Posts Tagged ‘Theodora Benson’

With thanks to the British Library for the review copy

The British Library Women Writers series is, as I am sure you’re all aware, right up my reading alley. Which Way? Was the last of the current crop I have to read and I confess I did save it for a while because of that.

Theodora Benson was not a name I was familiar with before this book arrived, and it seems that Which Way? Was her fourth novel, published when she was still only twenty five. It was an experimental novel, one using that idea we must all have considered from time to time, the what if… I had left five minutes later, turned right instead of left – stayed at home etc? Now-a-days we tend to it think of it as a sliding doors moment – named after that late 1990s film of the same name.

In this novel Theodora Benson imagines how the life of her central character Claudia Heseltine might have changed had she made a different choice at a pivotal moment. Claudia returns to the same moment in three parallel narratives. She is in her early twenties – her best friend has married and Claudia has been enjoying herself with parties, friends, young men and weekend get-togethers since arriving home from finishing school in Paris. As we reach that pivotal moment when Claudia enters the room clutching two letters, a phone ringing – we have already learnt quite a lot about her. She’s an intelligent young woman from a good family, she has some money, is well educated but with little idea of what she really wants. She has been living a pretty shallow life – all about fun and pleasure, with some vague idea that if she marries it will only be for love.  

“She was ‘finished.’ In a way, she was really finished. Her future alterations were not stages, they were phases. She might improve, develop, degenerate. But she was now – no matter how she might change in appearance, pose, outlook or circumstances, no matter how much knowledge the world might bring her – the complete substance of all the Claudias there could be thereafter.”

Now, on this particular day she has the choice between three weekend parties all happening on the same weekend – and all involving men she would like to meet or spend time with for different reasons. Oh which to choose?

“Only the fire was alive, consuming its life – for what? Then the door opened and as Claudia came with hurried steps into the fire’s glow, two open letters in her hand, the telephone began ringing. She shut the door and turned up the lights.”

We return to this moment two more times of course – each time she chooses a different weekend to attend, turning down the invitation to the other two – and we follow what happens. Each weekend party will involve a man who Claudia wishes to spend some time with. There is Hugh, an already published author – Claudia has known him for some time and they are good friends, he is someone in whose company she is relaxed and happy, she doesn’t really think she wants any more than that, but doesn’t want to lose him as a friend. Guy is an unhappily married man – she met him at a party, and wants to meet him again – and catch a glimpse of his wife who she has heard gossiped about. Lionel is a very handsome celebrated athlete, unfortunately he is also not very bright.

I really don’t want to say too much about each narrative – but of course each meeting will alter the course of Claudia’s life. In two of the narratives she marries, in one she doesn’t. In each one she encounters the other men she may have ended up with, had things been different – there are little echoes throughout, things that make Claudia stop and wonder what if…

We also witness how Claudia herself is a little different with each of these men – changing herself to suit the situation she finds herself in. Benson also shows us how men and women at the time differed in their attitudes to a significant relationship, how for a woman like Claudia the relationship was her whole life, but for the man, it was just one part of his life, separate to everything else in it.  At the end of one narrative Claudia appears to the reader to have found a degree of contentment – but doesn’t recognise it as that – thinking she has missed out on something better. At the end of each section Claudia is found wondering what might have happened to her had she not accepted that particular invitation that time.

“‘Just by sheer bad luck,’ reflected Claudia. ‘I would have had the sweetest of men to love and be loved by always, an interesting, intellectual life, a house of my own, children to beguile and worry and fill my middle age, perfect happiness – if I hadn’t just happened to go to Farling instead of Gloucestershire for a weekend five years ago. One can’t help oneself, can one? It seems funny it should be just blind chance.”

I must admit, I don’t usually like sliding doors type stories – I don’t really know why, but it is the sort of story I tend to avoid; however I really enjoyed this one. It is such an interesting, clever premise and this experimental style really works. I am curious to discover what else Theodora Benson wrote now, how sad these gifted women writers fell out of favour for so long. Hurrah for the British Library and others, for restoring their voices to us.  

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