If you don’t like creepy crawlies, have no fear: Miss Benson’s Beetle is a comic quest to find oneself rather than the eponymous insect.
In a text-book first chapter—the best opening this reviewer has read in a long time—we are introduced to Margaret Benson, then aged 10. Her father, a keen entomologist, shows her a picture book of imaginary creatures. On her first glimpse of the Golden Beetle of New Caledonia, Margery (pun intended) gets the bug and decides, then and there, that one day she will find this mythological creature and bring it home to England.
The action then fast-forwards to 1950. Margery, now mid-forties and unmarried, is unhappily employed as a cookery teacher. The final straw comes when she discovers her pupils circulating a cruel drawing of her. She quits her job, making a dramatic exit with as much academic paraphernalia as she can carry, and finally plans an expedition to find the beetle.
Only four applicants apply for the position of Margery’s traveling companion. Her preferred candidate drops out and so Margery asks Enid Pretty, who she never got around to meeting, to come instead. Enid, a blonde bombshell in a hot pink suit, arrives at Fenchurch Street Station late with three enormous suitcases. She is some 20 years younger than Margery and clearly not cut out for the job. Nevertheless, the mismatched pair set sail for New Caledonia. Nor are they alone. Unbeknown to them, one of Margery’s rejected candidates, a former POW with alarming mental health issues called Mundic, has also stowed away on the boat.
From here ensues a series of grand capers and obstacles which Enid and Margery must overcome to reach their goals. For starters, New Caledonia, a French-controlled tropical island 750 miles from Australia’s east coast, is a world away physically and culturally from rainy, organized England. Margery and Enid must also battle problems which travel with them from London, most notably Enid’s pregnancy and the fact she may be a murderer. Mundic too continues to stalk them with life-threatening consequences.
Evoking the spirit of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, the novel is a terrific yarn of derring-do and female solidarity. Not so far beneath the humor, however, lies a much more modern agenda of self-knowledge and empowerment. This plays out most explicitly in Margery’s growing awareness of her own abilities. When Enid builds her a study in their jungle base, Margery questions why she deserves the treat. To begin with, somewhat clunkily, she assumes it is because she is wearing shorts—like a man. She quickly dismisses the thought, realizing Enid made the effort because “I am a woman who is ready for adventure.”
The self-realization leads her to believe that “everything she wanted was ahead and available, so long as she was brave enough to claim it,” which indeed it turns out to be. Self-belief leads to self-actualization: Margery wins her longed-for career success and, more importantly, on her own terms. Enid, in her turn, is similarly triumphant with her ambitions for motherhood.
Predictably not everyone is happy for Margery and Enid’s success. Author Joyce takes a sideswipe at the envious in the character of Mrs Pope, the British consul’s wife and true villain of the piece. Her efforts to foil the pair’s ultimate escape are explained thus:
It wasn’t even that she disliked the two women. It was that they had found a way to be themselves.
Joyce also makes it clear that fulfilling one’s dreams can be much more than a merely selfish pursuit. In the last chapter, Margery sends subsequent beetle discoveries to Freya Geoffrey specifically, the only woman working in the Entomology Department at the UK’s Natural History Museum. Overlooked and overworked by male colleagues, Freya has “become complicit” by stifling her own ambitions and is slowly sliding into a lonely obscurity. Seeing a photograph of Enid and Margery together inspires Freya to start her own journey and this passing of the baton is Margery and Enid’s real achievement.
The penultimate sentence of the book, Freya’s realization that “the real failure as a woman was not even to try”, is Joyce’s message both to the sisterhood and beyond.