Saturday, 6 December 2014

Penguin no. 780: Seven Against Reeves
by Richard Aldington

While Mr Reeves dozed quietly after the holocaust of Mr Houghton's gospel, the rest of the house quivered with an activity particularly unusual on a Sunday. There was a certain tension, resembling on a tiny scale that of an army before an attack. The slumbering Reeves was unaware of the fact that, if he was incapable of solving the problem of what to do with himself, others were prepared to do it for him. With the quiet but deadly obstinacy of the philanthropist, who so often succeeds in squaring his interests with his altruism, Mrs Reeves was convinced that what Mr Reeves needed was to know the 'right people'. Besides, she wanted to know them herself.

I took this book down from my book shelf on one of those days when the title amused me because it seemed apposite, though I'm not sure I understand it's use in this context, for there are no seven pitted here against Mr Reeves. And if it is an allusion to Seven Against Thebes I cannot see that it makes things any more comprehensible, as Thebes was a city, while this is the story of a man who sets out, after much hesitation, to subdue those who would take advantage of him and in doing so wrestles back control of his life.

Mr Reeves is conservative in his outlook and conventional in his tastes, and so he seems an unlikely hero. But while everyone in the story looks down upon the poor man, the author seems almost to champion him, for Mr Reeves is the only character being portrayed here as having integrity, and also the only one who is decent and true to himself; everyone else is after something, typically something they don't really deserve, and it is Mr Reeves they are determined to manipulate into providing it.

Richard Aldington was best known as a World War I poet. He does not appear to have been much of an enthusiast of the social life, with Alec Waugh describing him as living a 'secluded and solitary life'. He seems to have been unconcerned with knowing the right people or with being seen at fashionable places, and Seven Against Reeves is a rather bitter satire on such pretensions, both on the desiring them and the facilitating of them. And though much of the criticism is directed towards those who would exploit the social insecurities of others, and towards modernist artists, these two groups are not his only targets: academics, philosophers, novelists and revolutionary thinkers, grasping wives and ungrateful children, are all portrayed negatively here. This means that it can seem quite a bitter novel, as there is no member of any of these groups whose behaviour could be considered redeeming.

The story begins on the first morning of Mr Reeves' retirement. At what seemed to me, but to no one in the story, the exceptionally young age of fifty, Mr Reeves leaves his position in the City with the intention of spending the next twenty years doing whatever he pleases. It is the fulfilment of a plan he has quietly relished for years but on which he has perhaps reflected inadequately - now that the moment has arrived Mr Reeves has simply no idea of what he should or could do. Instead of enjoying his long-awaited leisure he finds himself missing the people he has known and the routines which have underpinned his life until now; he is a man at a loss - endless hours at his disposal and no idea of how they should be filled.

Mr Reeves flounders, consuming a lot of alcohol and spending way too much money in the process. He is well aware that the twelve thousand pounds he has saved for his retirement are all that stand between him and the poor house, and so it never seemed clear to me why he was so willing to hand so much of it out. It may be that it is yet another habit of a lifetime, like rising each morning at exactly seven o'clock, that he finds impossible to give up. He has spent his adult life providing for others: a home for his family and a good education for his children, and supporting his wife's passion for dresses and underwriting of his son's extravagant entrepreneurial gambles. The family expect him to continue providing for them, while they continue disparaging all he does, but the unfairness of this evident lack of appreciation begins to niggle at Mr Reeves.

And poor Mr Reeves, intent on a quiet life, finds himself a victim of his wife's singular passion, for Mrs Reeves is a woman with only one interest, and it is to be accepted by those she considers to be the 'right people'. It is a passion which renders her vulnerable, for she will do anything that might increase her prestige and people line up to take advantage of her gullibility. And so when Mr Reeves is targeted by the artists and musician cultivating her patronage at a price, he takes out his wallet and hands the cash out, buying things he abhors in an attempt to buy himself that peaceful life. Mr Reeves looks perplexedly on his wife's new-found friends and the author uses his straight talking and naivete to pass comment on the elite.

It is clear that there are such people around - those with foolish ambitions and those willing to take advantage of them - but the problem with this novel is that here there is nothing but such people. The whole novel is conditioned on the lower middle class being foolish and the elite being predatory, and so while it was amusing in parts, it also seemed very bitter. As the mother of teenagers I felt a lot of sympathy for Mr Reeves' position as a breadwinner who is aware he is being taken for granted and so I enjoyed seeing him triumph, but the constant bitterness made it a difficult novel to enjoy overall.

First published 1938. Published in Penguin Books 1950.


  1. Sounds like poor Richard Bucket from "Keeping Up Appearances."

  2. As you're amused by the title, I'm amused by this sentence, He "...does not appear to have been much of an enthusiast of the social life," which is a fine way to capture introversion.

  3. Hi Karyn,

    I always enjoyed reading your reviews.

    I just want to give a suggestion. In the list of reviews, could you please use different colours coding based on their categories. I am very interested in Green Penguin only. I know I can just click on the tags of Green Spine or Crime. But I think using different colours for different categories in the list section will make it easier for us.

    Have a great day!




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