E.F. Benson’s delightfully nostalgic classic of public school life is in the tradition of P.G. Wodehouse’s Tales of St. Austin’s. Memorably evoking the joys and torments of boyhood, from midnight feasts and glorious days on the cricket field to waxy masters and hilariously embarrassing parental visits, Benson follows young David Blaize from prep school to Marchester Collete – a thinly disguised portrait of the author’s own beloved Marlborough.
Affectionate, richly comic, and laced with E.F. Benson’s inimitable wit, David Blaize is a marvellous entertainment from one of the century’s greatest humorous writers.
Review by Renee Manley
David Blaize is a nostalgic and whimsical coming-of-age novel that follows the academic adventures of one of the most charming protagonists I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. The novel was written during WWI, hence the idyllic and loving – perhaps elegiac – portrait drawn of schoolboy life in the late 19th century. E.F. Benson, almost in his fifties when he wrote the novel, certainly had good reason to fix his mind to happier, far more innocent days.
David, as the protagonist, is virtually a paragon of youth. Good-looking, bright, innocent, he might at first be mistaken for a soft, effeminate sort, but he cannot be stereotyped. He demonstrates a sharp wit that allows him to outfox his superiors as well as athletic prowess that makes him a star on the cricket field. In many ways, David embodies all that’s fresh and good about youth.
The novel offers not much by way of conflict. Rather than subject the reader to classic coming-of-age angst, Benson instead laughs himself silly from the first page to the last. There are hindrances, there are problems – but none of it comes close to the high drama so common in most coming-of-age novels. Even David’s freak accident in the final chapter, though dangerous, seems to be an afterthought – something thrown in as a last-minute plot device in order to bring Maddox back to David’s side. Its suddenness and sharp divergence in tone from the rest of the novel lends the scene an unfortunate grating quality, so much so that the contrivance becomes glaring.
The same-sex romance in this novel is beautifully subtle. While it remains platonic, it comes off strongly whenever David and Frank Maddox are together. Just as David Copperfield has his James Steerforth (albeit only to a certain point), and Laurie Odell has his Ralph Lanyon, David Blaize has his Frank Maddox. As with most schoolboy romances, David and Frank’s begins as adoration, which turns passionate without being physical. David is the younger of the two – wide-eyed and eager to please. Frank is older – handsome, smart, protective, and much more attuned to the nature of their relationship. He therefore becomes David’s protector (a classic scenario), and the scenes in which the two of them are together fairly drips with young romance. Even when Maddox angrily punishes David for infractions, the reader’s left without any doubt as to the nature of their relationship.
Bags, David’s best friend from prep school, finishes the triangle. Goofy, kind, selfless, and utterly in love with a rather clueless David, Bags parallels his friend in David’s adoration of Maddox. Benson, bless the man, doesn’t denigrate Bags in any way. There’s quite a bit of kind-hearted and sympathetic humor in his treatment of the boy, and there’s also a good deal of nobility in the way Bags’ quiet suffering is portrayed.
Everything is carefully and precisely captured. Every scene, every nuance, lovingly committed to text. Even cricket matches take up entire chapters, which might test a contemporary reader’s patience after a while. The humor is wonderful – satirical in many ways, but certainly softened with the fondness of nostalgia. Even the scenes involving David’s father, who tortures his son by embarrassing him in front of the entire school, are richly detailed and conveyed with so much wit.
Scholars believe that E.F. Benson mined his own history for material for his novels, and that David Blaize is semi-autobiographical. If so, the poignancy of an older man’s attempts at recapturing an idyllic chunk of time far removed from the war-torn present doesn’t soften the humor of the novel. No – rather, it enriches the reading experience.