A Very Queer Family Indeed: Sex, Religion, and the Bensons in Victorian Britain

Tom Crewe writes:

Arthur Benson never stopped dreaming about his father. Edward White Benson, Archbishop of Canterbury, dropped dead saying the Confession in 1896 – he sank onto his prayer cushion and didn’t get up again – but nearly twenty years later his son found him crouched in the cupboard under the stairs, dressed in his purple cassock and playing with some toys: ‘Papa … giggled; then he said: “But now that you have found me out, you must run down here as often as you can, and we will have a good game at something – You don’t know what fun it is.”’ Finding his father out was something Arthur spent a lifetime failing to do. The dream he recorded in his diary in 1916 at the age of 53 is poignant because it made a travesty of his most deep-seated anxieties, as if in that moment – but only in that moment – it could neutralise their sting. It’s nice to think of your father hiding himself away because he was playing with toys, and not because he was a manic depressive, as Arthur proved to be. Nicer to be invited to join a conspiracy than to discover only after his death that your father had treasured your childish scribblings, that he’d added ‘tender little inscriptions and dates’, although he’d never ‘given … the impression that he cared’, and then to ask yourself how children can ‘understand that they are loved, unless it is shown to them plainly’. And preferable to imagine your dead father as a friendly figment from the past than as a restless spirit making trouble for the living. For the late archbishop didn’t appear only in his son’s dreams, but seemed sometimes to peer out from behind the eyes of his daughter Maggie, into whom had passed ‘something of his severity and of those moods of dark depression which sometimes obsessed him’. As a writer of ghost stories who in adulthood left relics of himself in secret places to prevent erasure by death, Arthur must have wondered whether his father too might be tethered to the earth by something he had buried in the ground when he was just a little boy: a piece of paper on which was written ‘I hate papa.’

(LRB 20 April 2017)

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