HENRIETTA WRIOTHESLEY on the life of a Victorian Archbishop of Canterbury whose sons also rose
Father of the Bensons: The Life of Edward White Benson, sometime Archbishop of Canterbury, by Geoffrey Palmer and Noel Lloyd, Lennard C16.99
pICTURE TO YOURSELF A MAN of 67, staying in 1896 at Hawarden with the retired Prime Minister, Mr Gladstone, on the way back from an official tour of Ireland.
If he looks back on his life he can surely take pleasure in his history: coming from a very ordinary background, and the local grammar school, he wins a scholarship to Cambridge; ordained in the Church of England, he is chosen as the founder headmaster of a new and reputable public school, and becomes friendly with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. He is sent as its first bishop to a new diocese, where he builds a magnificent new cathedral. But after five years he is whisked away to become Archbishop of Canterbury. Achievement enough, surely, for any man.
As it turned out, Archbishop Edward White Benson was to die quite unexpectedly, in Hawarden Church, while attending Matins. He was duly accorded the honour of an Official Biography, written by two of his sons. How strange he would have thought it that, 102 years later, he should be the subject of a biography called Father of the Bensons.
Of his six children, two were already dead: Martin, his favourite, aged only 18, while at Winchester; and Nellie, aged 27, in 1890. Of the survivors, Arthur was a popular housemaster at Eton; Fred the writer of many light novels; Robert a raw young Anglican curate; and Maggie an invalidish amateur archaeologist.
All the Bensons, including the Archbishop and his wife Minnie, later to be known as "Ben", suffered from that form of depression known to its victims as The Black Dog though Fred describes it as a poisonous mushroom growing up every day. Maggie became violent and for ten years was confined in a private lunatic asylum, Arthur spent many of his years as head of a Cambridge college suffering from what were euphemistically termed "breakdowns", and had to retire to a private nursing-home. Hugh took out his lack of emotional fulfilment in the bitterness of his satirical novels. Only Fred was comparatively sane.
The authors of this book seem to be a couple of genial chaps who take in their stride the amours and infatuations of their subjects (the Archbishop himself excluded) none of whom seems to have taken any interest in the opposite sex. Minnie, his widow, developed an interest in young women of her own class, especially Lucy Tait, daughter of the previous Archbishop, who shared her house and, eventually, the great matrimonial bed in which all children had been conceived, a proceeding which, in those inno cent days, caused no eyebrow to be raised. Arthur moved from Eton to Cambridge, and found himself quite unexpectedly Fellow, then Master, of Magdalene, where he lived (in his lucid intervals) in great and exotic splendour, delighting in the company of undergraduates, especially the well-born and goodlooking, and churning out an endless supply of popular, inspirational journalism of a kind almost unreadable today; his chief service to the College was in attracting, by his writing, some very large benefactions.
Hugh progressed, by way of being an Anglican monk, to being received into the Catholic Church, and ordained priest. In 1911 he became a Monsignor. He figures quite inconspicuously in the story of that other odd character, the soi-disant Fr. Rolfe, Baron Corvo. He shared with his siblings the ability (or was it compulsion?) to write endlessly, and earned his living by writing novels and works of Catholic apologetic.
Fred, happy in the friendship of a series of well-bred young men, suddenly found his vocation in 1920, with the publication of Queen Lucia, first of a series of stories about Lucia, and Georgie, and the terrible Miss Mapp; forgotten for a generation, these became a cult in the 1970s and are, I fancy, the reason why people have heard of him today and hence for this book. He moved to Rye, lived in the house where Henry James had lived, and was happy to become mayor of the picturesque little Cinque Port.
Father of the Bensons in no sense pretends to be a work of original scholarship: there are no references at all to sources, no bibliography, and a barely adequate Index. Perhaps the authors consider that this excuses them from diligent proof-reading: the mysterious Lord Brendallsane must be the 2nd Marquess of Breadalbane; the rearrangement of the chapel at Addington can be realised only if we understand that Benson had the seats turned choir-wise, rather than "chair-wise; and the jumblesale of garments in which Bishop Temple of London is arrayed for the 1887 Jubilee Service makes sense only if the word "cope" is excised.
But a story about that same Jubilee Service, derived from the Archbishop's own diary, gives an idea of the joys contained within this most readable book: We are told that he left Lambeth before the service in Westminster Abbey, but was stopped by a police inspector at the south end of Westminster Bridge. "Edward's anger, not slow to rise, reddened his face as he boomed 'Well, all I can say is, unless you allow me to proceed, there will be no service today!' "