For those of you who live in the UK you, like me, might be vaguely familiar with Stella Benson's name. I seem to have stumbled across it time and again in secondhand books - usually espying the 'Benson' bit, getting excited thinking it was 'E.F.', and realising it wasn't. For some reason I put Stella Benson in the category of Marie Corelli or Ethel M. Dell - prolific writers who were rather sub-par. I bought Living Alone as a Dodo Press reprint (original editions being prohibitively expensive) but had no high expectations. Turns out, while Living Alone ended up being a little too weird for my tastes, Stella Benson is neither a poor writer nor an especially prolific one. According to a rather scattergun Wikipedia page, she only wrote a dozen or so books - including poetry, short stories, and travel essays alongside novels.
Living Alone was her third novel, and is set during the First World War, although published shortly afterwards. A note at the beginning states 'This is not a real book. It does not deal with real people, nor should it be read by real people.' That should have set me up for the oddness which follows, but the first section of the book (easily my favourite part) is in the very real, very recognisable world of committees (in this case, one for War Savings). The assembled characters include, indeed, 'Three of the women were of the kind that has no life apart from committees.' They're the sort of people that E.M. Delafield is so funny about - people who take themselves incredibly seriously, and are unable to see themselves as others see them. Rather than the insipid romantic drivel I had somehow associated with Stella Benson's name, her prose is delightfully dry and witty - I would happily have read a whole novel devoted to the committee meeting. But... a Stranger runs in, and hides under the table.
The Stranger turns out to be... a witch. She doesn't seem to have a name (although this wonderful exchange does take place:)To anybody except a member of a committee it would have been obvious that the Stranger was of the Cinderella type, and bound to turn out a heroine sooner or later. But perception goes out of committees. The more committees you belong to, the less of ordinary life you will understand. When your daily round becomes nothing more than a daily round of committees you might as well be dead.
She grew very red. “I say, I should be awfully pleased if you would call me Angela.”'Angela' lives in a house called Living Alone, a sort of guest-house for eccentrics and those of a reclusive bent. It is thus perfect for witches. And it has all manner of curious rules - for example:
It wasn’t her name, but she had noticed that something of this sort is always said when people become motherly and cry.
She has a broomstick called Harold, and flies about on this. At one point she has a battle with a German witch during an air raid. There isn't much of a linear plot, and it's all rather a jumble of mad characters and curiosities. Some are too unusual to inhabit your average novel (such as another inhabitant of Living Alone, Peony, who speaks with a thick Cockney accent, mostly about a boy she once found in the street) but others would feel at home in Delafield or von Arnim or even Stella's namesake E.F. Benson. (Were they related? I don't know... but Stella's aunt was Red Pottage author Mary Cholmondeley). Lady Arabel (who 'was virtuous to the same extent as Achilles was invulnerable') is one such character - she would fit alongside any agitated, eccentric Lady anywhere.Carpets, rugs, mirrors, and any single garment costing more than three guineas, are prohibited. Any guest proved to have made use of a taxi, or to have travelled anywhere first class, or to have bought cigarettes or sweets costing more than three shillings a hundred or eighteenpence a pound respectively, or to have paid more than three and sixpence (war-tax included) for a seat in any place of entertainment, will be instantly expelled. Dogs, cats, goldfish, and other superhuman companions are encouraged.
I wish I could explain the narrative to you, but it dash all over the place without any real logic. The overall impression is more or less surreal. Certain paragraphs give a sense of this surrealism - for example, this family group observed in an air raid shelter:
here.)It was a group whose relationships were difficult to make out, the ages of many of the children being unnaturally approximate. There seemed to be at least seven children under three years old, and yet they all bore a strong and regrettable family likeness. Several of the babies would hardly have been given credit for having reached walking age, yet none had been carried in. The woman who seemed to imagine herself the mother of this rabble was distributing what looked like hurried final words of advice. The father with a pensive eye was obviously trying to remember their names, and at intervals whispering to a man apparently twenty years his senior, whom he addressed as Sonny. It was all very confusing.
I do not mean to say, as one reviewer of Edith Olivier's The Love-Child did, that I wish her to:
I do not wish her narrative to be sober. I want it to be eccentric and unusual, but I do want it to be outside the world of fantasy. Lucky for me, it seems Living Alone was a one-off, in terms of topic. There are plenty of others out there that might well fulfil what I'm hoping to find, and I certainly shan't leave Stella on the shelf next time I stumble across her... have any of you read anything by Stella Benson?a brilliant future might be predicted for her if it were not for the consideration that the thing is a tour de force, and that it has yet to be discovered what she can do when dealing with lives lived out soberly under the light of the sun and not with a world of fantasy.
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Other books to get Stuck into:
Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner - mentioned a couple times above, this 1920s novel about a spinster becoming a witch is never over the top, and, even without the twist, is an exceptionally good domestic novel.
The War Workers by E.M. Delafield - nothing fantastic about this, except the quality! If talk of WW1 self-important committees got you interested, this satirical novel is perfect.