Noël Annan recalls the age of the bachelor don
- Edwardian Excursions: From the Diaries of A.C. Benson 1898-1904 edited by A.C. Benson and David Newsome
Murray, 200 pp, £12.50, April 1981, ISBN 0 7195 3769 X
- Geoffrey Madan’s Notebooks edited by John Gere and John Sparrow
Oxford, 144 pp, £7.95, October 1981, ISBN 0 19 215870 8
Benson resembles a large tabby which stalks round the house switching its tail, delicately sniffing this, softly circling round that; every so often a paw is extended to pluck gently at a human being who has crossed its path – as if to explore what kind of a creature this intruder might be and whether he likes cats. Then suddenly the claws show, the paw strikes and the claws retract leaving beads of blood on the skin. As the years passed and the cat got even larger and more contented, the claws were bared less often. These extracts, chosen by Benson’s splendid biographer, David Newsome, from among the four million words of the diaries Benson left as his memorial, are taken from a period in Benson’s life when he was uncertain and hypersensitive, so the claws are out. It was at the turn of the century, and Benson, having been commissioned to edit the Queen’s letters, decided to quit teaching at Eton and move to Cambridge. King’s showed no desire to elect him a fellow – and still less, as he hoped when Austen-Leigh died, to elect him Provost. When his old friend Stuart Donaldson used his influence as Master of Magdalene to offer Benson a fellowship there, kind friends took as much of the pleasure out of it as they could by congratulating him on the skill with which Donaldson had done a classic job. It was a time when he slept badly, was nervous and irritable. His self-confidence was shaken.
Should he try to make a mark in London literary circles? No, he detested the log-rolling and backbiting. Should he become more of a courtier and build on his ode sung at the Coronation of Edward VII (or rather, as he observed, not sung, by a choir which gawped at the King in the procession as he left the Abbey)? No, he found the boredom of Court life unendurable, and after he had stood night after night after dinner talking in the smoking-room his feet were killing him. No sooner had he left Eton than the headmastership fell vacant – but no, although Eton virtually asked him to take it, it did not quite do so, and Benson seized on the excuse that opinion was not unanimously in his favour and therefore refused. His contemporaries liked him, but, as he sensed, thought him too fastidious and indecisive to run anything, and he had got to the age when he badly wanted a post – an acknowledgment that he was a somebody.
So all he could do was to observe and write. He was a shrewd observer, and this book is a marvellous read. His account of Gladstone’s funeral, or of the Coronation, rivals Horace Walpole’s description of the obsequies of George II. ‘Chamberlain was very dapper indeed, George Curzon looks well again, Ritchie looks the wickedest of the human race ... as if writhing under a load of disreputable guilt ... I forgot to mention the sight of Kay-Shuttle-worth, pale, with the tears running down his face, consumed with curiosity to see who was there, peering about, then recollecting himself and renewing his decent grief.’ At the Coronation he notes the judges like red caterpillars, a little boy playing with his sword until his mother takes it away, urchins playing scratch cricket in a side-street as the crowd disperses; he saves his most withering asides for Archbishop Temple, so old that he can’t rise after doing homage, and, unable to locate the King during Communion, nearly dropping the bread on the floor.
Benson could hit off a character by describing a feature: ‘a pleasant, mincing lip’, or ‘the mouth of a roach’. Or he depicted a little drama: ‘an invalid, pale, worn, sunken over the temples driving with his mother, she looking so tenderly at him, said something as we passed. He frowned and shook his head. He looked afraid.’ He knew his upper-class types, and his dons and schoolmasters. As the son of an archbishop he knew the clergy all too well. On Dean Farrar: ‘I have no doubt he thinks of himself as the ascetic dean, quivering with indignation at the immoralities of the age ... moving to his place in the Cathedral with all the woes of the world written on his brow ... yet he is worldly, insincere, hollow, egotistical to others.’ On a curate: ‘He called all the ladies Mrs Donaldson with impartial politeness, hoping to be right for once, I suppose.’ His description of Housman’s cap – ‘like a damp bun or pad of waste which engine drivers clean their hands on’ – conjures up at once an image of that enigmatic figure. He is marvellously malicious about Warre the headmaster of Eton, visited at his country house on holiday looking quite the squarson. When Benson left he ‘insisted on giving me a pair of gaiters, like Elijah ... and went back to his sermon, which he showed me and which did not promise well’.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 4 No. 6 · 1 April 1982
SIR: Noel Annan writes learnedly and very entertainingly (LRB, 4 March) about the dawn of homosexuality, Platonic and otherwise, in the ancient universities of England at the end of the 19th century. But the sun also rose in other parts of the world, and he might have been a little more expansive in discussing the climate of opinion in which the bachelor don flourished. How far were their practices, or attitudes, indigenous? What about the Euranians?
Noël Annan writes: It wasn’t odd that homosexuality became a cult at the end of the 19th century in England. Proust’s Paris, Freud’s Vienna, Wilhelm II’s Berlin, where the Kaiser’s friend, von Eulenberg, was forced out of public life, were the contemporaries of Wilde’s London. But what was odd about homosexuality in England was the emergence of a cult which stood almost wholly apart from the cosmopolitan fraternity. Its adherents took pride in sublimating their desires and in preaching rather than practising. The cult was institutionalised in the upper classes to a degree unknown in any other country. From the age of eight, English boys of those classes were, as I explained, incarcerated for two-thirds of the year in almost entirely male establishments until they left the seminaries of Oxford and Cambridge colleges at the age of 21. The school holidays hardly gave them time to understand what girls were like: so that young Englishmen abroad were all too well known for their gaucherie. Unlike the generations which followed them, the Victorians were unashamed of passionate friendship between young men. Contemporaries of the Tractarians noted the passion which Hurrell Froude inspired, or the devotion St John felt for Newman, or the capers which Frederick Faber cut with the boy who became Lord Chancellor and the Earl of Selborne. One of the founders of muscular Christianity, Charles King-sley, revelled in finding, as he put it, a successor to ‘the old tales of David and Jonathan…Shakespeare and his nameless friend’. The greatest of all public school novels does not blench at describing how strong is the affection between Tom Brown and little Arthur; and Hughes’s frankness may have encouraged Farrar to be even more explicit in Eric. Even after the scandals of the Eighties involving first Lord Henry, and then Lord Arthur, Somerset, and Wilde’s more celebrated downfall in the Nineties, it was perfectly possible for upright, and uptight, men to be amazed at innuendos or denunciations of passionate male friendships. No one doubted that the most famous friendship of all, immortalised in In Memoriam, was Platonic.
‘Platonic’ is the keyword. The boys of the upper classes studied for nine-tenths of their time the Biblical tales and the myths of Greece and Rome. Could the two be reconciled? In a sense, men had been trying to do this ever since Boethius, and the Victorian schoolmaster and don carried on the struggle. It is not an accident that Jowett is best remembered as a scholar for his translations of Plato’s Dialogues. But for every attempt to join the two together in holy matrimony there was another sage zealously putting them asunder. There was Arnold contrasting Hebraism with Hellenism; there were J. A. Symonds and Lowes Dickinson, whose Greek View of Life had reached its 18th edition by the Second World War. The third chapter of that book contained a sub-section on ‘Appreciation of Physical Qualities’, and argued that the Greek ideal of friendship envisaged the older man educating the younger through friendship. Such friendship was an incentive to the noble life. Above all, there was Pater’s essay on Winckelmann defining a delectable hedonism in which the Greek passion for beauty directly challenged Protestant puritanism. Ruskin tilled the soil; Pater sowed the seed; and Wilde reaped the whirlwind.
Odder still was the openness of the cult of paedophilia depicted by the Uranian poets. Timothy D’Arch Smith, through most ingenious research, established how Wilde got from John Gambril Nicholson the play upon words for that singular work of genius, The Importance of Being Ernest. He also constructed a long chain of relationships between paedophiles such as Kains Jackson, Charles Sayle, H. G. Dakyns, Howard Sturgis and Horatio Brown. The poetry of these paedophiles is atrocious. They managed to be at once gloomy and facetious. They lament how fleeting boyhood is and how frustrated therefore their passion. They declare they are celebrating a higher order of love. They often use legend and myth from the Classics and the Bible, such as the martyrdom of boys, to evade criticism yet titillate the initiated, rather as some Baroque painters depicted the naked St Sebastian in ecstasy, impaled by arrows. But grotesquely comical as the verse of the Rev. E. E. Bradford or J. L. Barford (‘Philebus’) might be, what they wrote in these pre-Freudian days was regarded as scarcely worthy of comment. (In some ways the Victorians were less prudish than we are: today anyone who followed the normal Victorian practice of swimming naked in a river would be liable to arrest for indecent exposure.) No reviewer seemed startled. ‘Of the love of man for man and occasionally of man for boy, Mr Bradford is a steadfast, and occasionally an eloquent, advocate.’ Or more succinct: ‘Cheery and wholesome’ – the Times. If such overt yearnings were thought not to be scandalous, it was natural that the bachelor don’s fancies were regarded as a pleasing and welcome interest in the young. You did not have to belong to the fraternity to accept loving friendship between old and young as normal.