WOMEN, WRITING AND TRAVEL:
Part 1: The Diaries of Stella Benson, 1902-1933 from Cambridge University Library
Professor Marlene Baldwin Davis,
Department of English, College of William & Mary, writing in the Literary Encyclopaedia.
in her Preface to Stella Benson: a biography
(Macmillan, London 1987).
Stella Benson was a vibrant writer and author of eight novels including I Pose (1915), Living Alone (1919), Pipers and a Dancer (1924), and Tobit Transplanted (1931), originally published in America as The Far-Away Bride (1930), which won the Fémina-Vie Heureuse prize. Her final and unfinished novel Mundos was published in 1935. She also wrote poems and short stories including The Man Who Missed the Bus (1928), a short story published by itself in a limited edition. Collections of her travel sketches are found in The Little World (1925) based on her honeymoon trip across America, and Worlds within Worlds (1928).
Her diaries are very detailed from 1909 onwards, with much material on her social and literary contacts, forthright opinions on people and events. Early volumes trace her work in the East End of London for the Charity Organisation Society, her involvement in the campaign for women’s suffrage, her shop in Hoxton, and two years in America, much of the time spent in the artistic and bohemian community in the San Francisco-Berkeley area.
The diaries are very rich for 1920-1933: a key period for debates about perceptions of empire, the role of women, and methods of colonial administration. During 1920 Stella Benson was in India with Cornelia Sorabji and was soon immersed in her circle of friends. In April she returned to England. At this point she embarked on an eighteen month adventurous journey to the Far East, worked in a mission school and an American hospital in China, and met “Shaemas” – her future husband in China. They were married in London in 1921. His full name was James Carew O’Gorman Anderson, an Anglo-Irish officer in the Chinese Customs Service. He was appointed as Assistant Commissioner at the Customs Station at Mengtsz, in southern China. As a result Stella Benson spent much of the 1920s and 1930s in China & Hong Kong. She found time to make frequent visits to the UK and US. In the early 1930s she campaigned vigorously against the brutal and abusive system of licensed brothels in Hong Kong.
Her diaries are a good source for accounts of people she met on her travels, colonial life in Hong Kong, the Treaty Ports, her views on China and America, with much detail on political and social issues. Her troubled health and her position as a lonely wife in far-flung places contributed to her enthusiasm for writing. Fairly full entries are made on a regular daily basis, for instance:
Sunday, 29 November 1931 (Add 6800)
“...We drove back again to Hong Kong – James & I had supper at the Club. James had forgotten his pills so I undertook to buy a bottle – a difficult problem late on a Sunday evening. After beating in vain on the doors of all foreign drug stores, I asked the hotel porter who advised me to try the Chinese ones up Queen’s Road. I rather amused myself trying these –
surely the Chinese must be either more precise or more unimaginative than other races – I several times saw for instance a glass cabinet in a shop, full of pill bottles, & said (in English for lack of a common language) Please may I look in here, at the same time twiddling the handle or making other inviting gestures towards the Cabinet. No Chinese assistant ever apparently grasped what I meant – he either shrugged his shoulders or said ‘No spik Inglis’. Similarly my rickshaw coolie, even after he had deposited me at 6 Chinese drugstores, still did not know that I was seeking drug stores. I found the pills at last – discovering an assistant who spoke English (I did not really want an English speaker – I simply wanted someone to listen to me while I spoke the name of the pills – instead of shouting me down by saying No spik Inglis as I opened my lips) ….”
Friends included novelists and fellow writers Winifred Holtby, Naomi Mitcheson, Rebecca West, Vita Sackville West and the poet Amy Lowell. Following an invitation to take tea with Virginia and Leonard Woolf in Tavistock Square (1925) Stella Benson wrote,
“They seem a rather tremulous but extraordinarily intelligent pair. Both are a little maladifs, somehow. He had some kind of a jerking illness [he suffered from a lifelong tremor of the hands] and she looks terribly strained. She, in a day of mannish short clothes and clipped hair, wears untidy trailings and a large heap of faded hair behind. But she has a curious serenity behind her anxiousness, somehow – the serenity of great understanding – in spite of her rather distracted look I don’t believe the world is so difficult for her as it is for me, because she is bigger and never unnerved by little things like the tea being beastly and what not.
Of course she leads a physically easy life more than I do – she is more nervously fragile – she doesn’t challenge physical difficulties as something drives me on to challenge them. It must be a great ease to leave go and suddenly think – well, I’m not strong enough to do that – I can’t go down to Hoxton, I’m too tired – I can’t go back to Shaemas in China, I’m too ill.
Leonard Woolf looked very sad and physically so disabled that you feel you ought to be very gentle, until he speaks and then you feel that you needn’t be too darn gentle. He is a very gentle person himself and not weakly, doesn’t need any cottonwool buffers.”
At a tea party given for her by Ella Hepworth-Dixon (1925) Stella Benson was introduced to H G Wells, and in her diary described him as,
“rather easy to get on with and not the traditional ladykiller at all – rumple-haired and schoolboylike and with a high falsetto voice (which gives him a great start in comedy stuff, as it were) and a very charming eager interest in and appreciation of anything said by a person he is speaking to. He seemed to like me but I daresay this seeming is a habit with him. I dare say he wouldn’t long like an unseducible woman. He asked anxiously whether there was a Mr Stella Benson always at hand.”
There are 42 volumes of diaries plus a few letters, poems and other loose papers. The final volume concludes shortly before her sudden illness in Indo-China in December 1933. She died of pneumonia in the hospital at Baie d’ Along, near Haiphong. Her unfinished novel, Mundus, which she was writing at this time, takes the issues of empire, colonialism and nationalism as its central themes.
The diaries were used in Joy Grant’s Biography of Stella Benson and in Susanna Hoe’s The Private Life of Old Hong Kong.