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.
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:
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:
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:
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?
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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.