Living Alone (1919) by Stella Benson

Stella Benson

Book review by Sophie H: Stella Benson’s 1919 novel Living Alone opens with an eccentric young woman (who is later revealed to have magical powers) bursting into a meeting of the ‘Committee for War Savings’, after being chased for stealing a bun. The witch, who through a misunderstanding eventually becomes known as Angela although she herself doesn’t offer any name, innocently declares, to the horror of the committee, that she is penniless as she has ‘squandered’ all her money on war loans.

This sets the scene for a whimsical tale of witches and wizards in London during the First World War and on one level this is what we get. Yet, in Living Alone witches and wizards are described as ‘people who are born for the first time’ and so ‘are not blinded by having a point of view’(in comparison to the rest of us who have ‘climbed over our thousand lives to a dreadfully subtle eminence’ and ‘reel blindfold through eternity’). Being uncorrupted by experience they are immune to any form of deception or misplaced self-righteousness and Benson uses their extreme guilelessness to expose what she sees as the bad faith at the heart of patriotism.

In the most explicitly anti-war scene in the novel Angela confronts a German witch in the skies over London, resulting in a blackly comic debate over who can occupy the moral high ground:

“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?”

Benson also has fun pointing out the hypocrisy of wartime propaganda:

“England is the World Enemy…forcing this war of aggression on her peace-loving neighbours.”
“Do you know what’s happened? You’ve been reading the Daily Mail and misunderstanding it. The whole of that quotation applied to Germany, not England. It’s Germany that’s being naughty.”

Her most scathing criticism is reserved however for the idea of total war, which she sees as an essentially immoral infringement on the rights of the innocent:

‘You can bring death to a home, but never a righteous scourge. Nobody feels scourged or instructed by a bomb in their parlour, they just feel dead, and dead without a reason.’

The novel is loose in terms of plot and is largely concerned the disruption Angela brings to the lives of the committee members, in particular Sarah Brown, a young woman who feels out of step with the world around her and whom we can presume acts as a stand-in for Benson herself. In one memorable scene Sarah eats a magic-laced sandwich and is visited in the offices of the charity she works for by the ‘spirit of the Naughty Poor’. This leads to her question the whole idea of paternalistic charity, which imposes itself on the poor and decrees that ‘only the prosperous and self-respectful shall deserve a hearing’, and in the process has ‘forgotten love’.

She is liberated further from her constrained and somewhat empty life by the witch inviting her to stay at ‘Living Alone’, a house on a mysterious island described as a ‘monastery and convent for monks and nuns dedicated to unknown gods’. Yet, despite Sarah’s escape into the world of magic she never quite receives the transformative happy ending we may expect, which seems testament to Benson’s lack of concern with narrative conventions.

Living Alone is a curious novel which addresses big themes with a very knowing lightness of touch. In its depiction of naïve witches and magical broomsticks it walks a precarious line between charming and impossibly twee, and I think for some the tone would quickly begin to grate. I found it both genuinely witty and highly original though, as well as the most surprising anti-war novel I’ve ever come across.

One thought on “Living Alone (1919) by Stella Benson

  1. This sounds amazing – and surprisingly modern, given that the young nowadays appear to read about nothing but werewolves and the living dead. I am interested by the author’s surname and wonder if she was related to A.C. or E. F. Perhaps not, and I should have googled her before writing this. Certainly one for the reading list anyway, thank you. An element of charm and wit is an asset when it comes to anti-war writing.

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