Discovering Stella Benson and a Broomstick Called Harold

Isn’t it odd how we discover authors? Part of the charm of literary discovery is, I suspect, that the authors were themselves writing long, long ago. We snatch them from the past and shake off the cobwebs, wondering what we’ll find.

I recently offered to do a lecture on Cold Comfort Farm (1932) for a colleague. Well, actually, I said to her, “shouldn’t we have Stella Gibbons on the curriculum?” She agreed and gave me the lecture! I do actually think that everyone should have a chance at some point to read Cold Comfort Farm. The advice contained within is marvelous.

Flora Do

While I was doing some fresh research for the lecture, I came across Nicola Humble’s The Feminine Middlebrow Novel 1920s to 1930s (2001), which I can highly recommend. It was in Humble’s book that I learned about Ruth Lowinsky’s Lovely Food (1931). I’ve recently become interested in cooking books and Lovely Food sounded quirky. It is. I found and bought a copy.

It features a menu for “a dream party of some of the most celebrated people of the day, whom one can never hope to meet, or, if met, be remembered by” including Einstein, Freud, Jean Cocteau, Virginia Woolf and… Stella Benson. This is the author I discovered. I didn’t know the name, so I looked her up and quickly found her most amazing novel, Living Alone (1919). Imagine if Harry Potter’s broomstick was called Harold and if Hermione decided to live a single life in the middle of London on Mitten Island.

It’s a story about witches and London and WWI.

It opens:

This is not a real book. It does not deal with real people, nor should it be read by real people. But there are in the world so many real books already written for the benefit of real people, and there are still so many to be written, that I cannot believe that a little alien book such as this, written for the magically-inclined minority, can be considered too assertive a trespasser.

Who can resist? The book won me over almost immediately with this little pearl of wisdom: “But perception goes out of committees. The more committees you belong to, the less of ordinary life you will understand. When your daily round becomes nothing more than a daily round of committees, you might as well be dead.” We perhaps won’t mention that I’d been at a couple of committee meetings that day! However, almost every page has something I’m desperate to quote in everyday life. It’s a gem of a book and I can’t believe it’s out of print. First editions also seem to attract prices upwards of $300, which is just a little much for my budget at the moment! However, you can download it for free on Kindle or iBook. Trust me, she’s an author worth discovering.

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