As Good as God, as Clever as the Devil: The Impossible Life of Mary Benson by Rodney Bolt

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As Good as God, as Clever as the Devil: The Impossible Life of Mary Benson by Rodney Bolt

Category: Biography
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Trish Simpson-Davis
Reviewed by Trish Simpson-Davis
Summary: A fascinating account of repressed family life emerges from this biographyof Mary Benson, compliant wife of a powerful Victorian Archbishop of Canterbury. I loved it!
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: June 2011
Publisher: Atlantic Books
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1843548614

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Since I hadn't previously heard of Archbishop Benson, let alone his wife, I must commend the title, cover and advertising of this book. All of the above provided an accurate and irresistible glimpse of the biography within, and I wasn't one whit disappointed in my choice.

The story bounces along, narrated unobtrusively by author, Rodney Bolt. In particular, I loved the scrapbook structure which I thought he used to great effect. Alongside the text are contemporary sources: photographs, diary extracts, sketches, published family anecdotes and related extracts of popular verse and prose of the day. Together, these provide a context for the author's disturbing, imaginative truths about a leading Victorian ecclesiastical family. We can see an intellectually brilliant, emotionally unstable, energetically perfectionist, piously zealot father. By focusing rather on Mary Benson though, Bolt builds a convincing case for the pernicious effects of Victorian morality at its most astringent.

Edward Benson took out an option on his second cousin, Minnie, as his future wife when she was only eleven; evidently he expected to mould her character after making such an early offer to her mother. At any rate, he only wished to go ahead with the marriage if Minnie turned out the young woman he had planned her to be. Fortunately for him, the fatherless Minnie was tractable and eager to please both her Mama and her fiancée. If it seems an unnaturally callous way of selecting a life partner, Edward did appear genuinely besotted with the clever, robust little girl, in a way that verged on the unhealthy – the modern concept of grooming a victim springs to mind. When they married in 1859, Minnie was eighteen and Edward twenty-nine; thereafter Edward tried to control every aspect of their life. They had boiling rows about anti-macassars and as for the honeymoon in Paris … Mary's retrospective, euphemistic writing makes his sexual predation clear: ...The nights! I can't think how I lived.

Edward's career rise was spectacular. An award-winning Classical Tripos First from Oxford, he taught at Rugby before becoming the first Headmaster of Wellington College in 1859, on the recommendation of Prince Albert. His reputation gained him the patronage of Queen Victoria and her politicians, and in short order he gained the Chancellorship of Lincoln Cathedral, the Bishopric of the new Truro See, followed by an invitation to become Archbishop of Canterbury. From 1882 to 1896 Mary Benson, now “Ben” to her intimates, enjoyed the intellectual stimulation of entertaining the great and the good at Lambeth Palace.

After Edward's sudden death, she mourned her reduced status and abruptly-decreased social circle. This, of course, was relative to London high society: the final family home, Tremans was a much-improved Elizabethan pile amply accommodating a household of family, live-in friends (Lucy always slept with Ben after Edward's death), retainers such as Beth the family nurse, plus a number of servants.

Mary's was very much an 'impossible' life. Edward constantly preached control of his wife's supposed faults under the mantle of Christian guidance. This extreme, typically Victorian repression had far-reaching implications for the mental and physical health of the whole family. For example, when Mary broke down after the birth of her sixth child, her physical debility was so extreme that she had to recover away from her family for longer than baby Hugh's first year of life.

The only fulfilment of her need for intimacy was when Ben formed guiltily intense and sentimental relationships with other women, though always pulling up within the boundaries of decency, just short of a full sexual relationship. When her daughter followed the same path away from pure friendship and towards 'carnal sin', Ben made repeated efforts to persuade Maggie to control her 'morbid' tendencies. Maggie was herself a brilliant scholar who made the best of her insular and circumscribed lot, but she ultimately succumbed to paranoia and spent her final years in institutions.

The three surviving boys, allowed more life choices, fared somewhat better, (Arthur, for example, penned the stalwart lyrics of Land of Hope and Glory) but ultimately none managed to form a lifelong relationship with anyone, other than their mother.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending along an excellent read.

Suggestions for further reading:

Two biographies which have interesting insights into Victorian society are Becoming Queen by Kate Williams, and Sir Henry Irving by Jeffrey Richards. You might also enjoy the factually-based crime novel, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale.

Buy As Good as God, as Clever as the Devil: The Impossible Life of Mary Benson by Rodney Bolt at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy As Good as God, as Clever as the Devil: The Impossible Life of Mary Benson by Rodney Bolt at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy As Good as God, as Clever as the Devil: The Impossible Life of Mary Benson by Rodney Bolt at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy As Good as God, as Clever as the Devil: The Impossible Life of Mary Benson by Rodney Bolt at Amazon.co.uk.


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