There’s nowt so queer as folk

Allan Downend, Secretary of the EF Benson Society introduces Prof Goldhill

Fans of EF Benson, thrice Mayor of Rye (1934-37), tenant of Lamb House and writer of the much loved Mapp and Lucia novels amongst others enjoyed a special treat on Monday May 22, at St Mary-Le-Bow church in the City of London.

The Annual General Meeting of the EF Benson Society was addressed by a special guest speaker. Professor Simon Goldhill who teaches Greek at Cambridge university.  Prof Goldhill spoke about the Benson family, about which he has written in his recent book “A Very Queer Family Indeed: Sex, Religion and the Bensons in Victorian Britain”.

Although the EF Benson Society is very much focused on  the fifth child, “Fred” as he was known, his entire family provide an astonishing study. Fred’s father, Edward White, proposed to his mother Minnie when she was just 12 years old, (he was 23) then with her mother’s permission, he continued to write to her, educate her and groom her until she was marriageable at 18. This was uncomfortable listening.

Prof Goldhill told us that the Bensons were all avid writers, particularly about themselves and other family members. Of the six children, two died young but three of them were published authors and between them they published more than 200 books. Fred himself of course, but the eldest, Arthur wrote many books as well as the words to the well-known song “Land of Hope and Glory”. Hugh, the youngest son became a Catholic priest and wrote many religious works and Maggie was the first female published Egyptologist. They all wrote diaries, which Prof Goldhill read, particularly Arthur who would sometimes write 50 pages in one day. On suddenly suffering a heart attack which was to prove fatal, Arthur found it more necessary to record the details in his diary than to call for medical help!

All of the children were intrigued by “the kiss”, that sealed the deal between their father and the little girl who became their mother. Prof Goldhill told us that there were six accounts of this incident in the family writings – even though only two of them had been there.

The family was also unusual for its time in that all of them seemed to be confirmed bachelors or spinsters. Minnie, who did marry and have six children, ended up leaving the country for a rest cure after the final birth but then moved in with a Miss Hall in Germany. She did eventually return to England and her husband, but after he died, having attained the position of Archbishop of Canterbury, she set up house and shared a bed with Lucy Tait, who was the daughter of the previous incumbent.

After listening to the talk, I immediately rushed to buy Prof Goldhill’s book which is available from all good bookshops and Amazon.

The EF Benson Society’s next hurrah is the much anticipated Rye Day, which takes place on Saturday July 8 starting with a slap-up lunch at Fletchers. A walk to see the sights of Benson’s day ensues, including a peer into the houses where the characters lived as well as where the 2015 BBC series was filmed. The fiendishly “diffy” Benson quiz follows, with a lavish tea, and this year the programme concludes with a preview performance by Kate Garner of selections from her new Mapp and Lucia musical.

If you can’t wait that long, Allan Downend, the Secretary of the Society runs fortnightly walking tours of Benson’s Rye which are a fascinating insight into the town and the books.




Photo: Seana Lanigan


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