As Good as God, as Clever as the Devil: The Impossible Life of Mary Benson

Kate Williams on a winning biography of a remarkable Victorian woman and her family

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Reviewed by: Kate Williams
Author: Rodney Bolt
Publisher: Atlantic Books
Price (RRP): £22

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Mary Benson’s oldest son, Arthur, sighed, “I don’t think I should do to live at home”.

Happily occupied by tickling boys at bedtime as housemaster at Eton, he dreaded accompanying his siblings and widowed mother in the country. “We are all too much alike – too critical – too clever – all see what everybody is going to say before they open their mouths – I always get depressed there.”

As Bolt shows in his rich and utterly engaging biography of Mary, the Bensons were garrulous, acquisitive “hopelessly literate” – and typically Victorian in their boundless energy for competition and industry.

At the age of eight, Minnie Sedgwick charmed her 20-year-old cousin Edward by memorising the work of Thomas Macaulay, and he soon decided she would be his bride. Her widowed mother could not hold out against his avowals that dark temptations would overwhelm him if he were denied.

After splendid success at Cambridge, and his appointment as headmaster of Wellington College, Edward married Mary when she was just 18. The continental honeymoon was a disaster. “How I cried at Paris!” Mary confessed. He “restrained his passionate nature for seven years, and then got me!”

Back from interminable tours of ecclesiastical architecture, the young Mrs Benson struggled with the accounts, household management and the physical demands of bearing six children in 11 years. Edward was endlessly frustrated with her and she sought solace in romantic friendships with charming female neighbours. Emily Edwardes, who attracted her attention just after the birth of her second child, was, she noted in her diary, infatuation number 39.

In 1882, when Mary was 41, Edward became archbishop of Canterbury. Mary took one look at Lambeth Palace and declared “this huge cold Barrack is disgusting!” But she took to the role of hostess, and entertained churchmen, soldiers, politicians, artists and royalty with brio.

Prime Minister Gladstone called her “the cleverest woman in Europe”.

Her husband invited the great to his table – and even gave Henry James an anecdote that became the germ of The Turn of the Screw. Mary socialised with an ever-widening circle of lady friends. In 1885, she met Ethel Smyth, almost 20 years her junior and already highly respected as a composer.

“The reasons why I love you are unshakeable,” Ethel wrote to Mary, “here are some of them, your truth, your fire… your ‘unconquerable heart’”.

The children became famous. Arthur wrote the words for Land of Hope and Glory; Fred, as EF Benson, sold thousands of copies of his popular novels that included the Mapp and Lucia series; Hugh was a Catholic preacher and author of mystical fiction and Maggie became a renowned Egyptologist.

But Bolt never loses the focus on Mary, even as her life became circumscribed in widowhood and she devoted herself (much to the fury of Maggie) to Lucy Tait, daughter of Edward’s predecessor as archbishop.

Rodney Bolt is a deeply sympathetic narrator and his exploration of these contradictory, colourful, and deeply selfish individuals is full of joys. Although some of the sections included from contemporary novels are a little too long, Bolt’s revelation of the social contexts for his marvellous story is detailed and enlightening.

Mary’s life is a gift, the research is scrupulous, and his book beautifully elucidates both the late 19th century and the many concomitant lives of a quite extraordinary family.  

Kate Williams is the author of Becoming Queen (Hutchinson, 2008)
 

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