Tuesday, 1 January 1980

The Capsina

Fiction ~ novel
Published 1899
Approx. 147,000 words
Available online here

Three or four years ago Mr Benson made a tour in Greece, the first-fruits of which appeared in his novel The Vintage. But the juice of the grapes that he gathered during his travels was not apparently to be contained in one bottle. Another squeeze and we have a sequel, The Capsina. The hero is our old acquaintance, Mitsos, of The Vintage, but the heroine is a Grecian 'new woman' of eighty years ago, a girl who builds and sails her own ships, fights for her country, and kills many Turks with her own hand. She is wedded to her favourite brig until she meets 'Little Mitsos', who enlists under her flag, but omits to tell her, till too late for her peace of mind, that he has left a wife and child at home. There is very little story, but a great deal of fighting, both on sea and land, and many ghastly details of wounds and tortures, such as the British public, so squeamish in certain respects, is supposed thoroughly to enjoy. The heroine takes her full share of the slaughter, and even Mitsos, who admires and respects her as a comrade, is just a little scandalised when she stamps on the face of a dead Turk, hangs an officer who has surrendered to her, and fires on a boat-load of women. He cannot quite reconcile these strong-minded actions with his ideal of true womanhood. For himself, he is as bloodthirsty as can be desired in the hero of an 'adventure' story, and gives 'a great giggle' when he sees an enemy's head 'dashed to a crushed eggshell' against a wall. However, he is so admirable a character from the domestic point of view, such a blameless husband and devoted father, that his inopportune giggles will no doubt be forgiven him, while as for the heroine she is quite a 'nice girl' in private life, and, since the realism that deals with human suffering is supposed to be quite innocuous compared with the realism that deals with human passions, her adventures may be recommended as suitable reading for the young person. In the intervals of the fighting the story is decidedly dull. The politics of the period, the intrigues of the Primates, and the treachery of the leaders can hardly be expected to interest the modern reader. Mr Benson has evidently studied his subject with conscientiousness, but he is over-anxious to impart his newly-acquired information. He would do well to remember that to the normal mind there are few subjects more unsavoury than stale politics, more especially the stale politics of a foreign country. The attractions of The Capsina are greatly enhanced by the illustrations of Mr Jacomb Hood.
~The Morning Post [London], 06/04/1899

Mr. E. F. Benson's second novel of the Greek war of independence, The Capsina, is distinctly superior to its predecessor, The Vintage, because the elements of romance and history have been more skillfully mixed, with the result of giving a continuous story interest. Indeed, the present book may truly be called a fine and strong historical novel. It has a vigorous central character in the heroine—a maiden who loves and fights as a ship-captain with equal passion. Some of the characters of The Vintage reappear, and 'Little Mitsos' again is in the foreground. The incidents of the war are dramatically told, and with vastly better perspective than in The Vintage. It was a time of the most horrible cruelty, and the claims of humanity were constantly disregarded by Greek as well as Turk. A kind of jocular bloodthirstiness in the telling of the story sometimes tries thereader's patience.
~The Outlook, 08/04/1899

It is far indeed from Dodo, Limitations and The Judgment Books to this romance of the war between Turkey and Greece. It almost seems, in fact, as if it were farther than the author can reach, for the society tone is not well adapted to the battle-cry.
The story begins with the oncoming of the struggle, and the opening scene is the little town of Hydra, which climbs Argolis, trailing its skirts in the Ægean. The people are patriots and the leader is a beautiful girl, a modern Joan of Arc, invincible on land and sea. Before the story has gone far it is in the midst of the conflict, and filled with the noise and confusion of battle. The author has evidently studied his subject, and many of the military descriptions are well done, with sympathies always on the side of Greece.
But the background of battle's smoke is not the best feature of the story. Its merit lies rather in the subtler matter of character drawing—as might have been expected from his earlier literary success. The main interest of the work is in the character and career of the 'Capsina,' and most of all in her ill-starred love. For she, being a woman and young and lovely, loses her heart early in the story, since the greatest courage and the most powerful arms are unavailing against cupid's assaults. Her love is not returned, but is naturally none the less great because of that fact, and the man whom she loves learns too late what he has lost.
Very, very far off is all this from the decadence of Dodo and her kind, but there are, nevertheless, occasional touches that recall Mr. Benson's earlier Limitations.
~The Bookman, 08/1899

Among new novels of the day there is Mr E. F. Benson's The Capsina, which is in his Vintage not Dodo style, and has its scene laid amid the stirring incidents of the Greek War of Independence. It presents, on the whole, a tolerably vivid picture of the struggle; the plot is skilfully managed and the characterisation is careful in every detail, but nevertheless the love-making and the fighting ~ and there is plenty of both ~ excite no emotion in the reader, and even the wonderful adventures and tragic fatge of the 'Capsina' herself, fail to arouse much sympathetic interest. From a literary point of view the novel is vastly superior to Dodo or The Rubicon; it is, however, less good than The Vintage, and although it will certainly not detract from, neither will it greatly enhance, Mr Benson's reputation as a fiction-writer.
~The Cheltenham Looker-On, 29/04/1899

The words of praise that met Mr Benson's earlier novel of Greek life, The Vintage, will be repeated and emphasised in regard to the present work. [...] Throughout there is no lack of action. Leaguer and assault, land fight and sea fight alternate with each other in brilliant descriptive passages. The author, however, does not make the mistake of endowing the modern Greek with too much heroism, or a character above reproach. There were heroes undoubtedly, but many of the bravest were those who were bravoes at heart, and, while eager for revenge, equally eager for spoil and booty.
~Lloyd's Weekly Newspaper, 12/03/1899

Mr E. F. Benson's new novel The Capsina […] is virtually a sequel to The Vintage and is concerned, as that was, with the Greek War of Independence. On the whole, it is a better story; there is less history, less description, and more imagination ~ and to fiction imagination is obviously more necessary than mere knowledge. The hero is our old friend Mitsos, a married man now, since he has loved and won Suleima. Occupying a still more important position is Sophia Capsas, officially called the Capsina, just nineteen when the story opens, and the only child of her dead parents. Her father, head of the Clan of Capsas, had betrothed her when she was eighteen to her cousin Christos, sorely against her will, be it said; she had, in fact, only submitted in deference to the strict rule of Clan etiquette, and on condition that the marriage should take place “when she thought fit, and at no other time.” After her father's death she occupied herself with the management of the ship-building business she had inherited, and when Christos pressed for marriage curtly dismissed him for good. There is a really fine picture of her on the morning this occurred:~
“She was tall and finely made, and the sun had joined hands with the winds of theatrical
sea to mould her face with the lines of beauty and serene health. Her eyes and hair
were of the South, her brow and nose of her untainted race, her mouth firm and fine.
She watched Christos out of the gate with all the complete indifference her great black
eyes could hold, and then set off down to the shipyard, where a new brig was to be
launched that day. There she stood all the morning among the workmen, bareheaded
to the sun and wind, directing and often helping with her own strong hands.”
Her treatment of Christos is hotly discussed, and she amuses herself by wondering whether the Clan which now owns him as its head will come to the festival; but suffice it to say that this part of the book is admirable, and the Capsina remains unmarried. The story proceeds briskly to the time of the war. She joins the revolutionists, and the announcement that she has done so is virtually the beginning of active insurrection. Then we have some stirring incident, much slaughter of the Turks, an occasional execution, plenty of intermittent love-making, and through it all the figure of the Capsina on board her little ship. She is evidently a creation dear to Mr Benson's heart, but we own to finding ourselves repelled early in the book by an incident that not even the brutality of the Turks can justify. Here is the passage containing it: the italics are ours:~
“Only a few bodies of Turks had been found: the thing had been massacre not
fight. As the Capsina and Mitsos were going down to the ship again in silence, he
saw her turn aside to where a dead Turk was lying under a tree. She stamped on
the face of the dead thing without a word, and followed by Mitsos stepped into
the boat that was waiting for them.”
Nor is the calm hanging of two pages later, however well deserved, a pleasing incident, even with the qualifying passage that closes the chapter. Without being a sentimentalist, the ordinary reader will feel that such things are best left to men in fiction, if we are meant to care for the heroines. All the same, the Capsina is a striking personage, and her love for Mitsos is well told. The war scenes are much better than those of The Vintage, and the setting has the quality of actuality that distinguishes Mr Benson's work, and the book is marked by literary skill that usually makes it easy reading.
~The Standard [London], 05/06/1899
[…] to have read [The Capsina] I consider the ultimate qualification of the Benson enthusiast.
~C.D.B. in The Western Morning News, 25/04/1932 (full article reproduced under As We Were and Charlotte Brontë)
Shortly after [The Money Market Benson] tried his hand at two novels based on the Greek War of Independence, and using his recent experience with Greek refugees from the Turks. These were The Vintage and [The] Capsina, written in very unDodo style, obviously in an effort to find the depth and body his mother demanded. As historical novels they fall short of adequate, and The Vintage is downright soporific. “[The] Capsina has turned out as I hoped,” Fred wrote, “and is certainly a street or two higher than The Vintage.” Maybe so, but [his mother] was critical of it for quite other reasons, and she wrote him a schoolmistressy letter chiding him with what we should nowadays call obscenity. Fred had tried to describe lust, and he just wasn't up to it. Mother pointed to specific pages ~ 'the blood and flesh of her' on p.258, 'the fever of her love-sickness' on p.274, 'her love-fever' on p.275. “Things of this sort seem to me an unnecessary kind of sensationalism,” she told him, “they pull it down a moment and suggest images much lower than the great swing of the whole … quite another class of people, of rather nasty minds, will read into them things which you certainly don't mean.”
Oh, but he did mean them, only they were born of poor imagination rather than rich experience, which explains the risible artificiality of these images. [His mother] should have recalled her own advice to stick to observation and eschew theory.
~Brian Masters in The Life of E. F. Benson, 1991

No comments:

Post a Comment