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.