Tuesday, June 14, 2011

As Good as God, As Clever as the Devil, Mary Benson by Rodney Bolt

There's an interview today with Rodney Bolt in Nightwaves, author of the new biography, As Good as God: As Clever as the Devil happily reviewed in the Guardian this week by Alexandra Harris.

The Benson clan into which Mary Sidgewick married, is well-known and large. They would be seen as eccentric and colourful today but not unusual for their time and place. Mary Benson was an extraordinary conversationalist beloved by Gladstone. People consulted her and she was a good listener. Mary Benson's diaries are a source for the biography. She writes about "the very core of the self, the 'ich' which must be governed by the will." Perhaps she can be credited with inventing the id.

Edward White Benson's attraction to Mary was that of an older man to a much younger girl aged 11. Mary's mother was alarmed. The Guardian review glosses over the age disparity between them and Edward Benson's complicated personal life before he married. Edward Benson became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1883.

Lisa Gee in the Independent notes the perspective of the biographer:

In his preamble, Rodney Bolt explains that writing this book presented "an acute version of a well-worn ... problem, that of the tricky relation between an author's life and work". Mary didn't write for publication, but four of her children did and their work could be teasingly autobiographical. Sons Arthur, Hugh and Fred (E F Benson, author of the Mapp and Lucia novels) were so prolific that their sister Maggie half-joked that unless they emigrated, English literature would be "flooded". They didn't. In 1906, Punch ran a cartoon captioned "Self-denial week: Mr A C Benson refrains from publishing a book". He didn't.

Mary Benson's relationships with women are significant. Mary referred to the female objects of her passions as "schwaermerein," "passions" or "crushes" but she is not described in the biography as a lesbian. The first crush she had was with the musician Ethyl Smyth. Subsequently setting up house with Lucy Tait, all her children would visit with their own partners.

At the heart of this book is an extraordinary woman who "evoked rather than dazzled", whose strengths – an ability to listen, an acute perceptiveness and precise tact – were founded on openness, understanding and profound self-awareness. A woman who came to believe that "Love is God", rather than vice versa. And who deserves to be written and read about.

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