Goldhill, Simon. “A Very Queer Family Indeed: Sex, Religion, and the Bensons in Victorian Britain”, University of Chicago Press, 2016.
An Extraordinary Family
Edward White Benson became Archbishop of Canterbury at the height of Queen Victoria’s reign, and his wife, Mary, was renowned for her wit and charm. Some, including the prime minister, thought her to “the cleverest woman in England or in Europe.” The couple had and raised six precocious children included E. F. Benson, creator of the Mapp and Lucia novels, and Margaret Benson, the first published female Egyptologist.
Author Simon Goldhill, however, is most interested in what went on behind the scenes of the family that was very unusual. The Benson family wrote novels, essays, and thousands of letters that opened new perspectives such topics as what it might mean for an adult to kiss and propose marriage to a twelve-year-old girl, how religion in a family could support or destroy relationships, or how the death of a child could be celebrated. There has been no other family to leave such detailed records about their most intimate moments. It is through these accounts that we see how family life and a family’s understanding of itself took shape during a time when psychoanalysis, scientific and historical challenges to religion, and new ways of thinking about society were just developing. While this is the story of the Bensons, it is also the story of how society transitioned from the Victorian period into modernity. We really realize how much has changed by reading this book and we see that what
makes this family so queer is not just their unconventional sexuality, but “how that sexuality is accommodated, denied, negotiated within the tramlines of a very conventional life.” . . . The Bensons are both exemplary and unique in their queerness and in this is the importance of this book. Goldhill takes us into Victorian discussions of sex and sexuality, of religious belief and doubt, and other engaging and “discreet” topics. We read of “child brides, cousin marriage, generational antagonisms, polyamory, lesbianism, homosexuality”. Religious fervor dominates the times as we read of the Benson family between 1850 and 1940. Here is family that wrote and rewrote itself, across generations, genders, and genres. In dramatic detail, Simon Goldhill shares the
the ‘biographical urges’ of the Bensons and the story that comes through is as much psychological as biographical. We explore the social climate in which the Benson family lived. Even with acknowledging the same sex attraction of both male and female family members, it avoids any explicit detail of any physical relationships or whether they existed.
The book is more a collection of essays and lacks a clear, straightforward narrative of the family. The six individuals we read about here would never have labeled themselves (or their siblings) as gay or lesbian, and it is unclear to what extent each of them acted on their impulses.