WOMEN, WRITING AND TRAVEL:
Part 1: The Diaries of Stella Benson, 1902-1933 from Cambridge University Library
Notes to the Diaries by Professor Marlene Baldwin Davis
REEL 1: Add 6762-6765. 1902-1906
Like many other ten-year-old children, Stella Benson filled her first diaries with the details that recreated her personal world. She and her family no longer lived in their country house, Lutwyche Hall in Shropshire. London was home. There was Father, Mother, her older brother George and her younger brother Stephen. Also an intimate part of the family was her mother’s family, the Cholmondeleys - father, sisters and brothers and cousins, and to a lesser degree the Benson family. Whether her Aunt Mary Cholmondeley, author of the controversial novel Red Pottage (1899), sensed her young niece’s ability to read with understanding, she certainly saw Stella question the ways of the world and kept Stella supplied with a generous supply of books and gave her her first dog, beginning a life-long love of dogs. Stella in turn declared Aunt Mary to be her favorite aunt. A close friend of the Cholmondeley sisters, Cornelia Sorabji was a Calcutta barrister who read law at Oxford and dedicated her life to social issues, particularly relating to gender. Sorabji entered Stella’s life in 1903 and remained a friend throughout Stella’s life.
Always interested in what was happening in the nation and world, Stella notes getting tickets for the Coronation (postponed and re-scheduled for 9 August 1902). She refers to the San Francisco and Valparaiso earthquakes.
Stella lists what she is reading or being read to and among fiction writers has favorites - Jane Austin, Dickens, Kipling, Stevenson and others. She’s also contributing poetry and drawings to the readers’s section of St Nicholas Magazine, an important venue for young readers and writers, and won the magazine’s top poetry prize in 1906.
From the beginning of Stella’s life, her health was precarious. Owing to her frailty, she was often kept away from possible infections and spent time alone or at least without the close companionship of other children.
At the end of this period Stella notes “Father left Mother”; a divorce did not occur, and Stella’s father drifted in and out of the life of his family until his death in 1909.
REEL 2: Add 6766-6768, 1907-1909
During her mid-teen years, Stella continues her interest in writing poetry (9 Jan, 2 Mar, and 7 Aug), reading widely and developing her imagination. For the first time in her diary she mentions the “thought people” (7 June ’07). This imaginary world would continue to play a role in her life for years to come and perhaps be the source of her keen interest in psychology.
Suffrage was in the air and at home. The Cholmondeley sisters and their friends supported this cause. At first Stella made fun of the way the suffragettes behaved, but she always supported their goals. She remained a feminist throughout her life. As she mused over the opportunities for the different genders, Benson wished that she was a male. It was clear to her that a man has more interesting choices and “a better time than a woman”. (17 Sept. ’07).
Stella liked board games and cards and early on developed skills in chess, backgammon, bridge and finally poker. The latter two were an important part of colonial life in China and Hong Kong. Stella liked to gamble in both cards and life.
The subject of diary-writing itself interested Stella. Even though she realized the contents are “one-sided”, she became more attached to her daily companion.
Awareness of the increasing political tensions in Europe begins to enter her diaries, as does Stella’s social awareness of the role class plays in one’s life (20 Dec.’08). She sees this difference in her immediate family’s daily life in Fleet, a London suburb, and that of her Cholmondeley cousins who live in a country house, Preshaw, and have an active social life. Both the house and grounds at Preshaw and her connections there are to have a lasting importance to Stella.
Stella began the new year writing admiringly about Kipling. She says “Kipling makes his villains and heroes in one”. (1 Jan ’09). Trying to make the best of a dreary situation in Fleet, Stella relies on as many interests as possible. She buys a phonograph which all the family enjoy. Yet, when listening to music on the phonograph, Stella is aware of her thought people who seem to take over (6 Aug.’09).
These lonely periods do not keep Stella from keeping in touch with world events. She notes the excitement and controversy of Commander Peary’s reaching the North Pole (7 Sept ’09).
In September Stella’s luck seems to turn. She is allowed to join a small group of young women her age to study in Freiburg, Germany under the supervision of Mrs. Denne, a friend of her Aunt Margaret’s. It is impossible to undervalue the significance of this time with her contemporaries. She loves it (many entries in September and most of October ’09). By late October, however, her health has deteriorated, and she and Mrs. Denne travel to Basel, Switzerland to meet Mrs. Benson. Stella writes that she “simply howled with crying.” The thought of being deprived of a normal relationship with friends her age was too much to cope with: “I can’t bear going back to live alone with Mother as always and all the thought people will come trooping back and why can’t I stay where I am happy. Why does God wish me to be alone and sad” (25 Oct. ’09).
Arosa, a well-known area for tubercular treatments and cures, is the Swiss destination of Stella and her mother. For the majority of the next eighteen months this general region will be Stella’s home. While the atmosphere of this extraordinarily beautiful natural environment becomes routine, Stella writes at the end of December that her year has presented her great joys - she has “seen Holland, seen the Rhine and its castles, lived in the Schwartzwald, and ended up in one of the loveliest spots in Switzerland…” and also she has come to appreciate “…for the moment tiny pleasures which one cannot take into account when looking forward” (30 Dec ’09).
REEL 3: Add 6769-6771, 1910-1912
On her eighteenth birthday on 6 January Stella, feeling a little sorry for herself, notes that “…I have seldom had a duller birthday.” The events of the day included what must have been typical of the social side of a day at Arosa - tea, roasting chestnuts, bobsleigh racing. With the latter Stella was an observer not a participant. New friends remembered her birthday and the next day she is taken with another young woman on a sleigh ride and feels “like a Russian princess with the bells jingling all round me and the man whooping to make the horse go faster”. The entries of this period include thoughts about gender, class, and nationalities.
Conscious of an eventual audience for her diary, in early March Stella notes that “It is no good keeping my diary very often now. I do so much and so many details would be necessary that it wouldn’t be interesting.” She is also determined to carry through writing a book (5 Apr). Stella was also being given lessons in how to play the guitar by a fellow resident. This skill was to bring much pleasure to Stella in the future. She also enjoyed seeing photographs of China taken by another resident “which make me pine to go there…” (15 Apr). Another seed has been planted.
Family members come and go, and Mr. Benson even says he will come. Stella writes, “It sounds horrid and I do hope he won’t. For one thing his heart would be bad at this height. But there are other reasons” (21 Apr). She doesn’t explain what the reasons are, but she had every right to worry about his odd behavior. Yet, when her mother asks her if she didn’t realize that her father was an alcoholic, Stella is quite surprised and sympathetic (5 July).
Stella is working on her German with a young woman whom she describes as being “greater fun than I should have thought possible for a German” (3 May). Common - and sometimes derogatory - stereotypes are throughout the diaries, but once written, the individual being described takes on a human and usually appealing side.
News of the death of King Edward comes to Arosa (7 May). A few days later Stella mentions her late sister Catherine and that “she would have been twenty today if she had lived, and I shouldn’t have been the spoilt little brute I am” (10 May). This is not the first entry that showed Stella missed her sister. Her grandfather Chomondeley died in August and Stella thinks about her own death. Illness and death are never far away in the daily entries.
Stella also says of herself that she is a gossip: “It is my nature to tell scandal and make people dislike each other”. Then she adds rather melodramatically, “How can I expect anyone to like me, if I was laid bare in a book I should be worse than any of the people already written of, readers would say I was an incredibly bad character” (17 Aug). Her accounts of her relationships with her doctors and various male patients show Stella’s sexual awareness.
As the year draws on, whispers of war with Germany continue and create uneasiness among the English-speaking community. To Stella 1910 had “been quite a different year from my prophesy but by no means unhappy. Many more happy days than unhappy. I wouldn’t mind living it again” (31 Dec).
Always a benchmark of how she is feeling, Stella’s birthday - her nineteenth - brought this note: “…one of the nicest birthdays I’ve had for a long time.” Her day was filled with activities, which were “fun”. Entries in this period reflect her interest in observing people and how they might appear in literary works, especially if they recognized themselves. She also responds to a church service where she says “I think the book of Isaiah is pure poetry from beginning to end. It dazzles one with the beauty of its imagery, the pathos of its tragedy”, but this delight doesn’t stop her from questioning “failure” (8 Jan).
In April as Stella and her companions begin their way home to England, Stella sees a doctor who advises her to go to Egypt or Lausanne after the summer in England. She is advised to sunbath “with nothing on in the sun upon a mattress with window open and the sky looking on in an unblushing way. It feels indecent and the parts of me which have never before felt the sun have a sort of new surprised feeling” (23 Apr). By late May they have arrived home, which is now Little Glassenbury for Stella and her mother. They like it much better than Fleet.
Stella appreciates that she is healthier than she was earlier in her life. She comments on this improvement after having read some of her old diaries (30 May). She is also happy to be reunited with her dog, Pepper (21 Jun).
On 22 June the new king, George V, is crowned.
Stella’s father is still ailing. One of his old friends Miss Mott from America is coming to visit. Stella’s returning to America is being considered.
In October Stella and her mother set off for Chernex for the winter. They stop in Paris and go to the Louvre where they see the “Venus de Milo”. Before they are settled at Chernex, Stella’s father died on 16 October at Folkestone. A month later Stella reads that one of her friends and admirers at Arosa, Captain Reinhold, died.
The year ends on a down note at another nearby town where her treatment continued. After a series of entries which chronicle her movements, she notes “What a stupid thing a diary must be to a strange eye. At least mine would be meaningless because most of my statements are nothing more than sort of shorthand notes to remind me of pleasant minutes” (12 Dec).
As 1912 began Stella writes that she likes being away from home, “abroad” and that she’s “never homesick.” In February she and her mother joined her uncle Regie and some of the Cholmondeley family and friends in Vernet where they stayed until late April. During this period the Titanic went down and Stella, like most people, reacted to the tragedy (18 Apr). In May Stella, her younger brother Stephen and their mother were back in Little Glassenbury. A personal tragedy begins for Stella, deafness. This condition will increase with time.
Friends and acquaintances her age are marrying and Stella worried about being “an old maid” (12 June). She thinks about journalism as a career as second best (30 June) and even applies for a job as a correspondent, which she doesn’t get (25 July). Earlier in July she attends the cricket matches at Lords and gets lectured on class by the aunts. She is eager to be with people and not by herself as the thought people return then.
At the end of October Stella and her mother are back at Montreux and engage in various activities with fellow residents. In late December Stella learns that one of her friends, a young Bulgarian woman, has died. Her death makes Stella think about her own vulnerability (29 Dec).
REEL 4: Add 6772-6774, 1913-1915
War and its effects concern Stella during these years. Her detailed entries describing how people of various classes felt and lived provide vivid glimpses of the refugees from Belgium, financial problems, black outs (9-11 Sept.’14) and government supervision (16 Nov.’14). Patriotism and public mindedness prevail yet the suffragettes continue to be attacked and demeaned (11 and 19 June ’14).
Stella and her mother began the year in Mandeville, Jamaica where the climate was to help Stella get through the winter. There was plenty of little sight-seeing trips, bridge, and minor socializing. Once back in England, the various aunts talk to Stella about her future and her relationship with her mother (20 Apr ’14). It is time for Stella to be more independent. She moves into the Rodney Club where she has a room (2 May ’14). One of the first events she takes in is “the Cinematograph pictures of Scott’s Polar Expedition” which she describes and thinks about in detail (7 May ’14).
Being part of London during these tragic and dramatic times opened Stella’s eyes and mind. The entries of this period are not short of strong views and philosophical positions. For the first time she lives independently, becomes engaged and unengaged, and publishes her first novel, I Pose. Yet, some of the entries dwell on loneliness. In January of 1915 Stella moved into a room nearer where she worked in the East End of London. Her childhood and family friend Laura Hutton, who remains loyal to Stella throughout her life, offers Stella physical affection but this kind of relationship is not what Stella is seeking. While holding a cat and sleeping, she dreams she is holding a baby and thinks she “had a real baby at last” (21 May ’15). This longing for a child is to stay with her for years.
On May 7 she notes the sinking of the Lusitania, a tragedy that stunned civilians and made them realize their own vulnerability in the war. On 31 May she describes what happened when the Zeppelin raided London. When she can, she continues to read. Brothers Karamazov draws Stella totally into its world. After she finishes reading it, she says, “I read the diary of my respectable ancestor Samuel Pepys. It occurs to me how finely & triumphantly the Puritans were justified by what came after. How very self-righteous they must have felt sitting in their seclusion & watching their rival slobber Naval money over his mistresses, and hunting a moth “very merrily” while the Dutch were in the Medway” (24 May 1915). Stella is becoming more sophisticated and often finds it difficult to accept her aunts’ views or interests. A novel by Rhoda Broughton, which Aunt Mary recommended as “very witty”, leaves Stella unimpressed. She senses the generational gap (14 July ’15). However, she is physically attracted to and influenced by the ideas of an older man, Mr. Konstam, and refers to him in the diaries as “Older & Wiser”. (many entries).
Stella’s interest in Feminism continues and she notes that Danish women now can vote. Will British women be rewarded for their war work and be next? (8 June ’15). When she mentions the murder of Nurse Cavell, she indicates that it “has made great stir, & I should think has morally advanced the Feminist cause one decided step. But not the recruiting. The sort of man who hasn’t enlisted yet doesn’t mind the murder of women” (23 Oct. ’15). Stella’s own health remains a serious concern and consumption is never far from the lips of her doctors (12 Nov ’15).
“The Birth of the Nation” is being shown to full houses. Stella has to take an afternoon off to finally see it, which she says “is a sensational show & like all sensational shows it sticks in your mind.” Then she discusses the implications of the film and sees it again the next day (19-20 Nov ’15).
More than one entry refers to Gallipoli and losses in the war (15 & 20 Dec. ’15).
REEL 5: Add 6775-6778, 1916-1918
During this period Stella published her second novel, This is the End (1917) and a collection of poems, Twenty (1918), as well as magazine articles.
As always Stella is also responding in detail about what she is reading and seeing: Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd” (3 Feb ’16); re-reading Dickens and Kipling (7-9 June ’16). She’s also reading, enthusiastically this time, another novel by her Aunt Mary’s good friend Rhoda Broughton, New Woman novelist, and “Man and Superman” by Shaw. After seeing Ibsen’s “Ghosts”, she feels “chewed up and spat out”. And she adds, “…I am a little the wiser for it (the play), & certainly have seen something nearer than usual to perfect art” (22 May ’16).
Letters about her own work are welcomed. Rebecca West, successful novelist and free thinker, pleased Stella by writing. Marie Belloc-Lowndes, novelist and sister of the versatile writer, Hilaire Belloc, sent Stella a letter about I Pose. Stella was pleased but says “I don’t think very much of her writing, so I am only mildly gratified and grateful”
(12 Feb ’16). She heard for the first time from an American, Brooks Henderson, who will become a good friend and introduce her to many of his friends, both American and English (24 Sept ’16).
It makes sense that the novel Stella is writing will be titled Living Alone as that is what she was learning to do. Her diaries describe what the war is like for people at home and her own wartime jobs, particularly the gardening (part of a pre-land girl program) and working with “her family” in the East End, especially Mrs. Oneleg. Friends are losing their sons on the front (22 Feb, 4 Mar, and 13 Aug ’16) Even her thought people are fighting. The thought people occur frequently in the 1916 diary entries. In a complex dream about one of them, Conrad, Stella observes a war scene in Russia. After she describes the dream she adds, “Thought people always mean trouble for me, but they are worth it” (21 Mar ’16). She defends the use of secret friends in her writing also (18 May ’16).
The continent is not the only place with unrest. She writes, “Very bad news of a rising in Dublin. Pessimists would call this the crumbling away of a dynasty, and optimists a test of the gift of Empire” (25 Apr ’16). Generally throughout her entries she is sympathetic to Home Rule in Ireland. She also thinks about how German soldiers must be lonely and realize that “their cause” is not shared by the world (8 Sept ’16).
Stella has adopted the young son of one of her contacts in Hoxton in the East End. This relationship is not a traditional adoption where Johnnie lives with her, but she helps support and educate him - to see him through his troubles and grow up. In her own family her father’s sister, Aunt Phyllis, is doing somewhat the same thing for a young cabaret dancer that Stella’s brother George has fallen in love with and later marries. Aunt Phyllis is “to show her (Olive) how people behave & think” (5 May ’16).
War continues to reach ordinary people’s lives. Stella describes her feelings as an explosion at a munitions plant occurs (19-20 Jan ’17). At the same time her thought people get “worse & worse” and she makes a connection between them and War & Peace, which she has just finished. “It has in the most wonderful way revived the thought people. That book must have been written for me, and it has been waiting for me these fifty years” (11 & 17 Feb ’17). In March she refers to what is happening now in Russia, which she refers to as her “secret country” (16 Mar ’17). This affection for a country which she never will visit remains with her. The reviews for her own book are quite good (15 Apr ’17), yet she has “what we (Stella includes herself in the Hoxton group of women she has worked with) call in Hoxton’ the sinking feeling’” and even thinks about suicide, but not seriously. Stella finds her job working on the land is hard work, but it puts her in touch with nature. She also has the companionship of her secret friends: “Also had nice Secret Friends all day, mostly singing, which I always like” (23 Apr ’17). Later in the year Aunt Mary Cholmondeley introduces Stella to a woman with second sight. Stella is not pleased with their interest and interpretation of her secret friends: “But I become mule like when Aunt Mary & her friends talk of my Secret World. They don’t understand it, they explain it, & I will not myself either understand it or explain it, nor shall any alien theories trespass in it” (9 Dec. ’17).
Brooks Henderson, a reader for Macmillan in New York, visits Stella. She finds him to have “such a nice gentle USA accent, and a USA way of completing every grammatically perfect sentence even to the last full stop…” (27 Sept ’17). In October Brooks introduces Stella to Margery Garrett Jones and Dominick Spring Rice. With her usual wit, Stella assesses their relationship: DSR “(heavenly name) seemed to be a sort of tame cat of hers, or rather say tame terrier, quite an amusing young man, with a startling cynical memory for unexpected things like the thirty-nine articles, & LCC byelaws.” Margery, a young war widow and social activist whose aunts were Dr Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Millicent Fawcett, was at Girton College (Cambridge) with Eileen Power, who would become an eminent historian. (Stella and Eileen meet in India in 1920). Dominick grew up on the fringes of Bloomsbury and was an editor and economist. Both Margery and Dominick were to become important and life long friends to Stella.
In November of 1917 Stella attends some Fabian Society meetings. George Bernard Shaw speaks and Stella recognizes Mr & Mrs Sidney Webb. During this period Ireland and Russia are both in chaos. Stella’s good friend Captain Allen and Stella talk about what is happening in Ireland. Stella’s position is that “if all England was made up of SBs we should be shot of the cursed island, we should have left it long ago to work out its own damnation. It seems to me so terrible & so heartrending that Ireland herself should have made so appalling a mistake that Easter week, when feeling was running so high towards an honest enquiry & a peaceful settlement” (5 Nov ’17). After the first meeting Stella says of Shaw, “What a marvelous thing to be on the inner side of such an absolutely perfect lens of a brain” (9 Nov ’17). Her opinion varies at different meetings.
Happy to get some journalistic work, Stella is asked to review two books, including Mrs Humphrey Ward by Stephen Gwynne (27 Nov ’17). The last book in 1917 that she devours - “in one delighted gulp” - is E M Forster’s Longest Journey. Later in her career she will meet the talented writer.
On 8 July 1918 Stella begins her travels as a “real girl” (a phrase Benson often uses), sailing from Liverpool to New York. After brief stays in New York, New England, and Philadelphia - during which she bravely volunteered at a hospital during the raging 1918 flu epidemic - Stella left for California.
REEL 6: Add 6779-6785, Jan 1919-Oct 1921
By the time Stella arrived in California, she had written her third novel, Living Alone (1919), a fantasy based upon her own experiences during WWI. This new world was going to be exactly that for Stella. Bertha Pope, a woman who had befriended her in New England, drew Stella into her bohemian world. She met Albert Bender, an émigré from Dublin who developed a successful insurance business in San Francisco and became a patron of the arts and artists - Stella included. Poet and teacher, Witter (Hal) Bynner shared her interests and companionship. He brought his friends and students into her life, including poet Donald Clark and student Clink Greenwood. Providing a more traditional life were Chauncey and Henrietta Goodrich, and the Tolmans, a professor of economics at Berkeley and his wife. She also meets the sister of a former classmate, Doris Estcourt, now living in San Francisco with her family. Life in the Bay area had its ups and downs - serious bouts in the hospital, stints in various jobs, breathtaking trips into the mountains, participation in a poetry club, lively parties, excessive drinking and mainly living a life without restrictions for the first time. But it could not go on forever. Late in 1919 Stella set out for China with material in her diary for her fourth novel.
Stella and her traveling companion enjoyed their shipboard life. Stella was soon taken under wing by the father of Denton Welch. A mild romance occurred, but under Stella’s direction, it remained mild. Later in China Welch and his wife, a devout Christian Scientist, were very kind and caring to Stella.
In Peking Stella looked for a job to support herself and ended up teaching schoolboys. Again through letters of introduction and acquaintances of people at home, she enjoyed an active social life. Harold and Florence Harding, a diplomat and his wife, included Stella in their group. Like many other Westerners they lived in a temple in the Western Hills and often entertained Stella there. During this time Stella met Reginald F Johnston, known foremost for being the English tutor to the last emperor of China, P’u-i. Sir Reginald, as he was later known, probably understood traditional China better than any other Westerner in China. He and Stella became life long friends. It was not unusual for Florence Harding to invite Stella and another friend to accompany her on a trip up the Yangtze. On this exciting trip Stella began reporting on the wars engulfing China. She published many essays in periodicals and some are included in A Little World. Often her diaries served as drafts for these essays and her letters.
A major event in Stella’s life occurred at this stage. She met and fell in love with her husband-to-be, James Carew O’Gorman Anderson, an able career officer in the Chinese Customs Service (CCS), later known as the Chinese Maritime Customs Service (CMCS). When they met, James was actually in love with Florence who was unwilling to divorce her husband, but was unwilling to give him up (who at this stage of the diaries refers to himself as “Shaemas” to avoid confusion with another James Anderson). Obviously, the entries of this period focus on the relationships but not at the expense of forgetting about China. The September and October entries are rich in their descriptions of the landscape and the people.
In November Stella joined Cornelia Sorabji in Calcutta just months after the terrible massacre in Amritsar. Cornelia made sure that Stella saw her beautiful and complex country. Illness interrupted part of her visit and cut short her stay. She managed to interview Mahatma Gandhi (Reel 10 has a copy of her notes from the interview) and to meet Eileen Power, the first woman recipient of the Kahn Scholarship.
Once back in England Stella sees old friends and enjoys being in London, settling into an active social life. Her friends Peggy and Edward Boulenger introduce her to the American poet HD (Hilda Doolittle) and her companion Briar (Bryher) Ellermann. Stella wasn’t happy about the evening as she and HD “hardly exchanged two words”, but her praise of HD’s poetry is high: “I personally place her first among modern American poets… (9 Jul ’21). Stella sees a good deal of the Spring Rices and their literary friends and acquaintances.
By summer James Anderson is on home leave and determined to marry her. Stella meets his family in Ireland and doesn’t quite fit the image that Lady Anderson has for her son’s bride. Their relationship remains one of misunderstandings filled with tensions for both of them; however, James’s sister and Stella become friends.
Stella and James marry on 21 September in London.
REEL 7: Add 6786-6792, Oct 1921-Oct 1925
This period includes both rich and diverse entries in the diaries. Stella’s personal life is now that of novelist and colonial wife. As a writer this period is prolific. Her journalistic outpouring is considerable and so is what she regarded as her serious writing. Her fourth novel, The Poor Man (1922), reflects her views on the shallowness of American culture. Two years later in 1924 her fifth novel Pipers and a Dancer was published. Before 1925 ended she had also published The Awakening, a fantasy.
After crossing the United States on a honeymoon trip in a classic road trip with endless car and communication problems, Stella and James arrived in California in January to stay first with the Goodriches before looking for jobs and an apartment. Stella also had to mend fences as a result of The Poor Man, which clearly drew from the old crowd. Her genuine friendships endured and others disappeared.
In May 1922 James and Stella headed for Ireland and England before arriving in China for James’s next post, Mengtsz. James was glad to move to his new assignment in Mengtze in Yunnan Province on the Indochina border. This new life for Stella was a shock. It was the beginning of intense loneliness, amazing experiences, and a complex marriage. Correspondence, trips home, and her diaries were to become her salvation. In daily life she relied on James for companionship. Her fellow female Westerners, missionaries and wives of missionaries, had little intellectual interests and very focused horizons. As an agnostic Stella did not share much with them. Chinese warlords and their activities kept James involved in his career. Stella’s entries of this period describe the landscape, the people, and the tragedy of lawlessness. By spring of 1925 James is posted to Shanghai.
REEL 8: Add 6793-6798, Oct 1925-Aug 1930
In July of 1925 James and Stella go to Lung Ching Tsun, Kirin Province, Manchuria (or the Northeast, as it also known). This remote post, across from Vladivostok, is where Stella was inspired to write her most important novel, Tolbit Transplanted (1931) (or The Faraway Bride, its American title). Deeply sympathetic to the plight of émigrés, Stella drew on this world of displaced Russians to create a witty yet compassionate story of their survival.
During these years Stella also spent time with old friends and met new ones in California, particularly a lively young poet, Marie Welch, a friend of Albert Bender. Through her friendship with Marie, Stella met Harriet and Ellis Roberts in England. Roberts, an editor for The Nation, eventually wrote the first biography of Stella Benson.
During Stella’s visit to California James asked her if he could take a mistress - something many Western men in China did, without asking permission - and she reluctantly agreed. In 1927 both Stella and James are in Europe, particularly London and Ireland for James’s home leave. Besides visiting their families, they saw a good deal of the Spring Rices and Naomi and Dick Mitcheson and their family and became involved in the two couples’ marital problems. Mitcheson, a prolific writer herself, admired Stella and her work. Winifred Holtby, another close friend, fellow novelist and first biographer of Virginia Woolf, travelled to Ireland with James and Stella and saw them frequently. They were not fond of Winifred’s good friend Vera Brittain, who gained popularity with her autobiographical book, Testament of Youth. Stella began a friendship with Virginia and Leonard Woolf and was invited to their home (11 Dec ’28). James did not fit in with many of the literary crowd, except for Holtby. Together James and Stella made friends with painter Lady Eileen, a daughter of the 4th Duke of Wellington, and her husband artist Cuthbert Orde. They spent considerable time together, among other things playing poker. Cuthbert also painted Stella. Eileen Power introduced them to her friends as well (many entries). Through literary events Stella met novelists Elizabeth Bowen and Violet Hunt, poet Humbert Wolfe, and many other writers and critics. She also met a dashing man and became infatuated with him. Her diary entries go into detail about her interest and her short-sightedness.
James and Stella have considerable doubts about their own marriage - each blaming the other and then themselves. The late 1928 and early 1929 entries examine these concerns in depth. James went to Ireland while Stella went to the Bahamas to visit her brother George and his wife (16 Feb-11 Mar). She returned to England through New York where she met with Hal Bynner, who was always very kind to her, and his companion, Floyd Neal (21 Mar ).
Once in London again, her engagement calendar was full. Stella meets Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson at the Ordes. C.K. Ogden, linguistic psychologist, was also a guest. They enjoyed talking, especially after the others left. Stella calls Ogden a “scientific Gertrude Stein” which he denies. He promises to introduce Stella to the famous explorer, Vilhjalmur Stefansson (2 May). Dominick Spring Rice and Stella did go to Ogden’s rooms to meet Stefansson and liked him. Eileen Power was also present (9 May).
James received his next CCS assignment to Nanning in Kwangsie Province in the spring of 1929 (This is the same year that Deng Xian-Ping returns to China from France). The toing and froing of the Chinese generals and their men made daily life for Westerners like Stella and James uneasy. By early December they were anticipating having to flee at any moment. She notes “I have almost nothing I value here - except the typescript of Tobit - and these diaries”. (21 Dec. ’29) The poverty and hunger of the soldiers, as well as their lawlessness, created an atmosphere of uneasiness among the local Chinese who knew they could be the next victims. Yet somehow Stella and James enjoy frequent rides on their ponies and the companionship of their dogs.
In February, March and April of 1930 there are considerable references to the war and in particular Nanning. While Stella made light of the personal dangers, she does fear being involved in the chaos of the war.
Stella accepted an invitation to visit Sir Reginald F Johnston at Wei-hai-wei, where she works on her next book (June 1930).
Incredibly, these adverse conditions do not keep Stella from writing. She published Little World (1925), a collection of previously published essays including two of her best essays on her trip up the Yangtze in 1920; her novel, Goodbye Strangers (1926); Worlds within Worlds (1928), another collection of previously published essays; a short work, The Man who missed the Bus (1928); and finally in 1929 she finished writing her prize-winning novel, Tobit Transplanted (1931). In appreciation for his many kindnesses Stella sent the typed transcript to Albert Bender in San Francisco.
REEL 9: Add 6799-6801, Aug 1930-Jul 1933
The remaining vestiges of the colonial world still existed in Hong Kong, the next posting for James and Stella. Politically they were much safer here than when they were at remote treaty ports, but socially they both found life stilted. The diaries are filled with appointments for tiffin, tea, tennis, dinner, polo, bridge, poker, receptions, and launch and temple picnics. Sometimes there were as many as three or four engagements daily. For the most part these events are command performances and Stella did not feel real friendship. What does consume her interest and energy was working with a small group of women, particularly Mrs Gladys Forster, to close the government-supported brothels which involved child slavery. This project, which gained the support of Dame Rachel Crowdy of a relevant section of the League of Nations,and Stella’s own writing often ruffled the feathers of many of her patriotic countrymen and the government officials. One article in The Radio Times on the colonial’s obsession with games drew public criticism and tested the tolerance of her husband’s superiors. Even her long-time friend sinologist Sir Reginald F. Johnston scolded her for her lack of discretion. Both Stella and James liked Johnston but also recognized his difficulty in grasping the changes taking place in China. He spent time with them in Hong Kong in early December 1931. Even though his aloof behavior often hurt Stella, she realized that in some ways they were similar (3 Dec ’31). Johnston had gone through difficult years trying to help his former student who in the autumn of 1931 became emperor of the puppet state set up by the Japanese in Manchuria. This same year the revolutionary Chinese novelist Ba Jin (Li Yaotang) (1904- ) published his important novel Jia (Family).
As much as some people viewed Stella as doing nothing (being a writer did not hold much weight) in Hong Kong, as an act of kindness she helped an elderly ex-patriate Russian who was penniless and ill. This relationship, which began 13 April 1931, involved Stella’s listening to the man’s “loving stories”, transcribing them into readable, but not literary English so as not to spoil the effect, and getting them published under the title, Pull Devil, Pull Baker (1931). She describes her meetings and efforts to help Count de Toulouse Lantree Savine, a self-designated former “czar of Bulgaria,” and enigmatic “rogue”, which are both fascinating and exhausting. Ironically the book, which Stella calls a “non-book”, was successful in America and became a Book-of-the-Month selection. Her accounts, both in the diaries and in the book, of her experiences with the Count are a story within the story.
The New Year, 1932, brought Stella Benson the most significant literary recognition of her career. In March on her way home to England by way of the United States, she learned that she had been awarded the Femina-Vie Heureuse and the silver medal of the Royal Society of Literature. Virginia Woolf, whom Stella admired greatly had won the Femina in 1928 when Stella had also been on the short list. After stopping in California, Stella visited poet Donald Clark and his companion in New Mexico. Stella and Clark suffered from similar illnesses, with periods of hospitalization. While they did not know each other well, they had corresponded over the years. Once in England, Stella’s diary entries the weeks before and during the award ceremonies and celebrations read like a literary Who’s Who. Old friends and acquaintances like Winifred Holtby, Stephen Hudson, Dominick and Margery Spring Rice, Eileen Power, Rose Macaulay, Naomi Mitcheson, Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicholson, Harriet and Ellis Roberts, Virginia and Leonard Woolf, May Sinclair, Laura Hutton and many others share the pages. Stella also wrote more for Time and Tide, Lady Rhondda’s literary journal, which Winifred Holtby was editing.
In April of 1932, James was transferred to Hainan, an island at the upper tip of Indo-China. When Stella arrived after spending six months in American and Europe, the damp and humid climate was too much for her. James was able to transfer to a slightly more agreeable location, Pakhoi, her last residence.
REEL 10: Add 6802-Jul-Dec 1933; Add 6803 poems and Juvenilia; Add 8367 letters and other loose papers.
In late July Stella and James and a friend visited the Dutch East Indies by way of Manila, which Stella disliked. Her entries on this trip included shipboard discussions and very vivid descriptions of Bali and Java. She was particularly fascinated by the people and the role dance played in their cultures. Some of the entries are several pages long. As strenuous as the conditions of traveling were, Stella would rest briefly and plunge into the next excursion. At the same time she noted that she was working on her final novel, Mundos.
After a short interval in Hong Kong, Stella settled into a period of routine in Pakhoi. As always correspondence was very important to her. Especially important were her letters from Virginia Woolf. In late November she joined James on business when he went to Tonkin (the northern part of what is now Vietnam). The entries of this period contain descriptions of talks with a young member of the CMS, Teissier. Stella read some of his favorite authors, including Jean Giraudoux, whom she liked. However, after reading another of Teissier’s favorites, P-J Toulet, she wrote with considerable passion about “…the absence of the woman’s voice”. Stella’s feminism had not diminished over the years and these passages offer evidence of her feelings. She did not feel terribly well during the trip, but her final entries show her undaunted enthusiasm for observing her surroundings (26-28 Nov).
The final note in Stella Benson’s diary was written by her husband on 4 December 1934. He began by writing “she died on 6th December 1933, in hospital in the Baie d’Along.” Next he paid tribute to his late wife and affirmed her importance. He also added that he had “not erased or changed one word in the diaries”.