As thunder rumbled in the skies above Canterbury Cathedral, and hailstones as big as eggs smashed against its ancient stained-glass windows, a demure old lady murmured a prayer in front of the newly-built monument in honour of her husband.
Three years had passed since the death of Archbishop Edward Benson, but at that memorial service on a stormy summer’s day in 1899 his wife Mary was still dressed in her black widow’s weeds. With her white hair and rotund figure, she bore a remarkable resemblance to Queen Victoria — but anyone with a less conventional private life it would be hard to imagine.
Together she and the Archbishop had raised six children — among them 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. Outwardly they seemed the most respectable of families and yet, as the fascinating new biography by Rodney Bolt reveals, she spent much of her married life conducting affairs with other women.
These included a lesbian love triangle in which she competed with her own daughter, Nellie, for the love of a mutual girlfriend, and a later liaison which drove another of Mary’s offspring to try to murder her. Many of these relationships were, it seems, conducted with the tacit consent of her husband, a man who had battled with his own homosexual leanings.
Their marriage was difficult from the start. The son of a Birmingham chemist, Edward Benson was a priggish but handsome young man with long golden-brown hair, striking blue eyes and a tendency ‘to make idols’ of older men according to his sister Eleanor.
She recalled his ‘almost romantic attachment’ to his headmaster and as a Cambridge undergraduate Benson himself confided in his diary a fear that ‘I might on some sudden occasion be led into a step I might all my life repent’.
As if to keep his focus on the opposite sex, he decided to begin courting his second cousin, Mary Sidgwick, the pre-pubescent daughter of a headmaster from Bristol who had died when she was only a few months old.
An engaging and highly intelligent child, she was only 11 when 23-year-old Benson first met her in the spring of 1852 — but he told her mother that he would one day like to make a wife of ‘this fine and beautiful bud’.
As soon as she reached 12, the marriageable age for girls who had parental consent, he proposed. Mary’s mother agreed to the match and the little girl had no choice but to say yes.
Their engagement continued for the next six years, despite her memoirs recording that at 16 she enjoyed her ‘first friendship’ with another girl.
‘I quite fell in love with her and spent a great deal of time with her,’ she wrote, although this happiness would not last long.
In June 1859, she and Edward were married, the 18-year-old bride later describing the misery of their wedding night. ‘How my heart sank, knowing that I felt nothing of what I knew people ought to feel,’ she recalled. ‘Trying to be rapturous, not succeeding, feeling so inexpressibly lonely and young.’
Their new life together began at Wellington College, the Berkshire public school where Edward was the newly-appointed headmaster. He had been ordained two years previously, but quickly demonstrated a very unholy penchant for dispensing vicious beatings to the boys. He was only slightly less tyrannical in private, prone to dark moods and frequent bad-tempered outbursts over Mary’s failings as a housewife.
After one dispute, involving Edward’s ‘very strong remarks on the subject of the antimacassars’ she admitted in her diary that, while these furniture covers needed changing, it was ‘derailing’ to be spoken to in this way. ‘It destroys one’s whole peace of mind.’
Benson is best remembered for devising the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols while Bishop of Truro. It was first used in Truro Cathedral on Christmas Eve, 1880.
Now used around the world, every year it is broadcast by the BBC from King's College, Cambridge.
As Wellington College's first Master, Benson was largely responsible for making the nation's memorial to the Duke of Wellington a great public school, modelled on Rugby, rather than the military academy originally planned.
Over the next 12 years, she was almost continuously pregnant or recovering from childbirth — so found solace outside the marriage, developing crushes, or ‘swarmings’ as she called them, on a succession of women.
Describing the first stage of these infatuations as the ‘My God What A Woman!’ phase, she detailed them all in her diaries. Some were unrequited while with others she enjoyed what she described as ‘a complete fusing’.
Such euphemisms reflected her difficulty in reconciling her physical desires with her Christian faith, a dilemma she eventually solved by regarding her same-sex encounters as gifts from God.
‘O that sweet time with Emily,’ she wrote of a swarming listed as number 39 in her journal. ‘How we drew together. Lord, it was Thou, teaching me how to love.’
Throughout her life, Mary was discreet about her ‘swarmings’ and her husband showed a tolerance of them which was remarkable for the day. He perhaps realised that this was the price he had to pay for keeping his wife happy and supportive as he pursued his ecclesiastical ambitions.
His appointment as Chancellor of Lincoln Cathedral in 1873 saw Mary embark on a relationship with Tan Mylne, the wife of a theological student who had taken orders late in life. Unlike her earlier partners, this evangelical Christian missionary was some years older than her and she insisted that their love remain platonic, causing Mary much difficulty as she struggled with her ‘ungoverned desire.’
On one occasion, she returned from a visit to the circus with her children and recorded the ‘uneasiness’ she experienced at the sight of the acrobats.
‘Somehow, the suppleness, litheness of the limbs stirred me to a restlessness, a fierceness, a tingling. I came away to Tan and told her all. She helped me as she always does and I had a quiet evening quite alone and sought God here in the oratory.’
Mary found a more adventurous partner when Edward was appointed Bishop of Truro in 1876. His achievements there included introducing the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols —still a much-loved feature of Christmas celebrations today — but his wife had rather less spiritual concerns.
Then nearing 40, she developed an intense bond with Charlotte ‘Chat’ Basset, a vivacious middle-aged woman who had married into a wealthy Cornish copper-mining family.
Undaunted by the conventions governing women’s behaviour, Chat liked to smoke, keeping a stash of cigarettes in a box disguised as a leather-bound hymn book. Her dark flashing eyes captivated ‘Robin’, her pet name for Mary and the relationship quickly became physical. ‘I love you so dear that not one whit less than all of you will I have,’ Mary confided in one letter.
Their relationship lasted until 1882 when Edward became Archbishop of Canterbury. In an anguished farewell missive, ‘Robin’ told Chat that ‘I daren’t think of going away from here and you’. But in London she quickly became the darling of a dazzling new social circle which included literary figures such as Alfred Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning and Henry James.
At one soirée in 1885, she met an emerging young composer named Ethel Smyth. A strapping, tomboyish creature with a loud laugh and a strong jaw-line, she was then only 27 but she had a fancy for older women and was soon addressing Mary by the intimate nickname of ‘Ben’.
Peppering her conversation with slang phrases such as ‘hang it’ and ‘awfully’, Ethel was a very modern young woman whose hobbies included the daring new pastime of cycling. She wobbled along the gravel sweep in front of Lambeth Palace, and was said to have offered lessons in the art to a startled Dean of Windsor.
Inasmuch as the Primate of All England was permitted such feelings, Edward loathed Ethel Smyth. He had become a close confidante of Queen Victoria, who trusted him with secrets she kept even from her Ministers, and he felt that the official residence of a figure as august as himself was no place for her frivolities.
On one occasion, he overheard Ethel playing parts of her newly composed Mass on the piano and remarked that it appeared the Lord was being commanded rather than implored to have mercy. But it was another member of the family who finally interrupted her relationship with his wife.
After four years of happiness with Ethel, Mary slowly realised that her young girlfriend was forming an attachment to her daughter Nellie, then 26. In the first year of this friendship, Ethel wrote Nellie more than 150 love letters and Mary did her best to accept them as a couple.
‘I feel that this time is emphatically Nellie’s and I do long for her to have it good,’ she wrote to Ethel. ‘I think she is very happy now.’
The relationship was cut short when in October 1890 Nellie died from diphtheria at the age of 27. She was the second child the Bensons had lost, their eldest son Martin dying of meningitis at 17; none of the remaining four was to marry.
Their youngest son Hugh would eventually cause a minor scandal by renouncing his father’s religion and becoming a Catholic priest. As for Arthur and Fred, they both took after their mother in preferring the company of their own sex. So did their sister Maggie, a celebrated Egyptologist whose unhinged jealousy of her mother’s lovers would dominate the final and most bizarre stage in Mary Benson’s life.
This began in October 1896 when Edward Benson died of heart failure while praying in church. Since this meant that Mary had to leave Lambeth Palace to make way for the incoming Archbishop’s family, Queen Victoria offered her the use of the Royal Lodge at Windsor Park. But she declined, realising that this would place her love life in danger of unwanted scrutiny.
For six years, she had been conducting a relationship with Lucy Tait, the daughter of a previous Archbishop of Canterbury. Lucy had long been living at Lambeth Palace as an accepted part of the Benson household and within days of Edward’s death she was sharing the large wooden marital bed in which the couple had conceived all of their children.
When the time eventually came for Mary to leave Lambeth Palace, she and Lucy set up home together in a large country house near Haywards Heath in Sussex. They lived there with Mary’s daughter Maggie, who had met her own lesbian lover Nettie Gourlay on an archaeological dig.
By then, Maggie was suffering from mental illness, one symptom being an obsession with her mother’s relationship with Lucy Tait. She became convinced that Lucy was conspiring to get rid of her and, after various alarming incidents in which she tried to strangle herself with a piece of string and set her bedroom curtains alight, she endured a night of what her brother Fred later described as ‘homicidal mania’.
He gave no details but suggested that she had tried to kill their mother. After that she was removed to the first of many asylums and in 1916 she died, like her father before her, of heart failure.
Mary Benson was then in her late 70s, an increasingly deaf and frail figure who described a walk around the garden with her as ‘a totter with a tortoise’. When she died peacefully in her sleep just two years later, Lucy Tait was in bed beside her. There was, of course, no mention of this in newspaper reports of her death and lists of the mourners at her funeral described Lucy only as ‘a family friend’.
This was a faint tribute to almost three decades of faithful love and companionship, but Mary Benson would have approved of this discretion. After all, as her own life had proved, although Victorian society was notoriously stuffy, those who didn’t frighten the horses could get away with an awful lot.