Tuesday, April 24, 2012

A. C. Benson’s inner life

Today marks 150 years since the birth of A. C. Benson, a much respected academic and writer who became master of Magdalene College, Cambridge. Though his outward life may have seemed somewhat shy or retiring, his voluminous diaries, when they were published posthumously, revealed him to have a colourful and emotional psyche.

Benson was born on 24 April 1862 at Wellington College in Berkshire, his father Edward White Benson being headmaster of the school at the time, though he would go on to become Archbishop of Canterbury. Arthur Benson was educated at Eton and King’s College, Cambridge, and then went straight back to Eton as a teacher, and stayed until 1903. Thereafter, he was a fellow at Magdalene College, Cambridge, becoming president in 1912 and master in 1915, a post he held until his death in 1925. A little further biographical information is available from Wikipedia, and The Victorian Web.

Benson was a prolific writer throughout his life, composing fiction, poetry, librettos (including the famous song Land of Hope and Glory), essays and biographies. He was also co-editor of Queen Victoria’s letters, but is now mostly remembered for his diaries. Benson began to keep a regular diary from 1897 and continued until the end of his life. He left behind 180 notebooks with over four million words. They revealed that the apparently somewhat retiring academic had had a far more tumultuous inner life than an outer one.

The diaries were first edited by Percy Lubbock and published as The Diary of Arthur Christopher Benson by Hutchinson & Co (London) in 1926. According to Lubbock, in his introduction, ‘the familiar grey or purple notebook lay always on [Benson’s] table, close to his hand; and at any free moment of his busy day he would seize it, write in it with incredible swiftness, and bring it up to date with a dozen headlong pages.’ By the end of a month, Lubbock adds, the notebook would be filled from cover to cover and a new one opened.

More recently, in 1981, John Murray published Edwardian Excursions: From the Diaries of A. C. Benson 1898-1904, as selected and edited by David Newsome (who, a year earlier, had also authored a biography - On the Edge of Paradise: A. C. Benson, the Diarist).

Here are several extracts from Lubbock’s edited version of the diaries, showing variously Benson’s hatred of aspects of school life, his tendency to squabble with women friends, and his liking/love of young men.

26 February 1900
‘Monday: hateful day of fierce, arid, consuming work, done, not for the improvement of the boys - indeed, apart from them - but to satisfy my critical colleagues. I go from school to school, with pupils and piles of exercises crammed in. I walked up to Windsor: some gleams of sun. Came down: saw Ainger and Cornish setting off for a walk, a thing they have done at 3:45 on Monday for thirty-five years - if only people would do something different! Ainger walks solidly, religiously, gravely. The boys all coming out of school, by the cannon - one talking to Bowlby with his hat off; they were doing this twenty-six years ago when I was a boy; and here I have been practically ever since, fast bound. I beat against the wires. What an odd poor thing life is - and yet should I be happier free? And that is the poorest thing of all, that the cage, the burrow, the haunt grows so dear. Watched a robin sing in my garden - hard-worked to keep himself fed; I suppose he was born, lived all his life and will die in this privet-hedge. Why should not I be content to do the same? And then it comes over me in a flash that I am nearly forty, and yet don’t feel as if the serious business of life had begun, or as if I had really settled down to a profession - as if that was to come.’

23 June 1906
‘I drove off to Athenaeum. Wrote letters, and went to see the Blake exhibition. Surely people must be cracked who make such a fuss about Blake’s little funny drawings. There is some imagination in them and much quaintness. But the absurd old men with beards likes ferns or carrots - the strange glooms and flames and tornadoes of vapour, the odd, conventional faces, the muscular backs, the attenuated thighs! Blake was a childish spirit who loved his art, and had a curious naive use of both word and line and colour; and some fine simple thoughts about art and life. But he was certainly not ‘all there’ - and to make him out as a kind of supreme painter and poet is simply ridiculous.’

31 January 1907
‘I reflected sadly today how I tended to squabble with my women-friends. Here have I dropped out of all or nearly all my feminine friendships. I never see Lady P., I hear nothing of Countess B. I have lost sight of B. M. I have insulted M. C., alienated Mrs L., shut up Mrs S. - and so on. I have had rows with Howard, but he is more feminine than most of my friends. I think it is a certain bluntness, frankness, coarseness, which does not offend men, but which aggravates women. The thing which has tended to terminate my women-friendships is that at a certain juncture they begin to disapprove and to criticise my course, and to feel a responsibility to say disagreeable things. One ought to take it smilingly and courteously; and one would, if one liked the sex - but I don’t like the sex. Their mental processes are obscure to me; I don’t like their superficial ways; their mixture of emotion with reason. [. . .] I don’t want to excuse myself, because I think it is a vital deficiency in me; but it is so vital and so instinctive that I don’t see how to cure it, and I cannot even frame an effective desire to do so.’ 3 June 1925
‘College photograph. I liked my handsome friendly well-mannered young men very much, and felt proud of them. Lunched [. . .] then out with Manning . . . We found a chalk-pit above Harlton [. . .] with a little wood above it, and winding paths and tiny glades - such a little paradise. We wound through it and came out on the wold - the air full of golden sunlight, and a honied breeze, with scents of clover and beans; afar lay Cambridge, very hazy, with smoke going up; down below little quaint house-roofs and orchard-closes, full of buttercup and hemlock. A sweet hour. . .’ [This is one of Benson’s last diary entries since he died two weeks later.]

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