I’ve been reading E. F. Benson’s Mammon and Co., one of his less famous novels, which concerns a young aristocratic couple who become involved with a city trader in an attempt to turn their social cachet into actual cash. It’s an unusual Benson novel for someone who’s more used to the small-town life of the Mapp and Lucia books: the characters are more famous and powerful, and the narrative is more (melo)dramatic. It also has a persistent strain of Biblical references embedded in it, from the title onwards.
There isn’t an obvious single significance to these references: they aren’’t always made by characters who are right, they aren’t always misquotations, they aren’t always evidence of hypocrisy, they aren’t always references to narrative parallels, etc. The major effect, I think, is to give the impression that another story is working itself out alongside the overt narrative which the characters and the reader can immediately see. Though I may well change that first-glance reading when I’ve had time to spend more time with the text. Given Benson’s own background, and the unusual density of allusions in Mammon and Co. compared to his more famous works, I’m certain of one thing: it isn’t an accident that these references keep appearing.
One allusion particularly puzzled me, and I’ve been trying to make sense of it – I might not have quite cracked it yet, but I thought I’d share it with you all, and ask your view. This is the reference in question, made by a wealthy American woman who is delighted by her social success in Britain, and whose daughter has received a number of marriage proposals:
“No,” said Mrs. Murchison; “the dear child is not so easy to please. Half London has been at her feet. But dear Lily has nothing to say to them. She sends them empty away, like the Magnificat.”
I find this the most intriguing of all the Biblical references in Mammon and Co., and certainly the most intriguing of Mrs. Murchison’s lines. All of her other references and quotations are mistakes, to more or less comic (and sometimes ironically apt) effect, such as:
“Yes, if I could see her nicely married to some such man,” said Mrs. Murchison, growing bolder. “I should be content to lie like some glorious Milton in a country churchyard.
Or the more extensive combination here:
You may be sure I studied the music a good deal before each opera; it is impossible to grasp it otherwise—the life-motive and all that. Siegfried Wagner conducted; they gave him quite an ovarium. But some people go just in order to say they have been, without thinking about the music. Garibaldi to the general, I call it.”
Other characters regularly have to prevent themselves from laughing whilst talking to her and Benson’s narrative voice occasionally appears to explain the origin of a particular quotation in order to help the reader appreciate what she has got wrong or how she has misquoted it. (And are there extra jokes hidden in there? After all, the “life-motive” of Wagner is a pretty ironic notion, given the death-wish so many of his characters glory in, and Garibaldi was very much a general…)
In the case of the Magnificat, however, she makes perfect (if slightly eccentric sense.) Mary’s song runs thus in the King James Version:
And Mary said, My soul doth magnify the Lord,
And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden: for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is his name.
And his mercy is on them that fear him from generation to generation.
He hath shewed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree.
He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He hath helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy;
As he spake to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed for ever.
Though her reference is unusual, it does make sense in the context of their discussion: her daughter has sent the rich men seeking her hand in marriage away without the reward they were seeking. It also makes sense within the novel’s larger pattern of ironically juxtaposing religious imagery – especially Biblical references – with the discussion of money and social power. For example, Jack is described as attending a dinner with a financier in the hopes of finding bread upon the waters where various companies will be launched. Or in this quotation:
He had no idea that marquises were at such a premium. His distinguished ancestry had suddenly become an industrial company, paying heavily. “The new Esau,” he thought to himself, “and a great improvement on the old. I only lend my birthright, and the pottage I receive is really considerable.”
The mention of the Magnificat therefore poses something of a puzzle: why does Mrs. Murchison make a perfectly coherent reference for once? In a splendid piece of Bensonian irony, the attentive reader is left not so much trying to make of the reference to the Magnificat, but trying to find a way in which it does not make sense. One possibility might be to consider the status of those whom Lily Murchison has dismissed. The Magnificat’s description of the social upheaval involved in the establishment of God’s rule shows the poor being blessed and comforted whilst the rich and powerful are cast down and sent away, thus casting the aristocrats who came seeking Lily’s hand in marriage as the latter.
A friend suggested a brilliahtly ingenious reading of this passage, which would make sense (or rather, make non-sense) of this reference: maybe she means the Nunc Dimittis rather than the Magnificat. The two pieces are heavily present in the liturgy of the Church of England during the early twentieth century, especially before the Catholic revival shifted the centre of practice from Morning Prayer and Evensong to Communion services, and it would make sense for them to be in Mrs. Murchison’s (or Benson’s) mind as a pair. The opening of the Nunc has a possible bearing on the situation
Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word:
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;
It’s relevant enough, with a Lord being involved, and people departing in connection to a particular word or promise, and it’s sufficiently mistaken to apply it to Lily’s situation for suit Mrs. Murchison’s usual style. Those departing are doing so because they aren’t going to get the “salvation” of marriage with Lily. This is a really striking reading of the quotation, and I’m extremely tempted by it.
However, I think the reference can still be deciphered if Mrs. Murchison does mean the Magnificat. In this reading, the line implies her naïvete when it comes to the British upper classes: she assumes they are rich and glorious when in fact they are (like Jack and Kit, the central characters) impoverished and living far beyond their means. According to this reading, the quotation is inaccurate because she should have identified them with the poor who are rewarded (and they haven’t been.) This could be extended into a reading of the previous line, which refers to the new order involving those of “low degree” being “exalted” into elevated social rank. By sending her suitors away unsatisfied, Lily has ensured that she and her mother, of comparatively “low degree”, have not been exalted into the British aristocracy, and thus the reference to the Magnificat is inappropriate. And thus appropriate.
As this post might suggest, I am having enormous fun trying to disentangle Benson’s Biblical references, and develop some understanding of how he deploys them and why. As ever, tracking a reference to its source, or identifying that a quotation is present, is only the beginning of the process…