Book Talk: Love for Lydia by H.E. Bates

I found this first edition of Love for Lydia by H.E. Bates in a secondhand bookshop a few months ago and have been eager to read it ever since. I thought it an appropriate read in the run up to Valentine’s Day, so picked it up last week and finished it in a few evenings.

I have actually read Love for Lydia before, as a teenager, after watching the old television series, but I could barely remember the plot. What a joy to rediscover this wonderful book in my 30s. I think H.E. Bates is sadly underrated; his work seems to have gone out of fashion, and when I looked up a new edition of Love for Lydia on Blackwells, I was disappointed by the dreary cover. However, it’s worth getting a copy, as this book deserves to be much more widely appreciated, and it’s a brilliant read for February.

‘She had long coils of black hair that fell across her shoulders….She seemed, I thought, about fifteen. It was my first mistake about her.’ — H.E. Bates, Love for Lydia

Love for Lydia is set in the inter-war years and starts on a snowy, late February day in Evensford, a factory town in Northamptonshire. The young male protagonist, Richardson, is working as a journalist for the local newspaper (a job he loathes), and when he spies the arrival of the wealthy Aspen sisters and their niece, Lydia, who live in a beautiful house surrounded by parkland on the outskirts of town, he’s persuaded by his boss to seek an interview. So begins his friendship with Lydia Aspen, whose aunts are delighted she has the company of someone her own age. Richardson teaches Lydia how to ice-skate on the frozen river and quickly becomes infatuated with her.

As the days blossom into spring and summer, their love grows, but as autumn blazes and frosty winter nights return, Lydia grows increasingly interested in two of Richardson’s male friends. Lydia’s selfishness and Richardson’s jealousy spark events that have tragic consequences, and Richardson must come to grips with his own character and place in the world before he can fully understand his feelings for Lydia.

‘The sun went down a moment later in a plunge of wintery magnified fire that left on the ice, the snowy meadows and the cold sky a wonderful afterglow. A lichen-like green hung above the sunset, and the shadows, all across the snow, became of indigo brilliance before finally dissolving. A biting moment of dispersing day, exhilarating and almost cruel, hung in the pure stark air before the first star sparked into green sky above the sunset.’ — H.E. Bates, Love for Lydia

Love for Lydia is one of the best coming-of-age stories I have read. Elements of the story are apparently loosely autobiographical, which perhaps explains the raw, honest portrayal of the young narrator. The novel is told from the perspective of an older Richardson, who can look back on his early manhood and reflect on his own shortcomings and naivety. By the end of the book, Richardson is able to make a commitment to Lydia that speaks of maturity and mutual understanding, rather than blind puppy-love.

As always with Bates’s prose, what truly stands out are his poetic descriptions of an idealised British countryside. Richardson shares Bates’s love for flowers and landscape, and his observations of the changing seasons are breathtakingly lovely.

Ever since interviewing the fantastic Laura Freeman about her memoir on food and books, I’ve been more aware of descriptions of food in the novels I read, and here again Bates shines. From the burning hot jacket potatoes and sizzling fish and chips that Lydia and Richardson laugh over as they first get to know each other, to picnics of cheese and bread and curd tarts, and Richardson’s first taste of champagne (‘slightly on the dry side’) one memorable New Year’s Eve, Bates’s recounting of meals invariably made my mouth water.

‘That night Nancy cooked us roast sirloin, with beans and new potatoes and a lot of excellent gravy, with a dessert of tarts. There was a refreshing smell of peasmint in the air. The meat, roasted in the old range, with coal, was crisped at the edges, and you could taste the delicious fire-burnt crusty juiciness of it on the long red sides….. Tom had brought in some beer, and between beer and beef and plum-fat slices of curd-tart I began to feel blown and hot and sleepy.’ — H.E. Bates, Love for Lydia

I couldn’t recommend a better Valentine’s Day read, and if you’re still in need of a special gift for a loved one, there’s a rather gorgeous first edition, signed by the author, of Love for Lydia here. Otherwise, the paperback is available through Blackwells.

What to read next…

If you adored Love for Lydia as much as I did, here are some suggestions for what to read next:

  • The Darling Buds of May series by H.E. Bates. These five books, unlike many of Bates’s novels, are still in print, and they’re delightful reads, chronicling the adventures of the loveable Larkin family in the Kentish countryside. Start with The Darling Buds of May.
  • I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. Another wonderful coming of age story, this time told from the perspective of a young girl.
  • Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. The young Charles Ryder, starstruck by the aristocratic Sebastian and Julia Flyte, has similarities to Bates’s narrator.

If you’d like to get in touch with me, you can find me on Instagram at @mirandasnotebook and @mirandasbookcase.