In 1859, at 18, Mary Benson married her second cousin Edward, the man who would eventually become Archbishop of Canterbury. Mary wrote many passionate love letters during their 37-year marriage. “Did you possess me, or I you, my Heart’s Beloved,” read one, “as we sat there together on Thursday & Friday, as we held each other close, as we kissed.” Another: “you are in my heart of hearts…I don’t feel big enough to hold you.”
Mary did not write these letters to her husband, whose role as archbishop made him the religious leader of the British Empire. She wrote them to the women she fell passionately in love with, one of whom spent six years living in the Benson family home.
The modern perception of Victorian sexuality emphasizes prudishness and naïveté. But the idea that people of the era kept their sexual desires hidden from others is a misconception. Victorians were “used to talking about their own feelings,” says Professor Simon Goldhill, author of A Very Queer Family Indeed, a book about the Benson family. “They talked about relationships, they talked about emotions, and they talked about desire in all sorts of ways.”
This isn’t to say that acting on same-sex desire was safe in Victorian times: the punishment for sex between men was death until 1861, when it was downgraded to a minimum of 10 years’ prison labor. Sex between women was not punishable by law, but that was because such intimacies were largely invisible to those in charge. Close female friendships appeared prevalent, but lesbianism was not yet a definable concept.
Although some Victorians with same-sex desires were “very, very disturbed by their own feelings,” says Goldhill, “a lot of it was intellectually worked through, for families of this sort, because they were highly educated.”
Mary Benson met her future husband when she was 11 and he was 23. Edward proposed to her once she turned 12, but Mary’s mother balked at the notion of marrying off her daughter so young. At 18 and 30, they finally wed. Reflecting on her wooing in 1876, Mary wrote that Edward “chose me deliberately, as a child who was very fond of him and whom he might educate.”
One of the Benson’s six children, Fred, described his father as “a volcano of physical and mental energy” and wrote that “since her marriage at the age of eighteen,” Mary “had dedicated herself and all the activities of her life to him.”
Eight years into their marriage, shortly after Fred’s birth, Mary met a woman named Emily Edwardes. The attraction was instant. “The flood of entirely another force engulfed her, something wilder, more reckless,” wrote Rodney Bolt in his Mary Benson biography, As Good as God, as Clear as the Devil.
Afflicted by postpartum melancholy, Mary took a vacation with Emily. When she got home, Mary and Edward had a frank talk about the relationship between the two women. Edward didn’t forbid Mary from seeing Emily, but he “took me on his knee, and blessed God and prayed,” Mary wrote in her diary. She had been neglecting the household tasks and childcare expected of a wife. “I remember my heart sank within me and became as a stone—for duties stared me in the face.”
Edward’s approach to Mary’s same-sex attraction (discussion, prayer, and empathy) remained remarkably consistent throughout their marriage, even after he became the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1883. “He knew that she desired women, but they still lived together,” says Goldhill. “They had to to talk about that, they had to work their way through that in a way that very few people understand.”
Emily was hardly the only woman to capture Mary’s heart. In 1871, after the birth of her sixth child, Hugh, Mary was diagnosed with a nervous condition, and traveled to the German spa town of Wiesbaden to recuperate. There, she met Ellen Hall. In her diary, Mary wrote that “fascination possessed me.” The pair had trouble restraining themselves. “I will not even write it—but, O God, forgive—how near we were to that!” What was originally going to be a short stay in Germany turned into six months away.
Back in England, Mary met a woman who would test and ultimately strengthen her faith in God. Mrs. Mylne was a committed Evangelical, married to a student of theology. Mary called her “Tan,” and wrote that spending time with her drove her “to an uneasy restlessness, a fierceness, a tingling.” She confessed these feelings to Tan, who encouraged her to detail her sinful thoughts in an effort to be rid of them. “She helped me as she always does—but the restless desire increased,” wrote Mary. Following her confession she spent the rest of the evening alone, in conversation with God.
Mary increasingly wrestled with what she called the “stain” of desire toward women. “She was fully aware that to have sex with another woman was a problem,” says Goldhill. Mary was a committed Christian, and had to find a way to reconcile her faith with her longings. In the wake of her experiences with Tan, her religion became “inextricably bound up with her love for a woman,” wrote Bolt. “[I]t was almost the same thing, as if love for God was a development of this earthly love.”
The only time one of Mary’s companions caused major upheaval in the Benson household came in 1889, when Mary fell for a younger composer named Ethel Smyth. “The reasons for which I love you are unshakeable,” Smyth wrote Mary in a letter, “here are some of them: your truth, your fire, your intensity, your power of sustained effort, your extraordinary grip over other souls, your intellect, and above all, in the words of a prayer I like, your ‘unconquerable heart.’”
Edward disliked Smyth, who had come to Mary after another married woman’s family had banished her. But the real problem came when Smyth fell in love with another Benson: Nellie, Mary’s daughter. And Nellie was besotted back. The two were much closer in age: at the time, Nellie was 26, Smyth was 31, and Mary was 48. Even though, from a philosophical standpoint, Mary saw the sense in accommodating their relationship, she was clearly chagrined. “I feel now that I must stand aside in the matter and leave you two alone,” she wrote Smyth.
In a tragic turn of events, Nellie contracted diphtheria and died in 1890. Weeks later, Edward invited Lucy Tait, the daughter of the previous Archbishop of Canterbury, to move into the Benson household. Her presence was intended as a stabilizing force. Edward envisioned she would become a friend to their troubled daughter Maggie, as well as a substitute daughter of sorts for Mary. Lucy Tait ended up becoming Mary’s final lover. Their relationship lasted 30 years.
“There is no suggestion, as some have hopefully imagined, that they shared a bed while Edward was alive,” wrote Goldhill, though they definitely shared one six years into their relationship, when Edward died.
Mary Benson lived another 21 years after her husband’s death, during which she had “constant companionship” with Lucy Tait, according to her son Fred. When Tait died 20 years after Mary, she was buried beside her.
As for the Benson offspring, none ever married. The first son, Martin, died at 18. All the rest became writers. Maggie, who went to Oxford and became an Egyptologist, ended up falling in love with a woman, an archaeologist named Janet “Nettie” Gourlay, during a dig in Egypt. This was a pleasant surprise to the family, who had considered Maggie a bit of a recluse. (Nellie once remarked that “if Maggie would only have an intimate relationship even with a cat, it would be a relief.”) Maggie and Nettie became lifelong lovers, but sadly Maggie ended up confined to psychiatric hospitals for the last nine years of her life. She died at 50.
The Bensons’ second-born, Arthur, wrote often of romantic feelings toward men complicated by guilt and repulsion. At “age 50-odd,” says Goldhill, he admitted he’d never been kissed. Fred wrote several books about his parents, reflecting an apparent fascination with their lives. Robert, the youngest Benson, converted to Catholicism, befriended Lord Alfred Douglas—lover of Oscar Wilde—and wrote dystopian fiction.
Ultimately, amid all the family’s unconventional arrangements and affairs, the most objectionable aspect of the Benson marriage today is how it began: with a 23-year-old man courting an 11-year-old girl. In all their time together, wrote an adult Fred of his parents: “Two things only remained to her of her own which were not his: these were her personal relation to God, and her personal relation to her children and friends.”
“As the intimacy deepened” between Mary and these female friends, Fred observed, “she found that her friend knew the road which she instinctively felt must be her own, and, as by some splendid illumination, long groped for in dimness, came the light.”
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