on 5 June 2003
H E Bates is an author whose reputation has declined somewhat in recent years. During his lifetime, and for about two decades after his death in 1974, he was one of the most popular authors in Britain. Interest in him reached a peak in the early 1990s when his “Larkin Family” novels were serialised on television. In my view, those are far from being his best works, but the series was a huge success, tapping as it did into a vein of rural nostalgia and introducing to public view the most beautiful young actress that Britain has produced for many years. Since then, however, that interest has declined and, apart from the Larkin books and one or two wartime stories, his works are now largely out of print.
“The Feast of July” is one of those neglected works. Its setting is a small town in the East Midlands, probably during the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. The mood, however, is not one of nostalgia. Like Hardy’s “Tess of the d’Urbervilles”, the book deals with a young unmarried mother who is abandoned by her seducer and whose child dies in infancy. While searching for her lover, the heroine, Bella Ford, arrives as a homeless and friendless stranger in town, where she is rescued and befriended by Ben Wainwright, a shoemaker, and his family. (Shoemaking is the principal industry of the area). Bella is welcomed into the family and becomes like a daughter to them, especially after their own daughter dies. Ben and his wife have three sons, and, after brief dalliances with the two younger boys, she eventually finds love with the eldest, Con. The climax of the story comes on the Feast of July, a traditional festival in the area, celebrating the first crops of the new season. Bella’s lover Arch Wilson reappears in her life, provoking a confrontation that ends tragically.
The novel is reminiscent of Hardy in more ways than one. There is the book’s late Victorian/Edwardian setting (although it was not written until the 1950s). There is the triangular relationship between Bella, Con and Arch, which parallels that between Tess, Angel and Alec. Most importantly, there is Bates’s deep love of the countryside, which he shares with the earlier writer. Although the Wainwrights live in an industrial town, it is small enough for the surrounding countryside to be an inescapable presence in the lives of its inhabitants. The Feast, second only to Christmas in importance in the area, is celebrated by town and country dwellers alike, and the townspeople are expected to set aside their normal work to join in the harvest. Throughout the book we are made aware of the changing of the seasons; most of the chapters start with a reference to the time of year, to the weather and to the changing landscape. (Winter, when the demand for shoes is depressed, is a time of hardship even for industrial workers). As in many of Bates’s other novels, the beauty of countryside in its changing moods is described with what the Times Literary Supplement described as “lyrical intensity”.
It would be wrong to see this novel as merely a pastiche of Victorian writing. Bates’s style is terse and urgent, rather than the more discursive style favoured in nineteenth century literature. As a result, this is a brief novel of about 200 pages; a Victorian novelist dealing with this theme would in all likelihood have done so at much greater length. This brevity of style has its drawbacks. The characters are less developed than they would have been in a longer work; Arch Wilson, in particular, is a two-dimensional figure, a plot device rather than a believable character (whereas Alec d’Urberville emerges as a complex and credible human being). Nevertheless, brevity has its advantages as well. By concentrating on the essentials, Bates develops his plot with a speed and urgency that gives the impression of events rushing to a headlong climax and makes the culminating tragedy seem all the more terrible and inevitable.
This, then, is a fine piece of writing, evidence that Bates deserves to be remembered as more than the creator of the dreary Larkin clan and as the man who unwittingly gave her big break to Catherine Zeta Jones. Let us hope that the recent decision by ITV to repeat The Darling Buds of May will lead to a revival of interest in Bates generally. The publishers could help by reissuing this and some of his other novels (Love for Lydia, The Distant Horns of Summer and The Jacaranda Tree are examples that come to mind).