Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Scarlet and Hyssop

Fiction ~ novel
Published March 1902
73,800 words
(First read 03/06/2014)

Here's the basic plot: Lady Marie Alston and her husband Jack have been married several years ~ both are still fairly young (late 20s? early 30s? ~ I forget); they have no children; she has never loved him though he once loved her.  Shortly before their marriage Marie thought she might be in love with a chap named Jim Spencer, but didn't go through with it.  Jim went off to South Africa 'to forget', and has just come back a millionaire.  In the meantime Jack has been having an affair with a married woman named Mildred Brereton; he supposes he loves her; she loves him about as much as she loves the average footman, which is to say not one whiff.  Marie and Jack resume their 'friendship' and soon realize they're in love; but they're too noble to consummate their love.  Marie finds out about Jack's affair with Mildred; he breaks it off with Mildred and falls in love with his wife all over again.  (I may be getting some of this in the wrong order: the whole thing was instantly forgettable.)  Marie wants none of him but is persuaded to carry on with the marriage for appearances' sake.  Mildred goes, "Ho hum ~ next!"  Jack gets flattened by an omnibus.  Marie and Jim (and Mildred too, for that matter) live happily ever after.  The End.
I could list 101 reasons for disliking Scarlet and Hyssop but will limit myself to just four:
(1) The wild, glaring improbability at the heart of it: everyone on Earth (i.e. everyone in London Society, because nothing else exists) knows about Jack's affair with Mildred ... except Marie.  This is despite the fact that they all see each other 250 times a week and do nothing but gossip.
(2) None of the characters is in the least bit likeable, with the possible exception of Jack.  (I could add Jim to this except that he can hardly be called a 'character' ~ he's just a shadow.)  Benson's heroine, Marie, is a cold, condescending, snooty witch ~ and knows it.  At one point Jack says to her:
"You are a cold, passionless woman, and will not understand," he said.  Then he paused a moment, for a long sigh lay suspended in her breast.  "You object to my saying that?" he added.
"No; go on," said she.
It's no bleedin' wonder he went off and had an affair (though he could have chosen better), married to that sanctimonious icebox ~ he's just the average man.  And yet he's the one who, in order that a happy ending may take place, gets squashed by a bus.  Ah well.
Mildred is a piece of toxic waste: Dodo on acid.  She'd have to be buried underground for 40,000 years for me to go anywhere near her.
Bloody omnibuses! ~ they get everywhere
(3) If you've already read Daisy's Aunt and Mammon & Co. and umpteen of Fred's short stories that deal with adultery, there's no need to read this: it has absolutely nothing different to say.
(4) The supposedly comic relief, Lady Ardingly, who is another of EFB's preposterously-born-in-Russia Queens of London Society, isn't in the least bit funny.  She's a tedious old hag.  Still, she gets the best line in the book, which you have to wait till the last page of the epilogue for:
"Ah! my dear, we are lepers," said Lady Ardingly.  "We are all wrong and bad, and we roll over each other in the gutter [...].  We strive for one thing, which is wealth, and when we have got it we spend it on pleasure.  [...] and the odd thing is that the pleasure we get does not please us.  It is always something else we want.  I sit and I say 'What news?' and when I am told I say 'What else?' and still 'What else?' and I am not satisfied.  [...] we go after remedies for our ennui, for our leprosy, and there is no such remedy unless we become altogether different."
This pretty neatly sums up all the worst of the Edwardian period ... and of Scarlet and Hyssop
Okay, I think that's enough.  You can read the whole thing online here ... but I wouldn't bother.

In Scarlet and Hyssop […] Mr E. F. Benson has returned to his earlier manner. He opens by introducing us to a couple of ladies whose talk overflows with studied smartness in a way that may choke off some readers. But as many as persevere will not find their courage very well rewarded. Mr Benson's society ladies tire one very soon. Their affections and their affectations are equally a bore. We crave for something a little more natural, a little more healthy.
~The Yorkshire Post, 19/03/1902
All Mr E. F. Benson's stories may be said to make for righteousness, inasmuch as virtue always somehow finds its reward. But it must be frankly confessed that generally it is not the goal but the way we travel to it which interests his readers. Marie, Lady Alston, in [Scarlet and Hyssop] […] stands for right-doing, her friend Mildred, Mrs Brereton, for the opposite. Jim Spencer is the decent but poor young man who is sent out to South Africa to make his fortune. Like so many other young men in novels, he succeeds, and comes home to find Marie, whom he loves, married to Lord Alston, who loves Mrs Brereton. We sit at a game of whist, see the cards shuffled, cut, and dealt, note the mistakes made, and the cheating, and see how the wiles of the wicked are fruitless against the straight play and good cards of Marie and Jim. The best-drawn character in the book is Marie's husband Jack, Lord Alston, who wins popularity as a politician by preaching the doctrine of 'efficiency'. He finds, too late, that his mistress is not nearly so clever or beautiful a woman as his wife. His death was a necessity for Marie's reward on earth, and it comes about somewhat melodramatically, at the hands of Mildred, or rather at the feet of her horses. The characters all move in an atmosphere where the first law of life is apparently to be very amusing or very rich. Cleverness is pardoned if it can contrive to be interesting; stupidity is condoned if set in a gold frame. Men are apparently of little account except as counters in the game. That in spite of so much that is unreal, and our indifference as to the fate of the characters, we can enjoy the depiction of their little plots and counterplots, is the best testimony to the cleverness of the book.
~The Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, 29/03/1902
The author of Dodo gives us here another study of the decadent aspects of certain circles of London aristocratic and wealthy society. The book has not the dash and cleverness which inclined one to condone some of the disagreeable features of Dodo. On the other hand, it has a very plainly put moral; the only man and the only woman in the book who have strong and true characters are duly rewarded. Nevertheless and despite this fact, the presentation of vice, artificiality, and insincerity in modern society has a depressing rather than a tonic effect, and the whole leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
~The Outlook (US), 19/04/1902
Mr. Benson here plays the part of social satirist. He whips the manners and fashions of the smart set, not exactly with scorpions, but severely enough, and, we believe, in all sincerity of indignation. Through the mouth of his heroine, Lady Alston, he calls them vulgar, and he shows convincingly that their vulgarity does not even purchase enjoyment. “'Ah! my dear, we are lepers,' says one open-eyed old sinner. 'We are all wrong and bad, and we roll over each other in the gutter like these Arabs scrambling for backshish. We strive for one thing, which is wealth, and when we have got it, we spend it on pleasure . . . and the odd thing is that the pleasure we get does not please us. It is always something else we want. I sit and I say, "What news?" and when I am told, I say, "What else?" and still "What else?" and I am not satisfied.'" That is one of the mildest arraignments; Mr. Benson's favourite term of reproach for the vulgar woman of society, 'a cook,' is a slander on a highly respectable class, but at least he means to indicate unspeakable depths of stupidity and hopeless moral and mental obtuseness. It is some satisfaction to note also that, as none of the satirised are made to appear charming, their originals in real life are left with little consolation. A more brilliant exhibition of their weak wickedness might have tickled them; Mr. Benson's can hardly fail to annoy. So far good. But he has not chosen the most effective way of reform. To ignore entirely the stupid whirl after money and senseless pleasure is perhaps too slow, too doubtfully efficacious a method of showing contempt; but, at least some stalwarts might have been introduced into the story, uninfected by the general corruption and untempted by what the 'smart set' have to offer. Of course, there is Jim; but he is a shadow; and there is Lady Alston, but she is an abstraction, or little more than a mouthpiece for Mr. Benson's tirades of reproach. Contrast is wanted in the book—a picture of the other people. These need not have been saints, they might have filled their place admirably with a moderate amount of virtue, provided they were endowed with active brains, and were minded to demand from life some of its realities.
~The Bookman (UK), 05/1902
Scathing in satire and relentless in exposure. In point of construction, Scarlet and Hyssop seems to us to mark a distinct advance in the author's work. Nothing is out of place, nothing superfluous, but all is in due order and sequence, while the interest never flags for a moment. There are many pages of witty dialogue, and quite enough clever people who talk epigrams, and, on the whole, Scarlet and Hyssop must be accounted a really brilliant piece of work, unsurpassed by anything Mr. Benson has given us.
~The Pall Mall Gazette, quoted in endpapers of An Act in a Backwater and Juggernaut and in newspaper ad of 04/06/1902
Mr. Benson has returned to the field which he developed with such signal success in Dodo, and his new novel reveals a brilliancy, social knowledge, and worldly wisdom that show how much the author has grown in force and pungency since the appearance of his first book. This remarkable story of London society may or may not afford reasons for identifications. It is certain that the author's range of acquaintances and his knowledge of the subject are exceptional, and in this amusing and striking picture of life as it is lived in London he has utilized his opportunities to the full.
"Look out, luv ~ E. F. Benson's about!"
~Pittsburg Press, spliced together from quotes in endpapers to US editions of The House of Defence and An Act in a Backwater

There is much pleasure, as well as philosophy, in the book; its satire is pungent, the characters are well sketched, and it is certainly a book to read.
~The Sketch, quoted in endpapers to An Act in a Backwater and Sheaves
It is astonishingly up-to-date: it brims over with chatter, with Saturday-to-Monday parties, with Bridge ~ everlasting Bridge ~ flirtation, motor-cars, semi-detached husbands and wives, and the Boer War; in fact with everything in which London society of to-day interests itself. An admirable picture, witty, cynical and amusing. It is full of brilliant things.
~The Standard, quoted in endpapers to An Act in a Backwater and Juggernaut

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