An EF Benson you might not know

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Guy Fraser Sampson book signing after his talk at Rye Arts Festival last year

Guy Fraser Sampson came to the Arts Festival’s Lamb House Marquee on September 26 to talk about EF Benson, Lamb House and Rye. Fraser Sampson is a Senior Fellow at the Cass Business School and the author of a number of books about international finance. He is also very keen on cricket and Mapp and Lucia. A heady mix!  EF Benson’s well known stories  were, of course, recently a three part television series on the BBC.

Fraser Sampson structured his talk around the amazingly dysfunctional Benson family, then spoke of his three sequels to Mapp and Lucia, Major Benjy (2008) Lucia on Holiday ((2012) and Au Reservoir, his latest and last. He finished with a reading from Au Reservoir.

The lives of Archbishop Benson and his wife Mary Sidgwick have to be heard to be believed. Edward Benson asked for Mary’s hand in marriage when he was twenty three years old and she was only eleven. They married when she was eighteen and for the following ten years, she was either pregnant or recovering. There were eventually five children, three sons and two daughters. EF (Fred) Benson was the second eldest.

Mary Benson was gay, and throughout her married life, had a series of “crushes”, lovers, with  whom her daughters, Ellen and Margaret,  also fell in love sometimes, with unforeseen consequences. Mary’s greatest and longest love was Lucy Tait, whose father had been Archbishop of Canterbury before Edward. Unfortunately Maggie, the youngest daughter, fell in love with her, too, and this passion led to serious mental illness culminating in a “murderous attack”, which led to her admission to a mental institution.

It seems probable that all the children were gay, at a time when homosexuality was a criminal offence. It is known that Fred Benson was a friend of Lord Alfred Douglas, Oscar Wilde’s lover, and it is possible that he had the dangers of this situation pointed out to him.

All the men were very successful in their own fields and as novelists. Fred Benson had a major success whilst still an undergraduate, with the novel “Dodo”. He seemed to have a” lucky star sitting on his shoulder”, as Fraser Sampson put it. Whilst Fred was in Egypt working as an amateur archaeologist, the novel was reprinted five times, setting him off on his pathway to success.

Fred Benson lived in Rye in the period between the two World Wars. He was a major player in the close knit literary circles that existed around this area at the time, especially because of his friendship with HG Wells. Wells, who lived at Sandgate, knew everyone, helped by local geography. Conrad Aitken lived at Jeakes House,  (HG Wells had been one of his schoolteachers).

Aitken also knew Tom Elliott and Ezra Pound. Joseph Conrad knew Wells and in turn was a friend of Conrad Aitken and so it went on. Two young men, Malcolm Saville and Richard Aldington, a very successful war poet, joined the ranks. Aldington’s mother owned the Mermaid Inn, where Benson hosted many a convivial dinner party! Many of the most significant English novelists lived in and around Rye.

Fraser Sampson then moved on to discuss his own trilogy. He explained  he had always loved the three Benson novels that have both Mapp and Lucia as protagonists. Benson originally created the two characters separately, before bringing them together, with rather “cardboard” secondary characters. Fraser Sampson wanted to try building a bridge between the world of Miss Mapp and that of Mapp and Lucia, (Major Benjy).

He followed this up with Lucia on Holiday, taking the characters away from Tilling to Italy. In the final novel, Au Reservoir, he included fully researched real characters. The reading from Au Reservoir that followed concerned a meeting with Noel Coward.This finished the talk on a high note, with the audience wanting more from an amusing, clever and fluent speaker.

References: Major Benjy (2008) Elliott and Thompson, Lucia on Holiday (2012) Elliott and Thompson, Au Reservoir (2014) Elliott and Thompson.

 

Photo: Gillian Roder