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literature

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Benson, E. F. (1867-1940)  

Born in 1867 to Edward White Benson, Headmaster of Wellington College, later Bishop of Truro, then Archbishop of Canterbury, and Mary Sidgwick, whom W. E. Gladstone once called "the cleverest woman in Europe," Edward Frederick Benson enjoyed a privileged upbringing within his elite Victorian family and, like his siblings, fell easily into prolific writing.

By the time of his death in 1940, he had written over one hundred books: tales of the supernatural, books on winter sports (he excelled at figure skating), biographies, autobiographies, but most of all novels, all of them enriched by his tenacious memory, his satiric wit, and his anecdotal charm.

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His autobiographical volumes--Our Family Affairs (1920), As We Were: A Victorian Peep-Show (1930), and Final Edition (1940)--remain excellent introductions to the Victorian and Edwardian worlds and effectively convey what protective coloration a gay man in these worlds had to adapt.

None of the Benson siblings married; three of them experienced periods of destructive depression; all of them at one time or another had same-sex relationships; and encouraged by their parents, they all wrote voluminously. The eldest, Arthur Christopher (1862-1925) is remembered for his poem "Land of Hope and Glory" and a five-million-word diary; Robert Hugh (1871-1914), the youngest, became a Catholic priest and apologist, writing moral puzzle novels as well as melodramatic novels such as Come Rack! Come Rope!

Benson knew that his brothers considered his "works and days . . . both dilettante and frivolous" because he committed himself to the social rather than to the academic or the theological world. After taking a double first at Cambridge, he worked for the British School of Archaeology in Greece and Egypt from 1892 until 1897, then returned to London.

His life settled into the easy rounds of Addington (the family home) for holidays, Capri in the summer, Switzerland for winter sports, and eventually Rye, where he had acquired Lamb House, Henry James's home, and where he became the town's 645th mayor.

Success came quickly and easily for Benson, and he later regretted this. In Final Edition, he notes: "I saw now what a disaster that first success [Dodo] had been, for, backed by such critical encouragement, it made me think that all I had to do was to keep up my interest in life and dash off stories with ease and enjoyment."

He tended to exploit characters through sequels if they were popular when first introduced. Dodo (1893) was joined by Dodo's Daughter (1913), Dodo the Second (1914), and Dodo Wonders (1921). Once Mrs. Emmeline Lucas, better known as La Lucia, came into existence, Benson quickly expanded her adventures in Queen Lucia (1920), Miss Mapp (1922), Lucia in London (1929), Mapp and Lucia (1931), Lucia's Progress (1935), and Troubles for Lucia (1939). The Lucia books have become cult classics, especially among gay readers, who delight in their campy exaggerations, social jealousies, and gentle but not altogether affectionate social satire.

Benson's reputation faded quickly after his death, until the BBC adaptation of the Lucia books restored him to prominence. One reads his books now with regret--regret that he did not write more openly and more tellingly about his own sexuality and the richly varied homosexual world that he knew and in which he participated.

He wrote, though, with a fiercely guarded privacy and a keenly honed Victorian reticence. , though, especially informs his university novels, such as The Babe, B.A. (1896), David Blaize (1916), David Blaize and the Blue Door (1918), and David of King's (1924), as well as the unusual Raven's Brood (1934); and he did write a biography of Alcibiades, the uninhibitedly bisexual Greek renowned for his physical beauty and his relationship with Socrates.

David Leon Higdon

     

    
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    Bibliography
   

Askwith, Betty. Two Victorian Families. London: Chatto & Windus, 1973.

Williams, David. Genesis and Exodus: A Portrait of the Benson Family. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1979.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Higdon, David Leon  
    Entry Title: Benson, E. F.  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated January 30, 2003  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/literature/benson_ef.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  
 

 

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