"Early impressions are like glimpses seen through the window by night when lightning is about."
Edward Frederic Benson (1867–1940), novelist, was born at Wellington College on 24 July 1867, the third son of Edward White Benson (1829–1896) and Mary Sidgwick (1841–1918). His father was headmaster of Wellington College and subsequently archbishop of Canterbury. He was a younger brother of Arthur Christopher Benson (1862–1925), Mary Eleanor Benson (1863–1890), and Margaret Benson (1865–1916), and an elder brother of Robert Hugh Benson (1871–1914). He was educated at Temple Grove School, Sheen, Marlborough College, and King's College, Cambridge, where he was exhibitioner (1888) and scholar (1890). He secured first classes in both parts of the classical tripos (1890, 1891) and his first book, Sketches from Marlborough, was published while he was at Cambridge.
Benson worked in Athens for the British School of Archaeology (1892–5) and in Egypt for the Society for the Promotion of Hellenic Studies (1895). His first novel, Dodo, was published in 1893 and was a runaway success. From 1895 to 1918 he lived in London and devoted himself to writing, much of his work being published in fashionable magazines. From 1918 he lived for the greater part of each year at Lamb House in Rye, Sussex, which had been the home of Henry James.
Benson described himself as uncontrollably prolific: he published at least ninety-three books, excluding collaborations. Benson's writings fall into three groups: novels of social satire, reminiscences, and horror stories. Most famous among his social satires are the novels of manners, especially the ‘Mapp and Lucia’ novels, which include Queen Lucia (1920), Lucia in London (1927), and Miss Mapp (1922); they are set both in London and in ‘Tilling’, a fictionalized Rye, and are said to be romans-à-clef (as also are the Dodo novels, where Dodo is believed to be a portrait of Margot Tennant, later Lady Oxford). These novels remain witty and penetrating social studies. A London Weekend Television dramatization, entitled Mapp and Lucia, was screened by Channel 4. This, along with an omnibus publication of the complete novels, Make Way for Lucia (1977; 1986), revived interest in Benson's work, and increased his popularity with a wider audience. Another group of his social satires were less successful, and deal with university life, examples being, The Babe, BA (1897), David Blaize (1916), and Colin II (1925).
Benson's books of reminiscences, such as As we were (1930), As we are (1932), and Final Edition (1940), have value as sources for social history and personal anecdote, as he excelled in creating vivid pictures of the atmosphere of the times. This was a quality also displayed in his biographical studies of Edward VII and Queen Victoria. In one of his books of family recollections Benson claims for himself a retentive, observational memory, even of things hardly noted at the time. This was perhaps his most remarkable quality, displayed in his non-fiction and fiction alike. His stories of horror and the supernatural have remained consistently popular. Early horror novels, such as The Luck of the Vails (1901), and The Room in the Tower (1912), are characterised by lavish descriptions and psychological tension. Visible and Invisible (1923), Spook Stories (1928), and More Spook Stories (1934) are more coldly unemotional excursions into the realm of ghosts and marvels.
Benson never married and many of his novels suggest that he had a generalised dislike of women. He lived alone in Rye and continued writing until his death. He was Mayor of Rye from 1934 to 1937 and a J.P. He was elected an honorary fellow of Magdalene College, Cambridge, in 1938 and was awarded an O.B.E. He died in University College Hospital, London, on 29 February 1940, and was buried in the Rye cemetery after a funeral conducted by the Bishop of Chichester. The E. F. Benson Society was founded in London in 1984, and publishes The Dodo, a semi-annual journal.
TITLES BY E. F. BENSON