Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Dodo: A Detail of the Day

Fiction ~ novel
Published 1893
Approx. 84,000 words
(First read 01/03/2011)


We do not object to novels with some 'go' in them, but we feel obliged to say that Dodo, by E. F. Benson, is something more than 'breezy'—it is vulgar. We have heard that it has had considerable success in England. If that be true, then we do not think that Mr. Howells need to regret that he is anAmerican. Dodo is a loud, vulgar, stupid young woman, whose character we should suppose might have been sketched in the demi monde.
~The Outlook (US), 23/12/1893
Dodo is a delightfully witty sketch of the 'smart' people of society […] The writer is a true artist.
~The Spectator, quoted in front endpapers of The Luck of the Vails

(Hold on to your hats for the next one: it's looooooooong)
Mr. Benson has had the good fortune to involve himself in a controversy about social ethics and the functions of art. Some very 'smart' people are supposed to be indignant because his novel [Dodo] is a transcript of their interesting and useful lives. He is even charged with having made his heroine a literal portrait of what is called 'a well-known society woman,' a definition which is a valuable contribution to sociology and the English language. Deeply stirred by this unfounded accusation, Mr. Benson has written an article in one of the reviews, in which the whole duty of a novelist is laid down with academic precision. Nothing is more inartistic in fiction than to photograph your friends. You must study them, of course, with a view, not to an exact likeness, but to representation of types. If Jones accosts you at the club with “What d'ye mean by drawing me as a confounded idiot in your confounded book?” you must point out to him that the character to which he objects contains only one-fifteenth of Jones, the remaining fourteen-fifteenths being collected impartially from his acquaintances. The serious trouble is, as Mr. Benson lucidly explains, that when you represent a strongly marked type in a particular milieu the limitation of the survey increases the chances that some actual person will be singled out—of course, in the most wrong-headed way—as your one and only model. Your heroine may be a most artistically designed epitome of a certain variety of womankind, and yet some obstinate people may insist that she is one of those abnormal women who combine the qualities of the type and the portrait.
If this question has increased the general interest in Dodo, I am bound to say she thoroughly deserves it. She is a heartless little jade, but her piquancy, her facile vivacity, never flag, and her aptitude for reconstructing the world at a moment's notice to suit her temporary point of view—an eminently feminine capacity—amounts to genius. Dodo is the daughter of an ironfounder, generally supposed to be “looking after his affairs in the country while the rest of the family were amusing themselves in London.” Dodo's mamma and sister are merely satellites of that social luminary. Maud Vane has a great devotion to worsted, and when she marries a parson she makes more stockings than ever to supply the wants of his parish. Mrs. Vane's ambition is to bask in the glory of her brilliant daughter, especially when Dodo is engaged to a marquis. She receives visitors on the evening when the engagement becomes public property, “So kind of you to come. I know Dodo is dying to see you and be congratulated. Darling,” she says, turning to Maud, “run and tell Dodo that Lord Burwell has arrived. So good of you to come. And how do you do, Mr. Broxton? Of course, Dodo has told you of our happiness. Thanks, yes; we are all charmed with her engagement. And the Marquis is your cousin, is he not? How nice! May I tell Maud she may call you Cousin Jack? Such a pleasure to have you. Dodo is simply expiring to see you. Did she see you this morning? Really. She never told me of it, and my sweet child usually tells me everything.” That morning, in the Park, Dodo has acquainted Mr. Broxton with her destiny, much to his discontent, for he is very sweet upon her himself, and he is genuinely concerned about his very simple-minded cousin, Chesterford, who is going to marry this butterfly. “I must have lots of money,” she explains to the disappointed lover. “Yes; a big must and a big lot. It's not your fault that you haven't got any, and it wouldn't have been your fault if you had been born with no nose, but I couldn't marry a man who was without either.” As for Chesterford, “I shall be very good to him. I can't pretend that I am what is known as being in love with him—in fact, I don't think I know what that means, except that people get in a very ridiculous state, and write sonnets to their mistress's front teeth; which reminds me that I'm going to the dentist to-morrow … Ah, Jack! I wish that I really knew what it did mean. It can't be all nonsense, because Chesterford's like that and he is an honest man, if you like. And I do respect and adore him very much, and I hope I shall make him happy, and I hear he's got a delightful new yacht; and oh! do look at that Arbuthnot girl opposite with a magenta hat.” In the evening she is a little more serious. “Oh! my God, I don't know what to do. It isn't my fault, and I am made like this. I want to know what love is, and I can't—I can't.” This is the note of the tragedy—that is to say, the tragedy for Chesterford. He is an honest, guileless gentleman, who adores his wife, and when she has a child he adores the child. It lives only a few weeks, and dies one morning when Dodo is riding in the Row with Mr. Broxton. For a moment—she has her resourceful moments like the immortal Becky—Dodo is stricken with compassion for her suffering husband, but her “eminently practical way was to forget everything and absorb herself in something else.” She remembered King David's consolation when his child died. “What a sensible man David was! He went and oiled himself, which, I suppose, is the equivalent of putting on one's very best evening dress.” The untameable spirits of the woman surge over every serious thought. Three weeks after the baby's death she is preparing for a fancy ball. “I feel like a vampire who's got hold of blood again. I feel like a fish put back into the water, like a convict back in his own warm nest. No charge for mixed metaphors. Supplied free, gratis, and for nothing.”
It comes to her after a time that her life with Chesterford is unbearable. She discovers that she knows what love means, and that it means Mr. Broxton. That revelation is broken to him with the customary frankness, and he is not slow to reciprocate it; but Dodo has made a mistake. Here is the inevitable sequel of such a marriage; husband, wife, lover—the conjunction is not new; the disjunction is not unknown. But the very precipitatioj of Dodo's arrangements for an elopement saves her from that blunder. While she is explaining to Jack that she has ordered the carriage after dinner, at half-past ten, the disgrace of the position comes over him like a flood. His loyalty gets the better of his passion. “Think of your duty to him. Think of our love for each other. Let it be something sacred.” It is characteristic of the woman that she acquiesces with a burst of the irrepressible humour. “I believe I have an ideal—which I have never had before—something to respect and keep very close. Fancy me with an ideal! Mother wouldn't know me again—there never was such a thing in the house … Poor little ideal. I suppose it would endanger its life it you stopped, wouldn't it, Jack? It must live to grown up. Poor little ideal, what a hell of a time it will have when you're gone!” By an accident Chesterford has an inkling of what has happened. It confirms his suspicion that his wife is tired of him. The explanation between the two men is the strongest scene in the whole book, revealing by its simplicity and directness how great a model in fiction Mr. Benson has had in his mind. The tragedy for Chesterford is reaching its claimax. He has resolved to have no quarrel with his wife, who has recovered all her cheerfulness, and talks amusing nonsense with greater fluency than ever. But one day Chesterford is thrown in the hunting field, and dies after an operation. It is one of Dodo's brief seasons of genuine remorse. As she says of herself, she always rises to an occasion, and this is obviously the moment to confess all to the husband, who gives the last proof of his unfaltering devotion by begging her to marry Jack. Though the injunction consorts well enough with her inclination, this wayward creature never obeys it, for, in a fit of pique, after a tiff with her lover about an Austrian prince who pursues her pertinaciously, she rushes into a registry-office and emerges as 'her Serene Highness.'
The subsidiary characters are of little account, and the victorious Austrian is a mere shadow; but as a product of modern society Dodo, in her frivolity, her fleeting impulses, her rapid decision, her sparkling fascination, is so admirably lifelike and complete as to make Mr. Benson's novel a notable achievement.
~L. F. A. in The Sketch, 27/09/1893
Mr E F Benson's Dodo […] is not a biped of an extinct species; it is heartily to be wished she were. She is not even Antipodean ~ which, for the sake of distance, would be the next best thing to extinction. 'Dodo', to give her the only name by which she is known, is a girl without even a rudimentary heart or soul, coarse in mind, vulgar in manner, and selfish and licentious from hair to heel, yet with some mysterious charm about her which every man, woman, and child who has to do with her experiences, with the sole exception of the reader of her story. It is difficult to decide whether Mr Benson intended to satirise society by giving such success to so repulsive and contemptible a creature as Dodo, or whether he essayed the difficult but frequently successful task of compelling sympathy with an outrageously unconventional heroine, and found it too much for him. We incline to the former opinion, suspecting him of a belief that such unconventionalities on the part of even a pretty girl as bad language and tobacco are considerably more socially attractive than they actually are. Nobody, however, can safely say that Dodo is an impossibility, even when taken at her worst; and if she is inartistically exaggerated, Mr Benson deserves credit for a caricature which is not the less clever in its way for its failure to be interesting. He certainly writes with spirit, and his characters appear, at any rate, to be very real as well as very much alive.
~The Graphic, 15/07/1893