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Fantasy vs. hard truths during the First World War

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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!)

The Great War Theme Read – LibraryThing challenge 2014

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The lovely people of the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group has come up with a wonderful idea for a read-along next year. For the last two years we have done authors to celebrate their centenaries – Elizabeth Taylor and Barbara Pym. However, as 1914 is obviously the centenary of the start of the First World War, the group has selected a number of books relating to the War for their themed read.

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Obviously these will be predominantly Virago or Persephone published (as the two do seem to overlap!) and mostly by women (although I did notice Mr. Wells lurking!). What I particularly like about this readalong, having struggled to keep up with the most basic of reading challenges, is the flexibility. The line up is quite fluid, with basically a minimum commitment of a book every two months, and a choice of which one at that!

The line-up as I publish stands like this:

The Beginning of the War (January and February)

Main Book: William an Englishman by Cecily Hamilton (Persephone)
Other possibilities:
Golden Miles by Kathleen Susannah Pritchard (Virago)
Mr Britling Sees it Through by H G Wells (Project Gutenberg)
The Setons by O Douglas (Project Gutenberg)
Reader Recommendations:
The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman

Fighting: On the Frontline and on the Homefront (March and April)

Main Book: One of Ours by Willa Cather (Virago)
Other possibilities:
Aleta Day by Francis Marion Benyon (Virago)
The War Workers by E M Delafield (Project Gutenberg)
What Not by Rose Macaulay (Project Gutenberg)
Reader Recommendations:
At Break of Day by Elizabeth Speller (US title 1st of July)
Strange Meeting by Susan Hill

Dealing With The Human Cost: Nurses and others who cared (May and June)

Main Book: Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain
Other possibilities:
We That Were Young by Irene Rathbone
The Regeneration Trilogy by Pat Barker
Diary Without Dates by Enid Bagnold (Project Gutenberg)
Reader Recommendations:
The Daughters of Mars by Thomas Keneally

Ambulance Drivers, Pacifists & Conscientious Objectors (July & August)

Main Book: Not So Quiet by Helen Zenna Smith (Virago)
Other possibilities:
The Happy Foreigner by Enid Bagnold (Virago)
Eunice Fleet by Lily Tobias (Honno)
Non Combatants and Others by Rose Macaulay (Capuchin Classics)
Reader Recommendations:

The Consequences of War (September & October)

Main Book: The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West (Virago)
Other possibilities:
Home Fires in France by Dorothy Canfield (Project Gutenberg)
Fighting France by Edith Wharton (Project Gutenberg)
In the Mountains by Elizabeth von Arnim (Project Gutenberg)
Reader Recommendations:
Singled Out: How Two Million Women Survived without Men After the First World War by Virginia Nicholson

Free Choice/Books you Missed (November & December)
This is the time to read a book you missed, or a book that doesn’t fit into a category nicely.

As you can see, a wonderful choice of books, and I have been raiding my shelves to find out which ones I already have, and so far have done quite well:

Be sure and join in with us if you like, and check out HeavenAli’s introductory post here – it should be a wonderful readalong!

(Themed read graphic courtesy of HeavenAli)

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