Saturday, 24 January 2015

The Babe BA by EF Benson

published 1897






tennis
The Babe was beautifully dressed in white flannels, yellow boots and a straw hat with a new riband….

Behind the railings the garden lay deliciously fresh and green. Long level plains of grass were spread about between the flower-beds, and the whole place had an air of academic and cultivated repose. On one of these stretches of lawn a game of tennis was in progress; the performance was not of a very high class, but the players seemed to be enjoying themselves….

football


“To think that a mere game of football should lead to such disastrous consequences” [Reggie] remarked…

“That pig of a half-back caught me a frightful hack on the shin” [Ealing] said…

Ealing and Reggie were both in change, they both wore villainously muddy flannel knickerbockers, short enough to disclose villainously muddy knees, old blazers, and strong useful football boots with bars.


[skating]
The frost continued, black and clean, and the Babe, like the Polar Bear, thought it would be nice to practise skating. He bought himself a pair of Dowler blades with Mount Charles fittings, which he was assured by an enthusiastic friend were the only skates with which it was possible to preserve one’s self-respect, and fondly hoped that self-respect was a synonym for balance… The Babe wobbled industriously about, trying to skate large… About the third day the Babe was hopelessly down with the skating fever…




observations: The first disappointment was that I thought The Babe BA would be a woman – rather like those sexy PhD costumes on sale around Halloween – and that this would be a book about women going to college: an early version of the beloved Legally Blonde. Far from it. The undergraduates in this book are staunchly male, and The Babe is a man. (The book is set at Cambridge University.)

The second disappointment was that it was terrible. After looking at Benson's Mapp and Lucia (recent entry, BBC TV series) I thought I’d read one of his standalones - which I also thought might be a Book of the Century (blog challenge explained here), but it was 1897, so no good for that and yet another disappointment.

Imagine the dullest person you know describing his university years, which he thinks are unique and interesting, but really were nothing special. Plenty of injokes, and would-be witty repartee, and allegedly hilarious pranks and adventures. That’s what this book is – and there’s really no excuse because Benson was thirty when it was published, and it was far from being his first novel. It tells the story of a talented wonderful young man who floats his way through his undergraduate years. He’s very good at sports, and is very popular, and terribly nice, and he keeps a dog called Sykes. (I kept forgetting Sykes was a dog, and thought he was another student friend.) The Babe’s ‘particular forte was dinner parties for six, skirt dancing and acting, and the performances of the duties of half-back at Rugby football.’

The business of skirt dancing is intriguing, and never fully explained: This is what Wikipedia says:
A skirt dance is a form of dance popular in Europe and America, particularly in burlesque and vaudeville theater of the 1890s, in which women dancers would manipulate long, layered skirts with their arms to create a motion of flowing fabric, often in a darkened theater with colored light projectors highlighting the patterns of their skirts.
In Babe’s case is seems to mean dressing up as a woman for fun and then dancing around for the entertainment of your friends. The Babe also plays Clytemnestra in the Oresteia, in Greek, to perfection.

The book is embarrassingly arch and deeply unfunny. Also there are the usual twisted notions of honour and shame: someone is suspected of cheating at cards - almost involuntarily as he cannot help but see the cards - and this is a dreadful thing which should lead to complete social ostracism. Only the Babe’s magnanimity and generosity turn the business round. But his own behaviour is fairly shocking: he deliberately creates ice outside his room (because he loves skating, above), and his cleaner trips over and hurts herself and breaks a lot of crockery ‘happily not his’. The blooming dog goes round biting people and being destructive of others’ property all over the place, but that is seen as just funny. Babe and his friends go carol-singing, collecting money for charity, and he appears to steal the proceeds for himself - it’s just possible that you are meant to assume this is a joke, but there is no direct indication.

I think the cardsharp sounds much nicer.

Best to forget this book altogether and stick to Mapp and Lucia.

And enjoy these nice ancient pictures of sports activities. Tennis from NYPL, Oxford v Cambridge football match from a book on sports of the world, skating from the Library of Congress. 
  

16 comments:

  1. Hmmm. So sad this isn't what you thought it would be as I love those bold-young-women-style books, but, *pat on the back* for saving us from reading this ice-filled horror ourselves.

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    1. I am a proud martyr Vicki, and hope to have saved everyone else. And exactly, a woman-goes-to-college book would have been terrific.

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  2. Moira - Once again, I am grateful to you for cherry-picking. As though the points you make aren't enough reason to give this one a miss, I wasn't drawn in at all by the writing style. I can't work out whether it was the style itself or the characters. Either way, no thanks.

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    1. Yes, Margot - very off-putting. He got better as he got older obviously!

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  3. Seems a bit juvenile, but hey on the plus side I'm definitely nowhere near to being tempted!

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    1. Good, is the only response to that. Really not a book I'm recommending.

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  4. I just read Benson's "The Blotting Book" (1907) which I have had on my shelf since the late 1990s (and not read!) and I quite liked it. Hadn't heard of THIS Benson, and think I'll give it a miss, but I do remember quite liking his "David Blaize" (1916).

    Going off topic, I bought another load of books today including one which appears to be part of a series in which Josephine Tey has been transplanted as the female sleuth. Of all the bizarre things. Had to pick it up just to see how the heck they have done it.

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    1. I'll have a gap and then maybe read something else by him.
      I read a couple of the Tey-detective-mysteries and decided they weren't for me - but lots of people like them. I found them humourless and long-winded: it seemed a shame when Tey's books are relatively short, and make me laugh a lot. But YMMV...

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  5. I was disappointed when I started reading the extracts too, so imagine having to read the whole book. I wonder if it was popular in its day?

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    1. I can't find that out, Tracy, the book has entirely disappeared so far as I can tell! His first novel was an instant bestseller, and then he just kept churning them out. He was a champion skater himself apparently.

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    2. Wow, it is interesting that he was a figure skater. I use to love ice skating; watched the competitions obsessively. Still like it but coverage on TV has degraded so much that it isn't entertaining to watch anymore. But it is a lovely, lovely sport.

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    3. Oh that's interesting Tracy - did you ever do any skating yourself?

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    4. No, not even a bit. I was never very athletic or active, even as a child. I just think it is beautiful and admire the dedication and talent of the people who do it. It was getting too athletic, going for more loops or spins or whatever. Ice dancing is gorgeous.

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    5. It's beautiful to watch isn't it? I liked skating when I was younger (though I never did anything fancy) but now I would be too nervous of falling over and breaking something...

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  6. Just in case you didn't know ... the subject of 'The Babe' is none other than Jerome Pollitt, the sometime-lover of Aleister Crowley whilst at Cambridge. Agreed, the book is very tiresome, but as an insight into the behaviour of Pollitt and co. and the Aesthetes of the 1890s, it's worth a skim. Pollitt was a talented female impersonator on the stage,and an important collector of the works of Aubrey Beardsley. Stagename: Diane de Rougy. Search and you'll find photos.

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    1. Oh my goodness, I didn't know any of that - how fascinating! When I read Babe I did try to find any reference to the book, but couldn't see any. I did just go and look at the photos: I just gazed and gazed. Thanks so much for the info.

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