Archbishop Edward Benson was the ideal of a Victorian churchman. Stern and unbending, he was a brilliant Cambridge scholar and a dreamily beautiful youth. Older men fell over themselves to promote him, and he climbed effortlessly from one plum post to the next, rising almost inevitably to become Archbishop of Canterbury.
As Rodney Bolt shows in this fine book, Archbishop Benson’s domestic life was less than perfect. When he was 23, Benson chose an 11-year old girl named Mary Sidgwick to become his wife. She was his second cousin, and when she was 12 (which was at that time the age of consent) he proposed to her. They married when she was 18.
Mary Sidgwick later claimed that being a child wife meant that ‘I did not grow up’. Benson tried to control her in everything. He was humourless, didactic and dry. He bullied her about doing her accounts, and he suffered from black depressions which made him particularly unbearable to live with.
Mary rebelled from his domestic tyranny. She escaped into a world where Edward couldn’t reach her: into a succession of passionate relationships with women. ‘My God, what a woman!’ she would exclaim, and there would follow an intense friendship, ‘utter fascination’, a torrent of love letters and then what she called Schwarmerei, or inappropriate feelings, as she struggled with the carnal longing which she believed to be sinful. All this she recorded in her diaries, which form the material for Bolt’s absorbing account. It’s clear that Mary Benson wasn’t conflicted or ambivalent about her sexuality, and she felt no need to label herself as gay. She just happened to love women, but there was never any doubt in her mind that she was Edward’s wife.