Since one disastrous occasion to which I shan’t link, I prefer not to request review copies of books for this blog; I worry that the responsibility of reading and posting about them would be a bit too much like homework and, worse than that, I don’t really want to write about books I haven’t liked, it’s a soul-destroying experience for both me and the unlucky author. However, one look at the publisher’s description of Living Alone and I felt confident enough that I’d like it to ask for a review copy. (Also, Stella Benson is unfortunately but safely dead and can’t be distressed by anything I might write.)
It’s an unusual novel, in tone and in structure. Over the greyness and misery of daily life in London during the continuing First World War is embroidered the bright antics of a witch unhampered by deceit or redundant convention. We first encounter her crashing into a meeting of six ladies of a committee on war savings:
‘I stole this bun,’ she explained frankly. ‘There is an uninterned German baker after me.’
‘And why did you steal it?’ asked Miss Ford, pronouncing the H in ‘why’ with a haughty and terrifying sound of suction.
The Stranger sighed. ‘Because I couldn’t afford to buy it.’
‘And wHy could you not afford to buy the bun?’ asked Miss Ford. ‘A big strong girl like you.’
You will notice that she had had a good deal of experience in social work.
The Stranger said: ‘Up till ten o’clock this morning I was of the leisured classes like yourselves. I had a hundred pounds.’
Lady Arabel was one of the kindest people in the world, but even she quivered at the suggestion of a common leisure. The sort of clothes the Stranger wore Lady Arabel would have called ‘too dretful.’ [...]
‘You have squandered all that money?’ pursued Miss Ford.
‘Yes. In ten minutes.’
A thrill ran through all six members. Several mouths watered.
‘I am ashamed of you,’ said Miss Ford. ‘I hope the baker will catch you. Don’t you know that your country is engaged in the greatest conflict in history? A hundred pounds ... you might have put it in the War Loan.’
‘Yes,’ said the Stranger. ‘I did. That’s how I squandered it.’
Miss Ford seemed to be partially drowned by this reply. One could see her wits fighting for air.
Despite the ladies’ disapproval of the witch, who gives them a false name, admits to revelling in giving people unexpected gifts and then casts a spell (‘The forgotten April and the voices of lambs pealed like bells into the room...’), they are attracted by her magic and insouciance and all of them find their way to her home on Mitten Island, the House of Living Alone. Of all of them, however, only impoverished and dull spinster Sarah Brown takes up lodging there. A series of improbable and magical things happen to her...
(Picture from a German newspaper showing a zeppelin raid on central London on the night of the 17th August, 1915; actually it seems that the zeppelin commander missed his bearings and it was Leytonstone that bore the brunt of the attack, Tower Bridge remaining undamaged; source and information here)
The book is structured in a sequence of paired and contrasting chapters. In the first, the witch comes to the committee; in the second, they come to her. In the third the other lodger in the House of Living Alone, Peony, tells how ‘the Everlasting Boy’, Cupid, came into her life; in the fourth Sarah Brown allows the witch into her office. We witness an air raid (because zeppelins dropped bombs on Britain from 1915 onwards) from a shelter (where not all the guests are quite what they seem) and above (where the witch engages a German witch in combat). Each chapter provides a contrast and thereby a sort of implicit commentary on its pair. The contrast is between the joyous, subversive world of magic and the imagination – a rough Bohemianism – and the drab, spiritually impoverished world that so many people inhabit. True, the latter part of the First World War was a particularly miserable time to inhabit, and part of Benson’s ire is directed against war itself, but her protest against stifling convention and unimaginativeness is evergreen. And her characters feel, somewhere, that lack in themselves and cannot help responding to the witch.
‘How d’you mean – escape the Law? Didn’t you know that all magic lives and thrives on the wrath of the Law? [...] What do you want Magic to become? A branch of the Civil Service?’
The witch, Peony and Sarah Brown live a very hand-to-mouth existence, in which you might need to pawn your earrings to pay your fare home, or borrow some money from your friends if you want to give them dinner because there is no food in the house. Poverty is not glamorous, and freedom has its price. Yet wealth – comparative and absolute – does not enrich the other characters’ minds: it isolates them, stunts their generosity and binds them to itself rather than freeing them to beautify the world. The novel is very much the side of ‘the Naughty Poor’ who are not sufficiently humble and deserving for the sanctimonious do-gooding of the middle and upper classes (who are, of course, also the classes who dragged the country into war). Even so, Benson is sympathetic to her committee ladies; she pokes fun at them (Lady Arabel in particular is a delight) but she recognises that they have their courage and their sadnesses too.
On the back cover of this edition is an extremely apt quote from a Punch review, ‘A magic book made out of laughter and tears’. The social comedy is tempered by the bombs, the sheer meanness of everyday life. In walking the line of the fantastical, Living Alone is vulnerable to falling into whimsy, but in my opinion it deftly avoids this. The witch, the fairies, they remain heartless in the end. There are no easy answers, everyone must make their own path, and rebelling against the system does not bring a comfortable life, as Sarah Brown is to discover.
Under the humour and the light handling, this is an angry book, raging against the world.
How sad it is that people who have once lived in the House of Living Alone can never make a success of friendship. You say you left all you loved – what business have you with love?
My review copy was generously provided by Michael Walmer of Walmer Books; it’s a very nice edition and you can find information on how to order here.