Novelist, Biographer, and Benefactor of Rye
Edward Frederick Benson was born July 24, 1867 at Wellington College in Berkshire, where his father was Headmaster. He was the fifth of six children born to Mary Sidgwick Benson and Edward White Benson, later Chancellor and Canon of Lincoln Cathedral, Bishop of Truro in Cornwall during the construction of the cathedral there, and finally Archbishop of Canterbury (1883-1896).
Known to his family as Fred, young Benson was educated first at Temple Grove in East Sheen, Surrey, where his developing love of music and the English language did not prevent him from finishing near the bottom of his class, probably because he was so often entertaining and mischievous. His next school was Marlborough in Wiltshire where he studied for six years and played many sports.
At the age of 20, he became an undergraduate at Kings College, Cambridge. Benson finished at Cambridge with honours in archaeology and a passion for all things Greek. His first major dig was at the walls of the city of Chester, where he made a number of important discoveries. From there he went to Athens to attend the British School of Archaeology.
His first book, Sketches from Marlborough, was privately published in 1888 and reflects lovingly on his teenage school days. His first novel, Dodo, appeared in 1893 to great acclaim and success. In it Benson introduced as the central character a woman who was to appear many times in different guises in future books – a glamorous, entertaining, humorous, heartless, amoral person who charmed many of those around her but caused great distress to others.
Benson, when he was not travelling and participating in archaeological digs, lived primarily with his parents at the various homes allotted to the Archbishop of Canterbury. Always he continued to write, producing about 100 books, along with dozens of short stories, articles, and pamphlets during his productive life.
Following the Archbishop’s death, the family left Lambeth Palace, moving first to Winchester and then to a house called Tremans near Horsted Keynes in Sussex. Fred prepared for publication his father’s book on the life of St. Cyprian, a project on which the Archbishop worked for 30 years. This was the first of many times that he, as the most stable and meticulous member of the family, would be called upon to straighten out the affairs, edit the literary outpourings, and administer the estates of his parents and siblings.
Then, for a brief period Fred served as administrator of a Red Cross fund for relief of Greek refugees from Thessaly, victims of the Graeco-Turkish War of 1897, a job which put him in considerable danger but provided material for future books. On his way back to England, he visited Capri and began a love affair with the island which lasted for decades and coloured much of his future writing. Tremans remained the family’s base until Fred’s mother died in 1918, although the children were all grown and spent much of their time elsewhere.
All of the Benson siblings were extremely intelligent and well-educated. All but the first-born, Martin, who died at 17, were published authors. Arthur ultimately became Master of Magdelene College, Cambridge, biographer of his father, author of many novels, memoirs, and theological treatises and composer of the lyrics of “Land of Hope and Glory”. Maggie and Nellie both died prematurely, but each was an accomplished archaelogist and writer. Hugh was first an Anglican and then a Jesuit priest and a prolific novelist and theological writer. But Fred, who outlived all of his siblings, was the most prolific and successful author. His works included novels, comedies, memoirs, social commentary, a number of outstanding biographies, books about many aspects of sport, and dozens of supernatural and ghost tales which still attract a great following.
E. F. Benson is perhaps best known today for his delightful series of books featuring Emmeline Lucas (Lucia) and her social rival, Elizabeth Mapp. Published in the 1930’s, the stories are set primarily in Rye (called Tilling) after beginning in Broadway in the Cotswolds (called Riseholme). The books portray the rivalries, plots and melodramas of small town life and are rich in descriptions of settings immediately recognisable to anyone who has walked the streets of Rye. The Mapp and Lucia stories were filmed in ten one-hour segments for television in the 1980s and have recently been made available for purchase in UK and US video formats.
Benson also wrote a series of books which are invaluable to students of the social and dynastic history that surrounded World War I. These include Queen Victoria, Queen Victoria’s Daughters, King Edward VII, The Kaiser and English Relations, and The Outbreak of War.
Among his other biographies are books on Sir Francis Drake, Ferdinand Magellan, Alcibiades, and Charlotte Bronte. The latter is still regarded by many experts as the definitive work about the Yorkshire novelist.
Benson’s connection with Rye began in 1900, the year of his first visit to Henry James, the novelist, who lived at Lamb House in Rye. When he was not visiting James, Fred often stayed with Lady Maud Warrender. Her house, Leasam, just outside of Rye, is a splendid landmark overlooking the countryside and was used as the setting for his novels Colin and Colin II.
Within a couple of years of Henry James’s death in 1916, Fred had become a partial tenant at Lamb House, working at the Foreign Office in London but weekending in Rye. In 1920 he took over the full lease on Lamb House and lived there until his death in 1940. His brother Arthur shared the house with him from 1922 until he died in 1925.
Fred was a generous benefactor to the town of Rye. Among his gifts was the viewing platform at the east end of the High Street overlooking the Saltings, the playing fields, and the Rother River. A bronze plaque at the platform acknowledges the gift. Benson also paid for the renovation of the organ at St. Mary’s Church (a generous act duplicated by his heroine Lucia in one of the Mapp and Lucia books) and he made numerous other gifts to the town. He gave a massive and beautiful stained glass west window to St. Mary’s in honour of his parents and a north window memorialising his brother Arthur.
E. F. Benson served three terms as Mayor of Rye in the late 1930s, surprising himself with the delight he took in the work and administering the law fairly and with the same compassion and understanding that characterised all of his relations with the people of the town. In 1938 he was given the rare honour of the Freedom of the Borough. In the same year he was made an Honorary Fellow of Magdalene College, Cambridge, an honour earlier bestowed on Thomas Hardy and Rudyard Kipling.
Fred Benson died on February 29, 1940, ten days after delivering his last manuscript to his publisher. It was the text of Final Editions, the masterpiece of memoir writing for which his admirers had been longing. He is buried in the town cemetery just outside of Rye off the road to Playden. A plaque on a choir stall in St. Mary’s Church pays tribute to his courage, kindness and generosity to the town. His grave is regularly visited by admirers and is maintained by the Tilling Society which gathers there annually to honour his life.
Benson’s books are highly collectible and are available from several used book shops in Rye as well as through the Internet. The novelist Tom Holt has written two books (no longer in print) in the style of Benson, carrying the story of Mapp and Lucia into World War II.
There are two societies devoted to preserving Benson’s legacy and promoting his works. They are:
- The Friends of Tilling (managed by Tony and Cynthia Reavell)
5 Pett Road, Guestling, East Sussex
- The E. F. Benson Society
Both groups have periodic gatherings to celebrate Benson’s life and work and each offers publications which are of great interest to Bensonians.
E. F. Bensons books that are still (or soon to be) in print include:
– The Collected Ghost Stories of E. F. Benson, ISBN #0-88184-857-3
– Queen Lucia ISBN #1-55921-252-7
– Miss Mapp
– Mapp and Lucia ISBN #1-55921-232-2
– Lucia’s Progress ISBN #1-55921-233-0 (spring 2000)
– Trouble for Lucia ISBN #1-55921-281-0 (autumn 2000)
Other relatively recent books which may still be available new in some stores include:
– Fine Feathers (a collection of Benson Short Stories collected by Jack Adrian), ISBN #0-19-212325-4
– Desirable Residences (short stories selected by Jack Adrian)
Books about E. F. Benson and his family include:
– Father of the Bensons, by Geoffrey Palmer and Noel Lloyd
– The Life of E.F. Benson by Brian Masters, ISBN #0-7011-35662
– E.F. Benson as He Was by Geoffrey Palmer and Noel Lloyd, ISBN #1-85291-0607
– Genesis and Exodus, A Portrait of the Benson Family by David Williams, ISBN #0-241-10190-5
There are a number of websites devoted to E.F. Benson and his works. One which will lead you to many others is the E. F. Benson Web Site. This website contains pictures of Rye and Benson, with a list of his books.
The pictures above illustrate scenes in Rye which figure importantly in the Mapp and Lucia stories or in Benson’s life. Click on the thumbnail to view the full image (click the back arrow on your browser to return to this page).
– The church tower viewed from the garden at Lamb House (known as Mallards in the books). Miss Mapp stood on the viewing platform at the base of the pitched roof on the tower in order to look into Lucia’s garden, where she saw Lucia doing callisthenics when she was supposed to be too ill to be outside.
– The view from the front steps of Lamb House/Mallards, showing Mallards Cottage (Georgie’s house) in the right foreground. Also visible is “the house with the crooked chimney” (the painting of which caused artists to occupy the front steps of Mallards every day), and the west end of St. Mary’s Church, featuring the memorial window to Archbishop and Mrs. Benson.
– A view of the town playing fields and the River Rother. This is near the place where, in Mapp and Lucia, the river rose to flood stage and carried the two ladies out to sea.
– The west window of St. Mary’s Church in Rye, dedicated to Archbishop and Mrs. Benson. Fred’s beloved dog Taffy is featured in the centre panel (the black figure near the bottom) and Fred himself is kneeling in his mayoral robes in the bottom right corner.