I rediscovered an old favourite the other day. Peering up at the dusty gloom of my highest bookshelves, I caught sight of a name that first captivated me more than twenty years ago. S. L. Bensusan was an accomplished journalist and writer who enjoyed enormous popularity in the early to mid-twentieth century, but while so much of that period is now very much in vogue, he is little read today. This, I think, is a real pity, since his characters are so vividly drawn, his stories so beguiling.
Bensusan puts us right in among the insular inhabitants of rural Essex, where we meet a cast of unforgettable characters, among them the voluble ‘wise woman’ Mrs Wospottle; James Blight, the cunning poacher with an eye always to the main chance; and Solomon Woodpecker, labourer and rural sage, often to be found sampling the delights of the Wheatsheaf.
Samuel Levy Bensusan was born in 1872 to Orthodox Sephardi Jewish parents in Dulwich. The Bensusans were proud of their forebears, whom they believed had held high office in the imperial Spanish court; one of them, Samuel Halevi, had been a prominent poet.
Though Samuel was articled to a firm of London solicitors, it soon became clear that he was not cut out for the law. He found the severity of sentences passed on the company’s clients deeply distressing and craved an escape. His love of music enabled him to write with flair and authority, and he landed the job of music and drama critic on the Gentlemen’s Journal and the Illustrated London News. This quickly led to some serious journalism.
The sensitive temperament that had driven him from the law found expression again in 1896, when he wrote an indictment of the treatment of performing animals for the English Illustrated Magazine. Such was the force of his journalism that it led to an Act of Parliament protecting circus and other performing animals.
Bensusan travelled widely and his appetite for knowledge, especially the exot
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