Friday, 17 June 2011


I found E. F. Benson's Dodo when it was deaccessioned from my local library. I think I was about 14 or 15. I really liked it and for a while it was one of my favourite books. It's the sort of thing that people are often sneery about now, but it was a big sensation in its day, not least because it was supposedly based on Margot Tennant, soon to be Lady Asquith. E. F. Benson went on to write the Mapp and Lucia books, which everyone loves, but also great underrated novels like Secret Lives and Paying Guests. Imagine if Jane Austen went really bitchy, and stopped bothering to write about people under the age of about 35 -- like if Pride and Prejudice were about Mrs Bennett and Mrs Lucas (Charlotte's mother) instead of about Elizabeth and Jane. I would put E. F. Benson only a little way behind P. G. Wodehouse in the great comic novelists stakes.

I've just finished reading a very good book about E. F.'s mother, As Good as God, as Clever as the Devil: the Impossible Life of Mary Benson by Rodney Bolt. She had to deal with her many precocious offspring (they all wrote books constantly) at the same time as ministering to their father, Archbishop of Canterbury E. W. Benson, who creepily proposed to her when she was just twelve years old. She seems to have been quite a remarkable person. Let's admit that it wasn't so difficult in those days to be a lesbian, because no one batted an eyelid at two women sharing a bed, but nonetheless well done Mrs Benson, who juggled lots of different lives, none of them really her own, without falling into despair more than occasionally. Here is the first sentence:
On Sunday, 11 October 1896, Edward White Benson, Archbishop of Canterbury, insufferable to the end, died on his knees in church saying the Confession, ending a life of relentless success.
One of the interesting things about this book is that E. W., who was a sort of pious vampire, seems to have been tolerant of his wife's need for close female companionship, understanding that it allowed her to carry out her difficult role as Mrs Archbishop. (Maybe their friend Queen Victoria did know what lesbianism was, but didn't legislate against it having seen its positive side.) Mary Benson was said by Gladstone to be the cleverest woman in Europe, and held her own as a society hostess at Lambeth Palace. Her children were not always easier than her husband. There's a brilliant scene where Mrs Benson gets her three literary sons to parody each others' styles, which each of the parodees in turn fails to find very amusing. But I also like the way that this author intersperses quotations from contemporary writings by the Bensons and others into his text. This quotation from Ruskin's divorce proceedings, quoted in the chapter where young Mary Benson first tries to adapt to the duties of being Edward's wife, is fantastic:
I married her, thinking her so young and affectionate that I might influence her as I chose, and make of her just such a wife as I wanted. It appeared that she married me thinking she could make of me just the sort of husband she wanted. I was grieved and disappointed in finding I could not change her, and she was humiliated and irritated at finding she could not change me. . . I soon began to observe characteristics which gave me so much grief and anxiety that I wrote to her father saying that there was slight nervous affection of the brain. [The principal cause of which] was her always thinking that I ought to attend her, instead of herself attending me.
Poor patient Ruskin, "grieved and disappointed", while his young wife is "humiliated and irritated"! And clearly teetering on the brink of insanity in expecting him to look after her.

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