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Stella Benson: Tobit Transplanted (US: The Far-Away Bride)

Tobit Transplanted was Benson’s last novel and generally agreed to be her best. And, indeed, a book based on the Book of Tobit, set in Manchuria and Korea and mainly involving the exiled White Russian community with only one, minor, English character, must be worth while. It is witty, it is clever and it is certainly original. The story concerns two families. The first is the Malinin family. Sergei Malinin is the Tobit character. As with Tobit, he spends much time burying his countrymen, killed by the natives. On one of these excursions, he chases off a group of Chinese soldiers who are digging up the graves to rob them. They later get their revenge by smashing up his shop and, as a result, he turns blind (though it is generally agreed that the blindness is hysterical rather than physical). His wife is Anna, who works for Mrs. Butters, helping with the children and as a seamstress, a job she does particularly badly. Their son is also called Sergei, affectionately called Seryozhya or, formally, Sergei Sergeievitch and he is, of course, the Tobias character. The Sarah character is Tanya Ostapenko, who lives in Korea, with her parents, who are distantly related to the Malinins. Like Sarah, Tanya has rejected seven suitors who all subsequently die or run away from home, causing despair both to her parents and to the parents of her suitors. Finally, the angel Raphael is Wilfred Chew, a Chinese national, who has studied law at the Middle Temple in England, who looks to the Reverend Oswald Fawcett for moral guidance and who has clearly had difficulty finding a job, so has accompanied Sir Theo Mustard, son of a millionaire from Leeds, around China.

With Sergei Senior’s blindness, the Malinins are short of money A few years previously Sergei made an investment with a compatriot in Korea and now thinks it might be a good time to cash in that investment. Seryozhya volunteers to go, looking forward to the bright lights of Seoul, but his mother will not hear of it. When Wilfred Chew turns up, not only does Benson enjoy herself, poking fun at him, he offers to be the guide of Seryozhya for a reasonable fee. Much of the book is about their journey. As in the original Seryozhya catches the big fish (with which he will later cure his father’s blindness). They visit the Ostapenkos, as relatives of the Malinins, and, in no time at all, Seryozhya and Tanya are married by a somewhat dubious legal document provided by Chew. Because of the marriage, Chew is the one sent to Seoul to get the money and his efforts are hilarious but relatively successful.

The whole story is not only unusual but is told with considerable humour (tinged with racism). Benson clearly is an excellent story-teller and her telling of this story is highly successful and imaginative, with the main characters well worked out and the concern for the downtrodden apparent. If Wilfred Chew is her best creation – both as a source of fun and a man who clearly struggles with moral scruples under the presumed guidance of the Reverend Oswald Fawcett – the others are still well drawn. This books deserves to be better known.

Publishing history

First published 1931 by MacMillan