IN LITERARY CIRCLES one often hears the phrase “eminently readable.” We can find this kind of readability even in famously difficult texts, like Joyce’s Ulysses, and sometimes supposedly readable authors, like F. Scott Fitzgerald, aren’t readable at all — when he starts using words out of their proper context, for instance, giving them private meanings that don’t really gibe with what you might see in the dictionary. Non-readability sometimes descends into anti-readability, where nouns become verbs and the words of stories are deployed to make shapes — actual shapes, like triangles — rather than narratives, and you tend to see more white on the page than, oddly enough, text. But as interested — obsessed, you might say — as the world is with readability, what ought to mean infinitely more is this: re-readability, a rarefied qualification, in my mind, and one that is indicative of the work of E.F. Benson. Eminently re-readable, Benson is an early 20th century English writer we should all know better, given how he’s done his best to know us.
More than the other arts, literature is most often a one-and-done experience. A Radiohead album gets numerous shots, in all probability, to win over its listener, and you’ve probably seen each of your favorite movies more times than you’ve read your favorite book. Part of the reason is the time issue, naturally, and because it takes more work to read a text than to sit through a film. The timeless compact between reader and writer is based on a participatory element, because what happens, ultimately, happens in your mind, with the images projected inward, rather than outward, so there’s a greater capacity for immersion. More effort is involved, and while all this heightens the challenge for anyone who attempts to create literary art, the rewards, too, are correspondingly greater.
But what about the prose work that functions like that favorite film of yours, or maybe like some of your closest friends? The prose you hang out with, in effect, which you can read any night, never mind that you’ve hung out with it a couple hundred times? A prose work — or a body of work — that you might use as your time-traveling device, when you feel like getting away for a while from your job or whatever you have going on in your life. A work that’s like a second home, that you dash away to on weekends, and never gives you a feeling of déjà vu or repetition, always reads fresh — sometimes fresher than the time before.
A few elements need to be in place for a work to have this kind of re-readability. It’s probably helpful if it’s not the most gutting, soul-churning work out there — work that just lays into you and makes you cancel your plans for the evening after reading it. And you probably want something long on atmosphere. Few literary ventures are more successful than the partnership of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, and they are virtually peerless in their re-readability. You’re not hung up, each and every time, on the whodunit; you’re there in that room, with those men, hanging out with them, everyone enjoying each other’s company, having another cup of coffee, making another offhand quip. It’s the literature of immersion, of pulling up a chair, and nearly as good at it as Conan Doyle was his contemporary, E.F. Benson.
If you know E.F. Benson, you almost surely know him for one of two things: either his Mapp and Lucia series of novels — which became a very watchable and re-watchable TV series — or his ghost stories. Mapp and Lucia represent the domestic side of Benson, with small-community power plays and gossip and gardening and tiny dramas that result in internal explosions that affect the characters at the level of who they are, sometimes changing who they are. There’s a risibility at play here — play being the operative word — in this world of garden fêtes and church circles. The comedy isn’t based on a punch line that diminishes in impact each time you hear it, but on glances, exchanges — the way a syllable of a word is given added heft. It’s the comedy of surprise, a goodly portion of which draws on a reader’s own powers of observation, and it never grows stale.
Neither do Benson’s ghost stories. Algernon Blackwood is more celebrated as a British macabre-master, and so is M.R. James. The latter will freak you out of your mind in a way that Poe would have wished to in his supernatural tales, but I know of few activities on this earth that are more agreeable than a late evening reading of a Benson horror story, with a nightcap of whisky by the bed, the lights dimmed, the highly engaging stories sucking you in. And the same is true for Mrs. Ames, which had been out of print for an age until its reissue in 2010. Not that Mrs. Ames is a horror story, by any means — it’s much closer to the realm of Mapp and Lucia. What is immediately notable in both of these branches of Benson’s output is the role of solitude — even if his characters regularly navigate social situations, they often do so after going off on holiday — a golfing expedition in some coastal village, or for a respite from London in a pleasant, quiet community, beside a moor.
Scholars have generally concluded that Benson was gay, and at a time when it wasn’t exactly easy. His brother wrote the lyrics to “Land of Hope and Glory,” while his sister was an Egyptologist. Another brother was a novelist, and Benson’s father was no less than the Archbishop of Canterbury, at one point. A most intellectual family, then, and one that was ostensibly goal driven. There can be a certain degree of iciness in individuals who hail from homes of this nature, but even if Benson’s characters holiday in solitude — with no spouses to keep them company — they exude a most appealing bonhomie, which extends to their fellow characters, and outward to the person holding the book, who begins to feel, too, like a character, albeit a silent and observant one.
You don’t read about a character exploring a glade with newfound friends in a Benson story, so much as you feel like you’re walking at the back of the group, free to pipe up and add some input, while knowing that the call of a bird or a clap of thunder could well drown you out. The ghost stories are less plot-driven than they are about cultivating this fellowship, one in which we are all frightened together, or we take a restorative of brandy together, or we rush out of the English rain together, to discuss what apparition we may have just seen, over whatever dish our host at the inn has prepared. Find yourself sick of being an accountant? Bored grading papers? A reader can always return to the friends he made, way off in some seaside inn, and take a break with Benson’s characters. Each time the veil is pulled back, it feels like you’re embarking on a new journey with people you know, to places you’ve already been. We’re talking the ultimate in re-readability — which, when we get down to it, is a feat of literary alchemy.
Knowing all of this, I was dead keen to check out Mrs. Ames. Benson wrote a lot of novels — I have tired of counting them, and most aren’t generally available — but there must be 50 or so. They cranked them out back then, and so, naturally, a lot was forgettable. Benson was no different. I used to make a point of scouring college libraries looking for obscure Benson novels, and some of them, alas, deserved to remain obscure, even if they might offer a few hours of pleasant diversion. I wondered if that was to be the case with Mrs. Ames. It had been out of print since first issued in 1912, before it was brought back in the Bloomsbury Group series, which looks at quiet, minor gems of yore that never got invited to the grown-ups’ table. A lot of the volumes are in the spirit of something like E.M. Delafield’s still rather popular Diary of a Provincial Lady books; Mrs. Ames, too, centers on a provincial lady — our eponymous heroine — in the English village of Riseborough. It’s a village like many fin-de-siècle English villages. Everyone knows everyone else, and everyone has their respective station, which of course impacts the lives of everyone else, and every individual is expected to maintain that station with restraint and propriety. In other words, there’s no, “f—— off, you incorrigible bastard, how dare you f—— my wife,” so much as there is, “I find your actions most regrettable.” And a good deal of sighing.
And hand-wringing. Actual hand-wringing. The town’s most popular and accomplished woman, Mrs. Ames is revered because she always wears the right dress, adds the ultimate crowning touch to a ham supper, and writes the best party invitations on the most sumptuous stationary — little things that play as big things in such small faraway villages. Unfortunately, she has rivals, and her husband has a wandering eye, and we get an assortment of muted fireworks, where an affair is not consummated by a sexual act, but rather by a rendezvous at some garden spot for tea and small talk with just a little more indelicate conversation than usual. Like a code for subversion.
Now, this might sound somewhat tame, given the luridities peppered throughout our daily lives. But one must keep in mind that when a raised eyebrow can function as an affront to one’s wedding vows, there is emotional mayhem to be made in every single action these characters take. And over the course of the novel, that adds up to more of an impact than you might get from a few bombs going off and a few orgies elsewhere. When the ghosts arrive, they aren’t haunts in seaside inns; they are shades dredged from the past, hell-bent on consuming the futures of Mrs. Ames, her doltish husband, and the ever-catty Mrs. Altham, a sort of Iago-type who isn’t terribly adroit at bringing down our heroine. Instead, our heroine brings herself down, only to realize that it is not what one’s peers think about her that matters — even in the smallest of communities — so much as her own feelings on that most personal of subjects.
The New York Times reviewed this book when it first came out, declaring, “It must be premised that Mr. E.F. Benson’s new novel, Mrs. Ames, stands a very small chance of achieving anything like popularity.” There’s an indictment for you. The review then goes on to bill the novel as Benson’s best work to date, even though his characters “should have known better than to figure in a novel.” That’s the clincher for me, and I wonder if this unnamed reviewer was aware of why they said what they said. These aren’t characters or stock figures so much as they are people sourced from life who happen to live in pages rather than three-dimensional houses. They’re real, ripe for visiting, ripe for re-readability. You might catch any one of Benson’s characters in a different phase of flux, with each return reading. I suspect I am not done visiting Mrs. Ames.