'As good as God, as clever as the Devil': The extraordinary Victorian life (and secret lesbian trysts) of the Archbishop of Canterbury's wife
How 19th century Mary 'Minnie' Sidgwick became Mary 'Ben' BensonThe six 'unpermissibly gifted' children she had with Edward Benson
20:25 GMT, 29 June 2012
If a 22-year-old student informed the parents of his 11-year-old female cousin (albeit a distant one) that he had taken a shine to the preteen and planned to marry her, he would be met, in 2012, with a raised eyebrow – at the very least.
And in 1852, when ambitious Cambridge undergraduate Edward Benson visited his relations in Bristol and did precisely that, little Mary 'Minnie' Sidgwick's mother was just as startled.
Young wife: Mary aged nineteen, one year after she married Edward Benson
But Edward was persistent, and Mrs Sidgwick, a widowed mother caring for three young children – one of whom, Mary, was beset with an unquenchable desire to please people – was powerless to resist.
And so, just one year later, Edward sat 12-year-old Minnie on his knee and proposed. And because she knew it was the only thing he wanted to hear, she accepted. They married when she was 18.
'I realise that he chose me deliberately, as a child who was very fond of him and whom he might educate – he even wanted to preserve himself from errant fallings-in-love,' Mary wrote in her diaries adulthood.
'God, thou gavest me a nature which desired to please – and on its natural gaiety and pleasure-lovingness had been planted by my Mother a strong sense of duty.'
From that day 'Mary's duty to her mother had been supplanted by duty to her husband', writes South African historian Rodney Bolt in his historical tome, The Impossible Life Of Mary Benson: The Extraordinary Story of a Victorian Wife, originally titled As Good As God, As Clever As The Devil. 'And Mary did her best to fulfil that duty.'
Indeed, not only did Mary bear her difficult, obstinate, argumentative, depressive and often cruel intellectual spouse with six preternaturally gifted children – two of whom died in childhood, four of whom became published authors – but she also supported him through the meteoric rise of his career, a career which culminated in him being made Archbishop of Canterbury.
And this is all particularly impressive when you learn that Mary was simultaneously juggling a hefty secret complication of her own: she was a lesbian.
Family life: The Bensons at Wellington College, of which Mary's husband Edward was Master
Aged just 29, Edward became master of the Berkshire public school Wellington College, and he and his young family moved into a cottage on campus.
All of the Benson children were intellectually brilliant – among them were poet Arthur Benson, who wrote the words to Land of Hope and Glory, and E. F. Benson, whose Mapp and Lucia books still enjoy a cult following today.
Their gifts were nurtured by parents
who published a family magazine – with each family member making a
mandatory contribution of at least four pages per edition – and would
only allow bread to be passed down the dinner table if it was requested
in rhyming couplets.
While her husband taught, Mary raised their six children and, dissatisfied with her role as a housewife, found solace in a long succession of infatuations and loving liaisons with women.
'Swarmings’, she called them in her detailed diaries. Some of them were unrequited, some 'a complete fusing', all of them were difficult for her, as a strict Christian and as a wife, to accept.
Eventually she solved this dilemma by regarding her same-sex encounters as gifts from God.
Coastal retreat: The Benson family at Lis Escop, Cornwall, in 1883
Mary's romantic trysts included an intense bond with
Charlotte ‘Chat’ Basset, a vivacious middle-aged woman who had married
into a wealthy Cornish copper-mining family; Tan Mylne, the wife of a theological student she met when Edward became Chancellor of Lincoln Cathedral in 1873; and Emily, number 39, about whom she penned the line in her journal: ‘O that sweet time with Emily. How we drew together. Lord, it was Thou, teaching me how to love.’
Edward, meanwhile, was appointed Bishop of Truro in 1876, Archbishop of Canterbury in 1882.
In London, living in Lambeth Palace,
Mary became the darling of a dazzling new social circle which included
literary figures such as Alfred Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning and Henry
Prime Minister William Gladstone even named her 'the cleverest woman in Europe'.
Happy at last: Mary Benson aged 73, four years before her death
Mary also embarked on a four-year relationship with a young composer named Ethel Smyth who gave Mary her much-loved nickname 'Ben' but also complicated matters by forming a relationship with Mary's youngest daughter, Nellie.
'I feel that this time is emphatically Nellie’s and I do long for her to have it good,’ Mary wrote to Ethel, bowing out. ‘I think she is very happy now.’
In 1896 Edward Benson died of heart failure while praying, and Mary left Lambeth Palace, choosing to set up home near Haywards Heath, Sussex, with her girlfriend of six years, Lucy Tait.
They lived there with Mary’s daughter Maggie and Maggie's own lesbian lover, Nettie Gourlay.
When she reached her late 70s and had become an increasingly deaf, frail figure who described a walk around the garden with her as ‘a totter with a tortoise’, Mary she died peacefully in her sleep with Lucy Tait in bed beside her.
Mourners at her funeral described Lucy only as ‘a family friend’.
The Impossible Life Of Mary Benson: The Extraordinary Story Of a Victorian Wife by Rodney Bolt is on sale now in paperback (Atlantic Books, 8.99)