WOMEN, WRITING AND TRAVEL:
Part 1: The Diaries of Stella Benson, 1902-1933 from Cambridge University Library
Editorial Introduction by Professor Marlene Baldwin Davis
Providing glimpses into worlds unknown to their readers, diaries are as diverse and complex as their authors. The forty-one diaries of Stella Benson - feminist, novelist, travel writer and story teller - are a vivid case in point. Benson’s keen observations, her attention to detail, and her intelligent and witty insights into the early decades of the twentieth century paint a fascinating picture of her times.
While Benson was first known as a novelist and travel writer, it is in the diaries that she offers her most astute observations and accomplishes her best writing. Her first three novels, experimental psychological fantasies set in England during WWI, continue to shed light on daily life during this turbulent period. They plumb the interior world of consciousness, often utilizing her own inner voices. Her later, more sophisticated works set in China won her immediate literary recognition. Even now they provide an important understanding of the diverse cultures of the China that Benson knew, one which few other secular Western women experienced or wrote about. Adrift from her own country for years at a time, Benson felt intensely the isolation and loneliness of the life of the ex-patriate, and she also sympathized with the émigré. Her diaries and published works reveal with keen sensitivity the ambiguity of their circumstances.
That Benson is a descendent, on her father’s side, of the sister of diarist Samuel Pepys may or may not have been the key factor in her heritage that destined her to become a diarist herself. While she sometimes jokes in her diaries about this family proclivity, it is more likely that she engaged in this occupation, something that would serve significantly in her development as a writer, simply because at an impressionable age she received a diary as a gift. In fact, Benson began keeping a diary in 1902 when she was ten.
What is known is that from the start, Stella Benson considered her audience when recording her innermost thoughts and feelings. Growing up in a cultured literary family, she perhaps intuited the important causal relationship between artist and audience. An avid book lover from her earliest years, Benson was encouraged by both parents - Caroline (Essex) Cholmondeley, a sister of “New Woman” novelist Mary Cholmondeley, and Ralph Benson, a well educated member of the Shropshire landed gentry - to actively pursue her literary interests. Her first publication in 1902 was a poem awarded “Honorable Mention” by St. Nicholas Magazine and appeared in the magazine’s readers’ section. By 1906 Stella had won the magazine’s highest award in poetry.
While not addressing her readers directly in her apprentice diaries, young Stella clearly engages all of the fundamental concerns of the diarist as she begins to record her life. Regarding the importance of place, she begins her 1904 diary with “Memoranda” in which she carefully elaborates upon the nature and setting of her world and the people who populate it with her. Understanding the importance of preservation, she worries that her diary will have to be destroyed because she has been writing in it when she had chicken pox. Considering the demands of audience, she marks her diary “Not to be Seen”. She makes clear almost from the inception that she is not keeping this record for contemporary society but instead for posterity, a choice corroborated in various later entries. Taking seriously the ritual and rigor of diary-keeping, she makes almost daily entries. Grappling with who should be a diarist, she affirms her right to be one, as she notes in a 1907 entry. When the local vicar states that young girls should not keep diaries, she concludes that he should stick to his business noting, “The diary is going on just the same”. And finally, realizing the limitations inherent in diary writing - almost as if with later critics in mind - she notes in 1908 that while she likes keeping the diary, she also realizes it is a “dreadfully one-sided affaire always, only one person’s point of view being seen”.
At the same time, Stella Benson recognizes the importance the diaries have in her life. For the next twenty-five years her diaries - always carefully written in unpretentious notebooks that travel from continent to continent with her - are indispensable to her career and her well being. They become the primary outlet for her inner most thoughts, for her vivid descriptions of her own and foreign lands, for her reactions to the people, for her insights into world affairs, and for the drafts of her bread-winning journalist articles. Particularly as Benson travelled off the many beaten tracks that her life’s journey would take her, her diaries became her single most constant companion.
Another companion was ill-health, which plagued Benson from birth. The effects of physical frailty were burdensome; ironically, it is quite possible that this burden also developed and heightened her imagination in significant ways. As a child and a young woman, she was unable to attend school or to participate in certain social events. At times she personifies her illnesses and they become real people in her imaginary world. As early as 1907, she writes, “When I say in this diary that I read it very often means I am afraid that I get out a book but not think of it again”. She goes on to wonder if having imaginary friends is normal. These “thought people” were to take on a life and world of their own and to alternately offer pleasure or pain to Stella. They seem to have provided companionship during lonely periods: “I got on with The Secret enormously now Mother is away and I have the evenings to myself. It will be months and months till it is finished though & I do love doing it so”. The more Stella is involved actively and socially, the less she writes about entertaining her “thought people”, but from time to time they return. One of the early critics of women writers of her generation, Joseph A. Collins, a psychiatrist, saw great promise in Benson, placing her beside Virginia Woolf, Rebecca West, and Katherine Mansfield. The psychological is often present in her fiction, and in her diaries she records in detail complex dreams.
Stella also comments in her diary about what she sees as unfair treatment based upon gender. Her brothers had good educational opportunities. Stella sees what better chances they have, and men generally, and writes that they have a “much better time than a woman too from end to end and more opportunities for getting up the ladder than a woman”. Her views can be seen in her eventual support of suffrage and working for the Movement. They are most obvious in her much later participation in a campaign in Hong Kong to close government-supported brothels, which put the physical desires of men over the slavery involved in obtaining young girls to become prostitutes for the brothels.
In her early diaries Benson reflects on familial relations. In fact, the diaries of these years lament her mother’s protectiveness and their economic worries. When she is fourteen, Stella writes, “Father has gone away from Mother”. In reality, her father has left her and her brothers as well. He drifts in and out of their lives, but they learn to live without him. Thereafter the role the Cholmondeley aunts and uncles play in rearing the Benson children is considerable. Aunt Mary, Stella’s favorite aunt in her childhood, gave Stella her first dog, beginning a love of dogs that remained with her always (one of her most poignant works, “The Japanese Barber’s Wife,” illustrates the role dogs played in Benson’s life). Uncle Regie and his wife gave Stella a place in their country home where Stella was regarded as their “fifth daughter”. However, Stella’s mother bore much of the worry of keeping alive a frail child and her remarks were not always kind.
Treatment for Stella in the Swiss Alps at Arosa, a popular site for people suffering from tuberculosis, was somehow financed. In the eighteen months Stella spent there, she entered a world made famous by Thomas Mann, and recorded the good and the bad. The good was in her own maturation and the realization that she could survive without family supervision, although her mother or some relative was with her throughout most of her stay. She also learned to enjoy social life more. The outdoor activities of skating and tobogganing - even if it meant only watching - were thrilling to her. She became proficient in French and German and took Italian lessons. Even though the atmosphere was charged with the ill-fate of tuberculosis and the people she knew and liked sometimes met an early death, Stella regarded this period as a happy time. The bad side was that each doctor she saw predicted grim news for her - deafness, T.B., early death. In spite of their prognoses, Stella was determined to see more of the world before it slipped away from her. It was while at Arosa that Stella first saw photographs of China and when she learns of her father’s death when she is 18.
In 1914 before WWI is declared, a short winter interlude in Jamaica with her mother provides the necessary space to write her first novel, I Pose (1915). Once back in London during the war years, Benson’s diaries are filled with signs of the war and how people are reacting to it. Stella helps poor, working women in the East End and expands her life experiences at the same time. She philosophizes about the war when she writes that she “… mourned violently for the pain there is in the world these days. And for the incredible sin of several million paid to inflict these things upon each other”. Sad as she was about the war, it was a productive time for her personally: she worked for the suffrage cause, served as a gardener in the country (the official Women’s Land Army had not yet been established), became engaged and unengaged, gained confidence, and wrote. By 1919 she had published three novels.
Her diaries from late 1918 to late 1919 describe another new world for Stella Benson who in the process becomes a new Stella. She travels to America where she has contacts, thanks to suffrage and publishing. After a short period in New England, she finds a place in a bohemian community in the San Francisco area. The group, mainly artists, professors, writers, and actors, included the poet Witter Bynner and the photographer Ansel Adams. In this milieu Stella found considerable material for two of her future books, Poor Man (1922) and Good Bye, Stranger (1926). These works offer astute, and predominately negative, observations of Americans and American life. Both in fiction and non-fiction, and certainly in her diaries, Stella is often painfully truthful about others and herself, including the racial prejudices she held. Her first visit to California was severely hampered by her serious bouts of illnesses which were not helped by the roaring twenties life-style she enjoyed. Hospitalized, she had to depend on new friends to help her. While for the most part their generosity was considerable; her spirits were so low that “considerable” did not seem “enough”. Yet a few of the friendships she formed during this period were to remain important to her. One person in particular, Albert Bender, while initially upset by her treatment of his country and countrymen, became a devoted friend who corresponded frequently, sent books, periodicals and dried fruits to her even in the worst conditions of civil war in China and who entertained her whenever she returned to San Francisco. She in return wrote often and sent him the transcript of her prize-winning novel, Tolbit Transplanted.
Stella Benson’s desire to see China came true late in 1919. She would spend many of the remaining years of her life in this faraway country, recording details about dress and living that were basically unknown to Westerners, as well as people and places. Again her spirit of adventure and pluckiness helped her in Peking to find temporary jobs and make friends, while saving time to write. After a harrowing trip up the Yangtze, she met and fell in love with her future husband, James Carew O’Gorman Anderson, an engaging Anglo-Irish officer in the Chinese Maritime Customs Service (CMCS) stationed in Kungking. Her accounts describe heartrending fighting between the weary Szechwan and Yunnan soldiers and the firing at her ship as it was leaving the Kungking area. These vignettes later appeared in both London periodicals and in her first travel collection, Little World (1925), which Robert Graves reviewed favorably. This use of the diary as draft for both letters and articles was to become a frequent pattern.
Always interested in world events, Stella was following India’s struggle for Home Rule. Comments about it and the events in Ireland appear throughout some of the diaries. It is not surprising that Stella seized the opportunity to visit India and her long-time family friend, Cornelia Sorabji, Oxford educated barrister and social reformer. With Sorabji’s connections, Stella was able to interview Gandhi (even though he thought that S. Benson was going to be a man). During her days of seeing the last vestiges of the Raj, she met a remarkable young historian, Eileen Power, the first woman to have been awarded the Kahn Travel Fellowship. Their friendship was to become a lasting one partly because of a mutual friend, sinologist Sir Reginald F Johnston, commonly known as tutor to the last emperor (P’u-i), and partly because of a friendship with Eileen Power’s best friend, social activist Margery Spring Rice.
Once back in London, Benson’s diaries become very personal and dwell on the uncertainties of her engagement and eventual marriage on 9 September 1921 to James Anderson, who is on home leave from China. During a honeymoon year in the United States, they drive across country to California, Stella’s American home. While she adjusted quickly, retaining her love-hate relationship with America, life in California was difficult for James, who was glad when they returned to China by way of Europe.
Thus began Stella’s struggle of being a professional woman in a male-oriented colonial society. Her diaries reflect the isolated life in the Treaty Ports in which she confronts the construction of “colonial wife”. Stella neither accepted women’s mirroring role, as described by Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own (1929), nor the very nature of this hierarchical system. In her inversion of this typical colonial marriage arrangement, Benson was part of the second wave of “New Woman” who sought a career outside of the home and out of the country as well. While James, a skilled linguist and by this time an old China hand, enjoyed his work, he led a different life in Mengtze than Stella did. Anderson took considerable interest in his wife’s work, but he, like most husbands of his era and place, put his own work first. More than once he had to combat criticism of his wife’s candid articles about her fellow countrymen abroad, especially in their Hong Kong years. This divide contributed to their already complicated marital relationship. Stella acknowledges many times in the diaries her limitations in physical relationships and her husband’s need for them. Although they both wanted children, it did not seem possible. Being childless in the Treaty Port environments of Mengtze, Lun Ching Tsun, Nanning, and Pakhoi, where both missionaries and fellow CCS families of various nationalities lived close by, heightened her sense of inadequacy.
The diaries indicate the anticipation of the mails, which often did not arrive as a result of the political chaos or weather conditions. Letters, reviews, proofs, books, periodicals, and contracts all came by the same method. Stella depended on all of these deliveries. She writes, “England is my centre” and she needs to have its news. She wanted to stay in touch with family and old friends. Professionally she was separated by physical distance from fellow writers - particularly those who were establishing new literary techniques like Virginia Woolf, for whom Benson had great admiration and a certain amount of fear. She refers to Woolf and Eileen Power as being the most intelligent women she knows and laments her own inadequate education. Yet, neither Woolf nor Power saw this so-called deficiency in Benson. Benson corresponded with many fellow writers and intellectuals, including Woolf. “Time and Tide” editor and novelist Winifred Holtby was a loyal friend as were Naomi Mitcheson, Stephen Hudson, Dominick and Margery Spring Rice. Their letters often alluded to tantalizing bits of literary gossip, such as Spring Rice’s description of a dinner party where William Butler Yeats expounded on the merits of T.S. Eliot or Virginia Woolf’s sympathetic comments about ex-patriate life in Hong Kong.
Diaries during home visits were filled with an active social life. The summer of 1925 while on holiday in France with a literary group (she notes in her diary, “six typewriters at work”), Naomi Mitcheson and her brother J.B.S. (Jack) Haldane were present. It was Haldane who encouraged her to leave her diaries to the University of Cambridge, which he understood was interested in acquiring contemporary diaries. She questions whether anyone would want to read what she has been writing , which has been necessary for her own self-encouragement “to set a record of my contact with people … I have to place on record the fact that I was human and that even I had my human adventures”. After considerable self-doubt, Stella agreed to Haldane’s proposal. However, in the spring of 1933, she contacted the University only to find out that no arrangements had been made to accept her diaries. She was relieved when news came that the diaries would be accepted and kept sealed for fifty years after her death.
After each of the home visits, Benson returned to China or Hong Kong. The last trip in 1932 must have been the most difficult. She had been in the United States and England for six months during which she had been awarded the Femina-Vie Heureuse and the silver medal of the Royal Society of Literature for her accomplished novel, Tobit Transplanted. Besides enjoying being with family, old and new friends, and being feted in literary circles, she had settled on a house in London and looked forward to living in it. However, she was drawn back to China as James needed her. They had endured much together, and he had been posted to another remote area relatively near Indochina. It was a region known for its humidity and dampness and its beauty. Upon arrival her health deteriorated dramatically. James was able to change his location to a slightly better nearby area, Paktoi. Feeling somewhat better (yet she did dream of death), she and James travelled to Bali in the summer. Her diaries for this period are rich in details about Bali and its people. Finally she accompanied James to Tonkin. On this last trip she contracted fatal pneumonia. Her last entry on 28 November ended with “I fell into bed”.
On 6 December 1933 Stella Benson died in a French hospital in Indochina. James buried her the next day in a small graveyard on one of the little islands in the Baie d’ Along. Defying medical prognoses or at least postponing them, Benson had accomplished her lifelong goals: to write and to explore. What Stella Benson left readers in her diaries alone reveals fragments of the life and times of a woman who grew up and out of a post-Victorian world into modernity.