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A nest of graphomaniacs

25 November 2016

The psychodrama of a family fascinates Michael Wheeler


Domineering: Archbishop Edward Benson at the Villa Palmieri, Florence, in 1895, photo­graphed by Lady Gertrude Molyneux

Domineering: Archbishop Edward Benson at the Villa Palmieri, Florence, in 1895, photo­graphed by Lady Gertrude Molyneux

A Very Queer Family Indeed: Sex, religion, and the Bensons in Victorian Britain
Simon Goldhill
The University of Chicago Press £24.50
Church Times Bookshop £22.05



SIMON GOLDHILL is Professor of Greek at Cambridge, and a Fellow of King’s College, London, where the ghosts of the Bensons and their circle have haunted him for years.

The lives of Archbishop Benson’s extraordinary family are familiar landmarks in accounts by David Newsome and others of late-Victorian godliness and good learning. The fact that Benson’s widow shared a bed with the daughter of a former archbishop is also widely known. But now we are presented with a detailed forensic study of the psychodrama of the Bensons, which offers unique insight into Victorian and Edwardian sexuality and spirituality.

Having briefly outlined the sensational book that he might have written on their sex lives, Goldhill turns to his deeper interest in the Bensons’ “graphomania”, which was expressed in bales of corres­pon­dence, diaries, and private life-writing, along with piles of publ­ished novels and essays, biographies, and autobio­graphies. (The author, for example, is one of the few scholars who has read through the four million words of Arthur Benson’s diary, housed at Mag­dalene College. Cambridge.)

The Bensons, he concludes, are “a very queer family indeed, not because they are sexually, intellectu­ally, socially transgressive — though there are many ways in which they are so”, but rather because they “embody the sheer difficulty of self-understanding with such over­lapping narratives of conversion or change”.

Edward White Benson, the pioneering headmaster of Welling­ton College, founding Bishop of Truro, and young Archbishop of Canterbury, had sealed his engage­ment to the 12-year-old “Minnie” Sidgwick with a kiss when he was 23. He married her six years later (having exchanged hundreds of letters with her mother, Mary), and subsequently tried to understand her passionate love for other women, even inviting Lucy Tait to live with them at Lambeth Palace for the last six years of his primacy.

He died during the confession at morning prayer in Hawarden Church (and not in Gladstone’s “private chapel”, as suggested here), in 1896.

When the Bensons’ firstborn son, Martin, who had seemed capable of fulfilling his father’s great expecta­tions, died at Winchester College, aged 17, Edward Benson’s utter despair disturbed his wife, whose intense private faith enabled her to cope with the crisis, and bemused his other children, who spent the rest of their lives trying to work out why their parents were as they were — domineering and depressed father, clever and frequently absent mother — and why they themselves were so, well, “queer”.

Nellie Benson, who strove to please her father, followed her brother to an early grave. Her sister Maggie, an intellectual Egyptologist, was “difficult”: sexually innocent, and jealous of Tait, she became psychotic, and was eventually hos­pitalised.

Arthur Benson’s conventional progress in the world of education, from Eton beak to reforming Master of Magdalene College, and his close­ness to the court (he wrote Land of Hope and Glory), concealed a labyrinthine inner life, tormented by uncertainty concerning his own and his siblings’ sexuality, blessed only with the chaste comforts of homo­social life after an obscure “great misfortune” in his undergraduate rooms at King’s College.

Fred, in contrast, represented his country at figure skating, and luxuri­ated in the freedom to express his homosexuality in Capri in the 1890s, as he honed his arch com­mentary on the English upper-middle-class, expressed most famously in the Mapp and Lucia novels.

Hugh’s rebellion took an equally dramatic form. Having taken Anglican orders, and thus delighting his father the year before he died, Hugh later converted to Rome and became a Catholic priest. The tinkle of bells in his private oratory would jar on Bensonian ears in other parts of his mother’s house. He was terrified of being buried prema­turely, and so Arthur fulfilled his request by opening an artery after his death.

All three brothers published fiction, and wrote extensively about their mother and each other. A veritable cat’s cradle of interpreta­tion and misinterpretation demands all Goldhill’s patience to unravel.

And yet this book is about more than the Bensons: it sheds light on other Victorian and Edwardian figures whose private torments shaped their public utterances, ranging from John Ruskin and Charles Kingsley to Edmund Gosse and Samuel Butler, and on the New Woman’s flouting of the repressions and suppressions of English polite society.

Goldhill’s agenda, which he reveals at the end of the book, is a “plea for the value of complexity”. He finds biography a “ludicrous genre”, and is against the “silencing of historical depth in such areas” and the “trivialities that so easily dominate the language and narrat­ives of sexual identity”.

So this brilliant and reasonably priced book is recommended Christ­mas reading for scholars, educated general readers, and, above all, bishops.

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