09 February 2017
Madness, creativity and power
A Very Queer Family Indeed: Sex, Religion and the Bensons in Victorian Britain
This is an account of one of the most fascinating families in Victorian and Edwardian England: E.W. Benson, Archbishop of Canterbury, his wife Minnie and their six children. The offspring included Arthur Benson, master of Magdalene College Cambridge and author of Land of Hope and Glory; Hugh Benson, convert to Catholicism, Cambridge Catholic chaplain and novelist; and E.F. Benson, author of the Mapp and Lucia books, witty confections with social bite. As families go, this was one of the weirdest, even for a time of fabulous eccentricity.
The oddities start with the courtship of the future archbishop which began in 1853 with him proposing to Minnie when he was 23 and she was 12; they married when she was 18. Trouble was – as is now well known – she was lesbian by inclination, notwithstanding the six children, and “after the archbishop’s early death, spent the last 20 years of her life sleeping in the same bed with the daughter of the previous Archbishop of Canterbury”, while remaining a pillar of society. None of the six children ever had a heterosexual relationship so far as we know; none ever married.
But this is not an actual biography, oh no. Simon Goldhill, a classicist at King’s, Cambridge, has no time for biography, with all its pretensions to authorial omniscience. It doesn’t stop him tormenting the reader with the possibility though. “This looks like a family ripe for sensational biographical exploration,” he writes. “The interwoven tapestry of life histories, rich with sexual innuendo, madness, creativity and power, together with the backdrop of beautiful houses, famous friends, and the corridors of imperial and ecclesiastical authority, make for a heady and worryingly voyeuristic brew … The movie or TV series would be a blockbuster.”
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