As Good as God, as Clever as the Devil: The Impossible Life of Mary Benson

Rodney Bolt

As Good as God, as Clever as the Devil: The Impossible Life of Mary Benson

Through her marriage to Edward White Benson, whose career would take him from success as a young head schoolmaster to become Archbishop of Canterbury, Mary Benson came to preside over Lambeth Palace and a social circle that ranged from famous politicians and celebrated writers to Queen Victoria herself. But Mrs Benson's most intense and intimate relationships were not with her husband, but with other women. Freed from her intense but largely unhappy marriage after the Archbishop's death, Mary moved out of London with her friend Lucy Tait to preside over a very different Home Counties world, dominated by her brood of fiercely eccentric and talented children, each as unlikely and individual as herself. Drawing on the diaries and novels of the Bensons themselves, as well as writings of contemporaries from George Eliot to Queen Victoria, Rodney Bolt tells the story of one lovable, brilliant woman and her trajectory through the often surprising opportunities and the remarkable limitations of a Victorian woman's life. 4.1 out of 5 based on 9 reviews
As Good as God, as Clever as the Devil: The Impossible Life of Mary Benson

Omniscore:

Classification Non-fiction
Genre Biography
Format Hardback
Pages 320
RRP £22.00
Date of Publication June 2011
ISBN 978-1843548614
Publisher Atlantic
 

Through her marriage to Edward White Benson, whose career would take him from success as a young head schoolmaster to become Archbishop of Canterbury, Mary Benson came to preside over Lambeth Palace and a social circle that ranged from famous politicians and celebrated writers to Queen Victoria herself. But Mrs Benson's most intense and intimate relationships were not with her husband, but with other women. Freed from her intense but largely unhappy marriage after the Archbishop's death, Mary moved out of London with her friend Lucy Tait to preside over a very different Home Counties world, dominated by her brood of fiercely eccentric and talented children, each as unlikely and individual as herself. Drawing on the diaries and novels of the Bensons themselves, as well as writings of contemporaries from George Eliot to Queen Victoria, Rodney Bolt tells the story of one lovable, brilliant woman and her trajectory through the often surprising opportunities and the remarkable limitations of a Victorian woman's life.

Reviews

The Independent

DJ Taylor

As Good a Good, as Clever as the Devil is an example of an accelerating trend in Victorian biography, the book that seeks to coax a hitherto neglected wife from the shadows cast by her domineering husband. But whereas Caroline Dickens — to make the most obvious comparison — is merely a representative mid-Victorian home-maker, Mary Benson is something else altogether: a woman whose personality shines off the page, and who seems at least as much an influence on her multi-talented children as croziered Cantuar. My only complaint about Rodney Bolt's consistently absorbing study is that it isn't twice as long.

15/07/2011

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The Spectator

Jane Ridley

[A] fine book … I found [it] very hard to put down … if I have a niggle with Bolt’s account, it is that in his concern to show not tell, he doesn’t stop to ask the question why. If any family could benefit from some cod psychology it is the Bensons.

09/07/2011

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The Daily Express

Duncan Fallowell

It’s an odd rather than a sensational story and Rodney Bolt tells it with the right amount of sardonic mockery and sympathy but you’ll be thankful you don’t have to live with any of them.

10/06/2011

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The Guardian

Alexandra Harris

… an utterly absorbing biography of a woman who is very much worth reading about, and who was herself a deeply intelligent reader of her own late-19th-century world … devilishly good.

09/06/2011

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The Independent on Sunday

Lisa Gee

Much of the joy of this effervescent biography is in its detail … Just occasionally, though, I'd have welcomed a more direct and opinionated approach.

29/05/2011

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The Scotsman

Lee Randall

… one of the most riveting biographies you'll read all year … [It] is often screamingly funny. Bolt's characterisations of the Benson children, not to mention their father, are spot on.

05/06/2011

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The Sunday Telegraph

Judith Flanders

… it is greatly to Bolt’s credit that he makes the remaining decades of her life as interesting as those when she was at the centre of London political and social life. Indeed, his tone is carefully judged throughout, both affectionately admiring of his subject, and yet astringently objective. The cleverest woman in Europe and her remarkable brood are fascinating to read about — even as one is grateful never to have met them.

19/06/2011

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The Times

Valerie Grove

Bolt’s lively, exemplary approach to research is to include detail if it is amusing and to insert passages from the Benson boys’ fiction, clearly drawn from their home life, or from letters reflecting on their parents’ incompatibility. It’s a sort of Benson family scrapbook. Bolt makes no facile speculations about how far Mary’s lifelong physical yearnings were fulfilled: it is enough to say that after Edward died, for the rest of her life she shared with Lucy Tait “a large mahogany bed”. Admirable.

21/05/2011

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The Sunday Times

Daisy Goodwin

Entertaining … this fascinating book does a brilliant job of revealing just how permissive Victorian society actually was. As Bolt shows, so long as you didn’t frighten the horses or alarm the servants, you could get away with pretty much anything.

12/06/2011

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