EF Benson, his life and times. An appreciation by Walter Mason
‘We will pay anything for Lucia books,’ read a legendary advertisement in the Times at some point in the 1940s, placed by a collective of desperate fans made up of Nancy Mitford, WH Auden, Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence. They were in search of a series of out-of-print comic novels by a deeply unfashionable Edwardian writer called EF Benson. The Lucia novels were to become Benson’s most celebrated creations, six books featuring the monstrous Lucia, a provincial snob, and her plump foil and sworn best enemy Miss Mapp. The other characters in the novels included a neurotic spiritualist called Daisy, a lesbian artist called Quaint Irene and Georgie, Lucia’s best friend, who has been singled out as perhaps the first open and comfortable homosexual in English literature.
The author EF Benson (Fred to his friends) was a handsome, masculine and sporting kind of Englishman who happened to prefer the company of others of the same type. His family was distinguished in English letters, and distinguished also by the fact that, with the exception of their patriarch, every single member was Queer. Benson’s father was the imposing Edward White Benson, Queen Victoria’s favourite Archbishop of Canterbury. Soon after he died, his wife Mary moved her girlfriend into their bedroom, and each of the four Benson children led notable careers as sexual mavericks. AC Benson, EF’s elder brother, was one of the Edwardian era’s bestselling writers, the editor of Queen Victoria’s letters and the man who wrote the lyrics to Elgar’s ‘Land of Hope and Glory’. A Cambridge don, he was a querulous and deeply closeted homosexual who lived in constant fear of exposure and begged brother Fred to observe a greater discretion in his lifestyle.
Baby brother Hugh went on to convert to Catholicism and become a beloved religious writer, Monsignor RH Benson. His early life had been marked by a scandalous association with the half-mad Baron Corvo, perhaps the most notorious gay writer of his age. Together the clan produced an insane number of books, and at Christmas gatherings each would compose something in the style of the other as a parlour game.
EF Benson launched his writing career with a bang, publishing an enormously successful and scandalous novel called Dodo in 1893. Supposedly an expose of the ‘New Woman’, Dodo is now, like much of his earliest work, almost entirely unreadable. Prolific and flexible, Benson turned his hand to many different genres through the course of his career, including schoolboy novels, ghost stories and the then-fashionable biographies of great and famous characters in England’s history. He never really rose up to his early promise, however, until he published his first Lucia novel, Queen Lucia, in 1920. It was an instant success, and Benson became famous as a chronicler of a dying breed of pretentious provincial remnants of the upper middle class, people who had retired on army pensions or were living carefully off investments by settling in cheap seaside villages.
This lifestyle was, of course, the very one that Benson himself had begun to lead, hence his acute knowledge of the divorced opera singers, dowager duchesses and penny-pinching parsons who populate his brilliant novels. What distinguishes the books is that, no matter how ghastly the actions of the characters, the reader never ceases to love them completely and hope for the very best for them. And anyone who has ever lived in a small town can recognise the hierarchy of citizenry that is brutally enforced in such places.
After his death in 1940 Benson’s books fell out of print and were viewed as quaint Edwardian artefacts, comic novels of manners that described a forgotten age of gentility and fierce social division. They were rediscovered by the Bright Young Things when they were becoming less Young, and who recognised in the books a brilliant eye for character and conflict, and a masterful but decidedly camp authorial voice. The Lucia novels would have an enormous impact on the subsequent Golden Age of British writing, influencing the comic work of Mitford, Waugh and Coward.
Benson seems doomed, however, to remain a cult writer. Since his death his books have enjoyed periodic vogues, springing back into print in the 1970s, being turned into a (very good) TV series by London Weekend Television in the 1980s and reissued again in the 1990s. The EF Benson Society has the status of a secret club and for over 70 years now eager Bensonophiles have driven up the prices of his books in rare book catalogues, making him one of the most collected, and collectable, writers of his age.
As well as the Lucia books, Benson’s later memoir work is very fine, carrying that same arch, observant but always-kind voice. His books As We Are and As We Were were both reissued in recent years, and his memoir of his mother is also noteworthy, though hard to get.
Mention EF Benson on social media and you will be inundated with people quietly confessing their passionate love for the Lucia books. The Anglosphere is dotted with Benson-obsessives who carry an encyclopaedic knowledge of his settings and characters around in their heads, and periodically some writers are even brave enough to attempt to write ‘new’ Benson novels. But the Lucia novels are untouchable in their perfection, and once read will never be left alone for more than a year at a stretch. I have even discovered the books’ curative properties – whenever I come down with the flu the first thing I do is reach for one of them and sit down and read until I am restored to good health.
Walter Mason is a writer, spiritual tourist and a lifelong dilettante. He is the author of the memoir Destination Saigon: Adventures in Vietnam (Allen & Unwin, 2010), and you can visit his blog here.