"The Distant Horns of Summer" was one of H. E. Bates's last novels, written in 1967, seven years before his death. The title relates firstly to the fact that the story takes place in late summer and early autumn and secondly to the horns in a composition by Schubert, which sound as though they are being played in the distance. This piece of music comes to take on significance for two of the characters.
It is unusual among novels written for adults in that the main character is a child. Six-year-old James is the only son of a declining aristocratic family who own a stately home somewhere in the English countryside. (An earlier Bates novel, "Love for Lydia", also dealt with the fortunes of an upper-class family in decline). Although the family are declining, they are not poor in any absolute sense of the word; poor people in sixties Britain did not generally go on holiday to Tangier, and certainly not for six weeks at a time, as James's parents do in the story. Nevertheless, they are less grand and wealthy than they evidently once were; most of their home is left empty, and the family now only live in one wing, which has been converted into an apartment.
While his parents are abroad, James is left in the care of his teenage nanny, Gilly, staying in a small cottage on the estate rather than the great house itself. Today, I doubt if any parents would leave a child for several weeks with a seventeen-year-old girl with no experience or qualifications in childcare, and I suspect that if they did the child welfare department of the local authority would intervene, but people seem to have been more relaxed about such things in the sixties. James is a lonely boy, with no siblings or friends of his own age, but he is also highly intelligent and imaginative, and he treats Gilly as a sort of ersatz playmate, trying to draw her into his own fantasy world.
The most remarkable thing about the book, even though Bates was in his sixties when he wrote it, is the insight he is able to give us into the mind of a child. James is highly observant of the natural world, which he sees in his own idiosyncratic way. The sun shining on the grass appears to him like a fire burning in a grate, the leaves of a fig-tree like great green hands. He is particularly fascinated by clouds, which according to his mood and the prevailing meteorological conditions he can see as ice cream or as bears, sheep or elephants. The most important element in his imaginative world, however, is the presence of two imaginary friends, Mr Pimm and Mr Monday. Mr Monday is a rather shadowy figure even to James, but Mr Pimm is much more real. James sees him not as a boy but as a middle-aged man, and holds lengthy conversations with him. Mr Pimm always replies in a colloquial, informal English which contrasts with James's own much more formal speech. (James is clearly a gifted observer not only of nature but of other people and has based Mr Pimm on one or more of the workmen who have been carrying out works at his parents' home).
At first Gilly tries to enter into James's fantasy world, even pretending to be Mr Pimm, but the two become estranged when a stranger enters their lives. Gilly meets Alex Ainsworth, a handsome young man on holiday in the area, and the two become first friends, then lovers. James is too young fully to understand the relationship between Gilly and Ainsworth; all he knows is that his friend seems to have abandoned him.
The book reminded me strongly of Alison Lurie's "Only Children" from the late seventies; in both books the adult world is seen through the eyes of sensitive and intelligent children. (Lurie's young heroines Lolly and Mary Ann also see clouds as ice cream). I have often wondered if Lurie, a noted anglophile, read Bates's book and was influenced by it. In both books the child's perspective helps us to see adult concerns in a new light; James may live in a fantasy world, but in some respects that is what the adults in this story are doing too. In their world things might also be not what they seem; towards the end there are some surprising revelations about James's parents and, more importantly, about Ainsworth. The "Ainsworth" who appears in the early part of the story is nearly as much a creation of Gilly's imagination as Mr Pimm is of James's.
"The Distant Horns of Summer" is in some ways very different from the other novels by H E Bates which I have read. The story is a simpler one, with relatively few characters, and there is much less in the way of physical action than in works like "Love for Lydia" or "The Feast of July" which have more intricate plots. The introduction of a child as protagonist also seems to have been a new departure for the author. The book reveals that, even towards the end of his life, Bates was prepared to explore new directions in his fiction, and that in this case he reaped rich rewards in doing so.