The Impossible Life of Mary Benson: Rodney Bolt

★★★★½

The Extraordinary Story of a Victorian Wife

On 23 June 1859, eighteen-year-old Minnie Sidgwick married her distant cousin Edward Benson. The couple had known each other since Minnie was a little girl and Edward had hoped to marry her ever since she was eleven, when he had admired her brightness of spirit and her intelligence. Perhaps marriages of this kind did sometimes prove to be happy. But not this one. Minnie, or Mary as she became as an adult woman, passed from being an anxious, eager-to-please daughter to being an anxious, daunted wife. As her husband vaulted up the ecclesiastical hierarchy, Mary Benson played the role of dutiful clergyman’s wife, culminating in the greatest challenge of all: the wife of the Archbishop of Canterbury. But who was this woman who stood behind one of the most influential men in the land? And why should we care about her? In this utterly engaging biography, Rodney Bolt brings together family documents, diaries, letters, novels and contemporary material to give us a deep and absorbing picture of an extraordinary woman whose experiences offer a fascinating picture of the Victorian age.

Edward Benson had ambition from the start. From Cambridge, he moved to become a master at Rugby; from there he became headmaster of the newly-founded Wellington College; from there it was on to Lincoln, where he became Chancellor at the Cathedral; from there to Truro, as Bishop; and finally to Lambeth Palace, as Archbishop of Canterbury. Mary followed him with their growing family, her life dictated by the needs of her husband’s career, constantly leaving friends behind and having to pick up others; yet little comforted by her husband’s arrogant and domineering attitude, which had little patience for anything but his own concerns. Fortunately, Mary was not entirely dependent on Edward for her happiness. She had a great gift for making friends. And, like any good Victorian wife, she had a brood of children. But Mary wasn’t any old wife; and her children weren’t any old children. On the contrary they were remarkable.

The Bensons were not ordinary. That’s one thing on which we can agree. Edward and Mary’s children included E.F. Benson, author of Mapp and Lucia; A.C. Benson, also an author though less popular nowadays; Hugh Benson, Anglican minister turned Catholic priest; and Maggie, a troubled and passionate amateur Egyptologist. The family brimmed with talent, and even as children the Bensons played frenzied word-games, wrote family newsletters and produced a stream of glittering and ruthless conversation. Their father, perceived as distant and forbidding, harboured a deep grief at having no deep connection with his children, but did little to repair it, being more given to preaching and monologuing than to kindness. The family was held together by Mary: mother; wife; and brilliant hostess, who despite all the fears of her youth found herself triumphing at glittering state banquets, while also being the kind of person who could draw out the shyest and most awkward guest around the table. Mary’s zest for life enlivened her children and her home, and made her a favourite in her social circle. But what did all these achievements actually bring to her?

Bolt takes us as deep as possible into the psyche of this remarkable woman. While Mary Benson was not typical by any stretch of the imagination – she knew Henry James and Gladstone, and was on intimate terms with the composer and suffragette Ethel Smyth – her experiences allow us to understand how wretchedly frustrating life could be for an intelligent woman who had no time to get to know herself. From her earliest childhood, she was a people-pleaser, exerting all her energy to make others happy and leaving little for herself. Throughout her life she balanced wonderful resilience with miserable dips, always struggling to maintain her belief in herself. (After her husband’s death, she was left floundering and horrified. Who was she, without this man to whom she had dedicated most of her conscious life?) Bolt describes her numerous very close and very passionate friendships with other women, though he admirably doesn’t try to explain anything with cod psychology, and doesn’t put modern labels on things which cannot be explained with modern terms. Mary’s crushes were numerous, and seem to have offered her the emotional satisfaction she completely failed to get from her husband. Her children, in turn, seem to have developed comparably intense friendships with members of their own sex and comparatively awkward relationships with the opposite sex (none of them ever married). This argumentative, opinionated, clever and arrogant family spiralled around Mary at its core, the only one who could smooth over disagreements and calm agitations – though she seems to have savoured every second of her family’s tempestuousness.

I can’t really describe why I found Mary so wonderful. You’ll have to read the book. It’s something in the way she comes across through the fragments of her diaries: so appealing, so open, so genuinely eager to try, and so painfully self-deprecating when she is once again let down by her impossible husband. The way in which Bolt tells the story is remarkably clever too, interleaving his narrative with extracts from diaries, letters, the books written by the prolific Benson children, or newspaper articles, all of which help to illuminate particular issues or to give another point of view on Mary’s life. It keeps things very lively, especially because the Bensons were of the generation where insults were given with a smile and even the most serious comment was made with a twist of wit. It is a deeply moving chronicle of one particular woman’s life – but there is something universal here, in that elements of Mary’s life will be familiar to us all (and perhaps especially to modern women). I can only imagine how long it must have taken to write a biography that is so sensitive and so well-founded in a completely solid understanding of the family in all its different aspects – and in its social sphere.

A joy to read, lively, playful, compassionate and compelling while also being admirably scholarly (with quotes and endnotes and all that). If you’re anything like me, it will leave you wondering which book by E.F. Benson to read first. Mine will probably be The Paying Guests, which is already on my Kindle. Fabulous.

Buy the book

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s