R.H. Benson, “The Sentimentalists,” 4

Significantly, Dell launches into a full-throated defence of the truth of all religions (20): which makes one wonder why he converted to Catholicism. Fr Yolland sees that his friend is “certainly a poseur … but he was a good deal more as well.” (20) The next day, the priest has said morning Mass for a nearby convent, and returned home for the 8:00am breakfast, but Dell is still dressing. Even when he is called, he is ten minutes late. He nonchalantly sends the coffee back because it is “a trifle cold” (21) – after all, he was more than half an hour late. The priest tells him that he will redeem what he has pawned, and asks for a list of what he needs. Left alone, Christopher clenches his fists, and murmurs a benediction, “like a man in second-rate literature; for he posed as much when alone as when with others.” (22). He has begun to lose any sense of the difference between reality and pretence; or perhaps it is truer to say that his acting has started to fuse with himself.

Yet, Dell is internally condescending: he sees Dick as “a little stupid … as he had always been; even just a little uncouth in the fine affairs of life.” (22-23) However, according to Dell, Yolland is:

… whole regions above his coarse brethren in the priesthood, who had bade their interesting suppliant pawn his velvet-collared coat and his silver ring before he applied for charity again. Dick had not even hinted at that: he had understood that some things were more necessary even than food and red wine and cigarettes – such things as a respectable appearance, a well-groomed hand, and self-regard. But Dick Yolland was a gentleman and his brethren were not. (23)

The apparent criticism of the Roman clergy is deliberate but it is going be up-ended before the novel has ended. Their demand that Dell do something to help himself before throwing himself upon the charity of others is more realistic than Fr Yolland’s sentimental indulgence of his friend, whose superficiality and vanity are on open display. Meanwhile Dell considers what pose he shall strike Yolland takes him to the family estate at Amplefield: he will present himself as a Catholic journalist, suffering for his faith, who had some knowledge of the world. He then makes his list of necessary items in an “exquisite little Morocco [leather] pocket book. (23)

The requisite items he cannot live without are revealing: he needs a dressing gown, but as he can borrow one of Dick’s, that does not have to go on the list. Rather than eighteen collars, he will make do with fourteen, to go with twelve new white shirts. (24) Dell makes great dramas, declaring that he cannot give Yolland the list, and twice throws it into the fireplace, first drawing it out, then allowing it to fall short so Yolland could retrieve it. Dell murmurs that he was accustomed to purchase his items from shops in the Haymarket, a street in the very classy St James’s. (24-25) At the shop, he is fastidious, demanding silk, “not that half-half business” and then remembers to ask Yolland if it is alright. Typically, the priest agrees, and equally typically, Dell touches his friend’s arm and once more murmurs: “You are too good.” (26) Dell is the sort of person who expects other people to be grateful to him because he has shown gratitude to them: and if they do not come up to his expectations, then his quondam thankfulness turns to spite, and that quick smart.

Yolland enjoys Chris’s company, but is aware that “there was not a movement of his that was not an exaggeration.” (27) Dell has the talent of practically inviting someone to offer help, and then self-righteously remonstrating that he is offended by the offer, for he can look after himself. (27-28) It is a particularly callous sense of class-based superiority that Dell allows to dismiss the money he owes those “bloodsuckers” i.e. tradesmen, and specifies that these are not “debts of honour.” (28) When Yolland makes a humorous comment, Dell explodes:

“You think they have not sucked much from me! But they have! Tears and anguish at the thought that I could not pay them! And they will have the money, too. Well they know that!” (28)

Once more, the parasite excuses himself and blames those he has cheated, all on the basis of his stated guilt for his own default. This is reminiscent of how Frederick Rolfe would behave. This splendid psychological dissection continues: women fall for Dell because of his small attentions. Then they come to pity him as he hints at “mysterious misfortunes … and his apparent self-repression.” When they quarrel with him, they are overcome by his “icy and aloof dignity” (28) The mood-swings are a sort of ploy, more or less subliminally employed: someone’s good will is gained, and then used against them when the deceiver claims to be offended. The other person, of course, gives them the benefit of any doubt – attributing to them their own innocence. The paradox of Dell, Yolland reflects is that: “there was a glimmer as of footlights about his personality, and yet under the paint and the posing there was a very real male creature.” (28)

So charming is Dell that, by the time Yolland retires for the night, he has forgotten how free Dell was with his (Yolland’s) money, and the “all but imperceptible touch of patronage.” (29) Loafers, or in Australian terms, “bludgers,” are proficient in condescending to those who help them out.

While he is sketching Dell’s character, Benson is also preparing us to understand Dick Yolland, economically allowing Yolland’s responses to Dell to reveal the priest’s nature. He is, despite Dell’s supercilious denigration of his intellect, quite insightful. His problem is that, like Dell himself, he is also a sentimentalist: he allows his feelings an excessive freedom, at least in respect of his friend. The priest is not as bad as the sponger: the latter is also a narcissist (one suffering from morbid self-love and self-admiration; morbid here meaning “to the point of a disease.”)

end Part 4 of the review

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