Reviewed by Harriet
Published in 1931 and newly reissued in the British Library Women Writers Series, this is a fascinating book in a number of ways. If you’ve read anything about it, you’ll know that one of these is the striking use of what’s often known as the sliding doors moment (from the 1998 film of that name). Who hasn’t wondered what would have happened if we’d made a different decision – said yes instead of no? Benson gives Claudia Heseltine not one but three of such moments, each one precipitated by the same situation:
There was a fire in the room, very comforting and gay. It threw a lovely sheet of orange on the big armchairs on each side of it….An antique clock marked time in a hushed monotone. Only the fire was alive, consuming its life – for what? Then the door opened and as Claudia came with hurried steps into the fire’s glow, two open letters in her hand, the telephone began ringing. She shut the door and turned up the lights.
This quotation is actually from the first chapter – Part One – and the reader is going to have to wait till Parts Three, Four and Five to discover what happens when Claudia accepts each one of the three invitations she’s just received. Before that happens, there’s a lengthy Part Two which sets the scene and introduces the reader to the main players. Above all, of course, there’s Claudia herself. And what an interesting character she is. She was strong-minded as a small child, and her parents had hoped she’d continue that way, ‘stand up for herself and know what she wanted and not drift’. Sadly, these things did not come to pass. Highly intelligent and amazingly well-read, with a profound love of beauty, Claudia leaves finishing school with no idea what she wants to do with her life, but this bothers her not in the least. Going to parties, gossiping with girlfriends, and ‘running about’ with a string of young men seems to her quite enough for a satisfying existence. As she moves into her twenties, she does meet some interesting men, but no-one with whom she feels ready to share her life. One such is Hugo Lester, a successful young novelist, who is very taken with her. But though she finds him ‘invigorating’, and dreads losing him as a friend (‘he’s become such a habit, such a refreshment!’), she’s not ready for anything more. Then, at a party, she meets Guy Verney. He’s a married man (unhappily so, it’s said), mature and attractive, and Claudia feels ‘a little fascinated by him’. And then her friend Rosemary invites her to a weekend house-party where there’ll be a special guest – the celebrated athlete Lionel Byng, as famous for his gorgeous looks as for his athletic prowess.
Each of the three invitations Claudia received at the beginning involves one of these men. There’s Rosemary’s house-party, a letter from Hugo inviting her to spend his birthday weekend with his parents (where, she suspects, he’s likely to propose), and a phone call from her friend Lalage insisting she comes to a party at which Guy Verney will be present. Of course all three clash – which one will she accept?
In Part Three, feeling ‘like a cad’, she apologises profusely to Hugo and politely to Rosemary. She goes to Lalage’s party, which precipitates her into a complicated relationship with Guy. He is kind and protective and they spend a great deal of time together. But she gets too involved despite her determination not to, and when Guy draws back she becomes devastated and needy. By the end of that section she is wishing she’d gone to Hugo’s weekend, and in Part Four that’s exactly what she does. Needless to say the expected proposal ensues:
‘Please, please marry me Claudia. Will you marry me, darling?’
‘Yes, if you want’.
Not the most promising of beginnings (‘She must give him what he asked, he was so dear a friend’), but the marriage ticks on peacefully enough until she encounters Guy Verney at a party and is immediately propelled into a full-blown adulterous love affair. And then, in Part Five, it’s Rosemary’s weekend party she goes to, and she’s immediately struck by Lionel Byng: ‘He’s the most magnificent man I’ve ever seen!’. She soon finds out that, despite the ‘deep dark eyes’ that look as if they contained a mystery, Lionel is extremely stupid. Claudia is forced to conceal her own cleverness to maintain the image he has of her as ‘innocent, flower-like and gay’. She’s soon very much in love and happy to marry him. But eventually she reignites her friendship with Hugo and now this leads to an intense love affair. Should she go away with him and abandon her husband and child?
An excellent plot idea, then, and carried out impressively. But there’s more to enjoy here. It’s hard not to feel a sort of fascinated horror at the complete emptiness of Claudia’s life, or lives. Of course she must be typical of a wealthy young society woman of the late 1920s or early 30s, and I was reminded of Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise [reviewed here] in which a lot of wealthy, well-educated young people waste their lives in a similar way. Both novels are also peppered with literary references: in Which Way each chapter has one or more epigraphs from poetry or prose, sometimes in French, from a wide range of writers from Chaucer to Verlaine, a demonstration of Benson’s impressively wide reading. This trait reappears in Claudia herself – she remains an avid reader, loves to be read to (poetry in the case of Hugo, pulp fiction for Lionel), and can quote almost anything at the drop of a hat, though, like many intellectuals, she has a fondness for pop culture. She’s a regular churchgoer, though her religion seems pretty superficial and conventional. Most surprising, for the day and age, is her total ignorance of sex: her mother has tried to convey to her ‘various things of vaguely sinister import’ before her marriage to Hugo but she hasn’t listened, so her wedding night comes as a shock: ‘Claudia cried a good deal on her honeymoon. Hogo was very understanding and forbearing and kind’. A complex character, then, not always entirely likeable, but a remarkable creation by Benson.
I could go on. There’s so much to enjoy in this delightful, thought-provoking book. As always there’s useful introductory material and a helpful Afterword by Shiny co-founder Simon Thomas. A great addition to a great series.
Harriet is co-founder and one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Theodora Benson, Which Way (British Library, 2021). 978-0712353984, 212pp., paperback original.
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