Oh, you clever people!
- A Very Queer Family Indeed: Sex, Religion and the Bensons in Victorian Britain by Simon Goldhill
Chicago, 337 pp, £24.50, October 2016, ISBN 978 0 226 39378 0
Arthur Benson never stopped dreaming about his father. Edward White Benson, Archbishop of Canterbury, dropped dead saying the Confession in 1896 – he sank onto his prayer cushion and didn’t get up again – but nearly twenty years later his son found him crouched in the cupboard under the stairs, dressed in his purple cassock and playing with some toys: ‘Papa … giggled; then he said: “But now that you have found me out, you must run down here as often as you can, and we will have a good game at something – You don’t know what fun it is.”’ Finding his father out was something Arthur spent a lifetime failing to do. The dream he recorded in his diary in 1916 at the age of 53 is poignant because it made a travesty of his most deep-seated anxieties, as if in that moment – but only in that moment – it could neutralise their sting. It’s nice to think of your father hiding himself away because he was playing with toys, and not because he was a manic depressive, as Arthur proved to be. Nicer to be invited to join a conspiracy than to discover only after his death that your father had treasured your childish scribblings, that he’d added ‘tender little inscriptions and dates’, although he’d never ‘given … the impression that he cared’, and then to ask yourself how children can ‘understand that they are loved, unless it is shown to them plainly’. And preferable to imagine your dead father as a friendly figment from the past than as a restless spirit making trouble for the living. For the late archbishop didn’t appear only in his son’s dreams, but seemed sometimes to peer out from behind the eyes of his daughter Maggie, into whom had passed ‘something of his severity and of those moods of dark depression which sometimes obsessed him’. As a writer of ghost stories who in adulthood left relics of himself in secret places to prevent erasure by death, Arthur must have wondered whether his father too might be tethered to the earth by something he had buried in the ground when he was just a little boy: a piece of paper on which was written ‘I hate papa.’
In life, Edward White Benson was ferociously productive, attentive, didactic; one of those Victorians who couldn’t bear to misuse a second of God-given time. In almost all his photographs – especially the informal ones – he has a finger thrust between the pages of a book, and you feel certain not only that he was really reading it, but that he was impatient to get back to his page. He would read as he walked; every morning he read the Greek New Testament while he shaved. There was purpose in his every step. ‘He would have liked to be comfortable,’ Arthur wrote, ‘but didn’t know how … his fear of waste was so strong.’ In this Edward was an authentic product of King Edward’s School in Birmingham, and of the headmastership of James Prince Lee, a future bishop of Manchester and a disciple of Thomas Arnold, whose educational ideals – the strenuous pursuit of knowledge and the cultivation of elevated tone and Christian character – Edward was to perpetuate in his own career. When he was still a student at Cambridge in 1850 his mother and eldest sister died, leaving him responsible for his five surviving siblings – his father had died when he was 14. An uncle, a Unitarian, offered to take in a younger brother, making assurances that he would not seek to interfere in the boy’s spiritual education. Edward, himself only 21, refused to risk even the slightest possibility of contamination: ‘My religious principle is not a thing of tender feelings, warm comforting notions, unproved prejudices,’ he warned, ‘but it consists of full and perfect conviction, absolute belief, rules to regulate my life, and tests by which I believe myself bound to try every question the greatest and the least … Bigot, thus far, a conscientious Christian must be.’
He was to be rewarded for his conscientious bigotry with years of unbroken success. After carrying off the chancellor’s gold medal at Cambridge, he became a master at Rugby, won a fellowship at Trinity, and was ordained. He married his cousin Mary ‘Minnie’ Sedgwick, and set to work fathering six children: Martin, Arthur, Nelly, Maggie, Fred and Hugh. Appointed the first headmaster of the newly established Wellington College, he made a reputation as a personality in the Arnoldian mould (his sermons were collected and published under the title Boy Life, Its Trials, Its Strength, Its Fullness) and he shook hands with every pupil after evening prayers. Next came the chancellorship of Lincoln cathedral in 1872, and five years later an invitation to become the first bishop of Truro. Six years after that, when he was still supervising the construction of the first new cathedral in England since the Reformation, he was appointed archbishop of Canterbury. In every new role he was diligent and energetic, barrelling along on six hours of sleep a night, but also hard, uncompromising, coercive in his kindness – he was a noted flogger as a schoolmaster – and subject to periods of prostration and black depression.
For his family, bobbing bravely in his wake, Edward White Benson was an amazing figure: ‘we were proud of my father,’ Arthur remembered, ‘proud of being his children, profoundly convinced that he could do everything better than anyone else.’ But he was also terrifying, forever scrutinising and criticising, determined that all his children meet his standards of behaviour and intellectual development; determined, most of all, that they make proper use of their time, accountable to God. In adulthood his three sons each testified to the effect he had on them. Arthur was ‘paralysed … by having my meagre conversational stock criticised, and by being required to produce from my lessons or my reading something of more permanent interest’. Edward’s zeal for truth – the truth he wanted to hear – only increased the agitation; Arthur recalled ‘constant vigilance and self-repression, for fear Papa should be vexed. I never said what I thought, but what I thought he would like me to say.’ Fred regretted that ‘with him we were … decorous to the verge of woodenness. We had washed hands and neat hair and low voices … We sat on the edge of our chairs, and were glad to be gone.’ Hugh remembered his father’s ‘despairing impatience’, ‘oppressive disappointment when we were listless or stupid’, and ‘the appalling atmosphere of [his] … indignation’. His final verdict would be funny if it weren’t so sad: ‘My father’s influence upon me was always so great that I despair of describing it. I do not think that he understood me very well; but his personality was so dominant and insistent that the lack of this understanding made very little difference.’ He had felt, he said, like ‘a small china mug being filled at a waterfall’.
Complicating things was the fact that the Benson children could dimly perceive that their father was intensely concerned with their wellbeing and that he was capable of great gentleness – every night he would fluff up the dog’s blanket before bed. They also had before them the example of Martin, the eldest, in whom Edward had seen his best hopes answered. Unlike his younger siblings, Martin had managed to accommodate the waterfall, responding wholeheartedly to his father’s piety and excelling in his academic work: ‘he is a dear good most loving hardworking boy,’ Edward recorded in 1876. (Arthur, two years younger, remembered his brother as very like his father: ‘he was very contemptuous … of my want of knowledge, feeble memory, flaccid interest; and at times, as if in a mood of regret, intensely affectionate, generally in absence.’) All that promise went unfulfilled: Martin died of meningitis in 1878 aged 17, with Edward and Minnie at his bedside. ‘I never, his mother never, no master ever found any falsehood in his life,’ Edward stated in a private memorial written soon afterwards. The loss staggered him: ‘It has changed all my views of God’s work as it is to be done both in this world and the next.’ Eleven years later he wrote that it ‘remains an inexplicable grief – every day – to see into it will be worth dying.’ The surviving children were brought up in the shadow of this grief: ‘My mother never faltered. She spoke and encouraged us to speak freely of Martin,’ Arthur remembered, ‘but as we thus talked, I have seen my father rise and leave the room suddenly.’ They knew that Martin had set an impossible standard, especially now that he was safe from further scrutiny. Their fate was to live with a man deprived of much of his joy, his black moods and sudden withdrawals increasing in frequency and duration as his responsibilities continued to mount. For Edward even bliss in the afterlife no longer seemed a sure bet. Pacing the room, he explained to his wife: ‘I am, so to speak, at ease with Him here on earth. I feel as if I might wake up there and not be satisfied with it.’
Sadly we will never know whether Edward White Benson warmed to heaven. We do, however, know how Minnie felt when her husband died: ‘exactly like a string of beads … worn, carried about till they seemed as if they had some real coherence’, then suddenly cut, so that ‘they rolled to all the corners of the room.’ ‘Good Lord,’ she prayed, ‘give me a personality.’ One of the most extraordinary things about the Benson family is that Minnie too had seen Edward White Benson through a child’s eyes: they had become engaged when she was 12. After his death she began to reassess their relationship, peeling back the skin from a marriage that had faced the world for 37 years and beginning at the point her handsome, strong-willed 23-year-old cousin first showed an interest in her. ‘I realise he chose me deliberately,’ she wrote in her retrospective diary, ‘as a child who was very fond of him and whom he might educate – he even wanted to preserve himself from errant fallings-in-love.’ She may have read her mother Mary’s letters from the time, in which she protested to Edward that she could not ‘for a moment agree … in thinking that any such communication should be made to dear Minnie so early. I really think it would be taking an unfair advantage of a mere child, and not allowing her to be a free agent,’ knowing that Mary was eventually bent to God’s plan. And, perhaps for the first time, Minnie took pity on her child self. In fragmented entries she recalled ‘Ed. coming. Fear of him. Love? Always a strain.’ It was ‘a terrible time. Dreary, helpless. From the first the most fatal thing was the strain on my conscience of the position toward Edward and mama, He had[n’t] been allowed to tell me, and was not allowed to speak. but he did. and more. Hand. Embrace. & all weight on my conscience.’
So began Minnie’s life ‘with a loving, but exacting, a believing and therefore expecting spirit 12 years older, much stronger, more passionate, and whom I didn’t really love.’ After a long engagement only made public on Minnie’s 17th birthday in 1858, during which Edward supervised his young cousin’s education and demanded she come up to scratch as a correspondent (‘Minnie is a most affectionate creature but from her letters one could scarcely think so’), they were married in 1859. The wedding night and honeymoon, according to Minnie, writing all those years later, were
misery – knowing that I felt nothing of what I knew people ought to feel. Knowing how disappointing this must be to Ed, how evidently disappointed he was – trying to be rapturous – not succeeding feeling so inexpressibly lonely. & young. But how hard for him! Full of all religious and emotional thoughts and yearnings. They had never woken in me – I have learnt what love is through friendship. How I cried in Paris! Poor lonely child, having lived in the present only – living in the present still – The nights! – I cant think how I lived. I cdnt have thought so much about myself as I do now. We prayed, but didn’t come near to God. I mean I didn’t.
The ‘friendship’ Minnie referred to was with women. By the time she was married she was already aware of her tendency, and her relationship with Edward was always counterpoised by other passionate bonds: somewhere on the scene was always an Ellen, Annie, Charlotte, Ethel, Susan, Lucy. Most of these friendships began with what Minnie called the ‘My God, what a woman!’ stage, progressing from awe-struck enthusiasm to endless letter-writing, pet-names and hand-kissing. It’s doubtful they went much further, though it is clear that Minnie fought against her instincts, prompting much anguished confession: ‘gradually the bonds drew round – fascination possessed me … then – the other fault – Thou knowest – I will not even write it – but, O God, forgive – how near we were to that!’ The root of the strain in her and Edward’s marriage, however, was temperamental. Minnie was playful and good-humoured, warm and empathetic, prone to writing in Dickensian patter – ‘Lor!, I dew’ – and the possessor of a burbling laugh that sounded like ‘cool lemonade being poured out of the bottle’. Arthur put his finger on the distinction between his parents: ‘Mamma was an instinctive pagan – hence her charm … Papa was an instinctive Puritan.’ Arthur expanded:
Papa was a very difficult person to deal with, because he was terrifying, and remembered things, not very accurately, because he remembered the points which were in his favour and forgot the points which were not. Mamma forgot everything, or if she remembered, forgot the sense of resentment. Then he wanted … obedience and enthusiasm. Mamma never claimed either exactly, but got both. Papa cared intensely about details, and details never interested Mamma.
When Minnie died in 1918, Arthur and Fred, by now the only surviving Bensons, read for the first time the diary she had written after their father’s death. ‘We wondered if they had ever really loved. Certainly I never remember their seeking each other’s company or wanting to be alone together,’ Arthur noted in his diary.
She always seemed so secure, so ready to talk, so willing to do anything for anyone, that it is very pathetic to think what was going on behind. In fact, the whole record seems a tragic one … Her diary is very painful to me because it shows how little in common they had and how cruel he was.
It may, as Penelope Fitzgerald once suggested in this paper, say ‘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’ (LRB, 18 June 1998). But it is not surprising that when Edward White Benson was so suddenly removed from the world Minnie felt, along with her despairing sense of the emptiness on the horizon, a shy sense of opportunity: ‘I have never had time to be responsible for my own life. In a way, I feel more grown up now than I have ever felt before. Strange, when for the first time in 55 years I am answerable to nobody. No one has a right to question my actions, and I can do what I like. What a tremendous choice!’ The first thing that happened was that her friend Lucy Tait moved into her bed, and stayed there for the next 22 years.
One day in 1911, walking with Gertrude Bell, Arthur Benson mentioned to her that the composer Ethel Smyth had once said his mother was ‘as good as God and as clever as the Devil’. She laughed ‘at the profanity of it’, replying: ‘That’s one comfort about all of you – you are not in the least like the children of archbishops.’ I’m not sure what characteristics are generally shared by the children of archbishops but I’m quite certain that the Bensons were unlike the children of anyone else. They were all prone to depression, to a greater or lesser extent, possessing what Arthur referred to as a ‘diseased self-consciousness’. They all – probably in reaction to their father – approached the world at an angle, preferring ‘a sort of casuistical, speculative, delicate, spectatorial criticism of life’. All of them wrote books. None married or had children, and they all preferred their own sex. Nelly, by all accounts the most cheerful of the family, and the only one not afraid of her father, wrote a children’s history of Russia and died young of diphtheria, probably contracted visiting the homes of the poor. Maggie was ‘remorselessly’ intelligent, and performed brilliantly at Oxford: her tutor failed to discover the anticipated ‘feminine difference’. She wrote books with titles like Capital, Labour, Trade and the Outlook and The Venture of Rational Faith, and was the first woman to excavate in Egypt, co-writing, with her companion Nettie Gourlay, The Temple of Mut in Asher. She first began to show signs of possession by Edward’s demanding, critical spirit while assisting Arthur with the production of their father’s biography. Minnie, so recently liberated, was horrified: ‘There is in her displeasure, as there was in her father’s, a power of bringing one into bondage … I catch myself acting as of old, in a sort of dull slave spirit.’ Eventually Maggie tipped into mania, attempting suicide and having to be forcibly restrained. She spent eight years in nursing homes before dying at the age of fifty in 1916, occasionally recovering her sense of self and writing pitiful accounts of her delusions. Of some stationery she’d been given, she wrote: ‘Every piece I used might bring disaster – a chimney might fall down at the nursing-home – to put out envelopes might be like pulling out bricks.’
Arthur ‘A.C.’ Benson became a housemaster at Eton, a fellow and then master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, with extremely profitable literary side-lines: as well as poetry, fiction and biography, he wrote the words for ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, edited Queen Victoria’s letters, and was the author of a series of reflective works on the nature of life and happiness that sold in the hundreds of thousands. He was twice incapacitated by severe depression, and only in those years broke off writing the diary he kept from the age of 35 until his death at 63. At more than four million words in 180 volumes, it is the longest known to be in existence. Fred, writing as E.F. Benson, scored a popular hit in 1893 with his first novel, Dodo, whose eponymous hero was a thinly veiled Margot Asquith, and never looked back: he published more than a hundred books, including many novels (among them the still popular Mapp and Lucia series), ghost stories, plays, biographies and memoirs. Hugh caused his own sensation by converting to Catholicism and becoming a priest of unbreakable conviction (‘He would like to see everyone a R.C.,’ Arthur complained. ‘If he found God were not a sound R.C. he would try to convert him’), in great demand as a preacher at home and abroad, and responsible, as Monsignor R.H. Benson, for a number of lurid and successful proselytising historical novels, including Come Rack! Come Rope!
There was ‘not a vestige of mutual admiration’ between the three sons, and one afternoon at Tremans, the house Minnie moved to after Edward’s death, when each of them had been in his room ‘madly writing’, ‘they thought it would be very pleasant to give frank expression to the lack of it.’ It was decided that as a game they should each compose a piece in the style of another brother, with Minnie as the judge. Fred recounted the occasion:
Arthur … had been studying The Light Invisible by Hugh, and he laughed so much himself as he read the impression it had made on him, that his eyes streamed … There was an aged and saintly Roman Catholic priest, who … doddered about his garden recounting his clairvoyant spiritual experiences … My mother … was laughing … but Hugh sat, leaning forward, so as not to miss a word, puzzled and inquiring, and politely smiling. Then it was my turn to read. I had skimmed through several of Arthur’s books and presented the musings of a wise patient wistful middle-aged gentleman called Geoffrey, who sate by his mullioned window and looked out on the gracious flowing meadow below … Once again my mother was helplessly giggling, but, as I read, I became aware of … something inclement in the room, and … saw a pained expression on Arthur’s face … ‘Now for Fred,’ said Hugh … [His] composition seemed to me to miss its mark. Those babbling puppets with their inane inconsequent talk had no individuality; there was nothing in them … But here was my mother for the third time wiping tears of joy from her eyes … ‘Oh, you clever people!’ said my mother. ‘Why don’t you all for the future write each other’s books instead of your own? You do them much better. Give me all those stories. I shall read them when I feel depressed.’
Amusing as this is, it draws an uncomfortable amount of attention to the fact that none of the three was actually much good. Their sales were huge, but the reviews were rarely positive, and were often savage. The high watermark for criticism was set early by Henry James, a friend of the family, who was sent the handwritten first draft of Fred’s Dodo. His response is a small masterpiece of positive restraint:
I am such a fanatic myself on the subject of form, style, the evidence of intention and meditation, of chiselling and hammering out in literary things that I am afraid I am rather a cold-blooded judge, rather likely to be offensive to a young story-teller on the question of quality. I am not sure that yours strikes me as quite so ferociously literary as my ideal.
Oddly enough, with the exception of Hugh, whose religious certainty put him beyond earthly criticism, the Benson brothers were quite conscious of their weaknesses. Arthur knew he had created an image of himself as someone who spent his evenings ‘on a sofa looking at the sunset with melancholy eyes’, and thought the reviewers were quite right in ‘sitting on me for my vapidity and commonplaceness and fluidity and lowness of literary aim’. He admitted that ‘my actual reputation as a writer is far more humiliating than gratifying,’ and described himself as plagued by a ‘dreadful mass of confidences from morbid spinsters’ (though he had reason to be grateful when one lady admirer made him a gift of £40,000, guaranteeing his financial security for life). Fred, meanwhile, ‘did not feel that I had been selling my soul for lucre and a facile popularity, but rather that I had pawned it’.
The collective fault was compulsion: they couldn’t stop writing. Hugh wrote ‘in furious haste’ and with ‘terrifying fecundity’: three books in 1906, three in 1907 and three in 1912. Arthur tossed off Joyous Gard (1913) in a fortnight; in 1914 he produced The Orchard Pavilion, The Happy Threshold, Where No Fear Was and an edition of unpublished Emily Brontë poems. Fred was even worse: in 1913 he wrote three novels in eight months – David Blaize, The Freaks of Mayfair and Mike. In the last three years of his life he managed eight books. Of his ‘masterpiece’ As We Were (1932), his modern biographer observes deadpan: ‘Significantly, the manuscript demonstrates that Fred took greater care with this book than with any of his novels. It took him over two months to complete.’ Fred knew that the ‘chief danger … was the facility with which I could write readably: that was a handicap rather than an asset.’ But he couldn’t help himself. Of yet another slapdash novel, he threw up his hands: ‘I’ve done it all too quickly, I know. But I couldn’t stop, I was so interested.’
What lay behind it, this ceaseless flood of words? It is tempting, but surely facile, to reply: the desire to make Papa proud – of whose work could he have been proud? More useful to see it as a way of being in the world, a means of accounting for all that God-given time. ‘Writing is a passion, and it is worth while sacrificing everything else to it,’ Arthur wrote: ‘it is more and more clear to me that it is my real life, through which I see and view everything else – even friendship, even death.’ ‘I feel that it is a day wasted on which I haven’t written a thousand words or so,’ Fred said in the 1920s. ‘I tell myself that this time there will be a masterpiece.’ It seems as if they craved a different sort of afterlife from the one that obsessed their father, a different sort of permanence; that they were forever looking backwards, longingly, at this world rather than ahead to the next one. Even Hugh was guilty of this. ‘I don’t feel like dying at all,’ he told Arthur on his deathbed in 1914. (Such was his fear of being buried alive that he specified that he be buried in a loose-lidded coffin in a vault with steps leading to a trapdoor, the key to which should be left at his side.) Or perhaps it is both simpler and more complicated. ‘Writing,’ Simon Goldhill declares in his slippery new book about the Bensons, ‘is a pathological response to being in a family.’
There are other questions worth asking. Why do we care? What exactly is the point of the Bensons? ‘A very odd brotherhood,’ the writer George Lyttelton thought, ‘so clever, and humorous and self-conscious and ultimately rather futile … a tragic family really, ending, actually as well as figuratively, in nothing.’ This has some force. Are they still being written about just to satisfy our national weakness for eccentrics, forbidding Victorian patriarchs and tales of repressed sexuality? (A weakness to which I plead guilty.) Or is it because they function so well as guides to Victorian and Edwardian Britain? Here’s Gladstone (Edward: ‘His eyes alone afford sufficient reason for his being prime minister’); Queen Victoria (visiting Wellington, ‘she looked with doubtful approval on the tuck-shop’); Charles Kingsley (‘he lay on his face in the heather … to observe beetles and caterpillars’); Henry James’s voice carrying across the lawn at Lamb House, Swinburne drying his mangy socks by the fire, Hardy’s wife beating him with a rolled-up newspaper, Hugh Walpole battling with his desires (‘I could manage it all, if it weren’t for my dreams’); ‘a strange bearded man who turned out to be Lytton Strachey’; Housman with ‘champagne bottle shoulders’ and a cap ‘like a tea cake’; Rupert Brooke in open shirt and flaming tie (Arthur: ‘He would have been much more attractive to me with cropped hair and in evening dress’); Wells looking ‘fat, brown and perky’; Chesterton ‘enormous, streaming with sweat, his hair dripping’; Arnold Bennett ‘very pert and looking every inch a cad’; Churchill having the appearance of ‘a drug-taker’. Perhaps there isn’t anything for me to feel guilty about. It is tempting, like Fred, simply to admit defeat: ‘I couldn’t stop, I was so interested.’
Cue Simon Goldhill to inject a little scholarly seriousness. For him ‘this is a family that wrote itself.’ As well as thousands of letters and multiple diaries, of the more than two hundred books produced by the Bensons (Minnie is the only one without a publication), at least 12 – among them, Arthur’s biographies of Edward and Maggie, Fred’s Mother and Hugh’s Confessions of a Convert – are about themselves, and this is without counting the brothers’ sprawling backlists of highly autobiographical fiction. (A description of his hero’s clergyman father from Fred’s novel The Challoners: ‘He was so intensely serious that at any given moment it appeared to him that there was probably something better to do than laugh, and a moment’s thought easily discovered what it was.’ And Arthur’s disapproving comment: ‘drawn too superficially from Papa’.) Goldhill’s strategy is to interrogate these many rewritings of the family story, showing, to take one example, the different ways Minnie and Edward’s engagement and marriage was written from changing perspectives over the decades, moving between the letters written by Edward and Minnie’s mother, Minnie’s stultified diary from her honeymoon, stuffed with observations on church architecture, her retrospective diary written after Edward’s death, and the slyly obfuscating accounts given in her sons’ biographies and memoirs (‘an authentic little Victorian love story’, Fred called it in 1930). This forms part of a broader narrative that uses the Bensons to explore ‘how reticence is formulated within a self-conscious, familial, intergenerational story of changing comprehension’.
A Very Queer Family Indeed is a paean to reticence, to circling round the subject, understood as expressive of the ‘intricacy of the processes of transition’ away from the 19th century. Goldhill has it in for what might be called the Bloomsbury school of thought, which takes a few exceptional individuals possessing the self-conscious clarity of sexual and social pioneers to represent the new forces in history. The Bensons, who couldn’t stop (re-)writing and so never quite said whatever it was, are more representative, he thinks, of the muddle of history before it separated out into our modern certainties. It’s appropriate that Goldhill has produced a muddled history of his own. Early on he warns against sensationalising the Bensons and confesses that there is ‘not much sex’ in his story, but he has nevertheless approved a dust jacket that apes the iconography of the sensation novel and spells out ‘SEX’ – prominent in his subtitle – in bold type and large capitals. And, like his subjects, Goldhill proves averse to definite conclusions. The Bensons are made to tell a story ‘about how modern identity finds some of its major lineaments: how is a life story told, what role does sexuality play in an understanding of the self, and what place is there for religion in personal and social formation?’ But it is never clear how one family can carry such a heavy burden of explanation, especially when none of them considered themselves ‘usual, normal, typical’. In fact, it isn’t obvious why Goldhill, a classicist, has written this book at all. A (predictably) reticent autobiographical epilogue gestures towards a non-gender-specific sexual awakening in Cambridge in the 1970s.
The best explanation for the book probably lies in Goldhill’s intellectual infatuation with the idea of queerness: of existing at a tangent from, or in problematic or destabilising relation to, the dominant categories of identity in a given culture. ‘Queerness,’ he writes, ‘is what makes naming, and the understanding that comes with naming, uncertain.’ The uncertainty, as far as Goldhill makes out in A Very Queer Family Indeed, is in the realm of sexuality. He seeks to emphasise the range of interpretative possibilities and subjective understandings of gay desire in the fluid period before the ‘language, pathology and medical morality of homosexuality as a category’ solidified. Unfortunately, the sorts of linguistic games he wants to play – identifying an aesthetic of ‘highly articulate indirectness’ – demand large quantities of evasive prose, with the result that he has little time for the less well-documented women in the family. Ten times as much space is given to discussing the creation of the lesbian as a social type as is given to a discussion of Minnie’s relationship with Lucy Tait, Nelly’s with Ethel Smyth, or Maggie’s with Nettie Gourlay. The rather pat conclusion arrived at is that it would be wrong to consider Mrs Benson as Radclyffe Hall in a cap and bonnet.
Fred remembered as a child asking his mother to explain the difference between a bull and an ox: ‘she at once said that the bull was the father and the ox the uncle.’ That the Benson brothers were oxen and uncles is beyond doubt, but here too Goldhill is hamstrung by the absence of the right sort of material (or the right sort of absence). Hugh didn’t give much away, besides a striking lack of interest in women, an unusual and intense friendship with Frederick Rolfe, and a few recorded dreams about being pleasantly roughed up by Italian policemen. Fred too escapes lightly, perhaps lithely, given his exasperating but surely deliberate failure to put anything too blatant down on paper that hadn’t already been published in his (revealing enough) novels. But it’s all there for the seeing, not just in David Blaize, his bestselling schoolboy romance (‘I know your secret,’ an anonymous letter sent from Norwood declared), but in the succession of handsome but otherwise strangely ill-matched companions (‘why is he such friends with Fred, and what, I wonder, do they talk about?’ Arthur, who wasn’t always so obtuse, asked of one), a mysterious life in Venice involving ‘sentimentality about bronzed gondoliers’, a beloved holiday home in Capri co-leased with Somerset Maugham, and a biography of Alcibiades complete with full-throated defence of Greek Love. Not so reticent, we might think. Thank God for Arthur, then, and his colossal diary – Goldhill is only the fourth person to read it in its entirety – containing, along with much else, the details of his ‘baffled struggle to name his desire’ and achieve ‘self-expression.’ Except that it doesn’t. Arthur was a complicated case, with a near terror of physical intimacy which he translated into a lifelong ideal of chastity. This came to look increasingly foolish as the years passed: ‘I have suffered by being brought up to regard all sexual relations as being rather detestable in their very nature: a thing per se to be ashamed of.’ But it also makes him an extremely odd representative of the muddled centre, as Goldhill wants us to see him, counterposed against sexual radicals like John Addington Symonds and Edward Carpenter: it is like using Greta Garbo to make a point about the excesses of Oliver Reed. (Here, as elsewhere, there is an unresolvable tension between the idea of queerness as ambivalence, and Goldhill’s desire to make that ambivalence speak for a more general condition, in which case it doesn’t look so queer after all.)
It was not until 1924, the year before his death, that the word ‘homosexual’ appeared in Arthur’s diary, when one afternoon he sat down with Fred and ‘we discussed the homo sexual question.’ (Goldhill thinks a lot of that gap between ‘homo’ and ‘sexual’, with its suggestion of awkward unfamiliarity, but Arthur also routinely spelled ‘sat’ as ‘sate’.) It is this long silence – the failure to ‘rehearse the simple and trivialising modern language of sexual essence and preference, of sexuality as a pathology’ – which energises Goldhill’s analysis, but it can be sustained only by ascribing to the language of homosexuality a force it didn’t yet have: he makes the silence deafening and is deafened by it. The conclusion Arthur drew from his chat with Fred – ‘It does seem to me to be out of joint that marriage should be a sort of virtuous duty, honourable, beautiful and praiseworthy – but that all irregular sexual expression should be bestial and unmentionable. The “concurrence of the soul” is the test surely’ – makes clear that it hadn’t been needed. Nor had Arthur struggled for ways to ‘name his desire’ over the years, except judged by a very peculiar standard: ‘I have always preferred men to women’; ‘I am entirely a person of male friendships’; ‘[of a friend] the fact that a woman is a woman gives her an ipso facto advantage in interest over a man with him. The exact reverse is the case with me.’ He had ways of thinking about this quirk: ‘I think I have a very Greek fibre somewhere within me.’ Or, in reference to the theory of homosexuality advanced by Karl Heinrich Ulrichs: ‘Some theosophist would say it [is] … because I have the soul of a woman in the body of a man.’ Nor was he shy of repurposing the language of romance, writing of one young friend: ‘Let me say frankly that I doubt if I have ever in my life felt so much in love with a human being as I felt today, nor come so near to one who seemed to me to realise more closely what I mean by beauty, grace and charm.’
Arthur was not nearly as hesitant as Goldhill would have us think, observing that ‘Either the whole thing is wrong, sentimental and effeminate – or else people should not be ashamed to speak of it – among the right people of course. It is the wrong kind of reticence.’ Another time: ‘if one can trust a person absolutely, not to give one away, there is no objection to an easy and natural frankness. I do think we English people are absurdly reticent.’ The problem is only that his confidences were spoken, or, if recorded, destroyed. A volume of his diary is missing. So is the letter he wrote to Geoffrey Madan full of ‘open affection’ when he considered himself ‘old enough to speak my mind’. Perhaps this and its reply were in the ‘packet of very dangerous stuff’ found by Fred when he was handling Arthur’s effects. His brother certainly had enough of an idea to determine that another packet should be ‘burned unopened’. Even the Bensons knew when the written word wasn’t wanted.
If the Bensons won’t serve as ambassadors for queer theory, we are back to wondering what it is we are meant to make of them. At 11 a.m. on 22 November 1827 Francis Place, the reformer and radical, stuck his head out of his bedroom window in Charing Cross and put down on paper the activity he could see outside:
8 – 2 stage coaches with 4 horses each
8 – 2 ditto standing at the Ship
4 – 1 ditto [standing] at the Silver Cross
2 – 1 dray delivering ale
6 – 1 wagon coming along loaded with Swedish turnips, drawn by 6 horses
14 – 7 hackney coaches and cabriolets
It goes on, until he has counted 102 horses and 37 carriages in a single street. We have a semi-miraculous view of a vanished world about its business, watched without realising it, made visible just for a moment. And we are given something similar when we pass time with the Bensons, who never stopped watching and writing about each other and everyone else: crystallised experience, secrets, bustle, rhythm and complexity, half-fathomed and unfathomable, but there to be marvelled at, and learned from. They lived. It makes it easier for the rest of us.