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’.

Warre, philistine, blindly conservative about the Eton curriculum, muddled but ‘great’, was what Benson always found himself up against: ‘the kind of man whom gods and men and columns agree to honour because he is an athlete and doesn’t give himself airs. I feel in silent antagonism to such people probably because I am rather afraid of them and don’t like being so.’ He preferred simple, sweet souls such as old Mrs Carr who looked like a ‘very benevolent and nervous ghost’, with a nice husband who said: ‘ “We daren’t leave Mrs Carr at home because she is so mischievous – so we have to take her with us.” But he got her in the drawing-room and took her hand gently when no one was looking.’ He had as keen an eye for a ceremony as Edward VII had for decorations. Anyone who has ever organised an event will recognise Benson: he is the man who never praises the arrangements, always finds fault with them, and is always right. He wanted to like the Great and the Good and responded over-eagerly to Balfour’s charm or to the ease of manners of his Eton pupils and their parents: but then one of them would say something foolish and out came the claws. The upper-middle-class complaint had afflicted him of wanting the upper classes to display aristocratic graces but to behave like the enlightened middle class.

Benson was, in fact, a willing prisoner of the Establishment and nothing would have induced him to leave the cell of Good Form. Literature had to fit his notions of life: these required no adjustment. He was ‘much disappointed in the Iliad; the men are feeble; the gods fatuous; their interference spoils the whole story.’ He doesn’t think Emma Bovary typical: not one woman in a million would abandon herself as she did and then kill herself. Dickens was a cad: ‘he has no inner dignity.’ Visiting the Cotswolds, he asked: ‘Beauty, beauty! What is it? Is it only a trick of old stones and lichens and sunlight ... One can’t explain it but it’s there.’ Since our generation has destroyed a good deal of that rural beauty, we should not sneer: but if one asks what the Modernist movement revolted against, one has only to read Benson. These ruminations which, like bubbles of gas, heave themselves to the surface of his diaries are not so much sad and vapid as testy and unfriendly to anything new or original.

There was, however, one type of beauty which he appreciated all too well. The bachelor don is today extinct. There may still be bachelors among the fellows of colleges, but the society in which they played such a distinctive role has vanished. The Royal Commission of 1882 had recommended that dons, like professors and heads of houses, should be free to marry, and amid lively gossip several barnacled bachelors were discovered to have had honourable intentions for years as they advanced rapidly to the altar. But not all that many. As the cloud of perpetual celibacy wafted away, the cloud of the agricultural depression blew in. Rents fell, college revenues declined, the stipends of fellows plummeted: by the end of the century they were paid barely a quarter of what they had received in the Seventies. To marry meant the expense of setting up an establishment with servants. Few of the younger fellows could afford to do so.

During the 19th century, dons were regarded as beings absorbed by the delights of university politics and the parochial business of their colleges, and remote from their undergraduates. But there had always been a few who took an interest in their pupils. In the first years of the century, Joseph Jowett of Trinity Hall (who arranged the setting from Handel which became famous as the chime of Big Ben) was noted ‘for the perennial freshness of his interest in young men’ – though he, like Simeon, was drawn to them by his evangelical faith in their souls as well as by their faces. His great-nephew made Balliol synonymous with tutorial concern for the young. There were dons who coached the boat, such as Leslie Stephen. There was a college such as King’s, for centuries an Etonian preserve, where the young fellows had known the undergraduates when they were both together in College at Eton and treated them therefore as equals; Bradshaw, a formidable scholar, was at home most evenings in his rooms to anyone who cared to call.

But towards the end of the century a new type of bachelor don emerged. They were singularly appreciative of masculine beauty and did not hesitate to seek out and make friends with good-looking undergraduates. They never laid a hand upon them and would have been indignant if anyone had made the familiar imputation – as William Cory and Oscar Browning were at Eton when their open interest in good looks was rewarded by the headmaster’s request that they resign from the staff. Benson published Cory’s poems and translations (‘They told me, Heraclitus’), which, together with A Shropshire Lad, became battle hymns of the republic. At King’s, Oscar Browning, Lowes Dickinson, Pigou, and, after the turn of the century, Sheppard and Adcock were ardent in pursuit of the ideal. So, if a trifle less flamboyantly, at Trinity were Winstanley, Gow, Broad, Lapsley and at a later date Dennis Robertson and the egregious Simpson. Secateurs in hand, they moved in summer from snipping off the buds in the gardens in the morning to contemplating the lads in the town bathing place in the afternoon.

This interest in good looks was hardly surprising. From the age of eight, the English upper middle class were incarcerated for 35 weeks in the year in boarding schools, and from there passed to the seminaries of Oxford and Cambridge. From the age of eight they were introduced to two mythologies – that of the Bible and that of Ancient Greece. Try as Jowett might to reconcile the two moralities, they were soon put asunder. There was Arnold coining the terms ‘Hebraism’ and ‘Hellenism’, and there, more insidiously, was Pater defining a delectable hedonism in which the Greek passion for beauty was treated as a direct challenge to Protestant puritanism. Unlike the generations who followed them, the Victorians were unashamed of passionate friendship between young men. The most famous of all Victorian poems, In Memoriam, bore witness to such a friendship; the Oxford Movement pullulated with passionate attachments; two of the most frank avowals, which Richard Jenkyns quotes in his masterly study of the Victorian conception of Ancient Greece, came from Disraeli. Of course there were in the Nineties the Uranians and the aesthetes, disciples of Cory or Symonds or Carpenter, who justified their inclinations by quoting the Phaedrus or the love of Socrates for Alcibiades. But you did not have to belong to the fraternity to accept passionate friendship between young men as normal.

In the first half of this century, hundreds of undergraduates owed an incalculable debt to the bachelor don. Married dons were often assiduous in entertaining the young, but their tea-parties could be excessively formal or exceedingly comical. No doubt it was a touching thought to ask undergraduates to play Happy Families in the bosom of the home: but what was one to do when the cards were not representations of those philistine figures, Mr Bun the Baker and his family, but on high educational grounds pictures of edible and inedible fungi, so that one found oneself gravely asking one’s beaming hostess for monstrous phallic objects, erect and apparently stripped for amorous combat? But entertainment was not what undergraduates then wanted from their mentors: it was the willingness to give unlimited time to discussing their problems, intellectual, social or sometimes sexual. The bachelor dons gave this time and helped the young to grow up intellectually. They introduced them to ideas and pursuits of which boys coming from public schools then at the height of athletic philistinism had hardly heard. At Oxford the reading parties bound for Sligger’s chalet, or the trip abroad with Bowra, or the gentle inquiries of Dundas, or the cackle of Dawkins’s gossip, were part of a unique educational experience which could be paralleled at Cambridge.

Arthur Benson will be known to posterity through his voluminous writings and his diaries reveal what biographers must consider to be the truth about his character. But so little emerges from them of the paradox, exaggeration and linguistic sophistication with which his friendship was expressed, as when he described a friend’s wine as revealing at the bottom of the decanter ‘not ordinary lees but insects clasped in some horrible embrace’. Without these gifts he could not have succeeded in capturing the loyalty of so many younger than himself. His own powers of devotion were not affected by his unsentimental assessments of the way his friends developed.

After the Second World War the golden age of the undergraduate passed, and was replaced for the next twenty years by the golden age of the don. Dons became busier, their responsibilities and interests diversified, they married younger, tutorials were more numerous, the teaching more professional, and the undergraduates were better-educated and came from schools which were no longer so philistine and whose sixth-form teachers were less conventional. Undergraduate life was less an age of liberation and more a matter of obtaining qualifications – formal and informal. The age of the bachelor don drew to a close.

In Benson’s time, it was at its beginning. ‘Where did you get that enchanting creature from?’ Lapsley asked him at the end of the dinner to which he had brought his latest discovery, Geoffrey Madan. Madan was a dazzlingly precocious Eton schoolboy with a natural deference to the old and without the trait of shyness which in some takes the form of brashness. At the age of 13 he was engaging in conversation Blanche Cornish, wife of the Vice-Provost, about the bibliographer Ingram Bywater. What could be more fitting than that his Notebooks should be edited by two fastidious scholars, John Gere, until lately the Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum, and John Sparrow – Sparrow who at the age of 15 met Geoffrey Keynes on the steps of St Paul’s to inspect Donne’s effigy in his shroud and obtain from him the bibliographical material necessary to enable him to complete the edition of Donne’s Devotions which he published as a schoolboy? Madan came out of the war more rather than less fastidious, less rather than more inclined to suffer fools and progressives gladly. He could not endure returning to undergraduate life and left Balliol without taking a degree. At the age of 30 he retired from the City and lived comfortably on his income until his death just after the Second World War, savouring claret, collecting books and silver and belonging to an inordinate number of clubs where he recorded the sayings of friends who ranged from Dean Inge to Cyril Asquith.

All his life he dipped into French memoirs, biographies, obituaries and the Law Reports, gleaning rare and curious specimens of human idiosyncrasy. The Notebooks are filled with the trouvailles of his reading and the aphorisms and quaint sayings of his friends – as well as his own. They are as good examples as one can find of the verbal felicities which schoolboys imitated in the hope of beguiling the examiners of the Brackenbury and the other top scholarships in the humanities at the ancient universities. That style, which G.M. Young believed to have been minted by the undergraduates of the Seventies, of which one can hear echoes in the conversation of Dickens’s Eugene Wrayburn and which appears fully fledged in the stories of John Oliver Hobbes, has now vanished as effectively as the bachelor don and was replaced in the Fifties by the clankings of the style of the mind-at-work. But in Madan’s day the cardinal sin, so one was taught, was to be dull: dullness was synonymous with lack of intellectual fire, flair, imagination; and if truth was always to be dressed in widow’s weeds who could blame men for being seduced by rhetoric or journalism? Such was the gospel: but as those who follow gospels discover, the reality falls somewhat short of the ideal.

Reading the Notebooks, one imagines different expressions passing across Madan’s face. An eyebrow quivers and then lifts at some public notices: ‘Wash everything white – the safe, easy way,’ ‘Stand on the Right and let others pass,’ ‘No road beyond the cemetery.’ Oddities induce a faint twitch – that George III never saw the sea until he was 34, that Disraeli was baptised by a Mr Thimbleby, that the sexton who buried Madan’s own father was called Ignatius Dark. Sometimes you see him silently shaking with laughter – the Bishop of Gloucester begins an article on Christian doctrine: ‘The Apostle’s Creed need not detain us long.’ Among his friends Benson and G.M. Young top the list; Churchill displays such extraordinary power that in this feline company he is a little out of place. Surprisingly, Jowett scores again and again more effectively than Edwardian smarties such as the Asquiths (H.H., Margot, Cyril, Violet). The best politician is Disraeli: ‘A maiden speech so inaudible that it was doubted whether after all the young orator really did lose his virginity,’ the memory of early friendships ‘soften the heart and even affect the nervous systems of those who have no heart’. W.E. Forster, the brother-in-law Matthew Arnold so much disliked, unexpectedly shines: ‘What is the use of lying when truth well distributed serves the same purpose?’ Mandell Creighton always displays massive equanimity: ‘Horse sense is something a horse has which prevents him betting on people.’ Chesterton’s paradoxes strike one in this company as too didactic and hardworking. There is very little Guedalla: too vulgar for Madan? No one today would expect to find in a Times leader anything quotable, but in the heyday of Bernard Darwin’s fourth leaders, its staff were expected to turn phrases like fishcakes: ‘He liked what he considered to be the best conversation including his own,’ ‘The saying that there are two kinds of pedestrian, the quick and the dead, is well matured; but there are those who choose to be maimed rather than halt.’ One omission is staggering. Madan does not include a single quotation from the greatest of English aphorists, who alone can hold a candle to La Rochefoucauld: George Savile, Marquess of Halifax.

Madan contributes his own epigrams. ‘There is a danger of mannerism even in simplicity,’ ‘Wit is a new and apt relation of ideas; humour of images.’ He was not always successful. ‘Small whisky and soda, like Maundy money’ tries too hard. ‘Efficiency is not often the sister, and never the parent, of humour’ creaks and is a platitude. But ‘there are people who should be careful to amortise the charm of their youth’ is the genuine article; and ‘Alive, in the sense that he can’t be legally buried’ is an admirable description of an excruciating bore.

The exquisite flush on these peaches was acquired in the hothouse of the English sixth form between 1880 and 1950 when proficiency in the Classics was the highest pinnacle of schoolboy achievement. It consisted in being able to translate unseen passages both out of and into Latin and Greek, to imitate the prose style of ancient authors, and to compose Latin and Greek verse. The verbal dexterity required, the accuracy of mind, and the response to words, was prodigious; and this training continued for the first two years in the ancient universities in Mods and Part I of the Classical Tripos, which were almost undefiled by history or philosophy. The concours for the Ecole Normale made far wider and more exacting demands on a French boy, and at the doctoral stage German students entered on a far severer philological training than our own: but for sheer linguistic and grammatical ability the English élite from schools such as Winchester and Shrewsbury were in a class by themselves. The power to manipulate language was everything. Madan had the distinction of being ‘sent up for play’: i.e. the school got a holiday because he had written a description of Eton in flawless Herodotean Greek.

All education became a game in which you scored through exams and, as he described in Enemies of Promise, this was a game at which Cyril Connolly excelled. At the age of 12 a boy would be expected to recognise zeugma, hendiadys, litotes, oxymoron and hysteron-proteron, and to distinguish iambics from alcaics and alexandrines from hexameters or hendecasyllabic couplets. It was the age of the crossword, the acrostic, the palindrome, the anagram, the clerihew, the parody, the general knowledge paper and the New Statesman Competition. Speech days resounded with defences of the Classical curriculum, and businessmen used to declare that in filling a position a double first in Classics would be their first choice (while usually appointing their sons or those of their friends). But the Classical curriculum had more exalted achievements. Cryptographers deciphered and amended corrupt texts with all the skill of Housman; and the succinct and killing Whitehall minute was perfected. During the war, the British gained points many times in negotiations with the Americans because they drafted documents more lucidly. Keynes used to contend that American officialese was written in Cherokee, a language which had survived the Colonial period and which, to placate Red Indian susceptibilities, had been adopted as the language of government. If, however, one wants to see the flower of this culture in perfection, the writings to read are those of Ronald Knox. None of his admirers would ever have called him an intellectual. Nor would that description have fitted Monty James. Nor A.C. Benson. But Benson understood what far more brilliant performers in the Classical grind failed to understand – that syntactical knowledge and command of prosody were not enough. He found Warre’s contempt for anything in the curriculum which was not geared to grammar deplorable. He wanted boys to read history and French and to contemplate the beauties of the literature they read and the society from which it sprang. Most dangerous. For once that occurred, someone in the end was bound to ask why the poetry was beautiful, and, if the word ‘beautiful’ had any precise meaning, what the poem itself meant.

Benson’s yearnings were realised, because more colleges began to offer scholarships in subjects other than Classics in the humanities; and since the Oxbridge scholarship exams dictated the pattern of sixth-form studies throughout England and Wales, the schools gradually began to adjust. Undergraduates in their first year began to study subjects which demanded conceptual analysis, an ability to handle ideas and to understand the methods of the social sciences. Had Madan studied history at Balliol at the time of the First World War, he would have used a terminology which would have been recognisable to Plutarch. Today the clever 12-year-old is not only unlikely to be able to give examples of synecdoche and aposiopesis, he will not even know the battles in the Wars of the Roses: but the effect of the decline in population upon land tenure and the wool trade, or of the rise in population on the industrial revolution, will haunt his waking hours and may even be at his finger tips. Fogeys wail that the young can no longer write clear, let alone epigrammatic, English, and that they regurgitate undigested and uncomprehended jargon. The young, on the other hand, are less interested in polishing pewter than in acquiring the dexterity to handle mathematical models or conduct statistical analyses within areas of knowledge which in the remembered past would hardly have been thought susceptible to such treatment. The training to achieve verbal felicity which Geoffrey Madan experienced has fallen into disfavour. The decline of Britain is now attributed to it. Did not some who sat on Lord Fulton’s inquiry into the Civil Service conclude that no one who had taken his first degree in Classics should be allowed to enter?

No doubt Arthur Benson and Geoffrey Madan are too like a couple on a hilltop, spyglass in hand, observing with refined disdain what passed before their eyes in the world below, and never asking themselves whether they could see to judge at that distance. But they had virtues which are not all that common. Each knew precisely what he could do; neither overestimated his own importance; and both had the gift of keeping their intimate friends.