Those who are familiar with E. F. Benson only through his Lucia and Mapp books may initially find this book disappointing since it is set in a different location both geographically and socially. None of the characters rise to the magnificence of Emmeline Lucas or Miss Mapp and the social circle of the residents of Wentworth is neither as wealthy as that in Riseholme nor as settled in its hierarchical patterns as that of Tilling. This reviewer encourages the reader (whether familiar with Benson or not) to read on. Paying Guests is a wonderful examination of a particular subsection of the English gentry that would be squeezed out of existence by the falling returns on dividends, the dismantling of the British Empire and the next World War. It is also a magnificent picture of the gender dynamics in England between the two World Wars. Finally it is a wonderful exploration of a recurrent theme in Benson in the last half of his writing life--the problem of how one fills up the minutes and hours of one’s life if one has no real interests, no real passions and no real work.
Beyond here there be spoilers.......
On the surface Paying Guests is a series of scenes and incidents from the lives of the owners and lodgers of Wentworth boarding house at Bolton Spa. It is also about the ways in which people “of a certain class" fill their time and elude boredom. Many of the lodgers at Wentworth have come to take the waters in hopes of relieving, if not curing, their bodily ills but that is not the case for all the guests. In fact the two, Miss Howard and Colonel Chase, around whom most of the regular life of the house revolves, are quite healthy.
Colonel Chase is known at Wentworth for what he clearly considers to be prodigiously long bicycle rides and country walks. These activities play an important part in the Colonel passing the hours of the day. He rises, has tea and toast in bed, comes down to breakfast, reads the morning papers, rides his bike, lunches, goes for walk, has tea and plays bridge. He does not make the meals he eats any more than he makes the bed in which he sleeps every night. Colonel Chase spends his time in activities that allow him to avoid empty moments but he contributes nothing to the comfort and ease in which he lives. The (widowed) Mrs. Oxney and her sister (and fellow widow) Mrs. Bertram, hire the staff and do some of the practical work around the house themselves. Colonel Chase spends his time spending his time. He does not work at an income generating job and the reader may wonder if even the things with which he passes his time are enjoyable in and of themselves. He does the crossword puzzle but it seems that he gets more joy out of defeating others at Wentworth in the time it takes to complete it than he does in the actual completion. His extreme anger at losing his walking pedometer and in the failure of his bicycling pedometer suggests that much of the enjoyment he derives from walking and cycling lies in telling others about his records. He enjoys playing bridge but apparently enjoys the chance to instruct and correct those around him more than actually playing the game.
The two things that Colonel Chase does seem to enjoy wholeheartedly are having his comfort and having others arrange for that comfort. Thus his mind turns to the idea of marriage not because of love, monetary need or the desire for companionship but because he hoped for, in the case of one possible Mrs. Chase, an increase in his wealth and prestige and in the case of the other the guaranteed continuation of the comfort and ease to which he had become accustomed.
Miss Howard, unlike Colonel Chase, cannot look forward to a life that would always assure that her physical wants and emotional needs would be the central concern of the people with whom she lived. As the book opens Miss Howard had managed to hold on to her internal girlhood:
She had been an extremely pretty girl, lively and intelligent and facile, but by some backhanded stroke of fate she had never married, and now at the age of forty, though she had parted with her youth, she had relinquished no atom of her girlishness. She hardly ever walked, but tripped, she warbled little snatches of song when she thought that anyone might be within hearing in order to refresh them with her maidenly brightness, and sat on the hearth-rug in front of the fire, even though there was a far more comfortable seat ready. It was not that she felt any profound passion for tripping, warbling and squatting, but from constantly telling herself that she was barely out of her teens she had got to believe in her girlishness and behaved accordingly.(21)
It is questionable how much longer Miss Howard could continue to be treated like a young woman and how soon she would pass into the sad world of the spinster--the woman who had failed to land herself a husband and the consequent gravitas accorded to the married woman.
Paying Guests is also the story of a very ordinary young woman who, like Miss Howard, was financially secure and unlike Miss Howard seemed never likely to marry. Miss Kemp’s role in life up until the point the reader meets her, was to listen to her father’s stories, to fetch and carry for him and to center every moment of her life around the man’s arthritic and rheumatic aches and pains. Mr. Kemp does not appreciate his daughter efforts to please him. In fact Mr. Kemp does not seem to appreciate anyone’s efforts to make his life comfortable. He has given over the last years of his life to ministering to his every ache, twinge, need and want. He resents that his late wife left half of her fortune to their daughter leaving him only with a life-time interest in the other half of the estate. Up until the the books open the Mrs. Kemps bequest has made no material difference in his life since Miss Kemp has not lived in the London flat left to her by her mother but instead devoted all her time and money to the care of her entirely unappreciative father.
Benson doesn’t take the easy route of presenting the reader with characters who have found themselves in dire and tragic circumstances. Miss Howard is somewhat self-deluding and has found herself trapped by small exaggerations and misleading statements that have led others to presume that she is wealthier and with more aristocratic connections that was the case. Miss Kemp is trapped in a life of boredom and stagnation by filial pressures. Neither is facing ruination although both are facing a long emotionally starved life. Colonel Chase is faced with the problem of insuring that he can live out the rest of his life in the self-centered ease to which he has become accustomed. Mr. Kemp worries that his physical and emotional concerns will always be catered to.
The open chapters of Paying Guests hint that some change is about to happen among these residents of Wentworth and that is indeed what will happen. This is, in its own way, a love story. That the love in question is between two adult women is of no consequence at all to the story, save for the fact that as women past the age of marriage (past their twenties) neither had much hope for any form of marriage except to an older man who was looking for passable looking women with some capital who would look after his house and create a buffer between him and a world that did not cater to his every whim. It is only with another woman that a life of service to a husband, father or other father member could be avoided.
By the end of the book all of the major characters have moved closer to their physical and emotional goals. The route this took may have surprised them just as modern reader may be surprised by the ease and skill with which Benson wrote about what we now tend to think would have been a taboo subject.
In short--a book to read, to reread and to place on the shelf next to the rest of Benson’s best.
Rating: 4-1/2 stars
Benson, E. F. Paying guests. London: Hogarth Press, 1984.