When it comes to his novellas and short stories, H E Bates's bibliography is a complicated one, with the same story being published in different collections, the same title being used for different collections, and occasionally the same collection being published under more than one title. I am aware that another collection of Bates's stories was also published as "The Grapes of Paradise", so for the avoidance of doubt, I should make it clear that the collection I am reviewing here contains eight novellas, "Death of a Huntsman", "Night Run to the West", "Summer in Salandar", "The Queen of Spain Fritillary", "An Aspidistra in Babylon", "A Month by the Lake", "A Prospect of Orchards" and "The Grapes of Paradise". The first four were originally published as "Death of a Huntsman" in 1957, the others as "An Aspidistra in Babylon" in 1960.
Most of the stories are set in Bates's beloved English countryside, although three have more exotic settings, "Summer in Salandar" on a fictitious island which has something in common with both Madeira and the Canaries, "A Month by the Lake" in the Italian Lakes and "The Grapes of Paradise" on Tahiti. "An Aspidistra in Babylon", however, has no connection with ancient Mesopotamia; "Babylon" in this instance stands for a seaside garrison town, probably based on Dover, which is regarded by some of its more puritanical inhabitants as a sink of iniquity.
A common theme running throughout the stories is that of love, particularly love between an older man and a younger woman. Thus in both "Death of a Huntsman" and "The Queen of Spain Fritillary" a middle-aged or elderly man becomes infatuated with a teenage girl. In "An Aspidistra in Babylon" it is the girl who is taken in by a dashing blackguard of an Army officer. In "A Month by the Lake" another gentleman with a military background is admired by two women, one near his own age, the other much younger. And in "The Grapes of Paradise" we never learn the age of the main character, Harry, but he is clearly considerably older than the two Tahitian girls who become his lovers. "Night Run to the West" offers a variation on this theme; Francie, a forty-something woman married to an older man, sets her sights on Charlie, a handsome young lorry-driver.
This theme is, however, handled in a number of different ways. Some are serious, even tragic, while others are more light-hearted. In some we sympathise with the man, in others with the girl. In "An Aspidistra in Babylon", for example, the girl, Christine, wants to seem smart and worldly-wise, but we soon realise that she is no match for the roguish Captain Blaine. In "The Queen of Spain Fritillary" we may have some sympathy for the elderly butterfly-collector Frederick Fielding-Brown, but the real tragic heroine is Miss Carfax, the middle-aged admirer whom Fielding-Brown neglects in his obsession with the young Laura.
Sometimes our sympathies shift progressively as the story unfolds. In "Night Run to the West" we at first sympathise with Francie, who appears trapped in an unhappy marriage to Calvin, a wealthy but bad-tempered elderly inventor. As the story progresses, however, both Charlie and the reader come to realise that the situation may not be so black-and-white, that Francie may not be the innocent victim she initially appears and that it may be Calvin whom we should feel sorry for.
Another feature of many of the stories is a striking image, generally taken from the natural world, with a symbolic meaning. In "Death of a Huntsman", for example, we have the image of a golden quince "like a phial of honey", the last one the tree, which in the minds of the story's pair of lovers, Henry and Valerie, comes to symbolise the summer which is coming to an end; when it falls from the tree, that will be a sign that summer has ended and winter is here. To the reader, however, the fall of the quince may also symbolise the end of the relationship of Henry and Valerie. In "The Grapes of Paradise" one of Harry's two mistresses (whose name we never discover) is always referred to as "the parakeet", an epithet suggestive of her beauty and delicacy in contrast to the more powerful build and coarser features of her rival Therese.
In "An Aspidistra in Babylon", set during the 1920s, we have the image of the aspidistra plant itself, used here (as in Orwell's "Keep the Aspidistra Flying") as a symbol of dull, lower-middle-class respectability, and of the life in which Christine feels trapped; it is contrasted with colourful, scented flowers such as roses and carnations which stand for the better life towards which she aspires. "A Prospect of Orchards" features an eccentric apple-grower, engaged in a futile attempt to breed an apple that tastes like a pear. (If you want something that tastes like a pear, why not eat a pear?) And in "The Queen of Spain Fritillary" the dominant image is that of the dead butterflies, killed by Fielding-Brown so that their beauty can be displayed as part of his collection, and which may symbolise his unconsciously cruel treatment of Miss Carfax. (I wonder if this story was an influence on John Fowles's "The Collector", which also features an eccentric butterfly-collector named Frederick who becomes obsessed with a young woman; Fowles's novel appeared several years after Bates's story).
These stories do not, for the most part, contain the striking descriptions of the countryside and the natural world which are such a feature of some of Bates's novels such as "Love for Lydia" and "The Feast of July", although "Summer in Salandar" with its striking evocation of a hot, dusty summer on the island is something of an exception. Bates clearly felt that such descriptive passages were more suited to the novel than to the shorter novella form. Nevertheless, the stories do contain many of his other qualities as a writer- strong characterisation, vivid and credible dialogue and powerful endings. (That of "The Grapes of Paradise" is particularly moving). An excellent collection.