Imagine the rumpus that would erupt if it turned out that the Archbishop of Canterbury’s wife was a lesbian and, moreover, lived in Lambeth Palace with her girlfriend. Editorialising in news magazines would pale alongside.
However, this was precisely the domestic situation of Edward and Mary Benson at the end of the nineteenth century. ‘Lucy Tait lived with the Bensons during their years at Lambeth Palace without a breath of scandal, even though Mary was praying in her journal that she “might have the strength to resist her carnal desires.” Nor did anyone remark on the fact that all five surviving Benson children… were not “the marrying kind”.’
On Sunday 11 October 1896, Edward White Benson, Archbishop of Canterbury, insufferable to the end, died on his knees in church saying the Confession, after a life of relentless success. At that moment his wife Mary became nobody…All this is over,A” Mary wrote in her diary, it has fallen to pieces around us.A”‘ Young Minnie Sidgwick met her future husband in 1849 when he was twenty and she was eight years old; he proposed to her just three years later. Through her marriage to Edward, whose career would take him from success as a young head schoolmaster to become Archbishop of Canterbury, Mary Benson came to preside over Lambeth Palace and a social circle that ranged from famous politicians and celebrated writers to Queen Victoria herself. But Mrs Benson’s most intense and intimate relationships were not with her husband, but with other women. Freed from her intense but largely unhappy marriage after the Archbishop’s death, Mary moved out of London with her friend Lucy Tait to preside over a very different Home Counties world, dominated by her brood of fiercely eccentric and talented children, each as unlikely and individual as herself. Drawing on the diaries and novels of the Bensons themselves, as well as writings of contemporaries from George Eliot to Queen Victoria, Rodney Bolt tells the sometimes touching, sometimes hilarious, story of one lovable, brilliant woman and her trajectory through the often surprising opportunities and the remarkable limitations of a Victorian woman’s life.
*Leaping lesbians from 1974.