Renewing the Struggle

Penelope Fitzgerald

  • Father of the Bensons: The Life of Edward White Benson, Sometime Archbiship of Canterbury by Geoffrey Palmer and Noel Lloyd
    Lennard, 226 pp, £16.99, May 1998, ISBN 1 85291 138 7

It’s more of a difficulty than a help that so much has been written about the Bensons (Palmer and Lloyd have already done a biography of Fred Benson) and that the family should have written so much about themselves. The Archbishop kept diaries, and his wife Minnie wrote two – one a dutiful sightseer’s journal, kept at her husband’s suggestion on her honeymoon, another one 20 years later which told some, at least, of the story of her heart. (There is also a contemporary diary of Minnie’s for 1862-63.) Arthur Benson wrote four and a half million words of diaries, a book of family reminiscences, a family genealogy, lives of his father, his sister Maggie and his brother Hugh, and a memoir of his sister Nellie. Fred wrote Our Family Affairs, Mother, As we Were and (almost on his deathbed) Final Edition. He also kept a diary. The Bensons, ‘a rather close little corporation’, as Arthur called them, had a boundless talent for self-expression, self-justification and self-explanation. Yet they did not give themselves away.

Edward White Benson took charge of his five brothers and sisters at the age of 14, after the death of his father in 1842. This father had been an unsuccessful research chemist who had invested what money he had in a process for manufacturing white lead, but Edward, fearing the taint of ‘business’, refused to let his mother carry on with it. This was probably wise, since he already had a career in the Church in mind. ‘To a boy of tender home affections there is perhaps no pain more acute than can be caused by the discovery that his schoolfellows think slightingly, on the score of poverty or social distinctions, of those who are dearest to him in the world.’ This is from the biography of one of my grandfathers, later Bishop of Lincoln: it tactfully conceals the fact that in the 1860s his father kept a shop, and got hopelessly into debt. Edward Benson was spared this, but when his mother died in 1850 he was still working for his tripos at Cambridge, and since she had been living on an annuity the family faced the future on a little over a hundred pounds a year. He was rescued by the rich and childless bursar of his college, Francis Martin, who had heard of his troubles, and offered to support him until he could earn his own living. Martin lavished affection on the handsome, hard-pressed young scholar, but, the authors say, ‘the younger man did not fall in love with the older although he was willing to accept both the devotion and all the advantages that went with it.’ This seems hard. Affection can’t be regulated, and by 1852 Edward had in any case determined to make 11-year old Minnie, daughter of his widowed cousin Mrs Sidgwick, his future wife. Neither of his relationships, with the doting Mr Martin or the bewildered Minnie, were considered in any way strange in the 1850s.

No one who has written about the Bensons has been able to help making Minnie the heroine of the story. They married in 1859, when she was 18, and Edward 30. ‘An utter child,’ she wrote, ‘with no stay on God. Twelve years older, much stronger, much more passionate, and whom I didn’t really love. How evidently disappointed he was – trying to be rapturous – feeling so inexpressibly lonely and young, but how hard for him.’ Edward went on to be a master at Rugby, the first Master of Wellington College, Chancellor of Lincoln, the first Bishop of Truro, and in 1883, Archbishop of Canterbury. Minnie bore him six children, all of whom loved her dearly, and from her early days as a muddled extravagant housekeeper she grew into the successful doyenne of vast households. She liked meeting distinguished people and was certainly a great gainer from her marriage. Gladstone called her ‘the cleverest woman in Europe’. She was not clever, but she was generously responsive, and had a genius for following her instincts even when she hardly admitted them. She was, as became clear early on, a woman who loved women, and had agonisingly keen relationships, emotional and spiritual, with a series of female friends, some of them quite dull. It says a great deal for the Bensons that they made a go of an ill-assorted marriage, a brilliant, bizarre, self-centred family, and a career that reached the very summit.

Edward’s present biographers take a calm and judicious tone, but they call him a ‘natural bully’ and say that his children all emerged ‘scarred’, except his eldest son Martin, who died at 17, and Nellie, his eldest daughter, who was not afraid of her father. But all of them, even the amiable Fred, inherited his neurasthenia and spells of black depression, and Maggie, the younger daughter, became suicidally insane, recovering only for the last few days of her life. Hugh, the treasured last-born, looks in his childhood photographs like a changeling, palely staring. The three sons grew up homosexual and each of them, in their distinctive way, avoided taking responsible posts. Arthur, when the point came, did not want to be headmaster of Eton. Fred became a popular novelist and a resolutely genial bachelor. Hugh, having convened to Catholicism, lived as a priest without a parish.

Their father was integrity itself, a mighty force always heading the same way, excluding other opinions with an absolute certainty of their wrongness. His system was total: music, literature, travel, social behaviour, the careful folding of an umbrella, the management of gravy and potatoes on the plate, were all judged not from the aesthetic but the moral viewpoint. We know that he was a flogging headmaster, that to Ethel Smyth (a friend of Nellie’s) ‘the sight of his majestic form approaching the tea-table scattered my wits as an advancing elephant might scatter a flock of sheep,’ that conversation with him was not to be undertaken lightly and that Hugh – for example – felt like ‘a small china mug being filled at a waterfall’. He dearly liked his children to be near him and anxiously waited for their love. But circumstances were against him, because as schoolmaster, bishop and archbishop his family were always on show and must be urged and interrogated into perfection. Meanwhile the children themselves were longing, perhaps praying, for him to go away.

‘No one,’ Betty Askwith wrote in Two Families, ‘who has not experienced some taste of Victorian family life (for it survived in places well into the 20th century) can quite understand the extraordinary sense of living under the domination of one of those vital, strong-willed tyrants. If the tyranny be accompanied, as it frequently was, with vivid personality and wide-ranging intellectual interests there was an excitement about it which was incommunicable.’

Edward Benson was a great man, and Palmer and Lloyd give a sympathetic account of a formidable career. He loved to rule, although he believed the choice was not in his hands – ‘if calls exist,’ he wrote, ‘called I was, against my will’ – and they think he was at the very height of his powers in Truro, working as a creative pioneer, with a new cathedral to build, and on the way to revealing his own personal conception of the episcopacy and of religion itself. As Primate ‘his acquaintance with the practical affairs of Church and State was slight, and he knew he would quickly have to master all the administrative problems that would surround him. Everything poetical and romantic, the very essence of his view of life, would be left behind in Cornwall.’ But Edward of course went courageously into new duties and controversies – temperance, patronage, disestablishment, the guidance of missionary societies, ‘the wretchedness of the poorest classes, their ignorance and wildness and false friends’, reunion between the churches, ritual.

His Lincoln judgment of 1890 was given after months of hard work and anxiety. The Bishop of Lincoln was on trial on charges of ‘irregular and unlawful ritual’, and in particular of adopting the eastward position with his back to the congregation during the consecration, so that the people could not see what the priest was doing. Benson finally allowed the eastern position as optional, but insisted that the consecration of the elements itself must be before the people. ‘What he meant by this was illustrated at my consecration in St Paul’s Cathedral,’ wrote my grandfather (my other one, the Bishop of Manchester). ‘He thus deliberately differentiated the English Holy Communion from the Roman Mass. But this provision of his has been generally disregarded.’ Who cares? But in February 1889, crowds besieged Lambeth Palace on the first day of the trial, long before the doors opened at 11 o’clock, and the police had to be called in to keep order.

This grandfather, by the way, although he worked himself almost to death, allowed himself not to answer letters from obvious lunatics. But Benson, apparently, told his chaplain that they must all be answered, since they might have been of importance to the men who wrote them. He never retired, but died (in October 1896) on a visit to the Gladstones, at early Communion in the church at Hawarden. ‘He died like a soldier,’ said Gladstone. And he had lived like one, too, constantly at his post. But Palmer and Lloyd might, perhaps, have said more about his interest in the supernatural. At Cambridge, in the late 1840s, he and his friends had founded a Ghost Club. He is usually said to have lost interest in such matters or even to have come to disapprove of them, but in his notebooks for 12 January 1895, Henry James writes:

Note here the ghost story told me at Addington ... by the Archbishop of Canterbury ... the story of the young children (indefinite number and age) left to the care of servants in an old country house ... The servants, wicked and depraved, corrupt and deprave the children; the children are bad, full of evil, to a sinister degree. The servants die (the story vague about the way of it) and their apparitions, figures, return to haunt the house and children, to whom they seem to beckon, whom they invite and solicit, from across dangerous places, the deep ditch of a sunk fence, etc – so that the children may destroy themselves, lose themselves, by responding, by getting into their power. So long as the children are kept from them, they are not lost; but they try and try, these evil presences, to get hold of them. It is a question of the children “coming over to where they are”.

Edward Benson told this story in the year before his death. There are two principles within each soul – we have to choose, we have to renew the struggle every hour. He had preached this so long and so earnestly, but here it is in the form of a powerful tale of haunting. How can it be said, then, that he left everything poetical and romantic behind him in Cornwall?