Benson, Stella (1892–1933)
Benson, Stella (1892–1933)
Modernist English novelist, poet, and travel writer who actively campaigned for women's rights before and during World War I and in Hong Kong during the early 1930s. Name variations: Stella Benson O'Gorman Anderson. Born Stella Benson on January 6, 1892, in Shropshire, England; died on December 6,1933, in Hongay in the Chinese province of Tongking (now Vietnam), of pneumonia and heart failure; buried on the Ile de Charbon near Baie d'Along; daughter of Caroline Essex (Cholmondeley) and Ralph Beaumont Benson, both landed gentry; educated at home; married Shaemus (James) O'Gorman Anderson (a Chinese government customs official), on September 29, 1921; children: none.
French Vie Heureuse Prize (1932) for Tobit Transplanted (published in U.S. as The Far-Away Bride) and the A.C. Benson silver medal for service to literature (1932).
Began lifelong practice of writing diary (1901); wrote I Pose (1915), a feminist satire about the suffrage movement; wrote novels, poems, and short stories, mixing fantasy and satire; traveled alone, often ill but self-supporting, to Berkeley, California (1918–19), to China and India (1920–21); traveled to the U.S. with husband; moved to China with husband, settling in Mengtsz (1922–25), then Shanghai, followed by Lung Ching Tsun (1925–27), Nanning (1929–30), Hong Kong (1930–31), and Pakhoi (1931–33).
I Pose (1915); This Is the End (1917); (poems) Twenty (1918); Living Alone (1919); Kwan-Yin (1922); The Poor Man (1922); Pipers and a Dancer (1924); (self-illustrated essays) The Little World (1925); The Awakening: A Fantasy (1925); Goodbye, Stranger (1926); (self-illustrated essays) Worlds within Worlds (1928); The Man Who Missed the Bus: A Story (1928); The Far-Away Bride (1930, republished as Tobit Transplanted, 1931); Hope Against Hope and Other Stories (1932); Christmas Formula and Other Stories (1931); (with Count Nicolas de Toulouse Lautrec de Savine, K.M.) Pull Devil, Pull Baker (1933); Mundos: An Unfinished Novel (1935); Poems (1935); Collected Short Stories (1936).
Stella Benson came of age during the woman's suffrage movement in early 20th-century England. In 1910, forced by severe illness to spend 18 months convalescing in a sanatorium, Benson, aged 18, devoted her time to reading and reflecting on the feminist ideas and arguments which were then drawing considerable attention in the popular intellectual and political press; she determined to strike out on her own.
It is difficult to imagine a less likely candidate for feminine independence than Stella Benson. At that time, it was usual for girls of her upper-class status to remain in their parents' keep, reared as Edwardian ladies, supported at home until marriage. Moreover, Benson was a frail child, beset by serious respiratory illnesses, often bedridden for months. Judged too sick to attend school, she had been tutored at home by governesses. Nevertheless, in 1913, against her mother's objections, 21-year-old Stella Benson left her home in Shropshire for an independent life in London, where she took up a series of jobs to support herself, producing novels which eventually brought her fame as a modernist writer and launching her own "private Stellarian Suffrage Campaign" of argument and persuasion.
By the spring of 1913, the suffrage movement had turned confrontational. In her thinking about the struggle for the vote for women, Benson shifted away from support for the moderate, constitutional methods of protest espoused by Millicent Fawcett 's National Union of Suffrage Societies to explore the more militant policies of Emmeline Pankhurst 's Women's Social and Political Union. Benson's reconsideration was influenced by the admired suicide of the militant suffragist Emily Wilding Davison , who had flung herself in front of the king's horse at the Derby. Davison's suicidal act became a defining event in Benson's first novel, I Pose (1915), narrated from a feminist point of view. Through wit, irony, and understatement, I Pose deftly underscores limited potential identities, or "poses," for women. Her woman hero can conceive of but two roles for self-creation: she may either submit to love in marriage with a charming man who does not honor her autonomy, or she may fight as a militant suffragist, indeed, deliberately killing herself while causing an explosion in a church in an effort to expose an anti-woman collaboration between business and the Anglican Church. The critic R. Meredith Bedell asserts: "Benson's recurring concern is the isolation of the individual in the modern world. And her vision is broad enough, her compassion great enough, to include both sexes in her sympathy." I Pose punctures pretensions, satirizing commercialized art, institutionalized religion, and organized causes, including even the suffrage movement, which prompted Rebecca West , a suffragist herself, to write in 1915: "How superbly you've done the snake that was the soul of the suffrage movement. How lucky you are to have written the only novel of genius about the Suffrage."
Born on January 6, 1892, in Lutwyche Hall in Shropshire, England, Stella Benson was the third child of four and the second daughter of Caroline Essex Cholmondeley and Ralph Beaumont Benson. The Cholmondeleys belonged to the acknowledged ruling elite of England, whereas the Bensons had gathered their fortune more recently in the 18th century by managing slaves in the West Indies, a taint that haunted Stella Benson's serious-minded, disciplinarian father.
Lutwyche Hall, an Elizabethan mansion, cold in winter, had been the Benson family residence for over 100 years. It was an unhealthy environment in which to raise children with fragile health. Stella's sister, two years her senior, fell ill and died when Stella was seven. Although the family had regular quarters at Lutwyche and in London on Norfolk Square, there were many visits to other parts of England and to northern France in search of climate and conditions which would improve Stella's health. Stella had frequent, painful, debilitating, life-threatening bouts of bronchitis, pleurisy, and sinus infection. Of her health, she eventually wrote: "I insist on ignoring the whole condition. Since I can't cure it, I won't be patched up. If I must die, I'll die as alive as I can."
Even as a child, Stella Benson was a gifted writer, artist, and musician. In 1901, aged nine, she began her lifelong habit of writing a diary; it is housed in its remarkable, sparkling entirety at University Library in Cambridge, England, and is quoted extensively in a biography of Benson authored by Joy Grant . In 1905, one of Benson's poems won an award for extreme merit in St. Nicholas Magazine, a high-minded periodical for children. In 1910, she traveled to Freiburg, Germany, to study music and to learn German and French. Her health broke down after one month, whereupon she was sent to Arosa in Switzerland for a year and a half of recuperation and a series of sinus operations which left her permanently deaf in one ear. In Arosa, Stella Benson adopted a feminist position and decided that she would live independently, although before doing so, she took a cruise to Jamaica with her mother, using the time to start writing her first novel, I Pose.
In 1913, aged 21, Stella Benson moved to the Hoxton section of London, a cockney working-class neighborhood marked by its poverty and violence. Illness returned her home. When she later reentered London, she again strove to be financially independent, finding work with the Charity Organization Society. In addition, she went into partnership with a crippled woman making paper bags; she also taught basket-weaving. During the first part of World War I, Benson was a secretary for the Women Writers' Suffrage Union and then for the United Suffragists. Her second novel, This Is the End, was published in 1917. In it, she privileges fantasy. Factuality and marriage punctuate the prosaic, negative denouement of her "suffragetty" woman hero. Her volume of poetry, Twenty, appeared in 1918. As part of the war effort, Benson volunteered to raise vegetables on a farm in Cornwall, missing 48 out of 112 days of work because of illness.
Advised by her physicians to leave England, Benson sailed for New York in 1918. She traveled alone, supporting herself when she ran out of money by working on a farm in Colorado. By December, she arrived in Berkeley, California, where she worked and partied beyond her strength, falling ill with pleurisy which hospitalized her for several weeks. While in California, she supported herself with an assortment of jobs: collecting bills, selling boys' books, giving French lessons, teaching writing at the University of California, and working as a reader for the University of California Press. She co-initiated a poetry club and wrote Living Alone (1919), a novel about a woman who prefers living without liaisons with men. In 1920, weary and heartbroken by a disappointing relationship, she bolted San Francisco for Hong Kong, where she arrived despite a bloody bout of influenza in Japan along the way. Physicians, as they often did, feared tuberculosis.
Of one thing I am certain—when we have the vote, men will see what a small gift it was, and future generations will ask why it was grudged so bitterly.
—The suffragist in I Pose by Stella Benson
In Hong Kong, she taught at a boys' school; in Peking, she was an x-ray technician. While in China, she met her future husband Shaemus (James) O'Gorman Anderson, an official in the Imperialist Chinese Maritime Customs Service, a department of Chinese government staffed by foreigners. Anderson dramatically rescued Benson and her companions from entrapment by Chinese warring factions on the Yangtze River. After continuing her round-the-world travels to India, then home to England, Stella Benson married on September 29, 1921, becoming Mrs. James C. O'Gorman Anderson in private life. Before returning to China, the O'Gorman Andersons drove a car across the United States. Her novel, The Poor Man (1922), satirized aspects of American culture, outraging her friends in California.
Thereafter, Stella Benson lived according to her husband's postings in various outposts of China, an isolation sometimes relieved by travel to California and England. Her loneliness engendered self-criticism and uncertainty. She was intensely alienated by social life among missionaries, whom she came to despise, and bureaucrats, both British and French, none of whom offered the intellectual companionship she sought. Animals, particularly dogs, filled her heart. The O'Gorman Andersons lived in Mengtsz between 1922 and 1925, then Shanghai briefly before settling in Lung Ching Tsun, an extremely cold and remote region near Siberia, where Benson sympathized with the exiled White Russian community. She wrote religiously in her diary and carried on a lively correspondence with friends around the world—with Bertha Pope, Laura Hutton , and Sydney Schiff, for instance, as well as with members of her family and with some of the major women writers of her day, Winifred Holtby, Storm Jameson, Naomi Mitchison , and Virginia Woolf , among others. Benson wrote articles and books: Pipers and a Dancer (1924), a novel about a lover-like relationship between two women, continues to focus on the problem of women isolated in illfitting feminine roles; The Little World (1925) is a collection of travel essays illustrated by Benson; Goodbye, Stranger (1926) is a novel which uses fantasy to explore crucial problems of identity and isolation.
Returning from an unhappy two-year leave in Europe and England (1927–29), Benson wrote her husband: "I insist on being a writer first and a wife second: a man artist would insist and I insist." In the last stages of writing Tobit Transplanted (1931), she joined her husband in Nanning in southern China; six months later, they escaped amid bombs just before the city was razed by warring Chinese armies. In Hong Kong, Benson organized a campaign against selling young Chinese girls into government brothels, a form of sexual slavery condoned by the silence of British officialdom. She felt snubbed and unappreciated by the British community. While her reputation in the world at large was increasing, booksellers in Hong Kong were reluctant to order her books because there was no interest in them. Her collection of short stories, Pull Devil, Pull Baker (1932), attacked the British colonial experience.
In 1932, Stella Benson was awarded the prestigious French Vie Heureuse Prize for Tobit Transplanted and the A.C. Benson silver medal for "services to literature." Her writing was generating more money. On a trip to England, she bought a house in London, hoping to return permanently with her husband.
Tobit Transplanted, published as The Far-Away Bride in the United States, was Stella Benson's most widely read and acclaimed novel. She had always been recognized by a small following as a significant voice, a writer's writer. With Tobit Transplanted, her writing became popular; the book was chosen to represent England in an International P.E.N. Club competition for the best novel written in the last two years.
In Tobit Transplanted, Benson converts the story of Tobit in the Apocrypha into a description of Russian exiles in China—demystifying Biblical occurrences and psychologically rationalizing its characters. Her characters recognize their existential isolation. Her heroine Tanya yearns for unsullied integrity, for separation from men and mating; she meditates:
Containers of uneasy blood, that's all we are. Big and little, male and female, two-legged, four-legged, six-legged, winged and creeping, wise and foolish, we slide and stride and wiggle about the earth until something called death lets the blood out, to be soaked into the ground, to be dried into the air, to form again other containers…. Why should there be any of this merging between one skin-full of blood and bones and another? Why can't we get used to the loneliness of having separate blood? Pitchers may go to the same well, be dipped, and come home full, clinking handles, tinkling together—but always separate—each with its dreadful integrity complete—its inviolate solitary storm of contents. Not till the pitcher is spilled is there a merging—a cold, loveless merging into thirsty space.
Nevertheless, unlike many of Benson's former fictional characters, those in Tobit Transplanted grow and change, choosing fragile connection through pity for the vulnerability of others. Virginia Woolf wrote to Benson praising Tobit:
[Y]ou are getting to the bare bones of things, and I love the bareness, the whiteness, the hardness of your bones. But I don't think that when you say you are dealing with what is common you mean what is cheap, nasty, commonplace, trivial, silly, affected. Not at all, I should say what you have done in Tobit is precisely the opposite—You've eaten away the soft mash and laid bare the bone. And I admit I envy you.
Benson joined her husband in Pakhoi, China, in 1932. On December 6, 1933, while on holiday attempting to restore her health, Stella Benson, aged 41, died of heart failure caused by pneumonia. Her unfinished novel Mundos and a volume of poetry were published posthumously in 1935. Until a revival in the 1980s, her literary reputation languished, along with critical attention to her works.
Bedell, R. Meredith. Stella Benson. Boston, MA: Twayne, 1983.
Benson, Stella. I Pose. London: Macmillan, 1915.
——. The Far-Away Bride. (Tobit Transplanted in England.) NY: Harper & Brothers, 1930.
Grant, Joy. Stella Benson: A Biography. London: Macmillan, 1987.
Roberts, Richard Ellis. Portrait of Stella Benson. London: Macmillan, 1939.
Eastman, Kitti Carriker. "Stella Benson," in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 36. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1985.
Woolf, Virginia. The Letters of Virginia Woolf. Vols. 3, 4, 5. Edited by Nigel Nicholson and Joanne Trautmann. NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979.
The Diary of Stella Benson 1902–1933. University Library, Cambridge, England.
Collections of Stella Benson correspondence: The Manuscript Room, The British Library, London, England; Humanities Research Center, Austin, Texas; Harvard University Library, Cambridge, Massachusetts; Berg Collection and Research Libraries, New York Public Library; Mills College, Oakland, California; Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
Jill Benton , Professor of English and World Literature, Pitzer College, Claremont, California