Like David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus, Stella Benson’s Living Alone (1919) was published in the aftermath of the First World War. Both books set out to attack the conventional world, but if their attack was kicked off by a disgust with the horrors of war, the anti-conventional impulse was deep within these writers already. The main difference between the books is in their method of attack: Lindsay’s approach is to tear the conventional world to shreds to prove there’s nothing worth saving, while Benson satirises, using her ‘magic people’ — her witches and wizards — as exemplars of unconventionality, to show the world what it has lost. The odd thing is that, though a comedy, Benson’s book contains almost as much of a tragic note as Lindsay’s.
Living Alone starts with a woman bursting in on a charity committee. She’s just stolen a bun and needs to hide from the police. The committee, whose job is to sort the worthy from the unworthy, immediately starts trying to find excuses not to help her. But she doesn’t want help. The woman is a witch. She has packets of magic in her pockets.
‘Now witches and wizards, as you perhaps know, are people who are born for the first time. I suppose we have all passed through this fair experience, we must all have had our chance of making magic. But to most of us it came in the boring beginning of time, and we wasted our best spells on plesiosauri, and protoplasms, and angels with flaming swords, all of whom knew magic too, and were not impressed.’
One of the committee members, a woman called Sarah Brown, goes to the witch’s home, a shop-and-boarding house at ‘Number 100 Beautiful Way, Mitten Island, London’. This house is called Living Alone:
‘It is meant to provide for the needs of those who dislike hotels, clubs, settlements, hostels, boarding-houses, and lodgings only less than their own homes; who detest landladies, waiters, husbands and wives, charwomen, and all forms of lookers after. This house is a monastery and a convent for monks and nuns dedicated to unknown gods. Men and women who are tired of being laboriously kind to their bodies, who like to be a little uncomfortable and quite uncared for, who love to live from week to week without speaking, except to confide their destinations to ’bus-conductors, who are weary of woolly decorations, aspidistras, and the eternal two generations of roses which riot among blue ribbons on hireling wall-papers, who are ignorant of the science of tipping and thanking, who do not know how to cook yet hate to be cooked for, will here find the thing they have desired, and something else as well.’
There are three types of alone-ness in Benson’s novel. The first is the natural lack of need for company — a self-sufficiency born from a rather childlike self-absorption and self-centredness — exemplified by the witch. In comparison to the conventional-minded — as typified by those who sit on committees (‘and a committee, of course, exists for the purpose of damping enthusiasms’) — these are the un-fallen innocents of the world, who ‘are not blinded by having a Point of View. They just look, and are very much surprised and interested.’ But, as much as they’re childlike and innocent, they’re also not fully formed as human beings:
‘A heart is a sort of degree conferred by Providence on those who have passed a certain examination. Magic people are only freshmen in our college, and it is useless for us—secure in the possession of many learned letters after our names—to despise them. They will become sophisticated in due course.’
Being ‘sophisticated’ is the second type of alone-ness — not separation from other people, but from one’s deeper self. Those who are ‘sophisticated’ are the sort to sit on judgemental charitable committees, and are isolated from others not by childlike innocence, but by the assumption of an inauthentic, self-blinding maturity:
‘Mr. Darnby Frere was the editor of an advanced religious paper called I Wonder, but he never wondered really. He knew almost everything, and therefore, while despising the public for knowing so little, he encouraged it to continue wondering, so that he might continue despising and instructing it.’
This is the social self divorced from the truer, deeper self:
‘Religion which has forgotten ecstasy…. Law which has forgotten justice…. Charity which has forgotten love….’
The tragedy of Benson’s novel lies in the third type of alone-ness. This belongs to one character only, Sarah Brown. Sarah Brown (who’s always given both names, as if in an attempt to make her a distanced, comic everywoman figure, though it seems to me she’s the closest to an authorial self-portrait in the book) is not so mired in the conventional world that she refuses to acknowledge the existence of magic (unlike the increasingly red-faced policeman, who insists on interpreting everything in mundane terms, even while wanting to arrest the witch for ‘being in possession of an armed flying machine’ — her broom), while also knowing she herself isn’t magical. Sarah Brown, then, can see both the innocent paradise of the magical and the cynical worldliness of the conventional, but can fit into neither. She knows, for instance, she’s not the ‘True Love’ of the dashingly unconventional wizard Richard; she also knows that, even as she leaves London for New York, it will no more be her true home (‘America, you know, would be entirely magic, if it weren’t for the Americans’) than London was. Sarah Brown has something within her that makes her unfit both for civilised company and her own solitude:
‘She could not bear touch. She had no pleasure in seeing or feeling the skin and homespun that encloses men and women. She hated to watch people feeding themselves, or to see her own thin body in the mirror. She ought really to have been born a poplar tree; a human body was a gift wasted on her.’
And, having set foot in the house — having admitted her alone-ness — it’s as though she can never leave it, and can never be anything but alone:
‘How can you ever be far from home, you, a dweller in the greatest home of all. Did you think you had destroyed the House of Living Alone? Did you think you could escape from it?’
But for most of it, the book is lightly magical and nonsensical, not so much a story as a series of skits. Some of the chapters could be extracted as short stories, such as chapter VI, ‘An Air Raid Seen From Above’, where the witch of the House of Living Alone, flying over London, gets into a fight with a German counterpart, who, though magical, has somehow been co-opted into the cynical world’s endeavours:
“We are Crusaders,” said the German. “Crusaders at War with Evil.”
“Why, how funny—so are we,” said our witch. “But then how very peculiar that two Crusaders should apparently be fighting each other. Where then is the Evil? In No Man’s Land?”
Despite being set in wartime, Benson’s book is a self-declared ‘book of fine weather’, ostensibly written for frivolity and fun. Magic and the war are entangled, but not in the way you’d expect:
“I suppose the War was made by black magic,” suggested Sarah Brown, trying to talk intelligently and to be faithful to her own thoughts at the same time.
“Good Lord, no,” replied Richard. “The worst of this war is that it has nothing whatever to do with magic of any sort. It was made and is supported by men who had forgotten magic…”
To me, Living Alone meanders over the fine line between being satirically funny and wilfully twee, though there were enough little gems to keep me going. For instance:
‘Fairies are never ill. They have immortal bodies, but no souls. If they see you in pain, they simply think you are flaunting your superiority and your immortal soul in their faces.’
Or, the moment when Sarah Brown and the Witch set eyes on America:
“Here we are,” said the witch to Sarah Brown. “At least, I suppose this City on its Tiptoes is New York. Do you think I ought to call the attention of the Captain to that largish lady on our left, who seems to be marooned upon a rock, and signalling to us for help?”
“I could of course cure you of the nerve-storms you speak of. Or rather I could help you to have nerve-storms all the time, without any stagnant grown-upness in between. Then you wouldn’t notice the nerve-storms.”
At times, I found myself thinking that Living Alone could never be published today, it is so wilfully eccentric, but at other times I couldn’t help feeling it might fit easily into the world of the Harry Potter books.