I have been so lucky to be sent the output of the British Library Women Writers series, a lovely set of reprints of 20th century novels, each with accompanying information. I was on the blog tour for “The Love Child” but have free rein on my other reviews – I read this one quickly as it (just) counts as a novella for the Novellas in November challenge, coming in at 198 pages for just the novel (it doesn’t count for my TBR challenge as I acquired it after the cut-off date, but it’s always nice to get my review books read and reviewed promptly, of course.

Theordora Benson – “Which Way?”

(13 October 2021)

Only the fire was alive, consuming its life – for what? Then the door opened and as Claudia came with hurried steps into the fire’s glow, two open letters in her hand, the telephone began ringing. She shut the door and turned up the lights. (p. 4 et al.)

This is an intriguing “Sliding Doors” style novel where the stage is very much set in the first section, a room with a fire and a woman entering, clutching two letters, as the phone rings. We then go back to Claudia’s life up until that point – and I found it so interesting (and not a problem) that Benson just does not seem to like Claudia very much – or many of the other characters, apart from her best friend, Eileen, who has a sense of backbone, firmness and ethics that Claudia doesn’t have:

All [Claudia] tried to do really was to get and to give as much pleasure as might be.

With Eileen things were not in the least like that. She was a very definite person. She didn’t stray from impulse to impulse, mild affair to mild affair. Not had she any tendency, as had Claudia, to enjoy all things and condone all things. She knew her line and took it very completely. (p. 18)

What an economical way to draw out the differences and show where the author’s approval lies.

Once we’ve seen Claudia through a variety of phases, including becoming somewhat sentimental and po-faced as a teenager, we meet her on the cusp of life, with three very different invitations. There’s no sci fi notion to the book, she doesn’t slip back and start again at any point, as far as I can tell, but we see three very different outcomes from those invitations, all examining the life of a young woman between the wars (the book was published in 1931) who has a certain amount of money and friends, but a rather brittle, shallow life.

It’s very cleverly done. In the first timeline, Claudia almost becomes someone’s mistress, having gone to a party alone – and in the second, in which she marries unwisely and unhappily, she encounters him again and he claims he would have never let go of her had he met her when she was single, which we know might not be exactly the case! In the third, she marries beneath her intellect, seems somewhat happy, but then re-encounters the man she married unhappily in another life, and has a very different relationship with him. And all the while, little echoes flick back and forth, a prediction made in one novel comes true in this one, and certain things, like her actual two weddings, end up almost identical.

Acerbic about her characters, Benson is also clear-sighted and meticulous about their relationships. The silly pet words of marriages are skewered and perhaps shouldn’t have been mentioned, and men get to compartmentalise and only think of the woman in between, while Claudia, at least, is consumed with thinking about the men through everything she does. Accurate? Maybe not of everyone, but certainly of her ‘type’, I think.

A compulsive read, very much “I must get to the end of this bit of the story” and difficult to put down, and an unusual experimental form.

Thank you so much to the British Library for sending me this book and others in the series in return for an honest review. You can buy all the British Library Women Writers books (and more) at the British Library Shop (https://shop.bl.uk/).

I also had a Bookish Beck style moment of serendipity between this book and “The Doctor’s Family“, my previous read, in that both feature a lazy character who spends most of their time tucked up among the cushions, feet up on a sofa, clutching a series of the latest novels!