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News > Alumnae > "Queen's Reads" - Which Way by Theodora Benson

"Queen's Reads" - Which Way by Theodora Benson

Julia Rank (OQ, 2006) explores this work by Theodora Benson (OQ, c.1922) recently republished by the British Library.
6 Dec 2023
Written by Julia Rank

When I was looking through scrapbooks in the archives earlier in the year, I spotted some notices about a novel called Salad Days (nothing to do with the Julian Slade musical) by Theodora Benson. It’s always exciting to unearth literary Old Queens but this was particularly intriguing as the name rang a bell – it was because her novel Which Way? had recently been reissued by the British Library Women Writers reprint series. British Library Publishing is just about my favourite publisher and their Women Writers series a particular favourite. These books are beautifully presented and the contents elegantly contextualised. 

The Hon Theodora Benson (1906-1968) was quite grand, being the daughter of Godfrey Rathbone Benson, 1st Baron Charnwood. She grew up in Lichfield, Staffordshire and both her parents were writers. Her dates at Queen’s are unknown but if we suppose she attended for ‘finishing’ at about sixteen, that would place her at around 1922. Her first novel, the aforementioned Salad Days, was published in 1928 when she was 22. Which Way? (1931) was her fourth novel in three years.  

In this novel, Benson employs a ‘sliding doors’ structure. The heroine Claudia Heseltine can only choose one weekend invitation and in three parallel timelines, her life: that of a single woman; a marriage of minds to her suitor Hugo; and a marriage based on physical attraction to polo player Lionel, with whom she has an adored son. It’s set in a very privileged milieu, like that of a Noel Coward play and similarly filled with arch dialogue.  

I can see how Which Way? was selected for this series as it couldn’t fit the brief of women’s lives more perfectly. I’d be hesitant to categorise it as a ‘good read’, finding the writing style a little too brittle and in places affected, and there’s a feeling of being kept at arm’s length by the author who treats novel like an intellectual exercise. However, it certainly is noteworthy for the unusual, experimental style and ever-relevant themes. 

During World War II, Benson worked as a speechwriter for the Ministry of Information and published a propaganda book encouraging women to take up war work. All her books were out of print for decades prior to this reissue and the series editor was initially only able to tread Which Way? in the Bodleian. However, this fascinating blog is a real labour of love in collecting information about this forgotten author. 

If this has whetted your appetite for the British Library Women Writers (I promise this is not an advert), I think the one that’s closest to Which Way? is probably My Husband Simon by Mollie Panter-Downes, a witty exploration of ‘modern’ marriage in the 1920s. O The Brave Music by Dorothy Evelyn Smith is a coming-of-age novel that’s a bit like an early twentieth-century Jane Eyre or David Copperfield and perfect for these winter nights. Best of all is the unforgettable A Pin to See the Peepshow by F. Tennyson Jesse, which I believe to be one of the great novels of the twentieth century. Perhaps another Theodora Benson title will be added to the list at some point – I’d be interested to see how characteristic Which Way? is of her work as a whole. 

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