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Stella Benson: The Poor Man

Benson’s novel is little known and, frankly, it is quite a strange novel. She uses her travels to California and China as the basis for her novel which is, essentially, a satire on Americans, Chinese and expat Brits. The eponymous poor man is Edward Williams, hero of this novel. Williams is a fairly useless person, both in the opinion of pretty well everyone who knows him and, indeed, in his own opinion. He is English but is now living in San Francisco though he seems to do little of anything except to hang out with a fairly boring crowd. Chief among these is Rhoda Romero, painter, poet, heiress and dilettante of left-wing causes. Her poems were usually about dirt or disease, and were believed in Chicago to have an international reputation. She lives with Avery Bird, a transformed Russian Jew with high upward hair, whom she had once married and then divorced. The others include Mrs. Melsie Stone Ponting who mainly seems to enjoy seducing men and who has a teenage child whose father is in China and who has been given custody of the child; Banner Hope who would like to be known as the wickedest man in San Francisco but is, in fact, a boring, practical man; three other Brits: Tam Watson, a writer, and his wife, Lucy, and Emily Frere (though neither we nor Edward, who is in love with her, learn her surname till very late in the book). Most of the group are tired of Edward, while Rhoda is thinking of getting rid of him by financing him on a trip to China to take Melsie Ponting’s son back to his father.

Edward is always feeling sorry for himself, particularly in his attempts to snare Emily. Emily who, unbeknownst to Edward, is in love with Tam, is polite to Edward but not the slightest bit interested. A trip to Yosemite and a party hosted by Edward give Benson both an opportunity for poking fun at the Americans and for confirming that Edward is not wanted. However, soon after his party, he gets a headache and is taken to hospital, where Benson can vent her spleen on the American medical system. Edward is operated on (quite painfully) and kept in hospital for sometime. While he is in hospital, Rhoda is arrested for the activities of her What Is Liberty? group and refuses bail, as she wants to be a martyr. By the time Edward gets out of hospital, Emily has gone off to China (with Ponting Junior). Edward does not have enough money to follow her and tries to get a job, ending up selling sets of Milton’s poetry, sanitised for the Americans. He is not successful and when he finally manages to return to San Francisco, penniless, Rhoda has been found not guilty, had a breakdown and gone off to Louisiana. Edward visits the house, where Avery Bird thrusts lots of money at him to get rid of him, enabling him to set off for China.

In China, he realises he neither knows Emily’s whereabouts nor even her surname. After a series of adventures and a job teaching, in Hong Kong, where he is fired for giving the pupils whiskey, he finally finds the hotel (in Peking) where Emily is staying, only to learn that she has gone off, leaving her charge, Ponting Junior. Fortunately, Junior has some money from his father and as he too is in love with Emily (though he is only thirteen), they set off to find her. Though they find the Great Wall, Tam and Lucy and the Chinese Civil War, it is only when they get to Shanghai that they find Emily, after she has declared her love for Tam. Of course, it doesn’t end happily for anyone.

With the possible exception of Emily, none of the characters has any redeeming features. They are self-centred, arrogant, hedonistic and lazy. The book has been accused of being a satire on Americans and indeed it is but it also satirises the British, the Chinese, the Indians and anyone else it comes across. No-one is spared. The character of Edward is fascinating as he is the ultimate anti-hero, a loser, despised by all, including himself, with little if anything to say in his favour. His attempts at wooing Emily are pathetic as are his attempts to earn a living. At the end, which is inconclusive, we are left with the idea that here is a man who will go nowhere in life. Poor Man, indeed.

Publishing history

First published 1922 by MacMillan