Review: Living Alone, Stella Benson, 1919.
This is not a real book. It does not deal with real people, nor should it be read by real people. But there are in the world so many real books already written for the benefit of real people, and there are still so many to be written, that I cannot believe that a little alien book such as this, written for the magically-inclined minority, can be considered too assertive a trespasser.
“There can be few more charming, witty and irreverent novels to arise out of the Great War”, says science fiction critic and historian Edward James of Stella Benson’s Living Alone.
I myself have recently read some novels to come out of that war, novels of fantastic fiction. After almost a 100 years, none has such a singular and memorable combination of plot and voice as Benson’s.
That is just the opening of the book, and anyone can write a snappy epigram. But Benson’s voice is wry and flippant from the very beginning, a dear confidant chattering away about recent news and whatever thoughts occur to her. It’s not technically first person narration, but it has that tone even if technically it’s the voice of some unknown party.
One of our principals is Thelma Bennett Watkins aka Iris ‘Yde aka Hangela the Witch. That’s not an honorary title. She really is a witch right down to riding a broomstick, Harold by name. She bursts into a War Savings committee in an “unfurnished room in an unfashionable part of London.” The significance of “the Stranger” is not immediately appreciated:
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 dull, impoverished grind of those committees and the rest of the formal apparatus of charity work is felt by Sarah Brown:
The sixth member was a person who, where Social Work was concerned, did more or less as she was told, without doing it particularly well. The result, very properly, was that all the work which a committee euphemistically calls “organising work” was left to her.
The novel is really Sarah’s story with Thelma a magical catalyst that will bring her enlightenment if only of a melancholy sort. For, as Brian Stableford notes in his “Stella Benson” entry in the Encyclopedia of Fantasy, this is a “fantastically transfigured spiritual” autobiography. For sickly, tired, passionate, liberal Benson is, given the details on Benson’s life at Edward James Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers in the Great War site, clearly the model for Sarah.
Both work for pittances in wartime charities often going hungry between meals at wealthy committee members’ home or the ersatz food of wartime rationing. Both dabble with being a “land-woman”, women who replaced men in the agricultural labor of wartime England. Both tire of weeding out the “Naughty Poor” from the deserving and just wish that charity could be freed from the tyranny of organization.
When we first meet Sarah she is just the “sixth member” of that committee, grudgingly given a name for practical reasons by the author. Sarah is weary of Doing Good:
… she was a member of committees, was neither a real expert in, nor a real lover of, Doing Good. In Doing Good, I think, we have got into bad habits. We try in groups to do good to the individual, whereas, if good is to be done, it would seem more likely, and more consonant with precedent, that the individual might do it to the group. Without the smile of a Treasurer we cannot unloose our purse-strings; without the sanction of a Chairman we have no courage; without Minutes we have no memory.
Sarah is entrusted to return Thelma’s broomstick. Sarah discovers her at the House of Living Alone:
It is meant to provide for the needs of those who dislike hotels, clubs, settlements, hostels, boarding-houses, and lodgings only less than their own homes; who detest landladies, waiters, husbands and wives, charwomen, and all forms of lookers after. This house is a monastery and a convent for monks and nuns dedicated to unknown gods. Men and women who are tired of being laboriously kind to their bodies, who like to be a little uncomfortable and quite uncared for, who love to live from week to week without speaking, except to confide their destinations to ‘bus-conductors, who are weary of woolly decorations, aspidistras, and the eternal two generations of roses which riot among blue ribbons on hireling wall-papers, who are ignorant of the science of tipping and thanking, who do not know how to cook yet hate to be cooked for, will here find the thing they have desired, and something else as well.
Weary Sarah, “only inwardly articulate”, describes a life suited to the house of Living Alone:
“I have been, I may say, a burden and a bore all over the world; I have been an ill and fretful stranger within all men’s gates; I have asked much and given nothing; I have never been a friend. Nobody has ever expected any return from me, yet nothing was grudged. Landladies, policemen, chorus girls, social bounders, prostitutes, the natural enemies, one would say, of such as I, have given me kindness, and often much that they could not easily spare … “
Thelma, foreshadowing the end, eagerly agrees to be her friend but friendship, she warns, is only a means to an end.
Their lives are entangled for the rest of the novel as magic and life in wartime London are entangled. We will meet faeries and a would-be suitor for Thelma and a dragon. The dead will raise from the earth – mistaking a German bombing raid as the Last Judgement. (A scene played so comically and naturally that I missed its significance until I read Brian Stableford’s description of the novel.) And, in something of a set piece for the novel, Thelma and a German witch, carrying a germ weapon to unleash on Britain, duel on broomsticks over London during a Zeppelin raid.
They fight and debate with Thelma forsaking jingoistic justifications for the war. “We are neither of us killing Evil, we are killing youth….”
The German witch plunges from the sky, defeated by Thelma, but bureaucracy has its revenge. Thelma is sought by the authorities for possessing an unauthorized “armed flying machine”. Sarah pulls strings, and most of the novel’s characters leave for America.
Leave for America, but only Sarah arrives there. Thelma stays with her until the “City on its Tiptoes”, New York City, is in sight. Sarah is dismayed that, after she has left everyone she loved to save Thelma from “the wrath of the law”, Thelma will not stay with her.
“Didn’t you know that all magic lives and thrives on the wrath of the Law?”, replies Thelma. Sarah cannot be, as she claims, “ill and bewildered” because she never left the House of Living Alone. Those in the House of Living Alone can never “make a success of friendship” and have no business with love.
The novel ends with Sarah stepping “over the threshold to the greater House of Living Alone.”
Benson actually finished writing the novel in California. Her dislike of the United States shows in the last chapter with quips like
“I gather America is too full of Liberty to leave room for socialism, isn’t that so? My squirrel says there are only two parties in America, Republicans and Sinners—at least I think that was what he said—and anybody who belongs to neither of these parties is given penal servitude for life.”
(I take that as a reference to the imprisoned Eugene Debs.)
However, Benson seems to have found companionship unlike Sarah. She left California for Asia in December 1919 and lived there for the rest of her life. She married in 1921 and died in 1933 at age 41.
As there is a melancholy tension in Sarah’s attempt at friendship leading to even greater isolation and the realization that it will be permanent, there is a tension in this novel about what the Great War meant. Clearly, Benson did not find it a moral struggle.
She seems, though, to have found it a curiously invigorating struggle, at least for society.
Towards the end of the novel, one character complains about the staid Victorian age before the war and its lack of magic:
“The worst of this war is that it has nothing whatever to do with magic of any sort. It was made and is supported by men who had forgotten magic, it is the result of the coming to an end of a spell. Haven’t you noticed that a spell came to an end at the beginning of the last century? Why, doesn’t almost every one see something lacking about the Victorian age?”
He goes on to tell how the war has put magic has been put back in the world with the spilt blood of the war:
“Magic only dies in a tepid world. I think there is now more magic in the world than ever before. The soil of France is alive with it, and as for Belgium—when Belgium gets back home at last she will find her desecrated house enchanted…. And the same applies to all the thresholds in the world which fighting-men have crossed and will never cross again, except in the dreams of their friends. That sort of austere and secret magic, like a word known by all and spoken by none, is pretty nearly all that is left to keep the world alive now….”.
Seeing the end of the war, even for an author writing in the middle of it, as the beginning of a new age – whether to be met with optimism or terror – is not uncommon in the works I’ve seen from the war.
Benson does not seem to have any occult interests, so there is not the mysticism that may be at work in Arthur Machen’s The Terror or another novel I’ll be looking at, Gustav Meyrink’s The Green Face. No, I think magic is a just a metaphor for a better world.
When she saw a Zeppelin, “exactly above” her, dropping bombs, Benson said she “wasn’t frightened, only brutally excited.” But her thrill was not, I think, the thrill of Thermidor though she was a fervent social activist who clearly wanted a changed world.
I think magic, for Benson, partly consists of what we would call “mindfulness”: “Witches and wizards are not blinded by having a Point of View. They just look, and are very much surprised and interested.” That’s partly, I think, the intent of her voice – to shake the reader out a “Point of View”. That is the magic the war brought back into the tedium of life.
I hope to return to this story to examine its specific World War One elements. But, even if you’re not an historically minded reader, Benson’s story delights.