My Uncle Silas
Bates's Uncle Silas figure, and many of the lineaments of his character, were based on a real person named Joseph Betts, the husband of H.E. Bates's maternal grandmother Mary Ann. Betts lived in a village in the Ouse Valley, was born in the early 1840s, and lived to the early 1930s. The figure he portrays is Rabelaisian and robust, a true countryman of pithy and rogueish character, simultaneously earthy and whimsical, crabbed and wicked, yet full of humour and "strong original devilishness."
Bates considered that, if anything, he had understated the true English rural character. The delightful stories and scenes were drawn from his own fragrant memories of a Northamptonshire childhood, from stories actually told by his great-uncle, or from a more general country lore of apocryphal legends such as any attentive child might be aware of. The boy (representing the author in childhood) enters into most of the stories, sometimes as a listener and sometimes a participant: his relationship to Silas and the old man's way of putting a slant on his stories for the boy's benefit are essential parts of the whole effect.
The first collection of stories (My Uncle Silas) was published in 1939, though the first story (introducing the character), The Lily, was first published separately about six years previously, and had been followed by The Wedding and The Death of Uncle Silas. In a large public correspondence to the author, the British and colonial public demanded the resurrection of Uncle Silas; and so a further 11 stories were written to complete the volume. Inseparable from the text are the illustrations of Edward Ardizzone, which perfectly and brilliantly capture the gnarled quality and sly charm of the subject. Various book-club editions and reprints have followed.
In 1957 Michael Joseph Ltd of London published a further volume for Bates of 12 additional Uncle Silas stories, accompanied by 25 more Ardizzone drawings, under the title Sugar for the Horse.
Two series of the short stories were adapted for television. The first aired in 2001 and the second in 2003. They featured Albert Finney as Silas.
- H.E. Bates, 1939, My Uncle Silas (with author's preface: illustrated by Edward Ardizzone). (Jonathan Cape).
- H.E. Bates, 1957, Sugar for the Horse (illustrated by Edward Ardizzone). (Michael Joseph, London).