History, Publicity

A Very Queer Family Indeed at the Atlantic

From a review of Simon Goldhill’s A Very Queer Family Indeed: Sex, Religion, and the Bensons in Victorian Britain
at the Atlantic:

Even by the formidable standards of eminent Victorian families, the Bensons were an intimidating lot. Edward Benson, the family’s patriarch, had vaulted up the clerical hierarchy, awing superiors with his ferocious work habits and cowing subordinates with his reforming zeal. Queen Victoria appointed him the archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the Anglican Church, in 1883. Edward’s wife, Minnie, was to all appearances a perfect match. Tender where he was severe, she was a warmhearted hostess renowned for her conversation. Most important, she was Edward’s equal in religious devotion. As a friend daringly pronounced, Minnie was “as good as God and as clever as the Devil.”

All five of Edward and Minnie Benson’s adult offspring distinguished themselves in public life. Arthur Benson served as the master of Magdalene College at Cambridge University, wrote the lyrics to Edward Elgar’s hymn “Land of Hope and Glory,” and was entrusted with the delicate task of co-editing Queen Victoria’s letters for publication. His brother Fred was a best-selling writer, well known today for the series of satirical Lucia novels (televised for the second time in 2014, on the BBC), which poked good-natured fun at the pomposities of English provincial life. Their sister Margaret became a pioneering Egyptologist, the first woman to lead an archaeological dig in the country and to publish her findings. Even the family’s apostate, the youngest brother, Hugh, a convert to Roman Catholicism, was considered a magnetic preacher and, like his brothers, was an irrepressible author of briskly selling books. All told, the family published more than 200 volumes.

An exemplary Victorian family, or so it seems. But let us borrow one of Charles Dickens’s favorite literary devices and pull the roof off the Benson home to take a peek inside. It is 1853. Edward is 23 years old, handsome, determined, and already embarked on a promising career. Perched on his knee is his cousin Minnie, a pleasingly childish 12-year-old. Edward has just kissed Minnie to seal their engagement. Wait 40-odd years, lift the roof again, and we find grown-up Minnie tucked in her marital bed with Lucy Tait, the daughter of the previous archbishop, who has been living with the Bensons at Edward’s invitation. At the Sussex home where Minnie and Lucy moved three years after Edward’s death, they were joined by Minnie’s daughter Margaret, the Egyptologist, cohabiting with her intimate lady friend. As for the Benson boys, well, none of the three married, and contemporaries in the know had a pretty good understanding of their romantic feelings for men, in all likelihood never acted upon. The Bensons were, as Simon Goldhill writes in his subtle, smart book, a very queer family indeed.
To read the review in full, click here.
To read more about A Very Queer Family Indeed, click here.