted, and what relevance the picture has to any of the four novellas the book contains. The harbour, the lamp posts, and the chalk cliffs in the background suggest it as a scene from the story which gives the collection its title, but it cannot be a picture of the protagonist, for Christine is looking back on her eighteen year old self, someone she thinks of as 'an aspidistra in Babylon': a dull, plain, uninteresting and overlooked girl living in a town of vice. Perhaps instead the picture depicts Ruby, the carefree chambermaid who works in Christine's mother's boarding-house, and intrigues and entertains her with her stories of love and adventure.

Christine lives a cloistered life in a garrison town, somewhere like Dover, in the early 1920s. The military has a permanent presence in the castle on the hill, and with foreign ships arriving in the port daily, the streets of the town are filled in the evenings with soldiers and sailors intent on little more than drinking, fighting, and finding women. It is a life Christine hears about, but doesn't experience; instead she spends her days reading poetry and feeling bored, waiting for something to happen. Into this world walks the charming Captain Blaine, a forty year old officer who seduces her, treats her as someone special, and sells her a dream of the interesting but indolent life they could lead together on the Continent, if they only had access to his aunt's wealth.

It is an illusion of course. Although the four novellas are set in different locations and concern different situations, each tells the story of a lonely individual who falls for an illusion, and mistakes it for love. It is a book without happy endings; all that is possible is an awareness or an escape which comes at the price of cynicism, or a continuation of the delusion. In Christine's case, she looks back from a respectable middle-age to analyse the process by which Captain Blaine took advantage of her naïveté and her romantic disposition, and while she doesn't blame her mother for the events of that year, she suggests that her misguided advice contributed to the blindness. But it seemed to me that the blindness partially persisted, for while she resented Captain Blaine's betrayal of herself, there was no sense of responsibility for her own betrayal of others. It all seemed someone else's fault.

The four novellas included in the collection are An Aspidistra in Babylon, A Month by the Lake, A Prospect of Orchards, and The Grapes of Paradise, of which the first stands out as the best. These were stories which held my interest, but which failed to affect me, and I remained indifferent to the characters and their situations. These were people who invariably behaved exactly as you would expect: the young girl innocent and easily taken advantage of; the Captain a drinker, a gambler and a rake; the Tahitian native obsessed and dependent on the foreigner, the middle-aged man failing to appreciate the value of the spinster of similar age while being captivated by her young and selfish rival. Nothing really unexpected happens; everything can be foreseen. I was left with a sense of having learnt nothing more than that H.E. Bates was an enthusiast for flowers, and a suspicion that I should have selected one of his other works.

By the same author:
Penguin no. 1279: Fair Stood the Wind for France


  1. I always had the sense with H E Bates that he was looking to write about the unique (undramatic and unexceptional) drama of everyday existence, particularly the unemotional inexpressive existence of the British classes, who of course were/are as passionate as the Mediterranean sun under which he transported them from time to time - for the sake of contrast. But he was also a writer of profound feeling, such as in 'Fair Stood the Wind for France, The Purple Plain or The Jacaranda Tree. And wasn't averse to a bit of ribald humour - as in the Ma and Pa Larkin series (A Breath of French Air). My Grandfather knew him. I asked him what he was like, he gave a very polite (English) laugh and twinkled his eyes. Somehow I was left with the impression that Bates enjoyed life, celebrated it in his books and lived it 'all up' as was once said of that most exceptional Australian adventurer, Peter Pinney. But these books put me in mind of Katherine Mansfield, delicate pieces that were brought to the screen years ago (as were many of H E Bates short stories). And perhaps a touch of Checkhov. But having said all of that there's many a time I've read a H E Bates short story and thought to myself 'There was nothing to it really..', but I also have a sense that I was missing the point while looking for the point. Hugely underrated in any case. But thank you for the review, and I always enjoy reading your thoughts.

    1. Hi John and thanks for your comment, you've given me something to reflect on. Each time I finish a book I look back and try to think of a passage which seemed to convey a truth or an insight, or at the very least an idea creatively expressed, and I quote it above the post, adjacent to the cover. It perplexed me here that I couldn't think of one, which is why the passage above is merely descriptive, and that is why it seemed to me that I had read these stories but taken nothing instructive away from them. But then, of course, that may not have been his purpose, and the problem may be that I may have been looking for something he never intended to convey. I'll look forward to reading the other titles you mention.

  2. Fair Stood the Wind for France is wonderful but I wouldn't have been able to resist that cover either.

  3. I'm not sure if this is the right place to put this, but oh well. First of all, I have to say your blog was the most wonderful, serendipitous find; it's brightened my day whilst searching for reviews of Penguin memorabilia.

    And secondly, I'm not entirely sure how you go about widening your collection, but I've found Beyond the Mexique Bay by Huxley (No. 1048, I believe?) for sale here and they ship world-wide.

    Keep up the amazing work!

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  5. hello Karyn!
    You have an amazing blog! I love the old penguin books too. I dont own a single one, but my parents have quite a large collection of them. Stumbling upon your blog made me feel like a child again, peeking and my parents' bookshelves, wondering what stories those dirty-white and orange volumes contained...
    Following you now!

    Please do visit my book blog, and if you like it, please follow!



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