“America sat high on the seas, grown like some portentous mushroom in a single night.”
Author E.F. Benson (1867-1940) seems to be best remembered for his Mapp and Lucia books which have made their way to television–definitely a way to keep that written word in print. I’d never read Benson before, but then I came across a 99cent offer for the kindle: The Relentless City.
The Relentless City (1903) is a social satire, a novel of manners, built around a English man, Lord Bertie Keynes, set to inherit a title and a heavily mortgaged estate, and Sybil Massington, a young English widow. These two people decide that they want to marry wealth, and that translates to marrying Americans. Bertie must marry money, and Sybil finds herself admiring the American spirit. Bertie is cynical about his quest:
You don’t suppose the Americans really think that lots of us go there to find wives because we prefer them to English girls? They know the true state of the case perfectly well. They only don’t choose to recognize it, just as one doesn’t choose to recognize a man one doesn’t want to meet. They look it in the face, and cut it–cut it dead.
The Relentless City of the title is literally New York but it’s also the frenetic American way of life epitomized by self-made millionaire and workaholic, former railway porter, Lewis S. Palmer–a man whose whole life is directed, with intense preoccupation, towards the making of money.
Yet in the relentless city, where no one may pause for a moment unless he wishes to be left behind in the great universal race for gold.
The novel opens at the London Carlton, “full to suffocation of people,” and that includes the American Mrs. Lewis S. Palmer, a loud woman who appears to the “casual observer” to be dressed “exclusively in diamonds.” Mrs. Palmer flaunts her wealth and brags that whenever she’s homesick, her husband “sends to Tiffany’s for the biggest diamond they’ve got.” She’s enjoying her time in London, threatens to buy it, and suspects she’ll “rupture something” when she returns home to America. Even though she’s in the Carlton, that doesn’t stop her frequent screams whenever she’s amused. A great deal is made of Mrs. Palmer, her manners “of a barmaid,” & her behaviour in this first scene:
It was said of her, indeed, that staying for a week-end not long ago with some friend in the country, rain had been expected because one day after lunch a peacock was heard screaming so loud, but investigation showed that it was only Mrs. Palmer, at a considerable distance away on the terrace, laughing.
Bertie, who recently recovered from losing his first great love, actress Dorothy Emsworth, sails to America and is the guest of the Palmers at their opulent, ironically named home: Mon Repos where life is “not a holiday, but hard, relentless work of a most exacting kind.” As a Long Island hostess, one of Mrs. Palmer’s goals is to attract people to her social headquarters and away from Newport and rival hostess Mrs. John Z. Adelboden. Mrs. Palmer triumphs when she lures a minor royal to her home:
For only two days before the reigning Prince of Saxe-Hochlaben, a dissolute young man of twenty-five, with a limp, a past, and no future, had arrived like a thunderbolt in New York.
Mrs. Palmer organizes the most outrageously expensive parties. In one, she transforms a local beach into a lagoon with tiny cabinets complete with a change of clothes and fishing nets for all the guests:
The lagoon itself smelt strongly of rose-water, for thousands of gallons had just been emptied into it, and the surface was covered with floating tables laden with refreshments, and large artificial water-lilies. And scattered over the bottom of the lagoon-scattered too, with a liberal hand–were thousands of pearl oysters.
There was no time wasted; as soon as Prince Fritz grasped the situation, and it had been made clear to him that he might keep any pearls he found, he rushed madly to the nearest cabin, rolled his trousers up to the knee, put sandals on his rather large, ungainly feet, and plunged into the rose-watered lagoon. Nor were the rest slow to follow his example, and in five minutes it was a perfect mob of serge-skirted women and bare-legged men. Mr. Palmer himself did not join in the wading, for, in addition to a slight cold, wading was bad for his chronic indigestion; but he seized a net, and puddled about with it from the shore. Shrieks of ecstasy greeted the finding of the pearls; cries of dismay arose if the shell was found to contain nothing. Faster and more furious grew the efforts of all to secure them; for a time the floating refreshment-tables attracted not the smallest attention. In particular, the Prince was entranced, and, not waiting to open the shells where the oyster was still alive (most, however, had been killed by the rose-water or the journey, and gaped open), he stowed them away in his pockets, in order to examine them afterwards–not waste the precious moments when so many were in competition with him; and his raucous cries of ‘Ach, Himmel! there is a peauty!’ resounded like a bass through the shrill din.
In this lively, highly-entertaining novel of manners, there’s lots of scope here for the clash of cultures as English habits and values meet brash, disinhibited America, and the author seems to have great fun exploring the excesses of American high society. After the scene at the Carlton, Bertie’s friend, Charlie, portrayed as a much less progressive character than Bertie, weighs the pros and cons of Mrs. Palmer as part of the “barbarian invasion.” Bertie, the eldest son of an impoverished marquis, much later in the novel makes a statement that American culture is not less or lower than English culture–just different, and while this is an effort to establish differences rather than superiority, it’s a limp attempt as the majority of the book pokes fun at Grande Dame Mrs. Palmer, her ludicrous parties, and the planned stripping of a beautiful English ancestral estate for its coal by the new American owners. In The Relentless City, the American characters are here for laughs with generous dollops of humour in the vein of Oscar Wilde, and while there are basically two love stories which unfold, there’s also a bit of villainy seen through the character of the dastardly Bilton. Ultimately, after meeting and mingling with the Americans the English characters are left shell-shocked more than anything else.
More intimately disquieting was the perpetual sense of his nerves being jarred by the voices, manners, aims, mode of looking at life of the society into which he was to marry. Not for a moment did he even hint to himself that his manner of living and conducting himself, traditional to him, English, was in the smallest degree better or wiser than the manner of living and conducting themselves practised by these people, traditional (though less so) to them, American. Only there was an enormous difference, which had been seen by him in the autumn and dismissed as unessential, since it concerned only their manners, and had nothing to do with their immense kindliness of heart, which he never doubted or questioned for a moment. What he questioned now was whether manners did not spring, after all, from something which might be essential, something, the lack of which in one case, the presence of in another might make a man or a woman tolerable or intolerable if brought into continuous contact.