Reviewed by Simon Thomas
One of the more unusual novelists being reprinted at the moment is Stella Benson. Her work is issued by Michael Walmer, a one-man publishing house that is reprinting various neglected novelists in the order their novels were originally published. This Is The End is Benson’s second (from 1917), and comes immediately before the one that is probably most remembered now, Living Alone, about very curious witches.
I want to say that This Is The End is not supernatural, but any definite statement about a Benson novel feels like a trap waiting to happen; the reader never quite knows which genre they’re reading, or what sort of response is required. Except that laughter will always be involved somewhere.
The mainstay of the plot, such as it is, revolves around Jay Martin, who has run away from her well-to-do home and taken up life as a bus conductor. She sends home various letters giving clues about her hideaway – only all the clues are fabrications, and concern a House by the Sea that doesn’t actually exist (or… does it? This, later on, is where things get murky). The family are on the hunt for her, including hangers-on who have never actually met her, and have no knowledge of what she looks like.
In summarising anything from the novel, I feel as though I have already been chastised by Benson. In the first few pages, demonstrating her knack for breaking the narrative and addressing the audience, she writes:
I might as well introduce you to the Family before I settle down to the story. From careful study of the press reviews I gather that a story is considered a necessary thing in a novel, so this time I am going to try and include one.
This may be an arch rebuttal to critiques of her first novel, I Pose; I’m not sure. What she does do is unsettle any sense of the nuclear family at the centre of a novel. I’m not sure if we ever learn how the people are actually related, but dominant among them is the glorious Mrs Gustus (if I were to make a stab, I’d say cousin-in-law). She is also known as Anonyma, and is a bombastic, self-important, and autocratic novelist. Anonyma is a wonderful creation, and everything she said made me laugh. Anybody who believes the hype they have created for themselves (she believes herself to be a great novelist thinking deep thoughts) and is without self-awareness is always great fun to read about. (Or, I suppose, tragic, depending on the type of novel.)
And I must put in a word for the cowed Mr Russell. More especially for his Hound. And more especially still for this introduction to the two of them, which I loved:
He often talked to his dog; he told it every speakable thought he had. This was his only bad habit. Occasionally his dog was heard to reply in a small curious voice proceeding also from Mr Russell.
This assorted family traipse over the countryside on the fruitless task of finding Jay, who (meanwhile) pontificates from her bus conductor’s stance on the class system, politics, and the nature of existence. Benson’s characters often seem to do this sort of thing, but never in a very earnest manner, and it’s diverting rather than radical. But the war is not absent from the novel; far from it. This Is The End was published in 1917 and is set in 1916; war is everywhere. It is chiefly present in the figure of Jay’s brother and confidante Kew, home on leave. He doesn’t describe battle at length or anything like that, and what he says maintains the surreal comedy of the rest of the novel, but somehow he introduces a sobering element that grounds the strangeness of the prose.
That strangeness rather increases as the novel moves forward. I never worked out what was going on when the narrative talked about Jay’s ‘Secret Friend’ (it certainly wasn’t a real person; more a symptom of her imaginative world) and the borderlines between reality and fantasy are so elastic that there isn’t any way to keep an even keel while reading. Towards the end of the novel, there is a sentence that is essentially a reflection on all that has proceeded: ‘It’s a complicated little sum, and the result is – what?’ I don’t know. But always better too much imagination than too little. Stella Benson was a true original, and This Is The End can be read either as a bizarre, witty comedy with a hidden social commentary, or… I don’t know! Something even stranger, and (perhaps) closer to genius. It’s nearly a century since This Is The End was written, and I think she might still be ahead of her time.
Simon Thomas is one of the Shiny New Books editors, and every time he picked this up, started singing Adele’s ‘Skyfall’…
Stella Benson, This Is The End (Michael Walmer, Adelaide, 1917 repr.2014), 978-0992422080, paperback, 244pp.