On the need of reading reviews carefully

For over two years I used Arnold Bennett’s self-help book Literary Taste to find out if, a century after the book’s publication, it was possible to create my own literary taste. To carry on the experiment, I will now read the books reviewed by Arnold Bennett in the Evening Standard from 1926 to 1931 in his weekly column, Books and Persons. To bring a little personal perspective I will, where possible, draw on entries from his personal journals. This week, The Honeywood File by H.B. Creswell. 

In his column of the 5th of December 1929, Bennett wrote of The Honeywood File (the purported correspondence between an architect and his client, builders, suppliers and town planners written during the construction of a country-house) “I repeat that as literature it is not great.” How I wish I had paid attention to that sentence before reading the book. Instead I had read this quote selected by Bennett,

Also I am afraid it will be impossible to enter the house by the front-door except, of course, by going up the front-stairs and down the back, which cannot be the intention….Moreover, the front-stairs could be used to reach the bedrooms only by going out by the back-door or by one of the windows, and in at the front door. I mention these matters in order to make clear why it is impossible for me to adopt your plan….)

These are the funniest sentences in what I had assumed was going to be an amusing account of the misunderstandings arising from the building of a house. In fact, the book is everything you need to know when building a house in late 1920s England rather than the knockabout slapstick I had thought it was going to be. I’m sure the author meant the reader to smile and even chuckle. I’m sure Bennett smiled as he read it and may even have chuckled as did its many readers. I say “many” as a second volume was published, The Honeywood Settlement. It was even made into a series on BBC radio in 1961 and 1982. I did not smile and chuckle and I will share the blame in equal parts between myself and Arnold Bennett.  Although he included this disclaimer, writing that the book was “…full of useful information, lightly conveyed, for everybody concerned with domestic architecture” he did write near the start of his review “…it is often very funny.” Memo to self: read the whole review before deciding to buy a book.

In the weeks up to the 5th of December, Bennett attended a performance of Journey’s End for holders of the V.C., examined the case of young woman charged with prostitution, discussed the reading habits of Yorkshire woollen-manufacturers and turned down the request for a loan of £150 to a complete stranger who, as he found out later, made a habit of such requests.

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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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