Fantasy flourishes in wartime. Perhaps this is because it’s so clearly impossible to reconcile the orderly narratives of history, as taught in schools, newspapers and family anecdotes, with the mechanized slaughter of thousands in a chaos of bullets and shrapnel. Tolkien’s private mythology found fertile soil in the mud of the trenches. Lord Dunsany forged his post-war persona as a latter-day Don Quixote on the Front near Ypres, and perhaps also on the streets of Dublin, when he was wounded in the Easter Rising. And the feminist Stella Benson found a means of expressing her experiences as a worker on the Home Front in a remarkable novella, Living Alone (1919), which is more clearly a product of wartime than any other fantasy I can think of. Despite its willfully eccentric contents – an illiterate soldier who is also a wizard, a woman who keeps company with a cheeky East End Cupid, a boarding house for lonely people run by a witch, a magic battle fought on broomsticks over London – it gives an extraordinarily vivid account of the absurdities and frustrations of life in the metropolis during the Great War. It’s all there: rationing, the policing of the poor by charitable committees run by the middle and upper classes, ubiquitous propaganda, taking shelter in a church crypt during a bombing raid, middle-class women working the land, a policeman threatening to read the Riot Act to an unruly crowd. The presence of magic through all these events seems to represent a state of mind that’s easily acquired during wartime, combining a sense of incongruity, horror and profound disconnect in the face of state insanity dressed up as reason. But it also represents a celebration of the beauty that continues to flourish, against all odds, in the face of conflict, and which vaunts itself most strikingly in the cruelest month of the year, T.S. Eliot’s April, the month when the novel begins.
Benson kept a detailed diary all her life, and her novels are said to be drawn in part from its pages. Living Alone certainly gives the impression of a prolonged self-analysis, coupled with precise observation of the minutiae of seasonal change in the capital. The central character, Sarah Brown, shares Benson’s initials, her proneness to pulmonary illness, her passion for dogs, her distaste for physical contact with her fellow human beings. She is self-effacing, at first not even being named as a member of the committee we meet in the opening chapter, and always convinced of her own incompetence and inability to participate, even in the magical events she is one of the few to witness. The committee, which is dedicated to the questionable task of instructing the poor in the art of saving, uses her as its general dogsbody because she is willing but not terribly efficient. She works the land but is too sick and weak to weed a row of beans. She falls in love but knows from the start that the man she loves will have no interest in her. This gives the novel an air of wistful cynicism, the tone of a tome which is all too aware that many of its readers will dismiss its contents as so much drivel. This is not least because the narrator, Stella Benson, shares Sarah’s self-effacing tendencies, dismissing her own book as not a ‘real’ one (‘This is not a real book’, the preface tells us), just as Sarah thinks herself not a ‘real woman’ because she can’t get interested in what other women think important: their bodies, clothes, marriage, money, romances featuring two or more persons, conversation. The witch’s boarding house after which the novel is named – the House of Living Alone – is likewise ‘not a real house’ to those who believe no self-respecting hostel could fail to charge a decent rent. Neither narrator nor protagonist will have an appreciable effect on the world, according to the two S.B.s. But in recording the things that have no appreciable effect – dancing in the garden, sitting on clouds, the aesthetic impact of atmospheric conditions, a journey on horseback through an Enchanted Forest – the book also conjures up an atmosphere of quiet resistance to the inflexible assumptions about ‘reality’ entertained by successful people, a resistance which has been practised through the ages by lonely and ailing adepts of the imagination.
When I read that Stella Benson was a suffragette and that this novel had witches in it, I imagined witchcraft as a metaphor for liberation, singing the pleasures of unhindered aerial acrobatics in the teeth of official opposition to female self-empowerment. I wasn’t far wrong. The witch, who has no name or origin, is always exposing the absurdity of the establishment figures she meets with her wide-eyed astonishment at their hypocrisies, and the passage where she dances on the lawn in the early morning is supremely lyrical. But Sarah Brown never makes friends with the witch – friendship is another of the things she cannot do well – and her efforts to protect her from a punitive law backfire at the end of the book, resulting in their permanent separation. Having access to magic in this novel is largely a recipe for isolation, and in this it’s a direct precursor to Sylvia Townsend Warner’s celebrated novel about witchcraft, Lolly Willowes (1926). Warner, too, expresses scepticism about women’s capacity to take advantage of their natural affinity for magic without being drawn back into the power schemes of men. Her protagonist, Laura, is well aware that her witch’s powers may have been granted to her by a male, the Devil himself, and remains wary of what he might demand of her in return. Laura’s attraction to witchcraft springs from her wish not to participate in the world prepared for women, the world of marriage, social visits and placid subservience. She likes the fact that witches live alone, deriving their energy from their dreams, their work, their animal companions; so Satan’s involvement in awaking her powers would be unwelcome even if it didn’t involve the perpetual damnation of her immortal soul.
Sarah Brown doesn’t get mixed up with Satan, largely because she remains an observer of magic throughout the novel, not a practitioner: a member of the ‘magically-inclined minority’ for whom the book is intended, to quote the preface, not ‘magic’ herself. As a result the book ends with a greater sense of loneliness and loss than Lolly Willowes, as Sarah begs the witch not to leave her friendless and ill on the shores of America, a land she sweepingly condemns as having been drained of magic by its citizens’ commitment to capitalism. Her self-imposed status as an outsider finds its ultimate expression in this ending, which strands her as an expatriate on hostile shores, like Benson herself, who spent the rest of her life abroad after leaving Britain at the end of the war.
Sarah’s loneliness is the more pronounced because it’s not the only available state of being for the ‘magically-inclined’. A fellow lodger in the witch’s boarding house is a working-class woman, Peony, who has been haunted in recent years by an imaginary friend: a boy she calls Elbert, whose poor vision, perpetual youth and propensity for loosing his toy arrows in all directions identifies him as Cupid, child-god of desire. Like Cupid, the boy brings nothing but trouble. It’s Elbert who gets Peony sacked from her job on the assumption that he’s her illegitimate son, and who later brings her a lover called Richard, a soldier home on leave with a gift for magic. Richard’s presence in her life means that Peony will for ever be identified by charitable committees as an ‘unmarried wife’. A magic husband and a supernatural child, however, ensure that Peony will get a fairy tale happy ending. Men like Richard never get killed at the Front, she tells Sarah, and magic children never desert you, for all the periods of loneliness you suffer during their periods of absence. These periods of loneliness derive in part from doubt: at one point Peony begins to suspect that young Elbert is the Devil himself and flees from his riotous influence. Pretty soon, though, she succumbs again to his charm and makes peace with her well-founded fear that he will one day hurt her. The ‘hurt’ the boy brings her is unemployment and the status of a pariah – an unmarried wife. But she also escapes the fear that attaches itself to beloved males in wartime: that a boy will grow up to be conscripted, that a conscripted man will have his life cut short by a bullet. She ends the book scandalously ensconced at a place called Higgins Farm in Faery, ‘a fine place,’ as she points out, ‘for a boy such as Elbert to be born in’. So one person in the book, at least, gets an improbable happily ever after – though there is some doubt as to how permanent it is, given that at one point Sarah sees a castle that has been abandoned after the prince who owned it was conscripted.
The ‘everlasting boy’ Elbert, as a chapter heading dubs him, represents a singular characteristic of magic people in Benson’s world: their youth. For Benson (or her narrator) magic people are differentiated from everyone else by the fact that they have been born for the first time in this life, whereas everyone else has been born and reborn many times over, giving them a sense of wearisome overfamiliarity with the cruelties and contradictions of human culture. To magic people, by contrast, ‘magic alone is commonplace, everything else is unknown, unguessed, and undespised’. As a result they see and behave like children. The witch dances in the early morning ‘in a very far from grown-up way, rather like a baby that has thought of a new funny way of annoying its Nana’. The magic man Richard cannot strike a match on his trousers. Peony reverts to a state of childlike wonder when Elbert shows her Euston Station looking like a faery mountain, with the passengers in it like ‘the Little People they tell of, that lives inside ’ills, an’ on’y comes out under the moon’. When the witch is injured in hand-to-hand combat over London she chooses to heal herself in Kensington Gardens, where that other everlasting boy, Peter Pan, spent his infancy before emigrating to Neverland. Richard invites Sarah Brown to work at his faery farm on condition she agrees not to be ‘clever’, and instead lets herself surrender to the childish emotions of surprise and pleasure. Flying over those enchanted fields, even a warplane loses its sense of duty and turns childishly playful: ‘It leaps upon imaginary Boches, it stands upon its head and falls downward until the very butterflies take cover, it stands upon its tail and falls upward, it writes messages in a flowing hand across the sky and returns to cross the t’s’. Only after a prolonged display of skittishness does the plane abruptly recollect the ‘European war that gave it birth’ and return to its flightpath, cheered on by the faery farm workers.
Like the warplanes, Sarah Brown is no native of the fields of faery. She is too conscious of the distance that lies between herself and the young, fresh vision of the magic people, too racked by chest pains to let herself get carried away for long by beauty, love or laughter. As a result, she shares the committee’s consternation in the opening chapter when the witch decides to show them a glimpse of youth in its purest form: a ‘forgotten April’. The narrator, her namesake Benson, shares their consternation too:
Oh, let us flee from April! We are but swimmers in seas of words, we members of committees, and to the song of April there are no words. What do we know, and what does London know, after all these years of learning?
Old Mother London crouches, with her face buried in her hands; and she is walled in with her fogs and her loud noises, and over her head are the heavy beams of her dark roof, and she has the barred sun for a skylight, and winds that are but hideous draughts rush under her door. London knows much, and every moment she learns a new thing, but this she shall never learn – that the sun shines all day and the moon all night on the silver tiles of her dark house, and that the young months climb her walls, and run singing in and out between her chimneys…
Benson conjures up April several more times in the course of the novel – most notably when the witch dances barfeoot in the garden, or when Sarah is picking beans on the faery farm – but she never fails to remind her readers of the artifice of her acts of conjuration, insisting on its ‘not realness’ even as she makes it feel real with dazzling feats of verbal legerdemain. ‘This is a book of fine weather’, she tells us at one point, ‘a book written in Spring. I will not remember the winter and the rain’. Later she reminds us: ‘But no rain fell. Rain cannot fall in this book of fine weather’. Jerked out of our dream of reading, we’re reminded of the physical book we are holding in our hands, just as we are at the end of Hope Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist when she tells us that the written word is a will-o’-the-wisp which is not to be trusted. The finest weather in the book occurs in the Enchanted Forest:
Just as the sun upon a stormy day makes golden a moving and elusive acre in our human woods, so the night in the Enchanted Forest comes and goes like a ghost upon the sight of lovers of the night. For there you may step, unastonished, from the end of a day into its beginning; there the summer and the winter may dodge each other round one tree; there you may see at one glance a spring hoar frost and an autumn trembling of airs, a wild cherry tree blossoming beside a tawny maple.
But a few pages later Benson reminds us – even as Sarah thinks it – that the ‘Enchanted Forest is only an accumulation of dreams, and from every traveller through it it exacts toll in the shape of a dream. By way of receipt, to every traveller it gives a darling memory that neither death nor hell nor paradise can efface’. The Forest isn’t real, though it can live on in the mind more vividly than any real-life recollection. It’s been brought alive by an act of strenuous creation, and both Brown and Benson are keen to inform us of the imaginative labour that has gone into its devising.
A little later Richard tells Sarah, as they walk back to the ordinary world through the Enchanted Forest, another theory of magic to match the earlier one about magic people who are born for the first time. Like fantasy, he tells her, magic flourishes in wartime: ‘So gross and so impossible and so unmagic was [the war’s] cause, that magic, which had been virtually dead, rose again to meet it’. As a result there is now
more magic in the world than ever before. The soil of France is alive with it, and as for Belgium – when Belgium gets home at last she will find her desecrated house enchanted… And the same applies to all the thresholds in the world which fighting-men have crossed and will never cross again, except in the dreams of their friends. That sort of austere and secret magic, like a word known by all and spoken by none, is pretty nearly all that is left to keep the world alive now…
By this measure, Stella Benson’s unreal book is a real contribution to the war effort – even if she, like her double Sarah Brown, cannot make much of a physical contribution owing to illness. Her book keeps the world alive by giving names to dogs and suitcases and hot water bottles, by celebrating early morning dances and spring weather, by finding a place for Cupid in the anti-romantic mess of international conflict, and by setting up a boarding house for lonely people in a city that only has room for those of its citizens who serve the collective well-being as defined by an imperialist bureaucracy.
But Stella Benson isn’t quite a believer in the realness and efficacy of magic. Her fantasy is fragile, a thing fashioned of words and learning, themselves alien to the kind of magic it describes (Richard is illiterate, the witch and the boy Elbert have no names). Her book is a form of compensation for not having magic, a conjuration of it, not the thing itself. And once you notice the fragility of wartime and post-war fantasy like hers, you can see it everywhere. Lord Dunsany’s most celebrated novel, The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1924), contains a seeker after magic, Prince Alveric, whom the world thinks mad – and his apparent madness doesn’t in itself grant him access to the place he is seeking, Elfland. The protagonist of Hope Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist (1926), Nathaniel Chanticleer, fears magic as much as he desires it, and is by no means contented when he finally succeeds in having his country overrun with fairies. As we’ve seen, Sylvia Townsend Warner’s heroine in Lolly Willowes (1926) has little confidence in her ability to practise witchcraft uninterfered with by men or devils. It’s only when we get to 1928 and Virginia Woolf’s Orlando: A Biography that we finally get a hero or heroine who feels at home with the magic he or she gets mixed up in. The brutal logic of guns and bombs may have made magic rise again to meet it, as Richard claimed, but it left the ‘magically-inclined minority’ profoundly shaken.
This is not surprising, really, and Benson shows us why. At one point in Living Alone, during a bombing raid, the nameless witch finds herself sitting on a cloud beside a German witch who has been fighting to protect the bombers. She engages her in conversation, asking: ‘As one Crusader to another […] do you think it does much good in the war against Evil to drop bombs on people in their homes?’ But she never succeeds in convincing her fellow witch of the futility of urban bombing campaigns. The two women find it easy enough to communicate despite their linguistic differences, but they can’t get through to each other. Living alone must sometimes have felt like the universal human condition in 1919.
Luckily, things have changed in the twenty-first century.