March is Women’s History Month in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia. Especially during these thirty-one days, we are encouraged to acknowledge, commemorate, study and celebrate the vital role women have played in history. History Imagined is a blog dedicated to promoting the love of historical fiction in all its forms, sub-genres, and eras. What better way to combine the two themes than to look at a too often overlooked woman of letters who also was a champion for women’s rights?
Born in 1892 to English landed gentry, it is hard to imagine a person less likely to champion women’s rights and to live an independent life than Stella Benson. A Victorian baby who grew to young womanhood in the Edwardian Age, her path should have taken her from her father’s house directly to that of her husband’s where she would settle into the expected roles of wife, mother, and hostess. But for Stella, the expected was much too confining. Perhaps it was because she had been a sickly child confined to her bed for months at a time. Respiratory illness took such a toll that she could not attend school and had to be educated at home by governesses. Maybe it was because she came of age just as the Suffragist Movement was taking hold in the political arena and in the minds of ordinary people. Her childhood accomplishments would also have played an important role in the woman she would become.
Forced by her health to live a sheltered existence, the child Stella turned to sedentary, individual pursuits. She showed musical, artistic, and literary talents from an early age. At age nine, she began keeping a journal, a habit that would follow all her life. In 1905 at age thirteen, she became a prize-winning, published poet when one of her poems won an award of extreme merit from St. Nicholas Magazine, a periodical for children. Her first novel, I Pose, was begun when she was just twenty-one on a trip to Jamaica with her mother.
Sent as a young woman to study music and languages in Germany, she fell ill after one month and was sent to Switzerland for a year and a half to recuperate. While there, she had operations on her sinuses that left her deaf in one ear. At some point during her stay in Arosa, Switzerland, she began the radical detour from the course expected for a young woman of her class. She became a feminist and determined she would live independently by earning her own way. The arrival at these conclusions was in reality a culmination of views that had developed for some years as she observed the relative position of women in the world and in her own family. Her brothers received excellent educations and had opportunities, as did all men, for careers that she would never enjoy. Her views on a woman’s need for independence and self-determination would also have been influenced by her father’s earlier desertion of the family, leaving her mother dependent upon relatives for support and seeing the Benson children reared in the homes of kindly aunts and uncles. During the eighteen months in Switzerland, she learned her father had died when she was 18 without their meeting again. As sad as that may have been, a new world was opening to her. For the first time, she experienced a social life, even if she could only observe the more physical activities from the sidelines.
Back in England in 1913, she went to live in Hoxton, London, a working class neighborhood known for its poverty and violent crimes. Her health was no better than it had ever been, but she did not allow her mother to dissuade her. Of her health, she would say “I insist on ignoring the whole condition. Since I can’t cure it, I won’t be patched up. If I must die, I’ll die as alive as I can.” This first foray into independent living was cut short by a bout of illness. Health improved, she returned to London and took up an eclectic range of employment including working for the Charity Organization Society, producing paper bags for sale, and teaching basket weaving. World War I found Stella spending her time as a secretary for the Women Writers’ Suffrage Union and then for the much more militant United Suffragists. Her novel This Is the End, a story with suffragist elements, was published in 1917. In aid of the war effort, she volunteered to work on a vegetable farm in Cornwall, but missed 48 out of 112 days of work due to illness.
Doctors advised that the English climate was harmful to her lungs and suggested she live abroad. In 1918, Stella left for New York and worked her way across the continent, once again doing a variety of jobs such as farm labor in Colorado. She ended her wanderings in Berkley, California where she continued to battle her health issues while once again taking up disparate employment: bill collector, book salesperson, teacher of French, writing teacher at University of California, and reader for the university press. Her time there produced a novel whose title described life as she believed a woman was capable of living it, Living Alone. The heroine eschews entanglements with men. Stella’s time in Berkley was not spent solely in work. She had a social life so active that it necessitated a hospital stay nor did she avoid romantic relationships. One ended so disastrously that she fled the US for Hong Kong where she taught at a boy’s school.
From Hong Kong, she went on to Peking where she met her future husband, Shaemus (James) O’Gorman Anderson. James worked in the Imperialist Chinese Maritime Customs Service, a department of Chinese government staffed by foreigners. They met when he rescued her and friends from being caught between warring factions on the Yangtze River. Not one to stay put, Stella traveled on to India and back home to England before they married in September 1921. James’ employment still lay in China, but before they returned there, the couple took a driving tour of the US. Her novel, The Poor Man, came out of the trip and alienated some of her California friends because it satirized segments of American culture.
After they married, Stella’s life mostly followed her husband’s postings in China where she found she did not care for the missionaries, the British colonial system, or the majority of her fellow British expats. At one posting in northern China, she became particularly aware of the plight of the White Russian refugees. These observations would form the basis for her most acclaimed novel, Tobit Transplanted. She spent 1925-1927 in Europe and England. Before her return, she wrote to James, “I insist on being a writer first and a wife second: a man artist would insist and I insist.” She was in the final drafts of Tobit Transplanted (The Far-away Bride in the US), when she and James had to flee Nanning while bombs fell around them. Not long after their departure, the city was nearly destroyed by the warring factions. Settling in Hong Kong, Stella proved true to form. She led calls to abolish a tradition in which young Chinese girls were sold as sex slaves to government owned and operated brothels. The official British position on the abominable practice was to ignore it. Stella did not endear herself to the British community through her efforts and her opinions. Although elsewhere she was gaining a notable reputation as an author, Hong Kong bookshop keepers did not order her books because they believed no one would buy them.
After years of writing, recognition of her work came in the form of prestigious awards and growing income. Her books were becoming popular, especially after Tobit Transplanted was awarded the French Vie Heureuse Prize and an A.C. Benson silver medal for services to literature, both in the same year, 1932. The book was also England’s entry in the biennual International P.E.N. Club competition for best book. With the interest in her work at its pinnacle, she bought a house in London for James and herself then returned to him in Pakhoi, China.
While on holiday in December 1933, Stella developed pneumonia which led to heart failure. She died at the age of 41 and her life’s work slipped into obscurity until interest was revived in the 1980’s.
Writers are often given the advice to write every day, that it does not matter how good or bad the writing is, just get words on paper. Stella Benson’s passion for writing led her to do just this through her 41 journals that are now housed at the University of Cambridge Library. Her drive to explore the world she lived in and not be bound by its expectations of women enriched her writing.
Cambridge Professor Marlene Baldwin Davis has this to say about the importance of Stella’s diaries. “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.”
Works by Stella Benson
- I pose, (London: Macmillan, 1915) novel
- This is the End (London: Macmillan, 1917) novel
- Twenty (London: Macmillan, 1918) poems
- Living alone, by Stella Benson. (London: Macmillan, 1919) novel
- Kwan-yin (San Francisco: A. M. Bender, 1922) poem
- The Poor Man, (London: Macmillan, 1922) novel
- Pipers and a Dancer (London: Macmillan, 1924) stories
- The Little World (London: Macmillan, 1925) travel
- The Awakening (San Francisco: The Lantern Press, 1925) story
- Goodbye, Stranger (London: Macmillan, 1926)
- The Man Who Missed the Bus (London: Elkin Matthews & Marrot, 1928) story
- Worlds Within Worlds (London: Macmillan, 1928) travel
- Tobit Transplanted (London: Macmillan, 1930) (also printed as The Far-Away Bride in U.S.A.) novel
- Hope Against Hope, and Other Stories (London: Macmillan, 1931) stories
- Christmas Formula, and other Stories (London: William Jackson, 1932) stories
- Pull Devil, Pull Baker (London: Macmillan, 1933) novel
- Collected Stories (London: Macmillan, 1936) stories
- Mundos (London: Macmillan, 1935) novel (unfinished)
- Poems (London: Macmillan, 1935) poems