The Poor Man by Stella Benson (1922)

Five years ago, when I read Stella Benson’s first novel, I wrote:

“I don’t know what Stella Benson did, I don’t know how she did it, but she did it quite brilliantly.

I don’t want to – I don’t need to  – pull her book apart to see how it works. I just want to wonder at it, to be impressed that it does!

And now, of course,  I want to read everything else that she ever wrote!”

It shouldn’t have taken me so long to read another book, but I didn’t have one to hand and I was distracted by other books, until The Man of the House came home with a copy of The Poor Man that he had picked up for me.

Edward R Williams is the poor man of the title, an Englishman who was alone in the world since the death of his brother, who was socially awkward and a little deaf, and who was in the slightly position of having enough money to not need to work but no more than that.

He had settled in San Francisco and fallen in with an arty set. Rhoda Romero, Avery Bird, Banner Hope and Melsie Stone Ponting had no great love for Edward, they didn’t really understand who he was and why he was always around, but they were so self-important and so caught up in their own concerns that they didn’t think to question his presence.

Emily Frere was the assistant of the famous journalist Tam McTab and she travelled the world with him and his wife. Edward met her at a party and he was utterly smitten. She was everything that he wasn’t; she was bright, she was sociable, she was emphatic and she loved life.

Edward adored Emily and he was sure that she cared for him; because she listened, because she was always kind.

The elements of this story are beautifully balanced – the satire of the arty set, the tragicomedy of Edward, and the vitality of Emily – and the author’s voice was perfect. It was distinctive, she had a lovely turn of phrase, she had a sharp eye, and it was clear that she knew and was fond of San Francisco; though it was obvious that she was fonder of the surrounding countryside than the city itself.

Californians have brought suburb-making almost to an art. Their cities and their countryside are equally suburban. No one has a country house in California; no one has a city house. It is good to see trees from city windows, but it is not so good to see houses from country windows. This however, for better or for worse, seems to be California’s ideal, and she will not rest until she has finished turning herself into one long and lovely Lower Tooting.

When Edward learned that that Emily had travelled to China with the McTabs he knew that he had to follow them. He lacked the means to make such a journey, and so he set about earning a his passage. It was clear from the start that Edward was not cut out to be a salesman, but his brief career in sales did result in him being propelled to China. He fell into another job, teaching English, but he wasn’t cut out for that either.

Stella Benson walked the line between tragedy and comedy beautifully, and somehow she drew me into the story of this desperately poor man.

Would he find Emily?

What would happen if he did?

What would happen if he didn’t?

I can’t say, but I can say that the end of the story both powerful and inevitable.

I loved the way that Stella Benson illuminated very real human lives and situations in this unlikely tale, and that though the arc of the story was improbable every moment in it rang true.

This book came seven years after the other book of hers that I have read, and it lacks that books whimsicality but it has other things that more than make up for that. It has wisdom, it has clarity, and it has something to say.

The writing is wonderfully vivid, few other authors could have made the story of this poor man so compelling, and I can’t think of any author who could have told this story so very well.

A Book for E H Young Day: The Misses Mallett (1922)

In her first novel written after the Great War, the death of her husband, and her embarkation on a rather unconventional new life, E H Young tells the story of four Misses Mallett.

There are two sisters in late middle age, Caroline and Sophia Mallett. They live in a large, beautiful and comfortable home that had been left to them by their father, the Colonel;  together with their much younger half-sister, Rose Mallet, the child of the Colonel’s second marriage.

Caroline is delighted with their situation, and she explains to their niece:

‘The Malletts don’t marry, Henrietta. Look at us, as happy as the day is long, with all the fun and none of the trouble. We’ve been terrible flirts, Sophia and I. Rose is different, but at least she hasn’t married. The three Miss Malletts of Nelson Lodge! Now there are four of us, and you must keep up our reputation.’ 

Henrietta was the fourth Miss Mallett, the daughter of the Colonel’s disinherited son, who had come to live with her aunts after her mother’s death. She had lived a very different life, she had an independent spirit, and she wanted to make her own decisions and not be told that she must follow a particular traditions.

She would learn that things were not quite as simple and straightforward as Caroline suggested.

Sophia had a great love in her past, and she cherished her memories of him

Rose had been beloved by a local landowner, Francis Sales, but she had rejected his proposals because she wasn’t sure that she loved him enough. She wondered if she had made the right decision when he went away, and when he returned with a bride who was quite unlike her; but she knew that she had to live with her decision.

And then there was a particularly cruel twist of fate.

Henrietta and Rose learned each other’s stories, but they were of different generations, they had different backgrounds and different outlooks, they didn’t talk about the things that were most important to them and so they didn’t understand what the other was feeling and what the other would do.

E H Young drew and delineated four the Misses Mallett quite beautifully. Caroline was warm and vibrant, Sophia was delicate and empathic, Rose was reserved and controlled, Henrietta was modern and independent; and as she portrayed their lives and their relationships she showed the advantages and disadvantages of being an unmarried woman between the wars.

By contrast, the men in the story were all flawed: Henrietta’s father, Reginald Mallet, was charming but he was utterly self-centred. Francis Sales was completely lacking in self knowledge and in understanding of the women he said he loved. Charles Batty, the son of Caroline’s dearest friend, was eccentric, and today it would probably be said that he was somewhere on the autistic spectrum, but he was true to himself and he would be a reliable friend to the younger Misses Mallett.

They were all interesting and believable characters; but it was the women who were strong and who set the course of the story.

That story was simple, but there were deep waters swirling below the calm surface. There was danger that Henrietta could be led astray, that Rose’s control could snap, that the good name of the Malletts’ could be tainted by scandal …

The playing out and the resolution of the story is a little predictable, and maybe a little unsatisfactory in that it wasn’t exactly what I wanted for characters I had come to know vey well; but I believed that it could have happened, I understand why it could have happened, and I loved my journey through this book.

I loved spending time with each of the Misses Mallett, and I loved spending time in their world.

E H Young wrote so well. She could capture so much in a single sentence, and she could sustain a point over much longer passages.

The depictions of the family home and the other homes that are part of the story are so perfect, every detail is so well drawn, that I was transported there. The descriptions of the countryside, the woods, and the fields, are so evocative that I wished that I could be there, riding with Rose or walking with Henrietta.

It was lovely, but there times when it was a almost too much and I would have liked to get back to the story a little more quickly.

I can’t say that this is E H Young’s strongest book; the later books that I have read are more subtle and more sophisticated, and I am inclined to think that she grew as a writer over the years.

I can say that this is a lovely period piece, that it is a wonderfully engaging human drama, and that it has made me eager to fill in the gaps in my reading of its author’s backlist.

A Book for Dorothy Canfield Fisher Day: Rough-Hewn (1922)

I have neglected Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s work for  a long time, because I was torn over which of two books about the same two characters I should read first.

The book that was written first but set later, or the book that was written second but set earlier? Writing order or chronological order? The book I owned or the book that I didn’t? My head said the first and my heart said the second!

As Dorothy Canfield’s day on The Birthday Book of Underappreciated Authors drew near I knew that I had to make a decision, and I did. The heart won! It told me that I wanted to meet these two characters – Neale and Marise – as children, and that I didn’t want my impressions of them as children to be affected by my knowledge of what they would do, what would happen to them in later life. The head appreciated the sense of that!

‘Rough-Hewn’ follows Neil and Marise from childhood to the beginnings of their adult lives when they finally meet.

Neale grows up in  New Jersey, the only child of parents who are devoted to each other.  They send him to a private school, and he does well enough but sports and games are his consuming passion. He progresses to college at Columbia, where football becomes the focus and striving for success teaches him a great deal; and he spends his summer in  Massachusetts, where his grandfather runs the family lumber mill. Eventually he will work there too, and his new ideas breather new life into the business. He is a success, but when the friend who had become a girlfriend leaves him he questions his purpose in life.  He gives up his job to travel, hoping to find an answer…

Marise Allen grows up in Bayonne, near France’s border with Spain. Her father is the sales representative of an American company there, but his family has moved to France not for that but because Marise’s mother believes that she will be happier there than she was in  provincial American life. She loves her daughter, but she is too caught up with her own pursuit of art, culture and love to play the role of mother. Marise’s upbringing is left  to the Basque servants, who love her dearly but have no regard for her mother.  When her mother’s actions spark a tragedy and a scandal the servants and her teacher do everything they can to protect Marise, but she is profoundly affected and she has only her distant father, who will do his duty but not much more, to help her find her place in the world …

The  story of each life was told quite beautifully, with sensitivity, with intelligence, with empathy, and without one single drop of sentimentality. There is no plot as such, but I was captivated by the unfolding of each life. I noticed that they were told rather differently. Neale’s story was told in a straightforward way, always from his point of view; while Marise’s story was often told through the accounts of people around her. That reflected the different nature of the stories, and while I found Neale’s story easier to read I was more anxious to follow Marise’s story.

I found so much to love in this book.

Dorothy Canfield Fisher drew out the characteristics of the two families beautifully.

I loved the portrayal of the happy marriage of Neale’s parents, and at first I wondered if he was coming second to the relationship between the two of them, but in time I realised that they were working hard at the business of parenthood and making sure that he had the right opportunities to learn and grow and was well equipped for whatever life he might want to live.

Marise’s parents were more difficult to love, but even so I could understand.

The evolution of those characters and their relationships were quite brilliantly done. There were so many significant moments perfectly caught, and a great many lessons were learned.

There were a great many more characters who were so well drawn that they lived and breathed. I was particularly taken with Jeanne, the servant who loved Marise like a daughter; and with Eugenia, Marise’s spirited school-friend.

I was equally taken with what the telling of Neale’s story and Marise’s story had to say about education and how we learn and grow.

Music would be Marise’s salvation, and I loved reading about it.

“The silence was intense.

And then it seemed to her that the silence had been broken by a voice, a beautiful, quivering voice, deep and true, which went straight to her heart, as though some one had spoken a strong, loving word. At the sound she stopped trembling and sat motionless.

Before she could draw her breath in wonder, she knew what it had been … only a note of music. Her own hand falling on a key of the piano had struck a note, which was even then echoing in her ears.

But the first impression was ineffaceable. That, too, rang in her ears. It seemed as though it was the first time she had ever heard a note of music. Really, really that was so. She had never been still enough before to hear how a note sounded. How it rang and rang in the stillness, its deep vibration stirring echoes deep within Marise’s heart! She had thought it was a voice. Why, it was like a voice, a voice speaking to her, just when she had been so sure that there wasn’t any voice she could possibly expect to hear.

She sat up marveling, and struck another note. Into the dead, stagnant air of the room, and into her loneliness, it sang out bravely, the same living voice, thrilling and speaking to her. She struck a chord, astonished at what she heard in it—all those separate voices, each one rich and true and strong and different from the others, and all shouting together in glorious friendliness. “That’s the way things ought to be,” thought Marise, “that’s the way people ought to be.” But, oh, how little they were like that! But here was a world where she could always make it come true, where she could have that singing-together any time she wished to make it for herself.

She struck more chords, her fingers finding the keys with the second-nature sureness, learned in her months of dreary practice.

She listened to the sounds, shaken and transported to hear how they flooded the barren emptiness of the room with glory, how they filled her heart full, full of happiness … only if she were happy, why was she crying, the tears running as fast as they could down her cheeks?

This was one of the remembered moments which brought nothing but a pang of joy to Marise. When it came, the world about her brightened.”

I couldn’t feel the same way about Neale’s love of sport, but I could understand why it was so fundamental for him.

I did feel the same way about his discovery and his love of books:

“He didn’t suppose these grown-up books in the library could be worth anything, but he took down a volume to see.

“Ours was the marsh country, down by the river, within twenty miles of the sea. My first most vivid impression of the identity of things seems to me to have been gained on a memorable raw afternoon towards evening. At such a time I found out for certain that this bleak place over-grown with nettles was the churchyard …”

Half an hour later Neale was still standing by the book-case, the book in his hand, his mouth hanging open, shivering in the clammy mist together with Pip and the man with the iron chain. An hour later he was tucked into the Morris chair, among the cushions of which he hid the book when the dinner bell made him reluctantly lay it aside.

What made him hide it? An invincible sense of moral decency made him hide it. He would have shuddered and cowered like a modest girl whose bed-room door is opened inadvertently by a stranger, at the very idea of carrying the book to the table and pouring out to his father what it made him feel. With a shy, virginal delicacy he stood guard, half-frightened, half-enchanted, over the first warm gush from the unexpected well-springs of emotion in his heart. If his father had come into the room, had seen what he was reading and asked him how he liked it, he would have answered briefly, “Oh, all right.”

But for the next three days he did nothing but live with Pip, and feel intolerable sympathy, far deeper than anything he had ever felt in his own healthy life, for the convict victim of society. On the afternoon of the third day, his heart pounding hard with hope, he was in the row-boat, in the track of the steamer. The Morris-chair in which he sat, swayed up and down to the ocean rhythm of the great deeps which bore him along. He peered forward. There was the steamer at last, coming head on. He called to Provis to sit still, “she was nearing us very fast,” … “her shadow on us,” … and then, oh, gosh! … the police-boat, the betrayal, the summons to surrender!

Neale’s soul recoiled upon itself in a shudder of horrified revolt. He recognized the traitor, a white terror on his face. Grinding his teeth, Neale leaped at his throat. With a roar the water closed over their heads … he would never let him go, never, never…. Down they went to the depths, to the black depths, fiercely locked in each other’s arms. Neale smothered and strangled there … and came up into another world, the world of books.”

There are many more wonderful passages that I could pull out.

Dorothy Canfield Fisher created a world, she made it spin, and she spoke quietly and profoundly about the human condition.

I knew how this book would end, but I was so caught up that I didn’t think about it until I got there.

That final act was so right, so perfectly done, that I could happily read it over and over again.

I’m not quite ready to let go of this book yet, but when I am I will read the other book that Dorothy Canfield Fisher wrote about Neal and Marise, and I am quite sure that after that I will be reading more of her work.