Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Tuesday, January 19, 2021


 "The Dance on the Beefsteak" by E. F. Benson (from Temple Bar, September 1902; reprinted in Benson's collection The Countess of Lowndes Square and Other Stories*, 1920)

More of a sketch than a story, "The Dance on the Beefsteak" is a satirical look at the society at the foreign enclaves in Alatri, an Italian village near Naples, where even the most minor of incidents can, and will, be blown out of proportion.

"For in Alatri as a rule nothing happens -- certainly nothing unpleasant -- our lives are as smooth as the halcyon summer seas, and it will, I am afraid, be impossible to give to any but the most imaginative reader an adequate idea of the most devastating nature of the catastrophe..."

Mrs. Mackellar, a doyen of local society, was giving a fete to celebrate, first, the engagement of her cook Seraphina to her man-servant Antonio, and second, to celebrate that Seraphina had been in her employ a full year.  This second reason was perhaps the more telling, for Mrs. Mackellar had been unable to keep a cook for more than a few weeks.  There was no specific reason for this; "they just lose their nerve and go away."  So a fete was called for, which the members of the foreign enclaves partying on the roof with melting ice cream and the servants partying downstairs in the kitchen..   In the spirit of democracy, once the servants had finished feasting and once Mrs. Mackellar's guests had had their fill of the melting ice cream, the servants would be allowed onto the roof-top garden and both parties would merge.

This seems like a splendid plan to our unnamed narrator, and he and a dog in his temporary care -- a large shaggy animal named Bianca -- appeared on time, where upon hearing music and dance from the kitchen, Bianca immediately parted from her owner and headed to the servants' festivities.  Bianca, you see, lived for just three things:  being groomed, cheese, and dancing, and it was dancing that most delighted her spirit.  

The party went well and the next morning our narrator was shocked to hear from his cook Francisco that Mrs. Mackellar had danced on a beefsteak and that Seraphina had been dismissed.  Unusual news because Francisco was far more apt to go on about how John the Baptist never appeared on his saint's day (something to do with the high amount of illegitimate children on Alatri).  anyway, the story had it that a market boat had come from Naples that morning and on that boat was a beefsteak for Mrs. Mackellar.  Salvatore, the carrier, brought the beefsteak to the roof-top garden where Mrs. Mackellar and Seraphina were.  Mrs. Mackellar was already upset at the high cost of the ice cream the evening before.  Mrs. Mackellar sniffed the beefsteak and said it was not fit for dogs.  Salvatore tried to explain that dogs should not be fed the beefsteak because it was meant for humans.  Mrs. Mackellar handed the meat over to Seraphina and asked her opinion.  Honest Seraphina said that it smelled very good to her.  And that was when Mrs. Mackellar lost it.  She accused her cook of being in a plot to cheat her and fired Seraphina on the spot.  Then, she threw the beefsteak down, "and danced upon it with both feet together, so that the roof trembled.  Also she said many strange words in her own tongue."

A tragedy indeed.  Due to the time of year, Seraphina would certainly be unable to obtain another position.  Would Antonio be able to support the two of them on his salary?   And, knowing the wrath of Mrs. Mackellar, might she also sack poor Antonio, dooming the couple never to marry?  And, even more upsetting, would Mrs. Mackellar then hire the incomparable Francisco away from the narrator?  She could certainly afford to pay Francisco far  more than our humble narrator could.

Two days passed and Alatri had talked of nothing else.  Then, while seated in from of the local cafe, our narrator saw Mrs. Mackellar "snorting and stamping round the corner, leaving all those at the cafe in a fearful silence.  She stood, not taking a seat, and and sipped her vermouth "with load, angry sucking noises, as if it was the life-blood of Seraphina."  As she straightened to storm out of the cafe, Bianca mistook her pose as wanting to dance, which made the scene even  more awkward.

Then Seraphina entered the cafe and, sunny and incapable of rudeness, gave her former employer and smile and wish he a good day.  And Mrs. Mackellar smiled back at her!  Why?  No one knew, or could even hazard a guess.  And, like that, the spat was over and Alatri went back to its sleepy, summer calm.

E. F. Benson (1867-1940) was one of six children  born to a future Archbishop of Canterbury.  Two siblings died in childhood, while the surviving four all achieved success in writing and other fields.  A. C. Benson became a Master of Magdalene College and wrote the words to the song "Land of Hope and Glory," as well as number of well-received books.   R. H. Benson, an Anglican priest who converted to Catholicism  and became Chamberlain to Pope Pius X, was a novelist and religious apologist.  Margaret Benson, perhaps the least know of the siblings, was an author and Egyptologist, and was one of the first women to be admitted to Oxford University.  None of the siblings ever married, giving rise to the theory (more than a theory, in some cases) that, at least the men, were homosexuals.  Mental illness, probably  bipolar disorder, also plagued the family, and Margaret herself had a mental breakdown and was placed in asylums for five years.

E. F. "Fred" Benson is best known today for his chilling ghost stories and for his satirical society  novels and short stories, including the Mapp and Lucia series and the Dodo trilogy.  Mapp and Lucia's fictional home is based on Lamb House in Rye, where Benson had lived; the house itself was used as a location in the BBC's adaptation of Mapp and Lucia in 2014.  Because a previous tenant of the house was Henry James, and because both James and Benson wrote ghost stories, a fiction has developed that the house was haunted -- something explored by writer Joan Aiken in her book The Haunting of Lamb House, 1993.

Benson's work, both satire and supernatural, can still be enjoyed by the  modern reader.

"The Dance on the Beefsteak" is available to read online in The Countess of Lowndes Square and Other Stories.

* In the preface to The Countess of Lowndes Square, Benson writes that the stories in the book first appeared in Nash's Weekly, The Windsor Magazine, The Story-Teller, The Century, and The Woman at Home.  "The rest are now published for the first time."  No mention of Temple Bar.  Go figure.


  1. Perhaps TEMPLE BAR failed to pay, or pay sufficiently. Or it was some odd oversight. (I'm often puzzled as to why short fiction collections often think it unnecessary to credit the magazines that have published the stories previously, most often among contemporary-mimetic magazines...little magazines, often the sources, can use all the references they can get, all too often. THE NEW YORKER often seems to be credited, perhaps by demand, perhaps to be a sort of brag that for some reason THE GEORGIA REVIEW or BOULEVARD is not seen to be. (TNY presumably pays better, to be sure. Though not better than some of the slick giants up through the '50s and into the '60s, whose circulations dwarfed TNY's in those years...and, alas, have almost uniformly given up on fiction.)

    I have heard of Margaret Benson before, but couldn't've named her if you hadn't reminded us. The brother I've read for their horror fiction, and have meant to read some of the MAPP AND LUCIA series, but have yet to do so...the Bensons, and of course particularly E. F., were, along with "Saki" and M. R. James and a small slew of others (including that James fellow) among the Edwardians who set the standard for modern horror, along with such fellow travelers as Bierce.

  2. I only know E. F. Benson from the Mapp and Lucia series. Another astute choice!