R.H. Benson, “The Sentimentalists,” 2

When Fr Yolland first glimpses the shadowy figure of Christopher Dell, the latter is striking a pose, and his mouth and chin “seemed tilted in a kind of tragic appeal.” One hand is hidden inside his Chesterfield coat, while the other, which bears a silver ring, rests upon the cloth. He has a bowler hat, the top of which is “caved-in,” and he has a knotted black-thorn. “Sharp black eyes” look at the priest from “under half-lowered lids.” Yolland recalls a visit to the Adelphi of ten years ago; he stares and he stops, asking: “Why, is it Chris?” (12)

Each detail is significant. The more obscure ones today are first, the black-thorn: this is a classy traditional walking stick made from the wood of the black-thorn plant, all the more desirable because a lot of careful work is needed to fashion it. The Chesterfield coat was a fashionable overcoat with a velvet collar, which fell to the knees. It was introduced in the 1840s, and was a fixture among smartly dressed men in Benson’s time. “Adelphi” is a loosely defined district of Westminster, London. I suspect that what Benson means is that he had seen Dell at the Savage Club, which from 1889 to 1936, was located in Adelphi Terrace. The Savage Club was named after the poet Richard Savage (c.1697-1743). Its web site states:

The Savage Club was founded in 1857 and remains one of the leading bohemian gentleman’s clubs in London. Clubs elsewhere have borrowed both the name and the style, which continues to be the “pursuit of happiness” — a quest made infinitely more agreeable by the fellowship of Members who are known to each other by the sobriquet “Brother Savage”. (savageclub.com, 6 March 2024)

I am not sure if this is what Benson had in mind, but it would be consistent with what follows. Given the picture of a fashionably-dressed arty dandy with bowler hat (worn by businessmen in Benson’s time), and a silver ring on his hand, it is incongruent that when his name is asked:

The man laughed shortly in such a manner that Dick suddenly realised the meaning of the word “sardonic.”

“It is,” he said; “all that is left of him.” (12)

“Sardonic” laughter is scornful laughter. There is some dispute about the precise origin, but The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology states that there is a theory the word came from “Sardinia” because eating a poisonous plant which grows there “was said to produce facial convulsions resembling horrible laughter.” (789) Now, the word may in fact go back to an Indo-European root which simply means “laugh” and the more narrow meaning came later. Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, 957-958. But it seems to me that Benson’s intent is to make us think of death throes which cause an apparent grin.

When Yolland approaches and extends his hand, and begins saying that it must have been five years since they had met, Dell histrionically draws back and declares:

“An eternity … God – the gods help me!”

He paused again dramatically, drawing back a little … (13)

Benson’s description of Yolland’s reaction exactly captures a situation we have all found ourselves in: he felt that he was “obliged to act a part at short notice in private theatricals; he had not an idea what to say, and yet his cue waited.” (13) Before the advent of electronic media it was popular for children, adolescents, and young adults, to put on more or less well-organised plays at home. The well-heeled had more resources (as in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, 1814), and Yolland belonged to that world. But even without that cultural phenomenon, we have all had the experience of speaking to someone who is acting out a part for our benefit, and we are unsure of how to respond: do we tactfully go along with the charade?

After some more histrionics, Dell announces that he had only two choices that night: seeking help from the priest, or drowning himself; and had not eaten except a poor meal at “God’s restaurant” (outside near the river). The acting continues, and as Dell ascends the stairs, Yolland notices how well-dressed and groomed Dell is, even from behind: “On the whole he seemed very prosperous for a gentleman who had dined off a banana and a crust.” (14)

When they enter the sitting room, the priest picks up the bowler hat, and easily presses out the dent. Dell again laughs bitterly, and says: “One does not attend to such things … when one looks death in the face.” (14) Asked where he is staying, Dell replies it will either be the Salvation Army shelter or “the river,” and that the night before, he had slept on a park bench. (15) Yet, before he sits down, Dell draws up his trousers at the knees. This small remark is eloquent of the entire man which Dell is. All his belongings are in a parcel: among them his pyjamas and his (leather-bound) copy of Boccaccio (1313-1375, best known as the author of the anti-clerical and rather racy Decameron). Dell declares that he will “never be parted” from his Boccaccio, as if he were wedded to a literate and sophisticated antagonism to Catholic values. (15)

Dell helps himself to the claret, and once he has drained it, announces, as if to engender pity for himself that it was three months since he had “tasted wine.” He ate: “… as a suburban actor would eat who impersonated a starving gentleman … and the food vanished with dramatic swiftness.” (16) We now learn that Yolland and he had been at Oxford together, where Dell had been “an odd creature.” Yolland is unsure as to how genuine Dell may be, for the latter was: “strangely vivid and impulsive and theatrical all at once – subjectively sincere but not always objectively genuine.” (16)

We are now starting to enter the central riddle of the novel: how a person can fool himself by adopting attitudes, ideas, and philosophies. For Benson, most of us – or rather, all of us but for the very few realised souls – are actors, sham actors in a suburban theatrical.

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