Benson was born to Ralph Beaumont Benson (1862-1911), a member of the landed gentry, and Caroline Essex Cholmondeley (pronounced Chumley) at Lutwyche Hall in Shropshire in 1892. Stella's aunt, Mary Cholmondeley, was a novelist. Stella was often ill during her childhood. By her sixth birthday, she and her family, based in London, had moved frequently. She spent some of her childhood in Germany and Switzerland getting an education. She began writing a diary at the age of ten and kept it up for all of her life. By the time she was writing poetry, around the age of fourteen, her mother left her father; consequently, she saw her father infrequently. When she did see him, he encouraged her to quit writing poetry for the time being, until she was older and more experienced. Instead, Stella increased her writing output, adding novel-writing to her repertoire. When her father died, Stella learned that he had been an alcoholic.
Stella was noted for being compassionate and interested in social issues. Like her older female relatives, she supported women's suffrage. During World War I, she supported the troops by gardening and by helping poor women in London's East End at the Charity Organisation Society. These efforts inspired Benson to write the novels I Pose (1915), This Is the End (1917) and Living Alone (1919). Living Alone is a fantasy novel about a woman whose life is transformed by a witch. She also published her first volume of poetry, Twenty, in 1918.
The travelling life
Benson then decided that she wanted to see the world, leaving England for the United States in June 1918. Her first stop was California, and she met many artists and writers in San Francisco and Berkeley, including Witter Bynner and Ansel Adams. Bertha Pope, Albert Bender, and Marie de Laveaga Welch were other lifelong friends she met at this time. She took on a job at The University of California as a tutor, then as an editorial reader for The University Press. These experiences inspired her next work, The Poor Man (1922).
Her next travels, via a return to England in 1920, took her to China, where she worked in a mission school and hospital, and met the man who would be her husband, James (Shaemas) O'Gorman Anderson, an Anglo-Irish officer in the Chinese Maritime Customs Service (CMCS) and later father of Benedict Anderson and Perry Anderson. They married in London the following year. This was a complex relationship, but a very firm one. Benson followed Anderson through various Customs postings including Nanning, Pakhoi, and Hong Kong, even though her writings on China sometimes put her at odds with the Customs Service leadership (Anderson was threatened with dismissal if her writings touched on Customs affairs after one piece in The Nation in October 1927).
They had strong shared intellectual interests. Their honeymoon was spent crossing America in a Ford, and Benson wrote about this in The Little World (1925). They continued to travel throughout the rest of their lives.
Benson's writings kept coming, but none of her works are well known today. Pipers and a Dancer (1924) and Goodbye, Stranger (1926) were followed by another book of travel essays, Worlds Within Worlds, and the story The Man Who Missed the 'Bus in 1928. Her most famous work, the novel The Far-Away Bride, was published in the United States first in 1930 and as Tobit Transplanted in Britain in 1931. It won the Femina Vie Heureuse Prize. This was followed by two limited edition collections of short stories, Hope Against Hope (1931) of which 670 were printed and signed, and Christmas Formula (1932).
Benson was a friend of Winifred Holtby and, through her, of Vera Brittain. The effects of the news of Benson's death on both women is recalled in Brittain's second volume of autobiography, the first volume of which is the better knownTestament of Youth (1933). Virginia Woolf also knew Benson, and remarked in her diary after her death: 'A curious feeling: when a writer like Stella Benson dies, that one’s response is diminished; Here and Now won’t be lit up by her: it’s life lessened.'
Her last unfinished novel Mundos and her personal selection of her best poetry Poems were published posthumously in 1935. Her Collected Stories were published in 1936.
- Brian Stableford, "Benson, Stella" in the Encyclopedia of Fantasy, edited by John Clute and John Grant, 1997, Orbit (p.107) .
- Dickins, Gordon (1987). An Illustrated Literary Guide to Shropshire. Shropshire Libraries. p. 6. ISBN 0-903802-37-6.
- Dickins, Gordon (1987). An Illustrated Literary Guide to Shropshire. Shropshire Libraries. p. 8. ISBN 0-903802-37-6.
- Davis, Marlene Baldwin. "Stella Benson". The Literary Encyclopedia. Ed. Robert Clark, Emory Elliott and Janet Todd.
- Stella Benson page at literaryheritage.org.uk
- Works by Stella Benson at Project Gutenberg
- Works by or about Stella Benson in libraries (WorldCat catalog)
- Archival material relating to Stella Benson listed at the UK National Archives