|The formal splendor of an earlier era|
in the Victoria And Albert Museum in London, England
While I don't know as much about his life as I would like, Scarlet And Hyssop seems like a rather brave novel for E. F. Benson to write, given how well connected he was with anyone-who-was-anyone in English society back then. His father's high standing in the Church of England granted him entry to the rich and powerful, but if he incurred someone's wrath, that could have made his writing career more difficult. The fact that it is a challenging novel to read, with largely unlikable characters, makes it all the more surprising he would write it. Stories that require understanding a key, or the contemplation of an underlying symbol to really enjoy a story, do not always sell well. Stories that require a second reading to gain a fuller understanding of the author's intent do not always age well. While writers such as G. K. Chesterton, George McDonald, and Charles Williams have not been forgotten, they can hardly claim a place in our hearts like Agatha Christie, Charles Dickens, or J. R. R. Tolkien.
Perhaps it was a mistake for E. F. Benson to write this novel. His long bibliography, and the sheer range of his writing, suggest that he really loved every type of literary genre. When a writer does not concentrate on one or two genres, but spreads his net wide, it is inevitable that he will not always succeed at everything he attempts. While some reviewers loved it, critical assessment of Scarlet And Hyssop largely tends to be negative. As I mentioned, I found it a challenging novel to read. Still, as my post-reading realization demonstrates, there was more going on in the story than could be initially grasped on the surface level. This left me with a desire to read the novel again. With my better knowledge of the characters, and the goal Benson was striving toward, I'm sure it would be a richer experience.
It goes without saying that, if I felt the novel was an utter failure, I would not even contemplate a second attempt.
When the TV series Downton Abbey premiered on TV, I took an immediate dislike to it. Although the characters inhabited a world similar to those described by writers such as E. F. Benson, I found little to interest me in their petty schemes and jealousies. Similarly, when I first watched the movie Gosford Park, I had just as much difficulty in appreciating it. Here was a story about a murder among the rich in a country house of the nobility. But instead of allowing me to follow a police investigation that led to the capture of the murderer, screenwriter Julian Fellows forced me to wade through portraits of largely unlikable characters. The murderer even gets away with the crime at the end of the movie!
Recently I watched the movie again, and found it intriguing enough to view a second time with commentary with screenwriter Julian Fellows. This actor, writer and producer, the creator of Downton Abbey, is a modern English Baron, and a peer in the House of Lords. As such, he divides his time between telling stories to the populace and contributing to the government of Britain. He has made his name by writing about the types of people he grew up with, both among the rich and titled, as well as the lowly servants. What might seem to us an incomprehensible social structure is something he understands. On the commentary for Gosford Park he said something that stuck with me. He said that the sense he got, from the relatives and people he knew, was that the high and mighty eventually decided to abolish their complicated systems of etiquette, and relax their highly formalized way of life, simply because they found it too tiresome to perpetuate it. In other words, the system grew over time, until it became to unwieldy that those at the top, the ones who theoretically benefitted most from it, finally gave up on it and opted for a simpler way of life.
Don't get me wrong. I still dislike Downton Abbey. Even after watching it again, I'm still not wild about Gosford Park. But the similarities between those stories and Scarlet And Hyssop suggest that E. F. Benson was writing a story along similar lines to those historical stories being told today by writers such as Julian Fellows. The major difference is Benson was pointing out the dangers of perpetuating certain aspects of English society while they were occurring, while Fellows is looking backward to teach us lessons from the past. Given the interest in--and apparent hunger for--TV series such as Downton Abbey, Scarlet And Hyssop represents an opportunity to immerse oneself in the glamorous and stratified society of an earlier era. If the ritualistic nature of that bygone era intrigues you, and the type of characters who lived and worked within it fascinate you, then perhaps you might find Scarlet And Hyssop an interesting and entertaining novel.