The story of a 'perfick' man: H.E. Bates

Reading time: 3 minutes

H.E. Bates, Herbert Ernest Bates, (born May 16, 1905, Northamptonshire and died January 29, 1974, in Canterbury), was an English novelist and storyteller of great reputation and popularity. I first became interested in H.E. Bates when his granddaughter, Victoria Wicks, gave me a copy of Bates’s novel Love for Lydia. It was at that moment, reading the love story of Lydia, when I realised how much I liked H.E. 

Bates wrote a large number of books (about thirty) including rural novels, war stories, short stories and short stories (approximately three hundred), a high point being the enormously successful and unclassifiable The Darling Buds of May, the first of his five novels about the Larkin family which would later become a popular television series that would launch the career of now Oscar and Bafta winner Catherine Zeta Jones. The good things about Bates' books are his characters who are not heroes but they are real, they are real people with that mixture of beauty and cruelty that rural life has. What I also like about his books is that every single thing on them (a name, a location, etc) has a reason, which is very interesting.

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H.E. (nobody called him by his first name since he did not like it, much less by his short name Erb, as they knew him at school) was a modest man, despite being quite the best at putting the English country life on paper, he taught his four children (Ann Catharine, Judith, Richard and Jonathan) not to mention their famous father. H.E. loved being in his house —a converted barn— admiring the garden that Madge, his wife, and H.E. had created in Kent but also enjoyed, once the fame had come, their vacations in Madeira and Switzerland. Try to think of a writer more associated with the English country life than Bates and it will be very difficult. Almost impossible. Impossible.

H.E. wrote his first novel The Two Sister (1926) while working as a clerk in a factory which dealt with all the component parts needed to make boots and shoes –the tacks, nails, threads, glues, etc– but when his employer discovered what he had been doing he fired dim. It was when Albert, his father, offered to support Bates for a year. He sent the novel to nine different publishers until Edward Garnett picked it up and accepted it on behalf of Jonathan Cape (the very same publisher of the original books of Ian Fleming’s James Bond), who immediately saw the talent of the blonde, blue-eyed 20 year-old man. 

15th October 1947: H.E. Bates at his study in Kent

15th October 1947: H.E. Bates at his study in Kent

World War II made Bates famous. Edward's son, David Garnett, helped H.E. get a job at the Air Ministry (the ministerial department in charge of civil and military aviation. Currently, Ministry of Defence). His job was to talk to the aviators and write short stories, compiled in How Sleep the Brave (1943) and The Greatest People in the World (1942), written under the pseudonym "Flying Officer X". In 1944, H.E. published his first major success, Fair Stood the Wind for France, in which a pilot, John Franklin, crashes in occupied France, falling in love with a French girl, which was also adapted for TV in 1980. Franklin’s love and war story was followed by two novels about Burma during the Japanese invasion, The Purple Plain (1947) —a major motion picture in 1954 with Gregory Peck as John Franklin— and The Jacaranda Tree (1949), and another one based in India, The Scarlet Sword (1950).

A gorgeous Penguin mug featuring the cover of  Country Life

A gorgeous Penguin mug featuring the cover of Country Life

Other novels followed after the war; H.E. averaged a novel and a collection of short stories per year, a prodigious achievement. These include The Feast of July (published in 1954 and adapted to film in 1995) and my beloved Love for Lydia (1952). One of his most popular creations was the Larkin family in The Darling Buds of May (1958). The television adaptation, produced after his death by his son Richard, was a tremendous success and the movie The Mating Game (1959) with Tony Randall and Debbie Reynolds was also based on it. Many other stories were adapted to the television and others to the cinema, perhaps the most famous being The Triple Echo, book published in 1970, with Oliver Reed. Set during the first years of World War II, the story describes the strange relationship between a young deserter and a married woman struggling to run a farm without her husband. 

In his novels and post-war stories, Bates reached the peak of his powers. From The Nature of Love (1954) to A Moment in Time (1964) and The Triple Echo (1970), H.E. developed in subtlety, depth and strength as a novelist. Colonel Julian (1955) demonstrates his talent for short stories, and his autobiographies The Vanished World (1969), The Blossoming World (1971) and The World in Ripeness (1972) show that H.E. retained his power to capture the mood of the past moment and in The Darling Buds of May (1958) H.E. created both a realistic and adorable family.

Bates died on January 29, 1974, in Canterbury at the young age of 68 years old. 

Prolific and successful author, his greatest success was posthumous, with television adaptations of his stories. In his hometown of Rushden, H.E. has a street that bears his name.

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The true gardener, like an artist, is never satisfied

Pictured, H.E. Bates relaxes outside his house