Stella Benson: a novelist who happened to travel quite a lot

I am reading the books recommended by Arnold Bennett in his self-help guide Literary Taste: How To Form It, first published in 1909 and reissued in 1938. Can following a prescribed reading list from over a hundred years ago lead to forming a literary taste? A graph is normally included. This week, Stella Benson and The Little World
But first:


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The RMS Empress of Russia was launched in Govan in Scotland on the 28th of August, 1912. Built for the Canadian Pacific Railway company it sailed the Far East route between Canada, China and Japan. Apart from mail, it carried 284 1st class passengers, 100 2nd class and up to 800 steerage passengers in a journey across the Pacific that would last approximately eight days. In an age of this:

Allure of the Seas. Source: Wikipedia

we’ve forgotten that this:

Empress of Russia. Source: Simplon Postcards.

Was the equivalent of this:

(But not this:)

The Hindenburg. Source: Wiikipedia.

Canadian Pacific sailing times. Source: http://www.timetableimages.com/

Stella Benson (1892–1933) made that journey across the Pacific, calling at Vancouver, Yokohama, Kobe, Nagasaki, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Manila (also the Atlantic, the Indian Ocean and, I think, the Mediterranean) on a number of occasions, and travelled first class on the Empress of Russia too. That it was nothing out of the ordinary can be seen in the lack of comments to do with the nitty gritty of travel in the steamship age in her book The Little World or in her biography Portrait of Stella Benson (published in 1939, in time for World War Two, I wonder if that is why in part she disappeared so quickly from the zeitgeist). True, on one of her journeys someone died from diving into an empty swimming pool but apart from that little else seemed to happen.

Stella Benson by Wyndham Lewis. Source National Portrait Gallery.

Stella herself almost died on one of these journeys. Always suffering from ill health she had come down, as she did frequently, with an attack of pleurisy. Only the care given by, I think, a steward saved her life. As a young woman she had made these long journeys by sea because she wanted to. Always independent she had lived alone in London during the First World War, working for a charity based in Hoxton, London. Following the end of the war, it seemed only natural that she should travel, alone, to California. It was this journey she repeated with her husband, this time by car, a Ford which they named Stephanie, coast-to-coast, in conditions which seemed not to have changed much since the days of Oregon Trail.

Once married, these journeys by steamship became a necessity. Her husband was a customs official in a number of Chinese provinces and the Winters proved too much for her fragile health. She wintered in California or visited her mother in England rather than risk her health in China. And herein lay the problem. She collected her experiences as a youthful traveller in The Little World. From it emerges the image of a clever, insightful and, above all,  funny woman. She was clever and funny enough to write of the granting of a degree of political autonomy to India:

Among other Calcutta women I had permission to witness this historic ceremony. Nevertheless, though I and the other women put on our most ceremonious hats or saris and flourished grass-green passes, the authorities decreed, on second thoughts, that the occasion was too historic for the eye of woman.

Married or single, pretty or plain, intelligent or dull she was a woman. Married, she had no choice but to play second fiddle to her husband. Where he went she followed and her own literary career was fitted into his. She was not the first woman to experience this disappointment, nor will she be the last.

Of The Little World she felt little affection.

…Stella always spoke of it as trivial hack-work…

She wanted to be known for her fiction, such as Tobit Transplanted, published in 1931 and winner of the Femina Vie Heureuse Prize. But on her death the Western Daily Press summarised her life under the heading, Miss Stella Benson Dead. Novelist Who Loved To Travel. The Western Daily Press wrote of Tobit Transplanted that it was:

…a kind of modern version of a tale in the Apocrypha placed in Manchuria;

before adding that:

Travel was her hobby.

Perhaps that was Stella Benson’s undoing in the years after the Second World War. Stories written by a woman who had shot tigers, travelled alone in Mexico, survived bandit gangs in China and lived through an earthquake had a limited role to play in the new atomic world of East and West. Her colonial associations may not have worn well in this world of black and white television and Harold Macmillian’s “…most of our people have never had it so good.” Her husband was, after all, an official in the Chinese Customs Service at a time when trade in China was seen as a prerogative of the Western economies.

I was going to be a coward and use her humour as an excuse to sit her on that fence of coordinates, neither in one camp nor in the other. She deserves more than being a footnote in biographies of Virginia Woolf. A sturdy (9,6) places her in her rightful place of literary taste.

Up next time,  E.C.Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case.

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1 Comment

  1. I met one of SB’s relatives at a conference once, and the family resemblance is very striking: good to see the Lewis portrait. I’ve only read the WW1 witches book by Benson, Living Alone, and it is apparently atypical. I wonder if her Chinese-based fiction is anything like as peculiar and egotistical as Ann Bridge’s colonial novels, written about life in Embassy circles?

    Reply

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