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Thursday, March 23, 2017

Scarlet And Hyssop by E. F. Benson

This year got off to a slow start reading-wise, but included some highly interesting novels. Along with other places, the books I read in January transported me to England, Scotland, and Africa. While it is impossible for me to share with you all the fascinating discoveries I made on those journeys, I thought I would give you a little taste of them. The first novel I completed, and the focus of this post, was Scarlet And Hyssop by E. F. Benson.

Scarlet And Hyssop hails from Benson's early literary career. Published in 1902, it comes just nine years after his first novel brought him instant literary success, and is his twelfth published book of long-form fiction. By this time he had also published a collection of short stories, a nonfiction book, and would in the same year coauthor a book on physical fitness. So this represents Benson well into his early literary career, still eighteen years away from the publication of the first of the Mapp & Lucia novels, for which he is best remembered.

Police ride through Hyde Park
in London, England

Scarlet And Hyssop is a melodrama about life among the rich and powerful. Centered largely in London, most of the scenes take place in the houses of the characters. You'll meet interesting people of that time: a government worker being groomed for a Cabinet post, a wife who came from obscurity to steer her husband into the Admiralty, and a woman who throws extravagant parties for dozens of people. You'll attend these balls and gatherings. You will ride along on horseback, or sit beside them in their carriages, as they take their regular exercise and outings in Hyde Park. Most of all you'll get an insider view to the morality of the period, in which people marry for position, and look for love in other places. 

At first I thought Scarlet And Hyssop must refer to some of the characters in the novel. After meeting none so named, I researched the terms after finishing the novel. Scarlet and Hyssop are items used by the ancient Jews in their purification rituals. This put into focus scattered references by the characters to pollution in society. It also underlined the actions of one character who, when faced with the truth of her existence, decided to follow a higher line, no matter the personal cost in financial and societal terms. 

There are lots of reasons to underestimate, and even dislike this novel. I found it difficult to get to know the characters, as many of them have similar-sounding names. Also, the story relies more on dialogue than on action. This is not a simple story, such as Benson's first novel Dodo, A Detail of the Day, which focuses on a young woman who marries for money and position, and the young man who refuses to give her up. It does not focus upon the details of a financial scam, such as in Mammon and Co. It is not a coming-of-age story like The Babe, B.A., or the portrait of an aspiring artist wrestling with following his passion versus appeasing public taste, as in Limitations. Instead, Scarlet And Hyssop is more nuanced, and demands greater attention that such easy-reading novels.

Scarlet And Hyssop focuses on a society that has lost its way. Most of the characters are bland, and their lives uninteresting, because E. F. Benson is pointing out how form and etiquette have blinded the aristocracy to what life should really be about. Most of the characters don't really think through why they are pursuing such (largely) pointless schemes. They simply perform the roles expected of them, or fall into patterns of life because they are easy. Thank goodness none of us could be excused of such excesses, or blindly falling into traps, or being taught not to care about what really matters, in today's more enlightened society.

I'll discuss Scarlet And Hyssop more, and compare it to the popular TV and film creations of screenwriter and English Lord Julian Fellows, in my next post.

Dragon Dave

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