I Pose was Stella Benson’s first novel & it was reviewed with great acclaim when it was published in 1915. Posing is one of the main themes of the novel. The two main characters, known only as the gardener & the suffragette, spend most of the novel striking different poses. The narrator often interjects to point out these poses & to tell the reader not to take it all too seriously. I found it an odd book but I could not stop reading it. I became very fond of both the gardener & the suffragette & I wanted to find out what happened to them.
The gardener lives in a boarding house. He has very little money, doesn’t seem to have a job & carries around a nasturtium called Hilda. He speaks in riddles & tries on different poses but is easily nonplussed by Courtesy, a confident young woman who lives in the same boarding house & can show him how to retie a broken bootlace. One day the gardener sets out to walk with no real destination in mind. As he grandly says to his landlady, Miss Shakespeare, who asks him for his rent,
“I have left everything I have as hostages with fate,” said the gardener. “When I get tired of Paradise, I’ll come back.”
He meets Samuel Rust, who owns the Red Place, a hotel in the middle of nowhere. The hotel hasn’t been much of a success because Mr Rust needs a little capital for advertising. His mother has capital but won’t give it to him. Mr Rust asks the gardener to go on the same cruise as his mother & convince her to give him the money he needs. As the gardener has no money & no prospects, he agrees. He first meets the suffragette as she plans to burn down the Red Place as a publicity stunt for the Cause. She hopes that a Cabinet Minister may be staying there but she will burn it down anyway.
The gardener is determined to stop her & ends by practically kidnapping her & taking her on board the Caribbeania, where he is to meet Mrs Rust, & telling everyone she’s his wife. Courtesy is also on board, reluctantly being sent out to the Trinity Islands on a husband-hunting expedition. On the voyage, it soon becomes apparent that the gardener & the suffragette are not married (mostly because the suffragette refuses to lie) & they are shunned by the more easily shockable passengers, including a priest who tries to save the suffragette. Unfortunately he’s self-serving & hypocritical & the suffragette shocks him every time she opens her mouth as she prides herself on only speaking the truth (another pose).
The gardener becomes acquainted with Mrs Rust, a peculiar woman with bright red hair who is contradictory for the sake of it. I love this scene between Mrs Rust & the priest.
“Have you made the acquaintance of that dark young man who acts as the ship’s gardener?” he asked.
“An excellent young man,” said Mrs Rust, immediately divining that the priest did not approve of him.
“Yerce, yerce, no doubt an excellent young man,” agreed the priest mechanically. “But I have reason to believe that his morals are not satisfactory.”
“Good.” said Mrs Rust.
“I do not think he is really married to that aggressive young woman he calls his wife.”
“Good.” said Mrs Rust. She did not approve of such irregularities any more than the priest did, but she disapproved of disapprobation.
The gardener soon has Mrs Rust’s measure & plays her at her own game, contradicting her so that she will decide to do the opposite of what she intended. When Mrs Rust’s companion throws herself overboard, Courtesy is employed as her companion & they have quite a battle of wills. When they arrive on the Islands, they become involved in local life. The gardener saves a couple of children from death in an earthquake & the suffragette becomes involved with a precocious little boy called Albert & his prim aunt. All this time, the gardener is falling in love with the suffragette but she has decided that love is not for her & she keeps up her pose of self-sufficiency & devotion to the cause. Eventually they sail back to England with their relationship still undefined & the reader is left in doubt until the end as to what will happen. It seems odd to care about two characters with no names but I did care what happened to them both which is a testament to Stella Benson’s skill at creating characters that, for all their poses, are very sympathetic. They’re not the stereotypes they could have been, especially the suffragette, who could have been a cardboard cutout of the militant suffragette but is much more nuanced than that.
Benson obviously enjoyed playing with the structure of the novel when she wrote I Pose. Apart from not naming her principal characters, the first chapter is 300pp long. The second (& final) chapter is 8pp long. The narrator interjects into the narrative all the time, explaining the odd time shifts of her world, reassuring the reader that she understands their frustration with this character or that, making snide comments about the less sympathetic characters, especially the priest who is the most unchristian priest I’ve encountered in a novel since Trollope, I think.
Some readers will be offended by the treatment of the Trinity Islanders which is condescending & quite racist. I found it made uncomfortable reading but it was in keeping with the times in which the novel was written. I was also confused as to where the Trinity Islands were. In a sense, it doesn’t matter because the whole novel is a fantasy but I felt the Islanders were West Indian or Caribbean (maybe I was influenced by the name of the ship) but their voyage home takes them though Suez & past the Azores so I suppose they must be in the Indian or Pacific Oceans. This is a minor point but I was confused. Then again, geography is not my strong point.
I enjoyed I Pose very much as an unusual, witty novel that has been out of print for far too long. It was sent to me by Michael Walmer, who is reprinting some fascinating novels, mostly of the late Victorian & Edwardian periods. I reviewed Ada Leverson’s The Twelfth Hour a few months ago & I’m very excited about Mike’s new series of letters, diaries, journals & essays. The first to be published is Winifred Holtby’s Letters to a Friend. Holtby’s letters to Jean McWilliam, who she met when they both served in the WAAC at the end of WWI. My review copy is on its way!