R.H. Bensons, “The Sentimentalists,” 5

The next section begins with Dell complacently arriving in the countryside for a splendidly luxurious holiday with Fr Yolland’s wealthy father. The moment Dell sees the elderly Mr Yolland, he concludes that he is, as he had expected: “… a good Christian man, aware of his dignity, reasonably generous, staunch, wholesome, and a little stupid …”  Yet, when they shake hands, Dell puts “as much deference as he could into his bent back.” (32) If not hypocrisy, this is, at the least, a conceited dissembling. Yet, the connection with the Yollands offered him the “respectability and an assured position” for which he “yearned.” (33) Humorously, when Dell retires for the night, Mr Yolland asks his son how Dell can be so well-dressed, if he is living in poverty. Rather than state he purchased them for his friend, Fr Dick says: “… that sort of man always keeps his clothes to the last. If he killed himself he would do it in evening dress …” (38) With that chapter 1 ends.

Chapter 2 takes us to the Hamiltons: the Yolland’s wealthy neighbours. Seventeen year-old cousin Jack has gone shooting with the Yollands, where he met and liked Dell. He tells Miss Annie Hamilton, the daughter of the house, that she won’t much appreciate him. She looks out the window and sees Yolland and Dell approaching. The presence of the priest always excited her a little, and in her mind, the priest “ought to have had all the mystery of the Erring Sister behind him, but he seemed so extremely natural.” (40) It may be an allusion to a story by Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam (1838-1889) called “The Erring Sister,” indicating that Catholics are people of fallen virtue who have strayed from the strait and narrow path. I suspect that the idea behind this is the Protestant polemic that the Pope is the Scarlet Woman who sits on her seven hills (Apocalypse 17:9).  This motif poisons Miss Hamilton’s attitudes, for although this Catholic priest is unaffected and unassuming, she believes he ought to assume “a pontifical air,” always speak “on a monotone” and pronounce “all his vowels the same,” like a good Anglican minister. (4)

She is not favourably impressed with Dell when she meets him, at which point Lord Brasted, a large reddish man, enters. In a pithy description, Benson writes: “He was a guest, but he was so old a friend that he was very nearly the host. Yet he always deferred charmingly to Jack and over himself assumed the protection without the severity of a parent.” (41) At the dinner, Dell acts a charming part so well, that Mrs Hamilton is persuaded he is natural. (42-43) In a paragraph, we are told that the older lady is “astonished at her own interest in Dell” although she has “a hundred criticisms” of him. (45) This is true to nature: there is a correspondence between the criticisms we make of something and our interest in it. Indeed, something in us is often attracted to what we dislike, or even to what shocks us. In some cases, this becomes a neurosis.

After the dinner, it appears that Annie now likes Dell, and contrasts him favourably with the “stout and red” Lord Brasted. (46) When they leave, Yolland asks Dell what he been discussing with Mrs Hamilton. Dell expostulates, and the priest recalls that Chris is known to “take offence at what he considered ill manners.” (49) Yolland now remonstrates that he cannot have known the conversation was private. Dell replies that he had been talking about himself. This struck the priest: “What else should Chris talk about with such earnestness?” (49) It emerges that the Hamiltons have asked Dell to stay with them from Saturday to Monday, and that he has already divined that Brasted is his “enemy.” Yolland replies that Brasted is “perfectly harmless, (h)e spuds dandelions.” (50). A “spud” was a digging trowel or a three-pronged fork. To spud dandelions would mean, I guess, that he is so precise and measured as to manicure his lawns.

Dell now shows an emotional side of his nature: “… he’s my enemy; I knew it at once. I hate those red-haired, white skinned, fat men. They smell, too. … it’s a question of magnetism. He hates me as much as I hate him.” (51) He is correct: there is an intuitive element in relations which sometimes attains to a physical polarity. Benson’s observation of human relations is exquisite: I have not provided all the details, but he delineates Dell having four quite individual relationships with Mrs and Miss Hamilton, their cousin Jack, and their friend Lord Brasted. It is done without drawing attention to his art, but be makes the characters, especially Dell, seem real. What is more, Dell proves to be right about Brasted.

When they arrive home, Chris goes up to bed, in something of a huff; and Yolland speaks with his father, who arranges to give Chris a job ordering and cataloguing their library. The priest tells his father that Dell is alright, but he should take himself in hand, because “He’s got no will … except when he’s excited.” (52) Of course, this means that he has no will, but is capable of purposive action when excited.

Old Mr Yollland asks about Dell’s morals and the sincerity of his attachment to Catholicism. His son is sure that Dell is sincere, but that he, like other converts, cannot “distinguish between faith and emotion.” (53) Since Benson himself was a convert, it is more than likely that he is having some fun at his own expense. Then follow some lines about the relation between no-nonsense, practical father and affectionate son, occasionally needy. The confidence between the two surely represents Benson’s ideal view of his prematurely deceased father, the Archbishop of Canterbury. It is also striking that he does not allow Mr Yolland to have a living wife: in real life, his mother had outlived his father. Yolland stays up and muses:

He would tell [Dell] not to sulk, not to make a childish exhibition of himself if he thought that his pride was injured. That little affair in the carriage coming home was really absurd. It was only a small thing – even Chris could not make it a great one – but it should not have happened at all, and the going to bed in a huff was the pinnacle of folly.

He would tell him that he needed ballast, a wholesome tranquillity, a grip on himself, greater faith in other people. It was all very well to be emotional, but emotions should be servants, not masters, or at least not tyrants.

The secret lay in the will, as it always did, the priest reflected, secure in his ramparts of casuistic reading. The personality should reside there as in a castle, and issue orders to the passions and intellectual apprehensions, who, in their turn should inform their master of external happenings and await his decision. Now Chris’s personality did not reside in his will; it ran about the battlements, mixed in the fray, ordered and counter-ordered at random, was swept off its feet in panics and sallies, and all the while stormed or paced or attitudinised according to mood in a hundred varying postures. (55-56)

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