This is the End by Stella Benson

Stella Benson is an author new to me, and it was the reprint of this novel by Michael Walmer that brought her to my attention. Michael kindly provided a copy for review, and I have *finally* got round to reading it – and, my goodness, I’m really wondering why a. she’s not better known and b. I’ve never read her before, because the book was stunning!

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A little bit about the author first. Wikipedia has quite a lengthy entry, but the bare facts are: Stella Benson (6 January 1892 – 7 December 1933) was an English feminist, novelist, poet, and travel writer. So Benson’s life was not a long one, and she died of pneumonia in Vietnam. She’d recently visited Virginia Woolf who makes reference to this in her diaries, ruing Benson’s passing and commenting on the fact that the newspaper hoardings carried the announcement of her death.

“This is the End” was Benson’s second novel, set in 1916 and published the following year, in the middle of the First World War. It tells the story of an orphaned brother and sister, Jay and Kew Martin; Kew has been away fighting and is on leave, while Jay has run away from the Family – Cousin Gustus, his alarming novelist wife Anonyma, plus Mr. Russell who has been ‘adopted’ by them. Jay has left to find her independence and do something of substance, so has become a bus conductor; the rest of the time she spends in her ‘bubble world’, a fantasy place where she has a Special Friend. The Family decide they will set off and look for her in Mr. Russell’s car; unfortunately, owing to the fantasies that Jay’s been spinning in her letters home, they have completely the wrong idea about where she is and head off into the country looking for a house on a cliff!

Meanwhile, Mr. Russell runs across a beautiful bus conductor and is smitten(!), Mrs. Russell returns from doing good works abroad, Jay continues to fantasise and the realities of war come closer and closer…. Which side will win in the fight between reality and fantasy?

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I have to say that this book was an unexpected revelation and really not what I was expecting at all. Benson’s a remarkably witty writer, very conversational in tone and chatting away to the reader. Her description of Anonyma is priceless:

“… she was conceived on a generous scale, she was almost gorgeous, she barely missed exaggeration. In her manner I think she did not miss it. She had therefore the gift of coping with colour. It remains for me to add that her age was five-and-forty, and that she was a novelist. The recording angel had probably noted the fact of her novelism among her virtues, but she had an imperceptible earthy public. She wrote laborious books, full of short peevish sentences, of such very pure construction that they were difficult to understand.”

And there’s plenty more wit, from Mr. Russell’s conversations with his Hound (actually a Pekingese) to Cousin Gustus’s constant pessimism. However, there are more serious matters in the book, alongside the levity. For a start, there is the status of women – Jay has obviously run away from a stifling atmosphere, determined to do something of worth and gain some independence. WWI was a time of course when the suffragette movement was strong and life was changing – the book reflects this, and also the position of many females within the family set up, and the expectations society and men had of them.

“A Family’s just a little knot of not necessarily congenial people, with Fate rubbing their heads together so as to strike sparks of Love.”

The other serious subject is of course the War itself. Initially, this is not the dominant factor, although Kew is home on leave and there is reference to his health having suffered. However, as the book progresses, things take a more serious turn and the horror of what is happening abroad is brought home. Benson is not particularly graphic, but she is marvellous at getting across the human cost of fighting and death by showing the effect on individuals, which in some ways may be more effective. And be warned, there are encounters that will break your heart. The story is deeply poignant and I was reaching for a tissue in several places. There is a sense that the War and reality are making people grow up, and they really don’t like it. As Mr. Russell says:

“I used to think that growing up was like walking from one of a meadow to the other, I thought that the meadow would remain, and one had only to turn one’s head to see it all again. But now I know that growing up is like going through a door into a little room, and the door shuts behind one.”

Things come down to a kind of battle – between Jay’s fantasy world and the realities she can only avoid for so long. As the equilibrium of the Family is disturbed and events go in unexpected directions, I found myself totally caught up in the book, knowing the inevitable would happen but dreading it. I’ll say no more for fear of spoilers, except to say the end is very powerful indeed.

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“This is the End” is a quirky, individual book – beautifully written, with little poems in between chapters; eminently readable; and very moving indeed. On the evidence of this, Benson was a talented novelist and her early death was justifiably noted by Woolf. I’d recommend TITE to anyone who’s reading books about the First World War in this centenary year, as it’s not graphic, but has a potent message. And the fact that I’m still thinking about it several days after finishing is a tribute to Benson’s strength as a writer. It’s criminal that Stella Benson is not better know, and kudos to Michael Walmer for making her works available.

(Book kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!)

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