Hello Everyone. I thought it was time I made a return to my blog and I’ve decided to start off with a completely fresh idea where I attempt to share novels I believe to be underrated and/or understudied. Over summer, I finally visited my Grandma who wanted me to read the eighteenth century novel Her Benny by Silas Hocking.
This book was an improving novel that told the story of young children who lived on the streets of Liverpool. Hocking was a Methodist minister and Her Benny is a ‘waif story’, a category of improving fiction for the Victorian children. Although, it was primarily religious (and typically evangelical), the novel was also providing political and social debates. Her Benny grew out of Hocking’s ministry.
‘My pastoral work, during a three years’ residence in Liverpool, called me frequently into some of the poorest neighbourhoods of that town, where I became acquainted with some of the originals of this story… the grouping of the characters is purely fictitious, but not the characters themselves…. Some of them are alive today, others have gone to their rest… (if my story) shall awaken any sympathy for the poor little waifs of our streets, I shall have my reward.’
Through his attempts to reproduce the Scouse accent in his dialect and his vivid descriptions of Victorian Liverpool, the story of Benny and his little sister Nelly is told. From the age of ten, Benny runs errands in the streets attempting to scrape a living, whilst his frail sister sells matches. After their father became violent towards Nelly, they decided to run away from home where they maintain independence and lead Christian lives. Nelly, perceived to have natural spiritual insights, acts as Benny’s moral conscience after she later dies in a street accident. Following her death, Benny works hard to educate and better himself, but loses it all after being wrongly accused of stealing a five-pound note. He later decides to abandon Liverpool, but nearly dies of starvation, until he is recused by a farming family. Six years pass and he finds a job as a clerk, returns to Liverpool and marries Eva Lawrence.
Didactic in intent, yet sympathetic in tone, his ‘rags to riches’ tale was well calculated to appeal to a contemporary audience. Hocking’s work is characteristic of Victorian evangelical fiction in the emphasis placed on Christian piety, and the role of inner spiritual renewal; his Methodist beliefs emerge especially in Joe Wrag’s prolonged struggle with the doctrine of predestination, a Calvinistic belief. Benny’s little sister, as well as her character and fate, seem calculated to recall to his readership Little Nell in Dickens’s 1840/1841 novel The Old Curiosity Shop, who was also marked for a tragically early grave.
Underrated and understudied.
As I enter my third year of University, I have unintentionally found myself opting for modules primarily focussing on mid-Victorian literature, making this novel of significant interest to me. Personally, this is probably the most saccharine novel of mid-Victorian poverty and death that I’ve come across and, due to its desire to be morally improving, it is also extremely accessible. Whilst some may say his characters lack psychological realism and illustrate doctrine rather than convince as real people, I found it to be sincere and affecting despite this melodramatic storyline. The discussions to be had about this novel is endless and fascinating, which makes me question why I haven’t come across this novel sooner. Without my Grandma, I would have most likely graduated without even hearing the name Her Benny and for that reason, it is the first novel to be discussed in my underrated and understudied series.
Thank you for reading!
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