E F Benson Bibliography Meaning
This time in the Really Like This Book podcast scripts catch-up I’m reading a novel of utter frivolity. It’s called Dodo’s Daughter, and is a sequel to the earlier and unforgettably frivolous novel of Edwardian society life, Dodo. Dodo is a ditzy lady, invented by that great chronicler of society silliness, E F Benson. Nowadays he is much better known for his creation of the immortal Lucia and Miss Mapp, and their battles to social death in Tilling and Riseholme in the early 1920s. But Benson had been frivolling for twenty years before Miss Mapp and Lucia were born, and the stories about Dodo are a pretty good introduction to what the Edwardians thought was witty about his writing. In this novel, Dodo, who is about to embark on her third marriage to the man she jilted for his brother as her first, has a problem daughter, from her second marriage. Yes, it’s complicated. She knows when to take herself off to bed, and has a greater awareness of her need for sleep and a happy home life than she did as the epitome of heartless frivolity at age 18.
Dodo’s Daughter is really two books in one. It’s a conventional romantic melodrama, written with a hint of camp tongue in cheek. It’s also a modern story of heartless girls and boys living a meaningless life in which being amused is their only goal. They have a great many things to say about the modern Edwardian girl – her choices in life, why she gets married, and what marriage was really for. Naturally, these are rich girls and boys: all through the novel no-one does a stroke of work because Benson writes about them as an isolated bubble of upper-class society.
Nadine is Dodo’s daughter, a chain-smoker (which was very daring), and the leader of the pack. She is an appalling flirt and an empty conversationalist: her attitudes are really so much like those of a caricature of the 1920s flapper that I had to check the date of this novel twice. But it really is 1913, and prewar. Nadine and Dodo are both totally egotistical, but they both cheerfully admit this, and expect the world to accept them as they are. They aren’t malevolent at all, they are very concerned that everyone has a nice time and gets what they want. But their efforts to get what they want take priority over the desires of anyone else.
The third most important character is Seymour, an early tryout for Georgie Pillson of the Lucia books – with his jade dusting, his embroidery (interestingly contemporary with Peter’s embroidery in Rose Macaulay’s The Lee Shore), his devoted female servant, his effeminate airs – but this (in the gender politics of the day) is all a pose. Seymour is quite aware of how he appears, and seems to rather enjoy allowing the worm to turn. He breaks away from his languid poses to come over all masculine and domineering when he becomes engaged to Nadine. He rages at his tedious mother and sister for assuming that his effeminate pose gives them the right to order him around, and he becomes the most formidable character in the book, because he is simply the most intelligent man on the stage.
Benson does a very well-executed job of mixing styles of writing. He combines the epigrammatic late Victorian style of Oscar Wilde with an unexpected and unstudied close analysis of emotion and social realities. He juxtaposes melodramatic plot details- of attempted murder and an older woman braving childbirth – with intense self-analysis and an almost stream of consciousness dialogue (very ahead of its time). This combination feels abrupt because it’s disconcerting, but it is also completely under control. Benson knows what he’s doing.
The last third of the novel is all about Hugh, who is in love with Nadine but has been jilted by her for Seymour, and won’t stop hanging around suffering. Will Hugh die, or recover, or recover without the use of his legs, after a dramatic sea rescue of a shipwrecked boy? (Whom we never see again, incidentally.) This drama brings out the more interesting aspects of their characters. Hugh develops the stiffest upper lip I’ve ever encountered in prewar popular fiction. Nadine actually stops thinking about herself for minutes at a time. But Seymour becomes terrifically complicated, and takes refuge in bitter campness to avoid being devastated by Nadine’s weather-cock behaviour. He also comes off better than Dodo, by demonstrating the emotional maturity and self-awareness that none of the others possess.
The effect of all these agonies under a light dusting of frivolity is to produce a really modern novel that examines the emotions swirling around inside an eternal triangle. There are clear signs that Benson is struggling to free his writing from the grip of the Victorian romantic novelette, and from the Wildean drawing-room comedy of epigrams. But the novel is clearly Edwardian: the incessant chain-smoking of Nadine and her mother should tell us that at least.
Dodo’s Daughter is also rather interesting if you’re looking for early feminist fiction. Dodo herself is a financially independent woman (thanks to both her former marriage settlements), but she is also an independent woman in terms of making her own decisions, deciding whom she will marry, where she will live, and so on. She keeps having to throw her drunk ex-husband out of the house (that’s the second one, who was a German prince of very Prussian characteristics), and she won’t ask her third husband to do this. She goes downstairs herself and gets rid of the awful tyrant Prussian, time and again.
Her closest friend is Edith, an eccentric composer, who reminded me so much of the suffragette composer Ethel Smyth that I had to read up on her on Wikipedia, and yes! She was! Apparently Benson put Smyth into all his Dodo books, and she loved her portrait. Edith is a monomaniacal composer, and when the muse strikes, she just keeps on composing on the dining room table while her meals are brought to her and placed around the sheets of music paper.
Nadine is a mouthpiece for arguments about the role of women, what girls are to do with their lives, whether there is an alternative to marriage, and whether it’s possible to do without men. It’s a fairly safe guarantee that any time she is in a scene, feminist discussion will begin. Through her, Benson makes some fascinating remarks about the current generation of girls managing without men in the future. Because this novel immediately precedes the First World War and the 1920s, the ‘decade of single women’, this seems like seeing into a very grim future indeed. But it may be that Dodo’s Daughter is anecdotal evidence that even before the war and the slaughter of a generation of young men, women were thinking that life without an obligatory husband or other male authority might soon be a social possibility. Or not. Since Benson was a satirist, who can really tell what he was laughing at, and what he was wistfully hoping might come true?
The Benson family was one of the most extraordinary of Victorian England, and they certainly made sure that we have enough evidence to dwell on them. Edward White Benson was a brilliantly clever clerical young man of 23 when he proposed to his 11-year-old cousin Minnie Sidgwick. He had been the effective head of his family since his father’s death nine years earlier; Minnie, too, was fatherless. Despite doubts from Minnie’s mother, they agreed to marry when Minnie was 18.
She, too, was clever — Gladstone famously described her as ‘the cleverest woman in Europe’ — but had no real attachment to Benson or to any other man. Her romantic passions were always directed towards women. Curiously, as Benson rose through the hierarchy of the Church of England, ending as Archbishop of Canterbury, Minnie Benson’s passions seem to have continued without abatement or comment. As soon as her husband died, she went to bed with Lucy Tait, the daughter of a previous Archbishop of Canterbury, and apparently stayed there.
Everyone seems to have known about this liaison and many others, and no one seems to have cared. One of Minnie’s sons, Fred, wrote about his mother and Lucy sleeping together much later; and created, too, as a sort of in-joke, a statuesque maid called Lucy, who catered to an enthusiastic lesbian painter, Quaint Irene, in his Mapp and Lucia novels. E.F. Benson — Fred’s publishing name — is now the best remembered of the Benson children; but all were extraordinary. None married. At least five of them were clearly lesbian or homosexual.
Arthur (A.C.) was a pillar of professional life, the distinguished editor of Queen Victoria’s letters, remarkably dull in his published work and remarkably intense in his unpublished diaries. He was famous for passionate friendships with Cambridge undergraduates: there is an adorable photograph here of the aged Arthur arm in arm with a young Dadie Rylands, working it. Nellie died young, but had a relationship with Ethel Smyth, who went through the Bensons, mother and daughters, like a dose of salts. Fred was the one Benson who really did not care about religion at all, as anyone who remembers the Scots padre in Tilling will realise. His indifference to God scandalised his siblings, though not, oddly enough, his saucy cheerfulness about gay and lesbian heroes and heroines in his likeably middlebrow fiction, from the lecherous school story David Blaize to the splendid lesbians who run off together at the end of Paying Guests.
Hugh appalled the family by converting to Roman Catholicism and becoming first a priest, then a Monsignor. He was an intimate friend of that sinister fantasist Frederick Rolfe, Baron Corvo, and wrote some bizarre novels intended to further the Catholic faith. Martin died very young, and some of the hopes of his father died with him. Finally, Maggie was an archaeologist and Egyptologist. Despite disliking and distrusting her mother’s lover Lucy, she moved in with the pair of them after her father’s death, bringing her own lover, Janet.
The family has attracted considerable interest, and some biographers. It’s been a while since anyone has attempted a book about the whole family, and the labour would be very daunting. A.C. Benson’s extant manuscript diary is three times the length of Proust; four of the children published at least 14 books about their own family. I’ve read quite a lot of E.F., but wouldn’t claim to have got through more than half of his novels. Between them, they knew absolutely everyone, from Queen Victoria to Elgar. (A.C. wrote the words to ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ and invented King’s College’s Nine Lessons service.)
This isn’t the biography, and actually suffers from the lack of the obvious thing to do — 50 pages telling the story of the six principal characters to frame the discussion. Simon Goldhill, who is professor of Greek at Cambridge, sets his cards on the table at the start by declaring biography ‘a ludicrous genre’, as ‘the attempt to summon up a life in neatly chronological prose is bound to be an expression of its own failure’. It seems a perverse decision, particularly since almost all the writing by the Bensons on which the book is based is not available to the reader — whether out of print, never printed or ludicrously vast in substance, like A.C.’s diary. Moreover, the small parts of the Bensons’ work that are available — E.F.’s delightful novels, for example, or the ghost stories that they all wrote from time to time — are passed over in silence.
Goldhill discusses three aspects of the Bensons’ lives, and inevitably it seems like a commentary on material that the reader doesn’t have much access to. None of them emerges clearly as personalities, or as proponents of intellectual positions in the way they do from even quite ordinary biographies.
First, Goldhill focuses on their attitudes to writing, and especially to the acts of confessional in an age where families were being examined in detail by writers from Philip Gosse to Samuel Butler and the Grossmiths.
Secondly, the vexed question of the Bensons’ sexuality is gone over. Goldhill points out, quite rightly, that identifying individuals as homosexual or lesbian is not quite appropriate for those living in the 19th and early 20th century. The vocabulary was only just emerging; very few people either thought of themselves in such a way or could actually consider such a thing was possible. Nevertheless, we know that individual Bensons did discuss what they called the ‘homo sexual’ issue between themselves, and labelled others as ‘homo sexual’. There is no doubt that most of them had concluded that heterosexual relations, and certainly marriage, were not possible for them. A.C. Benson, like Tchaikovsky, even acquired the traditional appendage of the distinguished homosexual, an immensely rich patroness, in a Madame de Nottbeck. Like Tchaikovsky’s Nadezhda von Meck, Madame de Nottbeck handed over large sums of money and stipulated that they were never to meet.
Lesbianism was less a subject of discussion, and how women might find sexual fulfilment remained a matter of the utmost bafflement to half the human race until the 1920s. When the Canadian Maud Allan sued an English paper which had described her as leading a ‘cult of the clitoris’ in 1918, the court heard that 23 out of 24 professional men who had been consulted had no idea what the clitoris was.
The third area of the Bensons’ interest is religion, but this seems too large a question for Goldhill. The archbishop’s contribution to the development of the Church of England, and Hugh’s curious religious personality (including his terrible betrayal of a conversion), the very strange novels and the friendship with the fantasist Rolfe need exploring with reference to an immense world of Victorian debate which we’ve more or less lost interest in. Most of Gladstone’s library — still open to the public — consisted of theology. There may be a market for discussion of the Bensons’ engagement with theological thought, but it does appear a very complex subject.
A book on the whole story of the Bensons ought to be a compelling one. But it seems especially odd to set one’s face against biography when it was the means by which most of the Bensons sought to understand their own existence — and when their ideas and their means of expression are now quaint at best, and utterly obsolete at worst. Goldhill’s book is generally solid, though not without blunders, like calling Edward Carpenter ‘Thomas’ and saying that Fred’s novels ‘parodied’ Rye, ‘the small and very conventional Sussex town’ he was mayor of. (You can parody a literary work, but only satirise a town.) It is strange to call their era ‘Victorian’ when some lived into the second world war. And there is no index, which, considering this is a very involved argument about several extremely active writers and personalities, seriously damages the book’s usefulness. It seems a curious way to approach a family whose lasting legacy, as Goldhill idiosyncratically refuses to admit, is Mrs Emmeline Lucas’s war against Miss Elizabeth Mapp.