E. F. Benson

July 24th, 2016 Sections: From an Expat
E. F. Benson

E. F. Benson

I am often asked ehat I miss about England here in Kyrgyzstan … and one of the answers I offer from time to time, is the availability of books in English.  There are books in English to be found, but the range can be somewhat eclectic.  As it happens, that can be both a disappointment … but also an attraction.  One of the great pleasures of a bookstore was not knowing exactly what gems you might find or come across.

Some years ago I was asked by my Russian Teacher, who were my favourite authors … who did I enjoy reading.

It was quite an eclectic list … and, to be honest, I don’t think she had heard of many of those that I named … she was prablably waiting for me to name peoplke like, Shakespeare, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. She had heard of Grahame Green, but not his ‘successor’ Brian Moore, or Julian Barnes, or John Grisham, or …

Passing about contemporary authors, (I still count Grahame Green as ‘contemporary’ … but that’s probably because I can remember – and identify with – the world that he wrote about), she asked about more classical authors.

I am not sure what she would have made of it, if had mentioned Edward Fredrick Benson – better known as E.F. Benson.

Benson was fascinating character … born on 24th July, 1867 at Wellington College, a private school in Berkshire, into the family of the Headmaster, who would later go on to be Archbishop of Canterbury.  He was the fifth of six children, (… two of them died in childhood).  One of his older brothers not only editied the letters of Queen Victoria for publication but also wrote the words to the unoffical English anthem, Land of Hope and Glory; another joined the Catholic Church and went on to write both novels and devotional works; whilst his surviving sister became an amateur Egyptologist.

He was a prolific and popular writer, starting whilst still at school, at Marlborough College, and he was still a student at King’s College in Cambridge when his first stories were published, which drew heavily on his experiences at Matlborough.  Perhaps the most famous of these is the story of David Blaze.

His first real success came with Dodo … which was followed by a range of satirical stories, filled with dry humour poking fun and highlighting the posturinig and hypocrisy of the times.  Perhaps the best known examples are the stories of Mapp and Lucia, six novels and two short stories which have been televised in two highly acclaimed adaptations … and adapted for radio as audiobookls.

It was through the first of these that I first came across Benson.  I happened to tune in to the first episode … and almost turned it off again … as it seemed to be outrageously camp and artificial.  However, I perservered … and I am glad that I did.  It was

indeed, at times, outrageous … and definitely camp … (it has been said, for example, that Georgie, (Lucia’s best friend), was the first open and comfortable homosexual to be presented in English literature.) … but it also had charm and was more scathing satirical comment than simply ‘artifical’ … an attack on pretension and hypoccrycty which was made all the more powerful by using exageration to emphasize and highlight his commentary.

He was also known for a series of supernatural ghost stories and biographies … including his last book – an autobiogrpahy – delivered to his publisher just days before he died on 29th February, 1940.

 

By all acounts he was an all round character … with many varied skills and abilities.  As well as writing books in different genres, (including at least one, apparently, written in German), he was active in the affairs of his local community – even serving as Mayor of Rye, (the prototype of Tilling from the Mapp and Lucia stories).  Perhaps, one of the more surprising features of his life was that he was quite an accomplished sportsman … culminating in the fact that he represeted England as a figure skater.

 

Although he was one of six children, as I said – two of them died in childhood, and none of the survivors presented their parents with grandchildren.  Benson, himself, never married … and neither did his siblings, which has questions being raised about his sexuality … along with that of the rest of the family (… Mother included!).

There is a hint of this in his writing … as well as Georgie apparently being open and comfortable in his sexuality there is also the treatment of male friendship and bonding that feature in some his stories  … albeit, mainly Platonic relationships … getting close to – but never actually crossing – the border of simple camraderie (… unlike in EM Forster’s Maurice) … not to mention a number of his own friendships in real life.  He certainly seems to have been adopted by the Gay community as one of their own …

… but, frankly, I think that actually misses the whole point.

His sharp-eyed commentary clearly betrays the fact that he is a child of his times … but, also that he was able to see beyond the confines of his upbringing and focus on the things that he thought mattered … such as friendship and loyalty … good Victorian/Edwardian values …

… but the really important thing, it seems to me, is that he manages to exude a sense of compassion and understanding.  It doesn’t matter how awfully the characters in his stories are presented, how despicably they behave … the story unfolds in such a way that the reader ‘feels for them’ … is interested in and comes to care for them.

The characters all have their bad points and do terrible things … but that is a truism that we often forget and that actually applies to  everyone … nobody is ‘pure evil’ … nobody needs to be demonized.

 

As I said, one of the things that I really used to miss about England … was the opportunity to spend, say, half an hour browsing the shelves of a booksop to see what little gem I might come across … especially if it was a second hand book stall … for example, picking up another of Benson’s books that I hadn’t seen before.

Fortunately, however, there is help at hand … thanks to the internet … which brings us Amazon, Google Books, iTunes and the like of Project Gothenburg, ManyBooks … and so on …

 

 

 

 

Tags:
Comment closed.