The web page of the Albion Beatnik Bookstore in Oxford, now closed (as usual) for business: muses and misspills on books, jazz, poetry, stuff like false flags and smoke screen: was randomly decrepit and proven to be more than neo-bankrupt: it was so analogue it was anal and now deceased.
One of the most original novels written about First World War London was Stella Benson’s Living Alone. This book, one of many to be published by the Albion Beatnik Press in January next year, delves into fantasy and lets reality serve as its backdrop. Here is its opening:
THERE WERE SIX WOMEN, seven chairs, and a table in an otherwise unfurnished room in an unfashionable part of London. Three of the women were of the kind that has no life apart from committees. They need not be mentioned in detail. The names of two others were Miss Meta Mostyn Ford and Lady Arabel Higgins. Miss Ford was a good woman, as well as a lady. Her hands were beautiful because they paid a manicurist to keep them so, but she was too righteous to powder her nose. She was the sort of person a man would like his best friend to marry. Lady Arabel was older: she was virtuous to the same extent as Achilles was invulnerable. In the beginning, when her soul was being soaked in virtue, the heel of it was fortunately left dry. She had a husband, but no apparent tragedy in her life. These two women were obviously not native to their surroundings. Their eyelashes brought Bond Street—or at least Kensington—to mind; their shoes were mudless; their gloves had not been bought in the sales. Of the sixth woman the less said the better.
All six women were there because their country was at war, and because they felt it to be their duty to assist it to remain at war for the present. They were the nucleus of a committee on War Savings, and they were waiting for their Chairman, who was the Mayor of the borough. He was also a grocer.
Five of the members were discussing methods of persuading poor people to save money. The sixth was making spots on the table with a pen.
They were interrupted, not by the expected Mayor, but by a young woman, who came violently in by the street door, rushed into the middle of the room, and got under the table. The members, in surprise, pushed back their chairs and made ladylike noises of protest and inquiry.
“They’re after me,” panted the person under the table.
It is surprising that Stella Benson’s books have been ignored since she died. Virago Press has never seen any need to reprint them. Yet her writing is vibrant, and there is a pronounced energetic wit that accompanies all her observation. The New Zealand poet and novelist Robyn Hyde, who was clearly influenced by Benson, declared that she would “rather be Stella Benson than anyone else in the world.” Perhaps Benson wrote only one mature novel of significance before her early death, Tobit Transplanted, and it could be that her strengths as a writer were surpassed by others of her generation. Her wit and light sarcasm can be found in Elizabeth von Arnim; her flowing style and graceful syntax can be seen elsewhere in abundance immediately after the First World War; her use of fantasy is bettered by Lord Dunsany and Ronald Firbank; her accounts of the social history of her time are somewhat naive when compared to some of her contemporaries; and as fatal damage to her literary afterlife, she never incorporated modernist tendencies (although she read modernist writers voraciously). But her attempt to transpose the imaginary, her “thought people” and her dream world, and make them part of our real world so that we cannot clearly see the join, is both bold and interesting. Containing a splash of fantasy with a twist of highbrow literary relish, Living Alone is a book that is difficult to categorise or brand, and Stella Benson might have rejoiced in that. A hundred years after its first publication in 1919 it can at least be regarded still as a work of secure individuality and originality, though unlikely to be hailed as a lost masterpiece. Its mismatch of inner fantasy and observational reality might suggest that Living Alone is Harry Potter meets Louis Theroux.
STELLA BENSON (1892 – 1933) was descended, via her mother’s side of the family, from Samuel Pepys’ sister. Such anecdotal heritage is a peculiar coincidence, for her diaries — forty-two volumes reside in the Library at Cambridge University, she had been encouraged by J. B. S. Haldane to deposit them there, sealed for fifty years after her death — provide a rich resource: of her own creative energy, of a unique life with much travel and sharp observation (as a diplomat’s wife), of foreign lands and different people, of the colonial life and ethos at the time (her private scribbling became often the blueprint for much of her journalism), of her encounters with the good, the great and the ordinary, and of issues of great social concern. She kept this diary routinely and assiduously from the age of ten. Her last entry, after she had contracted pneumonia all but a month short of her forty-second birthday, was simply, “I fell into bed.”
Her life had been marred by illness from an early age. As an elder teenager she had spent seventeen months in Europe, mainly in Switzerland, to recover from the constant bronchial complaints and pleurisy that had restricted her schooling in earlier years; by the age of fifteen her pleurisy resulted in a permanent deafness in her right ear. Her diary recounts her fears of death and she was aware that the prognosis for advanced tuberculosis was not good; she was diagnosed officially as consumptive in late 1915. Accordingly she lived her life to the full, although her travel itinerary, at least after a leisurely eight month-long honeymoon escapade in America, was perhaps rarely conducive to a stable life. Her husband, James O’Gorman Anderson, whom she had met in 1920 and married in September 1921, had failed to find work when in California on honeymoon, and had returned to his post in the Chinese Customs Service. Benson followed him around Indo-China. Her last trip in 1932 to Hainan, Paktoi and Bali proved to be not only uncomfortable but also fatal. She died in a French hospital in northern Vietnam.
As well as her illnesses, familial malfunction played its part in shaping her early life. Her father, who she discovered after he had died to have been alcoholic, left the family home when she was fourteen and was seen afterwards infrequently; he degenerated mentally and died when Stella was nineteen. In his absence various aunts and extended family declared their interest in Stella’s welfare, particularly Mary Cholmondeley, her favourite aunt and novelist, whose book Red Pottage had been an international bestseller in 1899. Stella’s father had discouraged his daughter from writing, at least until she was older and had experienced more of life. Aunt Mary encouraged writing as well as wider reading; she gave Stella her first dog also. Dogs were as important as family to Stella and became her true companions when she was abroad: “almost I thought as a puppy,” she wrote in her first travel book Worlds Within Worlds.
Stella and her husband had an awkward if respectful relationship; her diaries make note of their growing unease together. They even undertook separate travel plans in late 1928 but united again in April 1929. James had artistic sensitivity and admired greatly his wife’s writing, although he felt ill at ease with her literary friends (apart from the more civic minded Winifred Holtby). Stella had failed to pass muster with her Irish in-laws and had little sympathy for the rigours of colonial life or her husband’s work, and her journalism, in the main a critique of colonial life, was the cause of professional embarrassment to him. Sex was problematic for Stella; with her reluctant blessing, her husband took a mistress when in China. There are entries in Stella’s diary in 1928 concerning her infatuation for one particular young man although her ardour was clearly never requited. Always her tendency was to a compulsive yet repressed sexuality, and this seems to have deeply troubled her conscience. The marriage produced no children, although they both wished otherwise.
When in England or America (where she had introduced herself to Berkeley and San Francisco’s literary elite) Benson’s social diary was full. Holtby and Naomi Mitchison were loyal friends, so too the brilliant historian Eileen Power; Rebecca West, Rose Macaulay, Sydney Schiff, C. K. Ogden (who Benson described brilliantly as a “scientific Gertrude Stein”), May Sinclair, Vita Sackville West, Vera Brittain and the Woolfs also. But when abroad as a diplomatic accessory — from summer 1922 until the end of her life, relieved only by her husband’s sporadic furlough — Stella was often isolated, by a lack of common interest with the wives of her husband’s acquaintances, by her worsening deafness, and by the disdain she held for her supposed public role and duties, even if informal. When in Hong Kong she would have often as many as three or four functions to attend each day — tea, tiffin, dinner, receptions — but found social interaction difficult. She was far more energised tackling the wrongs of licensed prostitution in Hong Kong, where she found herself at odds with the missionary societies’ high-mindedness. This friendless state afforded much time for writing. Indeed writing was necessary for her well-being. In December 1929 in the Kwangsie Province, fretful for safety amidst military movement, Benson noted, “I have almost nothing I value here — except the typescript of Tobit — and these diaries.” (Tobit Transplanted was the novel she was writing at the time, to be published in 1931 and to win the esteemed Femina Vie Heureuse Prize in 1932, also the Silver Medal of the Royal Society of Literature; it had been published in America in 1930 as The Far-away Bride.) It seems as though the more adverse her situation, the more she fell back on writing. She completed seven novels and one other remained unfinished at her death; two volumes of short stories, written mostly for private presses and journals; a transcribed biography of an expatriate Russian she had befriended in Hong Kong (she referred to this as a “non-book” even though it gained some attention in the United States); poetry, an early publication and her own selected poems published posthumously; two books of travel pieces dealing with Hong Kong and China; and much journalism.
Benson’s first novel, I Pose, was published in 1915 and was mostly well received by critics. It is riddled with piquant and satiric humour. Its two lead characters are termed The Gardener and The Suffragette, and it tackles obliquely one of the burning social issues of the day — the sincerity of the suffragette movement. This novel was a reflection of Benson’s own experiences of militant suffragette idealism, and at this point aged twenty-three she had tasted her first gasp of independent living, subsidised by a modest annuity from her family (her security was soon threatened by the wartime fall in the financial markets). She had spent time immediately before the War in Jamaica and enjoyed much travel, but illness and her father’s absence had meant that she had been swaddled with maternal care. Her experience of life therefore had been very limited; she more than hinted of her resentment of this in her diaries. In the early war years she moved away from the family home and had taken a room in a London club in Haggerston, where she volunteered for social work. In 1915 she undertook a salaried post in Hoxton, East London, for the Charity Organisation Society, a rather supremacist outfit run by the wealthy which sought to determine who was poor and who was deserving of aid (its “scientific” principles were designed to “expose the cunning of the slothful poor and help rectify their immorality”), and in 1916 Benson worked for the Wounded and Missing Officers’ Bureau of the Red Cross. In 1917 she laboured on the land in Berkshire, hard toil for which she was not physically suited at all; she missed many days work. The end of her work there was hastened after she had staged a demand from the farmer for an increase in salary for the female workers. In-between these snatches of work there were extensive periods of rest to recover from poor health; she wrote much of her second novel in 1916 outside of London, in Cornwall in particular. This Is the End mixes reality and reverie and introduces the heroine’s “Secret Friend.” (Throughout her childhood diaries Benson displays brilliant shards of imagination; she wrote of “imaginary friends,” or “thought people,” and her juvenile interest in psychology was a constant throughout her life, etched deeply in her writing.) “It isn’t much of an inspired story,” she wrote, before she had started its writing in earnest, and, unlike her first book, it was not published in the United States.
Benson started work on Living Alone, her third novel, in 1917, not long after This Is the End was published; the book was finished in California, where she had sailed in July 1918 (taking her unfinished manuscript cautiously with her as she was concerned with American censorship law). It was published in late 1919 whilst Benson was still in America, enjoying both the good weather and her first taste of solo travel, and preparing to move on to China, the country she had most wanted to visit since childhood. Living Alone incorporates in a more exaggerated way her experiences, especially of life during the War and the chaos and upheavals of London life, and it would appear to be an accurate reflection of wartime London experienced by a wealthy, well-intentioned young lady. It draws heavily on her own experience as a rogue do-gooder, when she had become somewhat disillusioned by the Charity Organisation Society’s bureaucracy and purpose: “The more committees you belong to, the less of ordinary life you will understand.” When working for the C.O.S. Benson had been criticised for her “promiscuous charity.” The book’s satirical tone was encouraged perhaps by her reading of H. G. Wells’ The New Machiavelli, a cause célèbre of its time that took on the hypocrisy of Victorian and Edwardian morality; this book had left Benson “rather stunned.”
Living Alone had taken her some effort and time to write and she had not felt satisfied with it always. The book and her confidence had taken shape by May 1918 however when she wrote that it was “going to be a roeg [sic rogue] & will annoy people,” presumably because of its satire (her war years witness her growing antagonism to the middle class aping of upper class attitudes) and the book’s content of fantasy and witchcraft. Imposed upon it is a magical hinterland: a witch (who runs a boarding house) and a wizard (an illiterate soldier) attempt to mix with an otherwise real world of characters who faced rationing, congestion, wartime propaganda and a need to shelter from air raids. Her interpretation of the world during the war was such that she declared it had “lost the trick of being real,” and perhaps as consequence her writing is far more imaginative than anything she had attempted hitherto. Much of Benson’s inner self is on display, often as revealed in her diaries. Indeed Living Alone is overtly autobiographical. Even so she claimed somewhat disingenuously that it was her first objective piece, “in some measure a book about other people.” The initials of the novel’s heroine, Sarah Brown (referred to throughout the book with both her names), are those of the author; Sarah Brown likes dogs but loathes physical intimacy with humans, has bronchial illness, and cannot regard herself as a “real woman,” feeling lost in a sea of tittle-tattle. Above all else, Sarah Brown lacks confidence and is self-deprecating.
A lack of self-confidence may have been Benson’s Achilles’ heel. It might have been even that she did not think that she needed be taken so seriously as a novelist; the epigraph to Living Alone — “This is not a real book … nor should it be read by real people” — might serve as a subliminal defence of that position. She seemed content with her peripheral role in the world of letters and, after her death, her husband wrote that she had “no thought of not being sufficiently appreciated.” To feed this literary and critical unease, there was a smattering of a social justice warrior mantra about Benson. The novelist Phyllis Bottome wrote that Benson had spoken to her of her lack of comfort with the “extraneous props” of birth and wealth, and how she “doubted how much of herself would survive what she felt to be her unfair advantages of birth and position, so she stripped herself to the bone, to face the world, unprivileged.” She had inherited her father’s sensibilities: he had been wracked with guilt over the source of his family’s slave-owning past, and had even travelled to Sierra Leone on a “pilgrimage of reparation” and had housed some native children on the family estate. In a letter of 1924 Stella Benson admitted that her first three novels were written in “defensive illusionment,” a state of mind that might describe a self-knowledge that she was wanting in the realities of life, a weakness for which her father had reproved her. There remains a regretful sense of a lack of fulfilment to Stella Benson’s writing career, both in its technique and in her world view. She had told Phyllis Bottome before she died that “I feel I have got my tools now but I’m only just beginning to know how to handle them!” Her literary and creative hull had never been watertight.
Stella Benson had made sense of her life through writing, yet she refused to recognise the esteem which other writers held her in. Perhaps this was wilfully so. Flattered by Virginia Woolf’s overtures of friendship, she couldn’t quite feel worthy of it. In fact Woolf thought so highly of Benson that when she received news of her death, she recorded in her diaries that “when a writer like Stella Benson dies, that one’s response is diminished; Here and Now won’t be lit up by her: it’s life lessened.”
From Katherine Mansfield’s review of Living Alone,
fromThe Athenaeum, 14th November 1919:
“We hardly dare to use the thumb-marked phrase, ‘a
born writer’; but if it means anything Miss Stella Benson is
one. She seems to write… like a child gathering flowers…”