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The Marvellously Queer Life of E.F Benson

May 2018

Edward Frederic Benson or ‘Fred’, as he was known as by his family, was born on the 24th of July 1867 at Wellington College, Berkshire, where his father was headmaster. Fred Benson was the fifth of six children, born to Mary Sedgwick Benson (1841–1918), better known as ‘Minnie’, and Edward White Benson (1829 – 1896) who later became sequentially, Chancellor and Canon of Lincoln Cathedral, Bishop of Truro - where he orchestrated the construction of Truro Cathedral - and finally in 1883 Archbishop of Canterbury until his unexpected death in 1896.


It’s difficult to fathom a Victorian family quite as extraordinary as the Bensons. In 1852 Edward White, at age twenty-three, sat his eleven year-old cousin, Minnie, down on his knee and asked for her hand in marriage. Seven years later, when Minnie reached age eighteen, the pair married.


A conscientious leader, Edward White Benson worked hard throughout his lifetime, maintaining a firm understanding of his and his wife’s societal duties, and inflicting his own principles of rigor and diligence upon his young family. He was a prudish but startlingly handsome young man with piercing blue eyes and a short temper, with tendencies to be depressive and often abrupt.


In contrast, Fred Benson’s beloved mother, Minnie, was remembered as a highly intelligent, quick-witted extrovert with a great sense of humour. During her husband’s appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury (1883-1918), whilst the family were living in Lambeth Palace, London, Minnie became the ‘dazzling darling’ of a new social circle, associating with literary figures such as Alfred Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning and Henry James. Prime Minister William Gladstone famously described Minnie as ‘the cleverest woman in Europe’.


Her and her husbands conflicting personalities caused disparity within the relationship. So much so, that in 1896 when her husband unexpectedly died from heart failure, Minnie eloped to share the marital bed with her lover, the daughter of the previous Archbishop of Canterbury, Miss Lucy Tait. The pair lived together in their Jacobean home, Tremens, situated near the Sussex Downs until Minnie’s death in 1918.  


It is recorded in Minnie Benson’s personal diary that she had sexual and emotional relationships with multiple women throughout her lifetime. Each time her family moved around the country because of her husband’s position in the church, Minnie embarked on relationships with the various women she encountered. To name a few, there was the vivacious Charlotte ‘Chat’ Basset; Tan Mylne, her lover while her husband was Chancellor of Lincoln Cathedral in 1873; and the young composer Ethel Smyth, who gave Minnie the nickname ‘Ben’.


Although open about her homosexuality within her private diary, Minnie struggled coming to terms with her desires - as a Christian and as a wife - describing these sexual liaisons as ‘swarmings’, eventually concluding that her romantic passions directed towards women, were an act of god. In her diary She wrote, ‘ Lord, it was thou, teaching me how to love.’


In their first decade of marriage, Minnie and Edward White Benson bore six children, four of which survived to adulthood. All four of the Benson children excelled academically and were highly accomplished literates. They also all remained unmarried, conceiving no grandchildren due to their homosexual desires. Not only inheriting their mother’s panache and intellect, but also her attraction to those of the same sex. All the children, except Fred, inherited their father’s manic depression.


Both Mr and Mrs Benson nurtured and coerced their children’s talents, publishing a family magazine in which each child would have to make a mandatory four-page long contribution each edition. Mrs Benson also insisted on a recital of rhyming couplets when her children wanted the bread passed down the dinner table. 


The Benson’s first child, Martin Benson born in 1860, was destined an optimistic future, raising high hopes through intellectual excellence, but died at age eighteen before reaching adulthood from an unspecified illness.


The oldest of the surviving Benson children, Arthur Christopher Benson (1862-1925) was a successful writer, most well know for his poem ‘Land of Hope and Glory.’ A remarkably dull man who, like his father, was a pillar of professional life. Throughout his lifetime he kept a detailed diary, which confirmed his own homosexuality, but suggested he had few – if any – sexual relationships with men. From 1885 until 1903, A.C Benson was a teacher at Eton College, before becoming an English professor at Magdalene College, Cambridge where he later became Master in 1915.


The second oldest child, Margret Benson or ‘Maggie’ (1865-1918) was the least mentally stable of the children, inheriting her fathers manic depression from a young age. Despite this, she was one of the first women to be accepted at Oxford University, where she attended Lady Margret Hall. A passionate Egyptologist, Maggie was also the first woman to be granted permission to excavate in Egypt, which she did alongside her lover Janet Goulray, for three seasons from 1895. Together they wrote The Temple of Mut in Asher in 1899, an account of their findings during the excavation. Maggie and Goulray resided at Tremens House with Mary Benson and Lucy Tait, until Maggie’s long standing resentment towards her mother and Tait’s relationship, combined with her depression, led her to attack Tait with a carving-knife in a frenzy of homicidal rage. Maggie spent the rest of her life sectioned at The Priory Hospital in Roehampton, dying on the 13th of May 1916, at age 50.


Little is known about the second daughter born to the Benson family, Mary Eleanor ‘Nellie’ Benson (1863-1890), apart from the fact that - like her older sister - she was educated at Lady Margaret's Hall, Oxford and - like the rest of her family - she was a homosexual. Her homoerotic desires however, became problematic when she started a relationship with composer Ethel Smyth, a woman formerly romantically involved with Nellie’s own mother. Nellie died at the early age of twenty-six.


Following in the footsteps of his father, the youngest child in the Benson family, Robert Hugh Benson (1871-1914), devoted much of his time to the Church of England. However, in the last decade of his life he was received by the Catholic Church, where he became a priest in 1904 and later a Monsignor in 1911, three years before his death. Like all of his siblings Robert Benson was also a writer, producing over thirty books in later life, most of which were propagandist novels devoted to Roman Catholic ideologies, historical fictions and religious sermons. Also like his father, Robert Benson’s life was all consumed by religion, and he too had depressive tendencies.           


The young Fred Benson was educated at leading preparatory school, Temple Grove, before attending Marlborough College, Cambridge, where he excelled academically as well as in sports and music, developing a passion for both. At age twenty-three Benson enrolled at Kings College, Cambridge, studying archaeology. He soon became infatuated with everything Greek, including a succession of beautiful young men. At Cambridge he fell in love with young Vincent York, writing in his private diary, ‘I feel perfectly mad about him just now… Ah, if only he knew, and yet I think he does.’


After graduating in 1892, Benson pursued his passions, working at the British School of Archaeology in Athens, where he fraternized with Lord Alfred Douglas, who at the time was entangled in a troublesome relationship with Oscar Wilde, before travelling to Egypt and accompanying his sister Maggie during her excavation.


Fred Benson published his first novel, Dodo in 1893, under the name E.F Benson. This marked the beginning of a forty-eight year long venture, where he would go on to publish well over 100 books covering most genres. Dodo, a novel about a ‘glamorous, amoral, humorous woman who charmed many and distressed others was an instant success’, according to Keith Carabine, one of Benson’s many biographers. The novel asserted Benson’s position as a notable literary figure from the very beginning of his long-lasting career. 


4 years later, during the Graeco-Turkish war, Benson administrated a Red Cross fund in aid of the Greek Refuges. On his return to England he by-passed the Italian island of Capri, a favourite holiday destination for the European homosexual community and a place of salvation in the wake of Oscar Wilde's conviction, in 1895, for "acts of gross indecency." Benson was captivated by the islands beauty and its intriguing residents, later sharing a villa there with pianist John Ellingham Brooks (1863 -1929), former lover of fellow writer William Somerset Maugham (1874 – 1965).  


Although throughout his lifetime Benson was associated with homosexuals, the social climate post Oscar Wilde’s conviction and Benson’s fear of expressing his sexuality because it was illegal, meant that he kept his sexual identity closeted to the wider world. Never expressing his desires in writing, apart from in his private diary where he stressed his fear of erotic impulse and may, therefore, have remained celibate throughout his life. 


Benson’s close connection to the British rural town of Rye, East Sussex, began in 1900 when he visited Henry James in Lamb House, in admiration of James’s fictional methods. Later in 1920, four years after James’s death, Benson took over the lease of Lamb House and resided there for 20 years until his own death in 1940. The house became a model for ‘Mallards’ in Benson’s famous Mapp and Lucia series. Whilst living in Rye, Benson became and generous benefactor to the town, funding the restoration of the organ in St. Mary’s Church and commissioning the instalment of two large stain-class windows, one on the north facing side of the church, in memory of his parents, and one on the west facing side of the church, in memory of his brother, Arthur Christopher Benson who lived in Lamb House for the last three years of his life. Fred Benson went on to serve as Mayor of Rye for three terms from 1934 until 1937. On the 29th of February 1940 Benson died of throat cancer at the University College Hospital, London, just a few days after finishing his memoir, Final Edition. He is buried at the cemetery in his beloved town of Rye.

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