I have so many E.F. Benson books on my shelves – they’re not tricky to pick up in secondhand bookshops, if you’re patient – but almost all of them are unread. Besides the excellent Mapp and Lucia series, which I’ve read twice (though not for years), I’ve only read Secret Lives. And I thought it was about time that I remedied that. I’m so glad I did – Daisy’s Aunt (1910) is faintly ridiculous, but entirely enjoyable.
The opening scene, and opening paragraph, is classic Edwardian insouciance of the variety that Benson does charmingly:
Daisy Hanbury poked here parasol between the bars of the cage, with the amiable intention of scratching the tiger’s back. The tiger could not be expected to know this all by himself, and so he savagely bit the end of it off, with diabolical snarlings. Daisy turned to her cousin with a glow of sympathetic pleasure.
If you are not instantly charmed by both author and character, then I don’t know if I can help you. The scene has no other purpose – she almost instantly leaves the zoo, with her subservient friend Gladys in tow, and the incident is scarcely mentioned again. But it has set Daisy up as reckless, amusing, and rather lovable – which is just as well, as we have to take it as read that she is charming for much of the subsequent novel.
The novel, indeed, has all the benefits of the typical Edwardian novel, as well as its drawbacks (if such they be). It is frothy and indulgently charming (that word again) – and the plot makes almost no sense. But I’ll do my best. Look away if you want no spoilers at all, but these are the main facts which lead to the bulk of the plot:
- Daisy’s young aunt Jeannie (after whom the US title for this novel, The Fascinating Mrs Halton, is named) is returning from a year abroad, and finds that Daisy is hoping a Lord Lindfield will propose.
- Jeannie knows that Lord L was (ahem) a cad with Daisy’s sister in Paris – but had made a deathbed promise to the sister never to disclose this.
- Oh yes, the sister (Diana) is dead, but most people thought she’d died five years before this.
- The only solution Jeannie can see is to flirt with Lord Lindfield until Daisy sees that he is no better than he ought to be, and foreswears him.
- There’s another gent who loves Daisy, and one who’s secretly engaged to Jeannie.
Phew! There we have it. Obviously Jeannie’s plan is ridiculous, even given the mores of the day, and there is any number of better plans, but she apparently can think of none of them – and does all this from love of Daisy. Jeannie Halton is, indeed, a kind and lovable woman, otherwise sensible and (yes) charming. Little does she know that Daisy has gone from thinking she might as well marry Lord L as anyone, to actually loving him…
Tangled webs, and all that. We see most things from the perspective of either Jeannie or Daisy, and the events of the novel chiefly take place during a house party in a beautiful riverside cottage – lots of the idle rich staying for a few days together, and gossiping about each other. One of my favourite sections of the novel, actually, was the indulgently long time Benson spends describing this idyllic house – from informal, winding garden to the welcoming rooms. And particularly this bit:
At the other end, and facing it, the corresponding kitchen range of the second range had also been cleared out, but the chimney above it had been boarded in, and a broad, low settee ran around the three sides of it. Above this settee, and planted into the wall, so that the head of those uprising should not come in contact with the shelves, was a bookcase full of delectable volumes, all fit to be taken down at random, and opened at random, all books that were familiar friends to any who had friends among that entrancing family. Tennyson was there, and all Thackeray; Omar Khayyam was there, and Alice in Wonderland; Don Quixote rubbed covers with John Inglesant, and Dickens found a neighbour in Stevenson.
My version of this library would be updated by a couple of decades (I have to confess to never having heard of John Inglesant), but doesn’t it sound wonderful?
And so the novel goes – never sensational, and always at least a little witty, but with genuine stakes for those involved. But the reader has no real anxiety. We know that such a novel, from such an author, can’t end but happily. It reminded me rather of Herbert Jenkins’ delightful Patricia Brent, Spinster; it is the same sort of delicious silliness that passes a sunny day beautifully. I’m glad that I’ve finally looked in more depth at my Benson shelf – and must make sure to return to it before too long.