Childhood & Early Life
H.E. Bates was born on 16 May 1905, to Albert Ernest Bates and Lucy Elizabeth. His father belonged to a family of shoe makers. His parents were Methodists, but he rejected all organised religious beliefs in his twenties.
Though he failed in public school entrance examination, he gained admission to Kettering Grammar School, where his English teacher, Edmund Kirby, encouraged him to become a writer.
At 16, he became a reporter for a local paper, but he did not like that job and later he worked in a warehouse, where he could spend lot of time writing.
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His first novel, published in 1926, ‘The Two Sisters’, was actually his second novel as he had discarded the first one. This novel was also rejected by nine publishers, before being accepted by Edward Garnett, at Jonathan Cape.
Following his novel’s success, he moved to London and worked in the children’s department of John and Edward Bumpus, the booksellers. He wrote a children’s fantasy, titled, ‘The Seekers’ for the Bumpus brothers. This was his last formal job.
‘Catherine Foster’, which was published in 1929 was inspired by Madame Bovary, lacked his original style, which he later developed as a rural chronicler.
In 1930s, he became a mature writer and ‘Charlotte’s Row’, published in 1931, depicted his Northamptonshire experiences. With his novel, ‘The Poacher’ he established himself as a lyrical and unsentimental historian of the English rural life.
His short story collections like, ‘The Woman Who Had Imagination’ published in 1934, established him as a critically acclaimed short story writer of modern times. Another short story collection titled ‘Cut and Come Again’ published the next year, was considered his greatest achievement as a short story writer and as the English successor to Chekov.
His collection of stories ‘My Uncle Silas’, published in 1939, is based on his uncle Joseph Betts, a farmer, and became very popular and later became famous as ‘Uncle Silas Tales’ as television series.
World War II played an important role in his career. In 1941, he joined RAF as a commissioned short story writer. He wrote short stories under the pseudonym, ‘Flying Officer X’, which were published in the ‘News Chronicle’. They were published later as two compilations ‘The Greatest People in the World’ and ‘How Sleep the Brave’.
His war novel ‘Fair Stood the Wind for France’, published in 1945 was a great commercial success, after he switched to a new publishing house of Michael Joseph, with whom he remained for the rest of his life.
Post war, he produced a lot of best sellers, including ‘The Purple Plain’ in 1947 which is based on his travel to Burma. It was later made in to a movie, starring Gregory Peck.
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‘The Scarlet Sword’, published in 1950 was about a catholic mission in Kashmir, in the background of riots during the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947.
Post war, he became at prolific writer, more short stories collections and novels followed including, ‘Love for Lydia’ in 1952, set in the backdrop of fall of English upper classes, and an extraordinary story of love between a young reporter and a bereaved young daughter of a wealthy man.
His most successful novel was ‘The Darling Buds of May’ published in 1958. Inspired by a character seen in a shop in Kent, he created the Larkin family, which leads to a series of stories based on the Larkins and later a TV serial was made by his son.
‘The White Admiral’, published in 1968 is one of his best children books which he wrote in the later stages of his life. He also wrote autobiographical works towards the end of his career titled ‘The Vanished World’, ‘The Blossoming World’ and ‘The World in Ripeness’.
‘Fair Stood the Wind For France’ was his first major commercial success. It was based on World War II. It is a story of a pilot who landed his plane in the occupied territory of France and a French farmer’s family. It was later adapted by BBC as a series, in 1980.
‘The Darling Buds of May’ is the most famous work of H.E. Bates. The Larkin family depicted in the book including Pop, Ma, Mariette and the children became immortal. He identified himself with Pop, a character he had met in a shop in Kent. This novel became a huge success and was adapted as TV serial by his son, Richard Bates.
Personal Life & Legacy
In 1931, Bates married Marjorie Helen. They moved to a village in Kent, Little Chart. They lived in a farm house with a big garden.
They had two sons and two daughters. His son Richard later adapted many of his father’s novels for TV with a fair amount of success. His youngest son, Jonathan, a sound engineer in movies, was nominated for Academy Award for his work for the film ‘Gandhi’.
Graham Greene praised Bates as a great short story writer and English successor to Anton Chekov.
He died on 29 January 1974. In his home town, Rushden, a road was named after him.