Mining the Wealth in the Diaries of Stella Benson: Application "Duck"

Ms Marlene Baldwin Davis
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Feminist, travel writer and novelist, Stella Benson(1892-1933)left a significant-and often irreverent-record of twentieth century life during the late teens, twenties and early thirties in England, the USA, Hong Kong and China. Her early experimental psychological fantasies, set in England during World War I, continue to offer insights into time and place. Her later more sophisticated works set in China won immediate literary recognition and now provide an important understanding of the complex cultures of the China Benson knew, one which few other secular Western women knew or wrote about. Yet, I argue that her best writing, as well as her most astute observations, is found in her unpublished diaries.

As Benson traveled "Off the Beaten Track" (to borrow the title of the National Portrait Gallery exhibition on women travelers), her diaries were part of her essential baggage. In 1925 Benson spent a holiday with writer Naomi Mitcheson and her brother, eminent biologist J. Haldane. Realizing the value of Benson's diaries, he urged her to leave her diaries to the University of Cambridge, which she did. Today Benson's name is most often recognized because of another writer's diary. When Virginia Woolf read of Benson's death, Woolf wrote of her personal sadness and of the literary loss.

In reading Benson's diaries, I have been applying a formula created by historian and Pulitzer Prize writer Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. As Ulrich was meeting the challenges of reading the diary of Martha Ballard ("A Midwifes Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard Based on her Diary. 1785-1812"), she created an ingenious formula: DUCK.

Armed with Ulrich's guide my essay will show how the diaries of Stella Benson add substantively to an already fertile genre.

Keywords: Feminist, Colonialism, Civil wars in China, Roaring Twenties in USA, Literary friends
Stream: Literature, Literary Studies, History, Historiography, Ethnicity, Difference, Identity, Sexuality, Gender, Families
Presentation Type: Paper Presentation in English
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Ms Marlene Baldwin Davis

Lecturer in English, Department of English, College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Virginia

I credit my early and life-long interest in literature, especially travel writing and diaries, to the remoteness of my first home in northern North Dakota. In those early years books, maps, and postcards were my lifeline during the long winter months. My long-term research concerns the discourses of travel by Western women who used their experiences in cultures outside of their own to gain a public voice.

Ref: H05P0312