Thursday, 20 March 2014


Non-fiction ~ memoirs
Published 1925
Approx. 62,000 words
(First read 20/03/2014)

Mother is the highly enjoyable sequel to Our Family Affairs: 1867-1896 (1920).  I presume the only reason Fred didn't call it Our Family Affairs: 1896-1918 is that he wanted to leave an enduring tribute to his much-loved mother.  Yes, Mary (Sidgwick) Benson (1841-1918) is the focus of the book but she's far from being the exclusive focus.  A good two-thirds of it is devoted to other family members, in this order: EFB himself, his doomed sister Maggie (1865-1916), brother Hugh (1871-1914), the family nurse Beth (1819-1911), and, somewhat bringing up the rear, brother Arthur (1862-1925). 
Rather than whiffling on endlessly I'll just pick out a few highlights.
George I of Greece
EFB, after performing relief work in Greece following some kind of war they had there in the 1890s¹:
When I got home I was told by Lord Wantage, the head of the Red Cross, that King George of Greece had expressed an amiable desire to decorate with the Order of the Redeemer two of those who had been engaged in this relief work, and that my name had been recommended.  But from that day to this I never heard a word more about it, and the mystery as to whether the Order of the Redeemer was lost in the post, or whether King George, on second thoughts, considered that it would be too much pleasure, remains unsolved.
 EFB on Oscar Wilde in his prime²:
[...] Oscar Wilde was producing the plays which, however artificial they may seem now, sent his audiences reeling into the street, intoxicated by epigram and paradox.  None of them had the smallest spark of immortality, except possibly The Importance of Being Earnest, but they were very new, and their audacious nonsense was very like wit.
No comment.
My and EFB's sentiments on this subject tally exactly:
[...] the greatest wizard of all was Emily Brontë: how many times I have read Wuthering Heights I have no idea, but never, in spite of the clumsiness of its narration, have I laid it down without the firm conviction that it stands alone at the head of all novels in the English language.
(Rather like Mother, EFB's Charlotte Brontë (1932) is as much ~ if not actually more ~ about the other members of the family, especially Emily.)
EFB on what his mother thought of the Benson brothers' books, particularly Fred's, circa 1905:
Mary Benson at 19
[...] it was becoming common knowledge between her and me that she found the sort of book that I was writing now quite intolerable, [...] none of us yet had written anything that gave her any sense of personal pride. [...]  Some struck her as too quietist for the world [Arthur's], and some too worldly for her own quietism [Fred's]; some were propagandist of beliefs she did not share [Hugh's], and some were sentimental, and some were crude, and I feel convinced that she never read twice anything that any of us had written, nor indeed would have read much of it all once, if it had not been we who had written it.  She liked "bits" in most [of them], but not one spark of inspiration, not one crumb of the bread of life, did she find in any of them.³
Francis Yeats Brown
The section in which EFB talks about his close friendship with the young Francis Yeats Brown⁴ is interesting and ~ possibly ~ more revealing than he intended.  FYB was about 20 years younger than EFB and, at the start of their friendship, which apparently lasted several years, aged about 20.  And oh my! do those holidays they spent together in Italy ever sound idyllic under Fred's pen!
[...] the love of the sea and the swimming and the basking, and presently we spent inseparable days among rocks and sea-caves, or climbed, perspiring, through the woods of chestnut and laburnum to the Portofino Kulm [...]  another summer I settled down with him from May to August in that enchanted castle of Portofino.  [They slept in hammocks side by side in the garden]  And as long as I live I shall bear in my inward heart of happiness that nightly falling to sleep in the open, with the scent of stocks, and the drowsy pulse of the sea below, and the stars burning in the boughs of the stone-pine, and the black shadow of the castello lying across the white, moonstruck garden, and the sense of a drowsy friend in the hammock close by.
Now I ask you, Gentle Reader, if that isn't Love, what is?  (By contrast, there's none of this kind of rapture ~ in fact, there's no rapture at all ~ when he talks about his dealings with John Ellingham Brooks, the shirt-lifting pal he shared a house with on Capri ...)
The section in which the author recounts the final decline and death of the family nursemaid Beth, who served the Sidgwicks and the Bensons faithfully and with love for 77 years, is pretty well guaranteed to have you reaching for a hanky.  It did me.  [For more on Beth, see Across the Stream.]
Gaaah! this is going on forever! ~ okay, I'm going to wrap it up here.  I highly recommend Mother for anyone who has the least interest in the Benson family, Fred in particular: the book is ram-full of goodies, far too many to mention.

¹ "Don't blind us with details, Ewie!"
² Benson returned to the subject of Wilde ~ and was slightly less dismissive ~ in As We Were (1930).
³ For the happy ending to this subject see under David Blaize.
⁴ (1886-1944); author of The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1930). 

A certain Mr Rodney Bolt has produced a biography of Mary Benson, the splendidly titled As Good as God, as Clever as the Devil: The Impossible Life of Mary Benson, published by Atlantic Books in 2011. 

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