I know some people are very keen to end a reading year on a high, but for me it is more important that the first book of a new year is good. Of course, I would love every book I read to be good, but somehow it feels as though a bad first book sets off a bad tone for the whole year. So I deliberately finished off a book which I was already halfway through, and knew was brilliant… I Pose (1915) by Stella Benson, reprinted by Michael Walmer and sent to me as a review copy (more on this exciting new reprint publisher here).
I had read one book by Stella Benson before – Living Alone, about witches living in a boarding house – and I liked it, but would have preferred Benson to keep her feet more firmly on the ground. The opening pages, satirising a council meeting, were entirely delicious. Well – I Pose more than answered my request, and I found it very amusing. The style is so fresh, lively, and not for a moment taking itself remotely seriously.
I Pose is set up as an allegory – the main characters are referred to solely as ‘the gardener’ and ‘the suffragette’. The idea of an allegory rather terrifies me, as it does suggest earnestness (which I’m allergic to in fiction), but Benson has the same feelings as me. She definitely has some important things to say – I’ll come on to those later – but she uses these characters chiefly to lampoon the notion of allegory.
Both gardener and suffragette – but particularly gardener – live life through epithets. They are continually posing; the title refers to the mixture of sincerity and insincerity with which they adopt their stances. For, yes, the suffragette cares deeply about suffrage – but when she claims not to care about life or limb, or to be unlovable and unloving, then it is decidedly a pose. The gardener, too, is forever choosing poses which permit him to speak in riddles and epigrams. Some might find it wearying, but I loved every moment. When the gardener meets the suffragette, he instantly knows that she is one – she has, after all, the stereotypical appearance of the militant suffragette…
The woman was quite plain, and therefore worthy only of invisibility in the eyes of a self-respecting young man. She had the sort of hair that plays truant over the ears, but has not vitality enough to do it prettily. Her complexion was not worthy of the name. Her eyes made no attempt to redeem her plainness, which is the only point of having eyes in fiction. Her only outward virtue was that she did not attempt to dress as if she were pretty. And even this is not a very attractive virtue.
He doesn’t agree with her methods (she intends to blow up a church) and Benson is at her satirical best on the topic:
The gardener, of course, shared the views of all decent men on this subject. One may virtuously destroy life in a good cause, but to destroy property is a heinous crime, whatever its motive.(Yes, I know that made you tremble, but there are not many more paragraphs of it.)
There are plenty of moments where Benson addresses the reader, always tongue-in-cheek and often defending her choices as a novelist, against imagined criticisms. She freely admits that the suffragette is not a typical heroine…
I quite admit that the suffragette was an infuriating person. I yield to none in my admiration for any one who could manage to keep their temper with her.
The suffragette and gardener end up on a boat sailing abroad, posing as a married couple (albeit briefly), and they dash madly around various foreign climes, meeting some extraordinary people along the way. My favourite was probably the always-antagonistic Mrs. Rust…
“I don’t agree with you at all,” said Mrs. Rust, who now made this remark mechanically in any pause in the conversation.
Earthquakes and suffrage clubs come and go, as do the adventures of an obnoxious young boy and an adorable Scottie dog, but the plot is certainly not the most important aspect of I Pose. I loved it almost entirely for Benson’s style. It reminded me a little of P.G. Wodehouse – certainly she has his affinity for the pleasures of understatement (‘She was not in the least miserly of a certain cheap smell of violets’) alongside just enough of Oscar Wilde to make the prose frothy and delightful, and not enough to make it tiring (to me). Her way with words is astonishing, and shows a confidence which no début author deserves to possess – but it is a confidence which is, at the same time, entirely well-deserved. This sort of novel is so difficult to do well – it could have very easily felt self-indulgent and overdone – but I think it is a wonder.
And, while I spent most of the novel thrilling to the writing and not caring too much about plot and character, I surprised myself by growing to care considerably about the possible romance between the gardener and the suffragette… now, making the reader care about characters with no names, when the narrator is openly and proudly dismissing their suitability to lead a novel, where nothing is said with a serious tone… well, Miss Benson, that is an achievement indeed.