23 JUNE 1939, Page 26


STELLA BENSON might have been the subject of the famous remark about the Irish in The Moon in the Yellow River— "we may believe in fairies but we trade in pigs." Stella Benson was a firm believer in fairies. She was pixielated, undoubtedly, and there is something remote and aloof, some- thing otherworldly in her books and her personality that reveals it. But her life was filled with mundane pre- occupations ; social service in pre-War Hoxton, party-going in America, teaching, book-selling, relief work among Chinese prostitutes, a varied existence as the wife of an official in the Chinese Customs. She observed this world sharply—how sharply can be estimated from her travel-sketches, her novels, and the portions of her letters which Mr. Roberts quotes. But she was more happily at home in the world of fantasy. " We mortal millions dwell alone " was her creed ; intensely conscious of her spiritual isolation, she created for herself an inner life which contrasted painfully with the problems of travel, illness and marriage which continually pestered her.

" It was," says Mr. Roberts, " Stella's ill-luck that she met so many, including her greatest friends, who never properly appreciated the fact that her pretence-world was a real world." For a long time, certainly, readers of her books failed equally in appreciation. Her earlier work won praise from a few of the discriminating; but too many, if they read her books at all, were inclined to agree with the Los Angeles reviewer who said of her first novel, 1 Pose—" Stella Benson (whoever she may be) has written a novel. Having relieved herself of that ambition, she should now seek more congenial occupation and connect with a sewing machine in an overall factory." It was not until Tobit Transplanted that she achieved any large measure of recognition.

It would have meant much had that recognition come earlier. It irritated her to know that the Outposts of Empire among whom she spent so much time thought it improper, almost indecent, that the wife of O'Gorman Anderson of the Customs Service should, in addition to rescuing unfortunate young women, write books and even broadcast. But she assessed her limitations shrewdly. She knew that, while the Satraps in China sneered at her work, in England Virginia Woolf and David Cecil approved ; she had won the Femina prize, and even John Galsworthy murmured the right things about her. But this biography, so reverent that it is almost hagiography, would surely have made her giggle. What would she have thought of such a sentence as : " One day, when country county councils follow the example of the L.C.C. there will be a plaque fixed to the wall of the cottage High- croft, The Edge, near Stroud, Gloucestershire, to say, ' Here Stella Benson wrote more than a third of Tobit Transplanted." Her answer to American pompousness was The Poor Man ; she would have had an answer for this.

Nevertheless, Mr. Roberts's book is likely to remain the standard biography. He was her friend, and has had access to her literary remains. If he could have held in check his admiration for her and her writings, his study would have been entirely adequate. His account of the different phases of her life is well contrived ; his quotations from her letters and unpublished work are an illuminating selection ; his analysis of her character, of the effects of her ill-health, of the clash between the inner and the outer world that she con- tinually experienced is lucid and convincing. He handles with discretion, but does not burke, the difficulties of her married life. But he has done what she, spare and economical writer that she was, would never have praised ; he has over-written