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‘I Pose’ by Stella Benson ***

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.9780987483522

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.

Purchase from The Book Depository

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Neglected Women Writers’ Month: Stella Benson

Stella Benson is an author whom I discovered some years ago, and I immediately fell in love with her writing style and creativity.  Her magical realism made such an effect on me and, without exception, her stories are incredibly memorable.

Stella-BensonBorn in Shropshire in 1892, Stella Benson battled with illness throughout her life.  She moved frequently with her parents, and spent time in schools in both Germany and Switzerland.  She began to write a diary at the age of ten, a project which she continued throughout her life, and at around the age of fourteen, when she had begun to write poetry, her parents separated, and she saw her father infrequently from then on.  She travelled, visiting the West Indies in 1913, and was involved in both the Suffrage Movement, and charity work for poor women in London.  She lived in China, where she married in 1921, and died in Vietnam in 1933.

“London is a friend whom I can leave knowing without doubt that she will be the same to me when I return, to-morrow or forty years hence, and that, if I do not return, she will sing the same song to inheritors of my happy lot in future generations. Always, whether sleeping or waking, I shall know that in Spring the sun rides over the silver streets of Kensington, and that in the Gardens the shorn sheep find very green pasture. Always the plaited threads of traffic will wind about the reel of London; always as you up Regent Street from Pall Mall and look back, Westminster will rise with you like a dim sun over the horizon of Whitehall. That dive down Fleet Street and up to the black and white cliffs of St. Paul’s will for ever bring to mind some rumour of romance. There is always a romance that we leave behind in London, and always London enlocks that flower for us, and keeps it fresh, so that when we come back we have our romance again.”
(From This Is the End)

Stella Benson’s bibliography can be found here.

Snippets:
– A fantastically thorough review of Stella Benson’s 1919 work Living Alone can be found on The City of Lost Books.
– The Imaginary Museum has published a fascinating blog post entitled ‘Unearthing Stella Benson’; read it here.
– You can read about Stella Benson’s experiences in the Great War here.

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Poetry Picks: Where to Start, and Where to Continue

I have been speaking to a lot of English students about poetry of late, and it seems that they either adore it and cannot get enough, or really don’t know where to start.  I have been sharing weekly poems on the blog almost since its inception, and thought I would make a little guide of where to start with poetry, and where to continue with it if you are already a fan.  I have adored work by the poets below, and would highly recommend them, both for new and established readers of one of the most beautiful forms which literature has given us.

1. Stella Benson (1892-1933; British feminist); begin with Twenty
2. Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950; American lyrical poet and playwright); begin with Renascence and Other Poems

Edward Thomas

3. Edward Thomas (1878-1917; British poet, essayist, and novelist); begin with Collected Poems
4. Jo Shapcott (1953-; English poet, editor and lecturer); begin with Of Mutability
5. Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926; Bohemian-Austrian poet); begin with Letters to a Young Poet
6. Ted Hughes (1938-1998; English poet and children’s author); begin with Birthday Letters
7. Ruben Dario (1867-1916; Nicaraguan poet); begin with Eleven Poems

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One From the Archive: Five Favourite Authors

First published in July 2013.

1. Elizabeth McCracken
I read the marvellous The Giant’s House whilst I was still a teenager, and have read it many more times since.  McCracken’s writing is truly lovely, and the characters she crafts stay with the reader long after the last page has been read.

Tove Jansson

Tove Jansson

2. Tove Jansson
Jansson is best known as the creator of The Moomins, but her adult fiction is just as wonderful.  To fit the season, I would recommend The Summer Book, which is a glorious musing on life on a tiny Scandinavian island.

3. Jon McGregor
I first read McGregor a good few years ago, when my Dad recommended the stunning If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things to me.  It is a novel which challenges your perceptions, and its storyline and characters, whilst not named, are so very memorable.

4. Sylvia Townsend Warner
Despite only having read one of her novels (Lolly Willowes, or the Loving Huntsman) and one of her short story collections (The Doll’s House and Other Stories), Townsend Warner is one of my favourite authors on the Virago list.  She creates such atmosphere, and her characters are wonderfully crafted.  The majority of her stories contain unexpected twists, and her writing is very lovely indeed.  I would recommend beginning with either of the titles listed above in order to get a real sense of her style.

Stella Benson

Stella Benson

5. Stella Benson
For some reason unbeknownst to me, Stella Benson is rather a neglected twentieth century author.  Her writing is glorious, and the way in which she uses magical realism against the ordinary aspects of the lives of her characters is marvellous.  I would recommend the lovely Living Alone, set during the First World War.  Who cannot fail to be charmed by the following author introduction?

This is not a real book. It does not deal with real people, nor should it be read by real people. But there are in the world so many real books already written for the benefit of real people, and there are still so many to be written, that I cannot believe that a little alien book such as this, written for the magically-inclined minority, can be considered too assertive a trespasser.

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Sunday Snapshot: Five Authors

For today’s Sunday Snapshot, I have chosen to write a list of five authors, whose work you may not have read.  I have listed my favourite of their books beside their names for your perusal.

1. Elizabeth McCracken
I read the marvellous The Giant’s House whilst I was still a teenager, and have read it many more times since.  McCracken’s writing is truly lovely, and the characters she crafts stay with the reader long after the last page has been read.

2. Tove Jansson
Jansson is best known as the creator of The Moomins, but her adult fiction is just as wonderful.  To fit the season, I would recommend The Summer Book, which is a glorious musing on life on a tiny Scandinavian island.

3. Jon McGregor
I first read McGregor a good few years ago, when my Dad recommended the stunning If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things to me.  It is a novel which challenges your perceptions, and its storyline and characters, whilst not named, are so very memorable.

4. Sylvia Townsend Warner
Despite only having read one of her novels (Lolly Willowes, or the Loving Huntsman) and one of her short story collections (The Doll’s House and Other Stories), Townsend Warner is one of my favourite authors on the Virago list.  She creates such atmosphere, and her characters are wonderfully crafted.  The majority of her stories contain unexpected twists, and her writing is very lovely indeed.  I would recommend beginning with either of the titles listed above in order to get a real sense of her style.

5. Stella Benson
For some reason unbeknownst to me, Stella Benson is rather a neglected twentieth century author.  Her writing is glorious, and the way in which she uses magical realism against the ordinary aspects of the lives of her characters is marvellous.  I would recommend the lovely Living Alone, set during the First World War.  Who cannot fail to be charmed by the following author introduction?

This is not a real book. It does not deal with real people, nor should it be read by real people. But there are in the world so many real books already written for the benefit of real people, and there are still so many to be written, that I cannot believe that a little alien book such as this, written for the magically-inclined minority, can be considered too assertive a trespasser.