In his study of the short story, HE Bates said; “A writer’s method is, on final assessment, himself.” (Bates, 1972, p214).
A particularly apt statement from an author who, it seems, produced a considerable amount of his midland’s based writing from memory. H E Bates seemed to have almost a ‘photographic memory’ of people and places. Although he lived most of his life in Kent, H E was able to recall in great detail Rushden and surrounding areas, doing so long after he had become dislocated from it. Perhaps this can in part be explained by the way in which the author seemed to put his own life experiences directly into his fiction. Whilst it has to be acknowledged that auto-biography, non-fiction and fiction are all contested modes of writing, commonly we think of memoirs and biography as non-fiction and stories and novels as fiction. In H E’s case, his memoirs became interwoven into his fiction. The effect, I think, is to give his story telling a great feeling of authenticity and sense of place.
By way of example, H E said in his auto-biography that he was fascinated by the midlands’ great houses near his boyhood home. Some of these great houses later on appeared in his fiction, along with other geographies such as towns centres and farmlands around Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire. This topic was covered in some detail at the H E Bates Discussion Group, run by local historian Eric Fowell. Guest speakers highlighted the way in which H E included in his fiction, key landmarks of the midlands that he knew. Two instances are Knuston Hall and Rushden Hall being the architypes for the great houses in ‘Spella Ho’ and ‘Love for Lydia’ respectively. Those who read H E’s books will know that there are many more examples of ‘real’ Rushden and the wider midlands scattered throughout his body of work.
As with all good writers, H E was very widely read, knowing well the works of Maugham, Hemingway, Poe, Chekhov and countless more authors who were popular when H E was developing his own writing skills. He described how he particularly admired Hemingway’s writerly observations. Arguably, H E’s own pictorial skills are very similar to Hemingway’s; a talent that H E described as “…the direct pictorial contact between the eye, the observer and the reader.” (Bates, 1972 p169).
Laura Beatty reinforces a similar point in her introduction to the revised edition of H E’s ‘Through the Woods’. She says;
“…everything that looks like careful observation, [in H E’s] ‘nature writing’, is in fact done from memory, from a painterly susceptibility of the look of things, practised subconsciously and for long enough to become deep knowledge.” (Beatty, 2011 p13)
Laura Beatty detects that H E carried a woodland in his mind’s eye ― the one that he fell in love with as a boy growing up in Rushden. H E describes it in the first book of his memoirs, ‘The Vanished World’.
“There is a certain woodland just over the Bedfordshire border that is crossed by a broad grass riding which is etched on my mind with such imperishable clarity that I can still see and smell the bluebells, the honeysuckle, the meadow-sweet, the dog roses and the sheer concentrated fragrance of summer leaf and sap.” (Bates, 1969 p30).
There is a great sense in which that ‘certain woodland’ was distilled into the many subsequent woodlands of his fictional imagination, particularly H E’s country stories for which he is particularly remembered. The places of H E’s childhood and young adulthood lived on, carefully preserved in his literary imagination.
His writing method does indeed seem to have been ‘himself.’
Bates, H E (1969) The Vanished World: An Autobiography. Michael Joseph.
Bates, HE., (1972) The Modern Short Story. Evensford.
Bates, HE., (2011) Through the Woods. Introduced by Laura Beatty. Little Toller.
(This article was first published in ‘The Risdene Echo’ The Quarterly Journal of Rushden & District History Society, December 2016).