I would never have discovered H. E. Bates if not for TV. What American woman is not glued on Sunday night to “Masterpiece Theater,” a show devoted to British costume drama? I discovered Love in a Cold Climate, Poldark, The Forsyte Saga, The Jewel in the Crown, and many other classics through these dramatizations.
My favorite novel discovered through “Masterpiece” is H. E. Bates’ Love for Lydia. Filmed in 1977 and shown in the U.S. in 1981, it is based on Bates’s 1952 masterpiece, which, according to the introduction in the new Bloomsbury Reader e-book edition (released next month), is the most autobiographical of his Northamptonshire novels. The film is stunning, but Bates’s novel is truly an underrated classic. Set in Evensford, a town of leather factories, it is the story of a love triangle (or quadrangle, depending on whether or not you include Blackie, the auto mechanic), which revolves aroung Lydia, a beautiful, strong-willed young woman who comes to Evensford live with her aunts and uncle after the death of her father.
The narrator, Richardson, is a brooding, underemployed reporter for The County Examiner who hates his job. He meets Lydia when he is sent to the Aspen house to interview the aristocratic family about the death of her father. He is apprehensive about visiting the house, which is separated from the town by a stone wall and a perimeter of trees, and even more apprehensive about asking questions. “It was possible to live in Evensford for a long time, even for a generation, and not see the Aspen house, the Aspen garden or the Aspens themselves.”
But one of the aunts, Miss Juliana Aspen, is impressed with him and asks him to take Lydia skating. She does not want Lydia to be cut off from the town, as she and her sister were: she wants Lydia to be a modern girl of the 1920s.
There is something Thomas Hardyish about this novel: Lydia reminds me slightly of Bathsheba Everdene in Far from the Madding Crowd. (Everdene sounds very much like Evensford, doesn’t it?) Like Bathsheba, Lydia is an independent well-to-do woman with a siren-like effect on men. But this is not Lydia’s fault: she is a vivacious woman who wants to experiment sexually after a life of isolation on her father’s estate. And this leads to tragedy, but Bates does not blame her. It is as much Richardson’s fault as hers.
The skating brings Lydia to sexual maturity. She is shy and awkward, then learns to skate after many falls and gains confidence. Richardson is a good teacher, but his friend, Tom Holland, a farmer, suggests he let her go, that you have to go on your own to learn.
And suddenly she gets it!
…But all at once she began skating. She went forward in a flash of release, suddenly, as everyone does, all alone, clear and confident at last and free.
Like this, tentative but balanced and feeling her way, she skated for about twenty yards. And then, in a freer, wider swing of her arms, she lost her balance, but she regained it, bringing her feet together so that she could glide. In this moment I heard her laughing. The impetus of her strokes had taken her rather fast from thin unbrushed snow into ice that had been swept clear. She was going too fast to stop. Then I saw Tom Holland laughing too, holding up his large hands, ready to stop her. In another moment he was holding her by the red sweater and she was laughing on his shoulder.
‘Wonderful! It’s wonderful!’ she screamed. ‘I can do it! I can stand!’
Bloomsbury Reader is reissuing all of Bates’s work. The new edition of Love for Lydia will be released in May.