Sarah Bradford

What A Woman!

As Good as God, as Clever as the Devil: The Impossible Life of Mary Benson

By

Atlantic Books 362pp £22 order from our bookshop

Barchester this is not. The extraordinary lives of the Benson family have nothing to with pecking order in the cloister and everything to do with sex. This is the church of Charles Dodgson, not Bishop Proudie.

Mary Benson’s adult life began as a child bride to a man who would nowadays be described as a paedophile: the gifted, impossible Edward White Benson, who rose effortlessly through the ranks of the Church to become Archbishop of Canterbury, and was favoured by Prince Albert and Queen Victoria. Mary, or Minnie as she was then known, was Edward’s second cousin; she was eleven and he twenty-three when he decided in 1852 to make this ‘beautiful bud’ his wife; and they duly married in 1859. Rodney Bolt clearly does not care much for Edward, describing him as a ‘sentimental, headstrong, self-regarding, absolute, and conscientiously Christian young man’. He was also clearly an insufferable prig, with the unyielding sense of righteousness that too often characterised Victorian Anglicanism. After his widowed mother died in poverty, leaving six children younger than Edward, he rejected his rich uncle’s offer to take care of the youngest, Charlie, for fear that Charlie might be tainted by the uncle’s Unitarianism. That was not his only fear, as his widow was to write in the confessional diaries she wrote after his death: ‘I realise that he chose me deliberately, as a child who was very fond of him and whom he might educate – he even wanted to preserve himself from errant fallings-in-love’.

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