R.H. Benson, “The Sentimentalists,” Pt 3

When Fr Yolland opens the package of all Dell’s worldly belongings he finds:

… a neat pile of pyjamas—silk, for he felt them incredulously—a spotless collar, an Indian silk tie, a pair of pumps, a neat little dressing-case with “C. D.” in silver on the back, a pair of clocked socks, a volume of Boccaccio in chiselled vellum, a china snuff-box, an amber cigarette-holder, a revolver, and a missal.

“My dear man,” he said, “I see you have saved something from the wreck.”

Chris was looking with rapturous eyes at the ceiling through a cloud of smoke. “Dress-suit went on Monday,” he said, “and my last white shirt yesterday.”

“But these pyjamas?” asked the priest smiling.

“One can at least preserve one’s self-respect by night. It is cheaper too,” said the other. (17)

To understand how bizarre Dell’s notion of “self-respect” is, consider that “pumps” were patent-leather dancing shoes, often stylishly made. “Clocked socks” are those which have a design sown into its sides, usually an “ornamental silk pattern” (OED). Then, of dressing-cases, a web-site states:

Towards the end of the 18th century, dressing cases were manufactured specifically to accompany upper class gentleman during travel. Dressing cases were originally rather utilitarian but they spoke volumes about their owners’ wealth and place in society, as at that time, travelling was only undertaken by the elite.

Gentleman’s dressing cases would contain bottles and jars for colognes, aftershaves and creams as well as essential shaving and manicure tools. As these boxes became more popular, many further travelling item options were offered for inclusion. … [https://www.antiquebox.org/history-of-dressing-cases, 8 March 2024)

Significantly, the missal came last in this list, but still, it was there. However, I wonder if Benson did not mean us to understand that take the wrapped package as a symbol of what was inside Dell himself, and that beneath all these trumperies there was something spiritual. But that core, the “immortal diamond” in Hopkins’ phrase, is buried under a lot of material. Dell has sold his dress suit and all his white shirts, used when attending social events, indicating that he is most attached to his personal pleasures.

But the idea that a man so far down on his luck that he would contemplate suicide would retain such items as these as the bare necessities of his life, manifests vanity to a comically tragic degree.

The way that Benson can suggest so much with what appears to be a mere aside is quite remarkable. When the priest asks Dell what happened to him, the latter waves a hand and replies: “The old story … Chatterton, George Gissing and the rest. You know it all, melting money; articles unpaid for; things going one by one; a brutal landlady; and behold me!” (17)

These details help us to identify Frederick Rolfe (1860-1913) as the main original of Dell (at least at this point of his life): they all revolve around what I might call Rolfe’s theme song, the absurdly high notion of himself as an artistic genius unfairly ruined by the smallness and selfishness of those around him. Thomas Chatterton (1752-1770) was a poet of prodigious talent who suicided before he turned eighteen. George Gissing (1857-1903) was a recently deceased novelist, who frequently complained of poverty, and was unscrupulous both in finance and in love, being a serial selfish husband and father. I would say that the condemning of his landlady as “brutal” is a particularly telling feature: he has clearly not paid her for her lodging and her services, and has exasperated her. With his sense of entitlement and privilege, Dell blames her, not himself.

When Yolland asks whether it was his own fault, Dell self-righteously attacks with an insidious implication that it is the priest who is moralising at his (Dell’s) expense:

“Oh ! I suppose so ; it is always the fault of the unsuccessful,” cried Chris with emphatic bitterness; “it is always the fault of the damned ; each makes his own hell. You can make a good sermon out of me, reverend father.” (17)

When Yolland asks him again, Dell theatrically drops his cigarette, and repeats the gesture for effect. He remonstrates that all he asks “from the gods” (sic) is simply food, a shelter, wine, cigarettes, and decent clothes. With this, he asserts, he would be content: but he lacks this. (18) When Dell is told he can stay at the presbytery for a few days, he thanks Yolland so “passionately” that we can see that Dell is deluded, and like Yolland, we have to wonder whether he can really be so sincerely deluded.

The priest realises that he never has understood Dell, and also that he himself is not clever enough to ever do so. That bespeaks a proper humility on his part. He recounts to himself Dell’s virtues: excessive generosity in gift-giving and defence of the indefensible. (19) While he was aware that Dell has “a certain sinister reputation,” he has closed his eyes and ears to any details. Tellingly: “Christopher was a man of black-and-white, which had never merged in grey.” (19) This reminds us of how Yolland’s room lacked “unity,” comprising “one more example of that numerous class of persons who have combined but not yet fused dissimilar elements of character.” (10)

This lack of unity will be a theme of the book, and is one of several features which brings Benson close, at least in some respects, to Gurdjieff’s psychology.

We now come to Dell’s conversion. It had been extravagantly vehement: he had purchased not only the full breviary (something not at all required for laity), but even a “discipline” (a small whip of knotted cord, used for self-beating as a mortification and penance) and a spiked belt “which he sedulously left about his rooms” (19-20), so that people could see how serious he affected to be about his faith. This is, of course, a sign of vanity. Yet, only three weeks after his conversion he had go drunk, and after but one year, matched his image of the Mother of God before which he had a blue lamp, with one of the pagan god Hermes, before which he had a red one. (2) Again, we see that his nature is terribly divided between the spiritual and the carnal, and his mind is unable to bring any order to his emotional attachments. In short, this man who keeps a “discipline,” utterly lacks it. His driving impulse seems to be vanity.

End part 3 of the review

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