Magical Realism Before It Was Cool

Oh, quirky little British books! How I love you! I inadvertently read two of them over the Christmas holidays: The Love-Child by Edith Olivier and Living Alone by Stella Benson. I didn’t even mean to read them back to back, it just sort of happened that way.

I’m not even sure how I became aware of Edith Olivier, but she ended up on one of my lists somehow, and I tracked down this little book from 1927. I have a lovely first edition, but Virago Modern Classics has put out an edition of this book as well (so has Kindle) so it’s pretty easy to obtain, if you are so inclined. It was easy as anything to read – 174 pages, but only a few paragraphs on each page, so I finished the whole thing in two sittings.

To clarify before I go further, I’m a total, unabashed, unashamed magical realism apologist. Angela Carter, Rudolfo Anaya, and Salman Rushdie are some of my favorite authors, and I delight in the genre without restraint. So I was certainly predisposed to delight in this bizarre little book!

I feel bad giving too much away in case anyone is curious to read it, but The Love-Child begins like a dreary British story written by perhaps Ivy Compton-Burnett (with less dialogue): Agatha Bodenham, a single gentlewoman, lived with her mother until her mother’s passing. Now Agatha is 32 with no friends, husband, children, or anything to occupy her time, living alone in the house with no one but her servants.

She recalls “Clarissa,” her imaginary friend from childhood that she had held onto longer than most of us do, until she was about 14 and her governess discovered Clarissa’s existence and drove her away. Agatha wonders if she could conjure Clarissa up again to keep her company.

Spoiler: she does, and Clarissa appears as a child, about the age of 11, but small for her age, wearing a white dress. Agatha is thrilled to have her friend back, whom she eventually raises like her own child, but there are pitfalls to having conjured up a child from the air…

The book is strange but imaginatively written and really funny in parts, particularly if you at all delight in British humor in the vein of “Keeping Up Appearances” and the like. I don’t think I’ve ever read another like it, and it made me want to find more of Edith Olvier’s books. I absolutely would never have stumbled upon this book if I hadn’t been researching women authors for this project!

And as oddball as this book was, Living Alone is, arguably, even weirder. Stella Benson was a contemporary of Virginia Woolf, who admired her. I had read a quote of Virginia’s somewhere online on the day Stella died, where she mourned her passing and was in disbelief at a world without her in it. I figured any friend of Virginia’s is a friend of mine, so I tracked down Living Alone and bought a copy online.

Living Alone is also very funny. The writer poked deep fun at “committee” women in London during WWI and the questionable effect they may have on improving anything. In addition to social commentary, though, this book also features witches on brooms and a dragon (seriously!). It was one of the oddest books I ever read – to the point where trying to summarize the plot seems a bit hopeless – but I found the book rather engaging and endearing.

To try and put it in a few sentences, an earnest committee meeting, headed by two society ladies and one unfashionable secretary, is interrupted by a witch. She invites the secretary to live at her boarding house gratis, the house of Living Alone. Eventually one of the society ladies’ sons gets involved, as does the mayor and the other resident of Living Alone, a dragon shows up, and the witch has a fight on her broomstick with a German witch in midair.

I get the impression from her introduction that this was an unusual book for Stella Benson and that magical realism (a not-yet-invented genre) wasn’t typically her area of focus. I would be very much interested in reading more of her oddball work!

There have been times in this project where I was much slower at consuming books than I was at writing blog posts, and now it appears to be the opposite – I’ve read three more books that I haven’t blogged about, and I’m getting ready to finish a fourth. I need to catch up! Until then, happy reading, y’all.

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