Thursday, 24 November 2011

Living Alone by Stella Benson

You're probably quite used, by now, to my taste for odd books.  My doctoral research into fantastic novels has disproportionately weighted my blog towards ladies turning into foxes, imaginary children coming to life, old ladies being invented by accident etc.  So perhaps you'll forgive me if another title hoves into view, which somebody mentioned to me in relation to Lolly Willowes, since it's also about witches.  Living Alone (1919) by Stella Benson, as the post title suggests, is that book.  Before I get any further, I should mention that it is free on Kindle...


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.
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.
The Stranger turns out to be... a witch.  She doesn't seem to have a name (although this wonderful exchange does take place:)
She grew very red.  “I say, I should be awfully pleased if you would call me Angela.”

It wasn’t her name, but she had noticed that something of this sort is always said when people become motherly and cry.
'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:
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.
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.

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:
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.
Although I loved excerpts like this, I think it offers the key to my ultimate dissatisfaction with Living Alone.  I think novelists are most successful (or at least most pleasing to me!) when they chose either to write of ordinary life in a surreal way (Barbara Comyns, Muriel Spark, Patrick Hamilton) or of surreal events in an ordinary way (my oft-cited Pantheon of Edith Olivier, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Frank Baker, David Garnett.)  By writing of the surreal surreally, Stella Benson makes Living Alone feel rather overdone.  I felt the same with the small amount I read of Douglas Adams, incidentally.  I loved the unbalanced dialogue and exaggerated scenarios when feet were otherwise firmly on the ground - while we were in the world of WW1 committees - but as soon as broomsticks were given names, I wanted the dial turned down.  The writing was still good, but I was getting altitude sickness myself.  (A rather more positive review, and one which seemed to understand the plot better than I did, can be read here.)

I do not mean to say, as one reviewer of Edith Olivier's The Love-Child did, that I wish her to:
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.
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?

(If you're finding comments difficult to process, I've been told that Comment Verification letters aren't displaying properly - click 'submit' and they should appear the second time.)


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.


13 comments:

  1. I've added this to my Nook! I'm glad you've started doing a little 'similar books' list too: I've popped Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner on my wish list! :) What's the book with the woman turning in a fox?

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  2. Last year I got Lady into Fox from the library because I read about it on a blog. I now realise it must have been yours! I liked it and I still remember it

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  3. I have never heard of her (that may not surprise you!)

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  4. @Eva Thanks Eva - let me know what you think! I try to do either 'similar books' or 'other people have said' on my blog reviews now - since nobody else has written about this one, I opted for a 'similar books'! (Btw, I'm playing around with how comments appear, so fingers crossed on this...)

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  5. @Jessica Lovely! A few bloggers have mentioned it over the years, especially after Hesperus reprinted it. I think it's a great little book.

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  6. I read one of Stella Benson's short stories ('On the Contrary') earlier this year, and rather enjoyed it. This book sounds interesting; I might see if I can track down a copy.

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  7. I've now added Lady into Fox on to my Nook as well! :) I think I'm over 200 classics on it at this point, so no promises I'll get to it super-soon, but I love that you talk about so many obscure books!

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  8. @Eva Oo, sorry I forgot to answer about Lady into Fox, but obviously someone else did! It's only 90pp, so you could whip through it pretty quickly ;)

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  9. @David H David, Yours was the only reference to Stella Benson I could find on blogs (except some novel where the heroine was called Stella Benson!) I wasn't sure if On the Contrary was a novel or short story, thanks for clearing that up for me. Was it in a collection?

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  10. Simon, yes, I read it in an anthology of early 20th century stories.

    (Your comment is a salutary lesson for me, actually, because I reviewed each of the stories in separate posts, but only mentioned the anthology in the comments. I wasn't sure whether what I was doing would be clear to someone who came across one of the individual story posts - and now it seems I have my answer... :)

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  11. I read this thanks to your review, suspecting the hodge-podginess wouldn't bother me... and I was right. Loved it. Thank you.

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    1. Great! Really pleased you liked it.

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