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AS GOOD AS GOD, AS CLEVER AS THE DEVIL

AS GOOD AS GOD, AS CLEVER AS THE DEVIL

The impossible life of Mary Benson

When Edward White Benson, Archbishop of Canterbury, died on his knees in church in 1896, his wife Mary, whom Prime Minister Gladstone had called “the cleverest woman in Europe”, assumed the name ‘Ben’, took her friend Lucy Tait into her bed, and set up home in a rambling 17th-century house in Sussex.

Ben’s daughter Maggie joined them from Egypt, where she had ruled over an archaeological dig from the back of an ass, with a whip and a few words of Arabic. On extended visits came Ben’s sons. There was Arthur, who wrote the words for ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, tickled his charges while a housemaster at Eton, and who inspired the devotion of Henry James. Then Fred, known to his readers as E.F. Benson – already a sensational success and later to produce the Mapp and Lucia books. And lastly young Hugh, who shocked the Anglican establishment by going over to Rome, becoming a priest, and rousing congregations with astonishingly melodramatic preaching. None of the three sons ever married. At the heart of it all was Ben – Mary, or ‘Minnie’ as she was called as a girl of twelve, when Edward White Benson (then 23) proposed to her….

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