Having loved what I have read of Stella Benson’s thus far, I jumped at the chance of receiving a review copy of her debut novel, I Pose from Michael Walmer. First published in 1915, Walmer has chosen to republish it due to its ‘significance in literary history and its humane excellence in all other respects’. The blurb states that ‘Benson’s cheekiness in commenting directly to the reader on the progress of the story, the saltiness of her slightly cynical view of the world and its ways, and the strange newness of the tale she was telling meant that, on first publication in 1915, the literary world’s curiosity was most certainly piqued’.
The novel’s protagonists are known as The Gardener and The Suffragette. Both, the blurb says, are ‘beautifully mixed, endearingly crazy creations of Benson’s unusual talent’. We do not learn their names at any point, which is a very interesting stylistic touch. The structure of the novel, too, is a little deviant from most of the novels which would have served as the contemporaries of I Pose; it is comprised of an initial chapter which runs to over three hundred pages, and a second chapter which is just eight pages long.
The novel’s beginning is lovely and witty, and certainly sets the tone for the whole: ‘There was once a gardener… Nobody would ever try to introduce him into a real book, for he was in no way suitable. He was not a philosopher. Not an adventurer. Not a gay dog. Not lively: but he lived, and that at least is a great merit’. As one can see from the aforementioned, Benson’s character descriptions are somewhat refreshingly original: ‘He was not indispensible to any one, but he believed that he was a pillar supporting the world. It sometimes makes one nervous to reflect what very amateur pillars the world seems to employ’.
The Suffragette whom he meets at the beginning of the novel, and whom he converses with throughout, has this to say for herself: ‘”One is born a woman… A woman in her sphere – which is the home. One starts by thinking of one’s dolls, later one thinks about one’s looks, and later still about one’s clothes. But nobody marries one. And then one finds that one’s sphere – which is the home – has been a prison all along. Has it ever struck you that the tragedy of a woman’s life is that she has time to think – she can think and organise her sphere at the same time’.
The whole feels incredibly modern at times; the issues which Benson discusses are wholly relevant to the twenty-first century, particularly with the looming threat of right-leaning governments and such things as women’s rights, and the meaning of freedom. I Pose is a curiously poignant book, in fact. Benson’s sense of humour is rather wicked; she makes swipes at both characters at points, as well as addressing, in the most tongue-in-cheek manner, the things which they stand for: ‘(You need not be afraid. There is not going to be very much about the cause in this book.)’
There are many serious themes at play within I Pose, but there is a comical edge to the whole; nothing becomes too serious that it feels maudlin to the reader. For instance, ‘The Suffragette gave Holloway Gaol as her permanent address’. The storyline is rather exciting, and offers something rather different to the majority of its contemporaries. The Gardener and the Suffragette decide to go along with societal convention in a way, and pose as a married couple. Their reasoning for such a choice, however, is a little out of the ordinary; they do so in order to be able to board a ship and travel to a secluded island community.
I Pose is a nicely balanced work, and another which does not deserve to go unread by the majority. It has so much to say about the world – both that which has passed, and that which we are currently living within. I do think, however, on reflection, that I had been a little spoilt by beginning my foray into Benson’s work with This Is The End and Living Alone. Both are immediately engaging, and whilst I was continually intrigued and surprised by I Pose, it didn’t quite have the same amount of polish. One can understand why – this is a debut novel after all – but the lack of magical realism, which I have become so fond of in Benson’s later work, is felt. I got a little less out of the novel than I thought I would, unfortunately, but it is still one which I would heartily recommend, particularly if you are just starting off with Benson’s work.