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“This is not a real book,” are the words with which Stella Benson begins her book Living Alone. She also says, “It does not deal with real people,” but autobiographical elements pervade the whole text — the main protagonist sharing more with the author than her initials, her deafness, illness, and the name of her dog. “The articulation of magic, comedy and disability in the portrayal of Sarah Brown paradoxically makes her a complex and relatable character with conflicting emotions and a keen awareness of both her self-identity and her environment,” writes Leslie de Bont in her article “Comedy, magic and exceptional disabilities in Stella Benson’s Living Alone” (2021). She then quotes R. Meredith Bedell, who in her book Stella Benson (1983) says that Living Alone advocates “the inadequacy of rationality as a means of coping with an incomprehensible and seemingly indifferent universe,” and concludes, “Eventually, and along with classic works in cognitive literary criticism and in affective literary study, Living Alone suggests that one of the richest coping strategies might very probably be fiction.”
Living Alone is a text that defies any attempts at categorization. Magic, poetry, politics, disability, war, feminism, fantasy, surrealistic comedy, slapstick, sarcasm, social criticism, pain, loneliness, solitude, curiosity, empowerment, hope — this book, real or not, cannot be described. You have to read it.
About the Author
Stella Benson was born 1892 in Shropshire into a family belonging to the landed gentry. From early childhood on she suffered from frequent bouts of bronchitis, pleurisy and sinus infections, and later also from partial deafness, probably caused by a series of sinus operations. Also from early childhood on, she frequently moved; some of her childhood was spent in schools in Germany and Switzerland. She began writing a diary when she was 10, wrote poetry, and in 1915, back in London after she had spent some months in the West Indies, published her first novel, I Pose. She was involved in the women’s suffrage movement, and also, during WWI, in charitable work, from which she drew inspiration for her novels This Is the End (1917) and Living Alone (1919). In 1918 she published her first volume of poetry, Twenty.
In June 1918 Stella Benson travelled to the United States, where she stayed in New York, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Chicago, Berkeley and San Francisco, meeting American writers, and becoming a tutor at the University of California. In 1920 she went to China, where she worked in a mission school and hospital, and met James O’Gorman Anderson, an an Anglo-Irish officer in the Chinese Maritime Customs Service. They married in London in 1921, then his postings took them to various places in China.
Stella Benson kept writing — a total of eight novels, several collections of short stories, two travel books, and three collections of poems. She was praised by writers such as Virginia Woolf, Rebecca West and Katherine Mansfield, in 1931 she was awarded the Benson Medal by the Royal Society of Literature (founded in 1916 by A. C. Benson, not a relative), and her novel The Far-Away Bride won her the Femina Vie Heureuse Prize for English writers in 1932 — still, she never received the public recognition that she would have deserved. In December 1933, at the age of 41, Stella Benson died from pneumonia at Ha Long in Vietnam.