How many of us live lives of quiet desperation? To adapt a line from Randall Jarrell’s poem “The Woman at the Washington Zoo,” the world goes by our cage and never sees us. Lonely, unhappy, we yearn for romance or personal fulfillment or simple appreciation. Dressed in the “dull null/ Navy I wear to work, and from work and so/ to my bed, so to my grave,” Jarrell’s protagonist desperately cries out, “Change me! change me!”
This ache for transformation runs throughout modern fiction (and life), but takes an unexpected turn in two gently comic and unjustly forgotten British literary fantasies: Stella Benson’s “Living Alone” (1919) and Gerald Bullett’s “Mr. Godly Beside Himself” (1925). In both, the main characters are changed by an encounter with magic.
Benson’s novel begins with a satirical portrait of a World War I committee devoted to good works. Its most prominent member, Lady Arabel Higgins, “had not yet long been a social worker, and had not yet acquired a taste for making fools of the undeserving.” The most important figure for the story, however, is Sarah Brown, a mousy clerical worker who suffers from wretched health and has “seen Love and the Spring only through the glass of a charity office window.” In an observation that will resonate with many Washingtonians, Benson concludes that “when your daily round becomes nothing more than a daily round of committees you might as well be dead.”
Before this ladies’ sodality can get down to new business, a Stranger comes racing into the room, hides under the table and breathlessly pants “They’re after me.” She is dressed, we are told, in clothes appropriate to “a decayed gentlewoman.” Asked her name, the Stranger declares herself to be Hazeline Snow, later announces that she is really Thelma Bennett Watkins, and later still calls herself Angela. In her bag she carries little packets labeled “Magic.”
The Stranger — whose real name we never learn — turns out to be a somewhat dotty witch, who rides a broomstick called Harold and manages a shop on Mitten Island that specializes in “Happiness and Magic.” Attached to it is a small hostelry called the House of Living Alone. No one pays rent to reside in its monastery-like cells, but one must agree to spend at least 18 hours out of 24 entirely alone.
Sarah Brown decides to move in, soon growing friendly with the only other guest, a young Cockney woman named Peony, who “showed unnatural energy even in repose, and lived as though she had a taxi waiting at the door.” Sarah Brown also comes to know Lady Arabel’s soldier-son Richard, a wizard who shrouds his powers and owns both Living Alone and a farm in Faerie. To reach the latter “you follow the Green Ride through the Enchanted Forest, until you come to the Castle where the Youngest Prince — who rescued one of the Fethersonhaugh girls from a giant and married her — used to live.” The field workers are fairy folk, the overseer a talking dragon.
Much else happens in this short novel, most notably a battle in the clouds between our English witch and a German witch leading an airstrike on London. Following a number of madcap, Keystone Kop-like shenanigans, the book concludes with Sarah Brown sailing to the United States and starting a new life.
In the first chapter of “Mr. Godly Beside Himself” a commonplace, middle-aged businessman is edging toward suicide. Mr. Godly hates the dull routine of his meaningless existence. Above all, his lukewarm but “inconvenient affection” for his wife, Florence, “seemed to him a monstrous folly, a tragic weakness of character, which prevented his seeking and finding, in the ardent eyes of some other woman, that romantic intoxication of the spirit for which he thirsted as parched land thirsts for rain.”
Recently, though, the Mercantile Hope Corp., Ltd., has hired a new typist, Miss Maia M’Gree, with whom Mr. Godly has grown pathetically infatuated: Otherwise conscientious, the marine insurance executive “would have cheerfully sunk every ship on the sea if thereby he could have afforded her a moment’s pleasure.” When Maia sits down for dictation, a bumbling Mr. Godly timidly reveals his hitherto unspoken desires. To his surprise, this stunning young woman seems willing to offer him what he regards as “the impossible.”
“Seems” is the operative word. Following a sinister dinner during which Mr. Godly encounters the typist’s supposed father (who turns out to be a goat-footed satyr), as well as a winged child and two preposterous rival admirers, the enigmatic, nymph-like Maia conducts our hero “over the hills and far away.” As Mr. Godly unsuspectingly crosses into Faerie, he notices a figure virtually identical to himself proceeding in the opposite direction, back toward our world. Soon thereafter Maia disappears. While searching for her, the confused Mr. Godly finds himself caught up in a civil war between Faerie’s two political parties, one favoring the ancient ways of magic and easy love, the other copying the restrictive morals and clothing of the possibly mythical Yewman Beans. He learns much from the crotchety Old Fairy Fumpum and even meets a little boy who might be the child he never had. When Mr. Godly finally rediscovers Maia, naked, glorious, immortally beautiful, she grants him a single kiss.
Meanwhile, back in London, our hero’s fairy doppelganger has been reawakening joy in Florence while sowing chaos at the marine insurance office. What will happen when a somewhat wiser Mr. Godly and his look-alike finally return, as they must, to their respective worlds and their old lives?
Stella Benson (1892-1933) and Gerald Bullett (1893-1958) both wrote a great deal and their work is often tinged with fantasy. Still, their masterpieces, minor but well worth rediscovering, remain these lightly comic and quietly touching fairy tales for the disenchanted. Try one, try both.
Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style.
By Stella Benson
By Gerald Bullett