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My Uncle Silas
Story Collection
Page Count
Jonathan Cape
Publication Year
Document Types
Film & Television
Comic Fiction
Uncle Silas Stories

London: Jonathan Cape, 1939 (October 27). 192 pp. Drawings by Edward Ardizzone. In the preface (attached), Bates says that the character of Silas as well as a number of the stories are firmly based on real events in the life of Joseph Betts, 'late husband of my maternal grandmother's sister Mary Ann.' Betts is described at greater length in Bates's Vanished World (60-61) as a 'reprobate, rapscallion, crafty as a monkey, liar, gardener of much cunning, drinker of infinite capacity, afflicted with one blood-shot eye that gave him a look of devilish fascination.' He is similarly described in Through the Woods (24-27), where Bates mentions that he underwent a serious operation at seventy-five and 'went gaily on to live another fifteen years of aggravated wickedness and cunning.' In each of these accounts, and in the Silas stories, Bates recalls fondly his visits to Betts in his Bedfordshire cottage in the town of Sharnbrook. Bates further discusses Silas and Joe Betts in Edward Garnett (51, attached). Bates claims some of the stories to be "so near to reality that they needed only the slightest recolouring on my part" (namely The Lily, The Wedding, The Revelation, Silas the Good, and The Death of Uncle Silas). Others he says "have been inspired by that sort of apocryphal legend which is the inheritance of every country child who keeps his ears cocked when men are talking." He says that the publication of "The Death of Uncle Silas" produced a "larger volume of correspondence than any full-length book of mine has done before or since," in which the "resurrection of Uncle Silas" was demanded. He characterizes Silas as "the original Adam, rich and lusty and robust" and "a protest against the Puritanical poison in the English blood." He notes that "to those who find these stories too Rabelaisian, far-fetched, or robust, my reply would be that, as pictures of English country life, they are in reality understated." He closes by finding no reason why the character of Uncle Silas should not produce more stories, and expresses the hope that in that case "it is my great hope that I shall again be lucky enough to have the collaboration of Mr Edward Ardizzone whose crabbed and crusty pictures are so absolutely and perfectly in the spirit of every page they illustrate;" indeed, the 1957 Sugar for the Horse is an additional collection of Silas stories, illustrated by Ardizzone. Bates wrote two additional Silas stories after the two collections, "Shandy Lil" and A Teetotal Tale." In five of the fourteen stories, Silas relates escapades of his past to his rapt and innocent nephew; in five the boy directly describes Silas's adventures, and in the remaining four the nephew retells what he could only have heard from his uncle. Sex or alcohol feature in almost all the tales, two stories show Silas winning an athletic match through trickery, several simply show Silas teller of outrageous tales. Several mildly laugh at social or religious customs, and other three are more poignant than comic. In many, Silas slyly and gently opens the eyes of his young listener to the adult world. In a fine introduction to a 1984 Oxford Press edition of the stories, V.S. Pritchett sets them in the broader context of Bates's gifts in the short story genre, finding that Bates avoids farce with Silas through the use of the "passive, wondering audience" of the boy and the fidelity of style to the "techniques of rural story-telling...Uncle Silas is in fact the scandalizing village memory at work." One reviewer predicted correctly that the book "may well become a minor classic" (New Statesman and Nation), while the Spectator review noted that "it is Mr. Bates's most enviable gift as a writer that even when he is frankly amusing himself with light exercises the astonishing sensibility which is his particular merit never flags; he shows the commonplaces of country life more clearly, freshly and delicately than they have been shown before...No other living writer, given an ancestor like Joseph Bates, could have contrived out of his reminiscences such a consistently lively and evocative creation." A television adaptation, with Bates's son Richard Bates as executive producer and produced by Yorkshire Television (YTV), starred Albert Finney in nine episodes shown in 2001 and 2003. The series included the following Uncle Silas stories (sometimes combining two stories in one episode): The Wedding; Queenie White; The Widder; The Blue Feather; Silas & Goliath; The Revelation; A Funny Thing; Finger Wet, Finger Dry; Shandy Lil; The Race; A Happy Man; The Christening (this last episode however does not correspond to any Bates story). Reviews: New Statesman and Nation (December 2, 1939, attached). The Spectator (November 3, 1939, attached). Times Literary Supplement, November 18, 1939, p. 617, Geoffrey West, attached) Contains: Preface; The Lily; The Revelation; The Wedding; Finger Wet, Finger Dry; A Funny Thing; The Sow and Silas; The Shooting Party; Silas The Good; A Happy Man; Silas and Goliath; A Silas Idyll; The Race; The Death of Uncle Silas, The Return.


The below reviews and articles are available in PDF format.