Benson’s Pleasure

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’.

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