The Darling Buds of May.
London: Michael Joseph, 1958; Boston, Toronto: Little, Brown and Company (An Atlantic Monthly Press Book), 1958.The first of five Larkin family novels. Serialized in Argosy (May, June, and July 1958), in Everybody's Weekly (Six weekly parts, September 27-November 1, 1958), Daily Mail (Ten parts, Mary 13-23, 1991). Chapter one was published with the title "The Darling Buds of May" in the Saturday Evening Post (January 18, 1958). Reprinted also in The Saturday Evening Post Stories, 1958 (1959). It was also included in a 1980 collection, The Best of H.E. Bates: A Selection of Novels and Short Stories. The serialization in Everybody's Weekly included fine illustrations by Leslie Illingworth.
The novel follows the conversion of Mr. Charlton from a malnourished and timid tax clerk to a full member of the Larkin family -- Ma and Pa Larkin and their many children -- and its easygoing celebration of nature, food, drink, and family. A cast of colorful village characters provide much diversion in the book and its sequels. Setting the style for the series, the book ends with a grand celebration, and the announcement of the wedding of Charlie and Mariette. The title is taken from Shakespeare's Sonnet XVIII.
The book was filmed with the title "The Mating Game," (1958, U.S., MGM, directed by George Marshall, with Debbie Reynolds, Tony Randall, and Paul Douglas), an adaptation criticized by Bates in an article called "When the Cinemagoer Complains That - 'It Isn't Like The Book' - Who's To Blame?" It was adapted for stage and produced at the Saville Theatre, London, starring Elspeth March and Peter Jones. From 1991 to 1993, Yorkshire Television produced a highly-successful, twenty-episode, television series called The Darling Buds of May, which faithfully recreated the first novel and some of the others before it followed screenplays based on the characters but not on the novels.
A 2011 edition of the book by the Folio Society includes a lengthy introduction by journalist Ian Jack (attached).
Among the reviewers V.S. Naipaul says "his characters laugh and talk too loudly; and I have seldom seen, outside of a cookery book, so many descriptions of meals per chapter. This, doubtless, is zest and gusto. But Mr Bates behaves like a man trying to get drunk on lemonade. He had a fine idea, but he didn't bother to work it out." While the New York Times calls it a "perfick piece of entertainment," the Times Literary Supplement says "even if 'mankind cannot bear much reality,' still less can it stomach much more of this kind of sugary escapism."
New Statesman (July 12, 1958, p. 54, V.S. Naipaul, attached)
New York Times (May 25, 1958, p. BR4, James Stern, attached)
Saturday Review of Literature (May 24, 1958, p. 17, E.P. Monroe, attached)
Spectator (July 18, 1958, p. 116, Geoffrey Nicholson, attached)
Time (May 26, 1958, p. 64, attached)
Times (September 3, 1959, p. 3, theatre review, attached)
Times Literary Supplement (August 1, 1958, p. 433, Marigold Johnson, attached)
Books and Bookmen (July 1958, attached)
Conradi, Peter J. "The Man From Nowhere" (The Guardian, February 2, 2007)
Evening Standard ("The Family That Inspired Hit TV Series The Darling Buds of May, October 18, 2006)
Guardian ("Our Family Went Down in History, August 26, 2006)
Concerning the series of five novels, Bates closes the final volume in his autobiography (The World in Ripeness, 147-152) by recollecting the inspirations for the books, and by placing the novels in the context of both post-war England and his own personal philosophy. He recalls the real junkyard in the midst of nature that he passed frequently near his home in Kent; he recalls also seeing a family -- a father, mother and many children sucking at ice-creams and eating crisps in a "ramshackle lorry that had been recently painted a violent electric blue"-- and these he joined together in a short story, having long had a mental block against setting a novel in Kent (despite numerous novels in his boyhood Midlands home), but soon enough "it seemed to me a thousand pities to confine such a rich gallery of characters to a short story." Bates describes his family as "gargantuan of appetite, unenslaved by conventions, blissfully happy. Pop is further revealed as a passionate lover of the countryside...He yields to no many in his warm, proud love of England...The Larkins's secret is in fact that they live as many of us would like to live if only we had the guts and nerve to flout the conventions." Bates goes on to cite the novels as reflective of the vast changes to the English countryside in the 1950s but, more significantly, he notes that "it is not to be denied, moreover, that there is something of myself in Pop Larkin: a passionate Englishman, a profound love of Nature, of the sounds and sights of the countryside, of colour, flowers and things sensual; a hatred of pomp, pretension and humbug; a lover of children and family life; an occasional breaker of rules, a flouter of conventions....Pop is in fact an expression of my own philosophy: the need to go with the stream, never to battle against it." Baldwin (220) however, reminds us that Bates also differed from Pop in important ways, such as his literary, gardening, and artistic interests, among other things. Baldwin also notes a third source for the novels: "scrap metal man who sent his sons to King's Canterbury" when Bates's sons were there.
Articles concerning the models for the Larkin family appeared in the Evening Standard and the Guardian in 2006 (linked above). The character of Reverend Candy in several of the novels is based on Bates's friend Bernard Harris, a Methodist clergyman who officiated at Bates's wedding in 1931. The character of Iris Snow was a parody of Iris Murdoch (see Peter Conradi article, linked above)
What Bates calls "the comedian in me" had previously found expression in a small number of stories and essays, and then more significantly in two volumes of Uncle Silas tales (tales in the second collection first appearing only one year prior to The Darling Buds of May).
The first book was very successful, appearing first in the United States and then in Britain, film rights were sold prior to publication, and Bates also worked on a stage version. While response from the public and the popular press was uniformly positive, literature critics, especially as the series continued, generally condemned the series as trivial and undeserving of Bates's talents.
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