Pipers and a Dancer, by Stella Benson

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Review by Helen Parry

Mrs Hinds beamed at Ipsie through pince-nez and bubbled her joy through thin lips, but Ipsie made no reply. Americans see English people always reduced to dumbness on first introduction; they must think us an oddly inarticulate race. However, I suppose they think of William Shakespeare and Ethel M. Dell and hope for the best. […]

Stella Benson was a novelist, poet, feminist and travel writer admired by Virginia Woolf; she was friends with Winifred Holtby and Naomi Mitchison, among others. Successful and award-winning in her lifetime, after her early death in 1933 her work melted away from the public eye. Her first four novels have now been re-published by Michael Walmer (see here for Simon’s review of This is the End); Pipers and a Dancer is the fifth. Like her earlier books, it is haunted by the First World War, but it is less fantastical than the first three (although Benson writes as if seeing a world that is fantastical). It contrasts sprightly humour with glimpses of despair and alienation.

After the First World War, in which all three of her brothers perished, Ipsie (short for Hippolyta) travels to China to marry Jacob Heming, ‘fat and handsome’, who runs the electrical plant in Yueh Lai Chou. Coincidentally, on the boat to Hong Kong she meets Rodd, a young American on his way out to take over Jacob’s job, and the two of them strike up a friendship. In other circumstances, who knows what might have happened? Ipsie is certainly happy to fantasise about her effect on Rodd.

Once arrived in Hong Kong, Ipsie stays with Pauline, Jacob’s formidable sister, while Rodd continues on to Yueh Lai Chou. Easygoing as Rodd is, he is horrified by the boorish, truculent Jacob and convinced that Ipsie cannot marry him. With distance, Ipsie’s charms grow. What should Rodd do?

And then Jacob is abducted by brigands…

Despite its dark streak, this is principally a social comedy which bowls along at a jaunty pace. Benson observes her characters with a satirical eye. Jacob is unremittingly awful, a racist, self-pitying bully loathed by Chinese and expats alike; his sister Pauline is quite possibly a repressed lesbian who basks in the adulation of her little social circle, especially that of ‘withered’ Sophie Hinds, the artistic American widow who once hoped to marry Jacob herself. Naturally there is also a caddish Captain with a fast car. Everyone rattles about purposelessly. 

As they all walked towards the ferry, Ipsie, in a ring of kind faces all at a rather higher level than her own, felt herself physically and spiritually to be a ‘sweet little thing.’ Pauline imposed this feeling on her and Ipsie was not cynical enough to throw it off easily. Ipsie’s face assumed a pert childish look and she began to think of sweet little things she might say about Hongkong to make them all laugh affectionately again. Ipsie could feel this sweetness coming on remorselessly like an attack of indigestion or a swelling after a mosquito bite. ‘Hang it all,’ she said to herself irritably. ‘I’m not sweet and I won’t be little. Where am I all this time? What is this person in my skin?’

Ipsie is the ‘dancer’ of the title. She doesn’t really have a sense of self at all; instead, she adopts different personae depending on whom she is talking to. She is well aware of this and imagines herself in thrall to a ‘showman’: 

Ipsie was cruelly and deliciously obsessed by her Showman. All her life she had been exhibited by a showman before a ghostly and ideal public.

The Showman ‘exhibits’ Ipsie in a series of rôles as the situation or interlocutor requires: a Red Cross worker (‘She wore a becoming white handkerchief round her head and a strained expression to match her disguise – the expression of one who never for a moment forgot her dear ones at the front and never for a moment forgot that she never forgot them’), a bereaved sister (who writes letters with ‘a “new depth” to them’), a dabbling artist, a fiancée. 

However, in the Hemings Ipsie has met her match. Until now she has chosen the characters she will play; Pauline and Jacob wish to impose their ideas on her. Pauline refers to her as ‘my new little sister’; for Jacob she is his ‘wee Mary’ (Mary is her first name, which she never uses) who will make him a ‘cosy’ wife; both wish her to be small, contained, dependent. Ipsie rejects these identities: but then who is she? And what does she want from life, when the only person who has ever mattered to her, Conrad, is dead?

There never had been a perfect man in the world except her brother Conrad. There was no perfect man in the world now.

Stella Benson worked in a mission school in China for a year; her descriptions of the land and its peoples strike a convincing but alienated note. Her European and American characters have little understanding of or interest in the Chinese; the landscape is beautiful but threatening and strange. Perhaps this is why the social comedy falters the further they travel into the interior, although the sense of the absurd persists. 

This is an original, very funny and rather sad novel of a generation whose world was smashed and who cannot recover from it. If you haven’t yet discovered the fiction of Stella Benson, Pipers and a Dancer is a great place to start.

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Helen Parry blogs at a gallimaufry.

Stella Benson, Pipers and a Dancer (first published, 1924; new edition, Michael Walmer, 2023). 978-0645244069, 242 pp., paperback.

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