Magdalene College Cambridge Notes: From a College Window: Glimpses of Magdalene (1906)

From a College Window was the most successful of the collections of essays published by A.C. Benson.

He held forth on a broad range of subjects, from ambition to religion, from books to friendship. Ostensibly, the essays were the musings of an effete don, detached from the world and regarding life through the prism of mullioned academic windows. Yet, throughout the book's 326 pages, barely a dozen specifically describe Benson's term-time home, Magdalene College Cambridge. Stephen Gaselee, the Fellow who moved into Benson's rooms in 1907 and occupied them for almost a decade, was to some extent the victim of a deception when he had to show endless streams of tourists the very casement from which Benson's deep thoughts had been penned. The truth was that Benson's ideas had been formed, not through years of academic detachment, but as part of the busy routines of an Eton schoolmaster, the job he had held from 1885 to 1903.

        Arthur Christopher Benson was elected a Fellow of Magdalene in 1904, on the pleasant basis that he would accept no 'dividend' (salary). He was already renting the Old Granary in Silver Street (now Darwin College), and took possession of his College rooms on the Left Cloister of the Pepys Building in February 1905. However, the need to join together two 'sets' to give him a ground-floor apartment, work that could only be undertaken during the Long Vacation, meant that he only completely moved in that autumn. He described some of the views from his windows, although there was some poetic (or perhaps periscopic) exaggeration in the claim that he could watch traffic passing in Magdalene Street, a whole courtyard away. Benson was already contributing chapters to the Cornhill Magazine, and From a College Window itself appeared early in July 1906. The chronology helps to explain why his cloistered perspective in fact contributes so little to the book.

        Nor did Benson remain at this particular College window for very long. In 1907, the death of Magdalene's grand old man, Professor Alfred Newton, vacated larger premises, the Old Lodge, virtually a separate house within the precinct. Benson accepted an invitation to succeed Newton in the tenancy. The move gave him greater privacy and more space, enabling him to leave the Old Granary and put an end to the cumbersome practice of living in two places half a mile apart. Instead, he leased Hinton Hall, at Haddenham in the Fens, where he shared the shooting with the Master, Stuart Donaldson, and aimed during vacations to act out the life of a country squire. There were also disadvantages – or so he thought – to his Left Cloister apartment. Major restoration work in the adjoining College garden had included the pollarding of trees along the northern wall, which left him feeling overlooked by houses in Chesterton Road. (This was pretty much nonsense, and tells more about Benson's innate sensitivities than anything about the proximity of other buildings.) As he described in From a College Window, he could see beyond the stone wall bounding the south side of Second Court to the irregular roof line of Quayside, across the Cam. However, Magdalene was gearing up to erect a new building, commemorating a former President and benefactor, Mynors Bright, which would not only block that view, but also would turn Benson's immediate environment into a building site for many months. (Bright's Building was completed in the spring of 1909).

        Benson opened From a College Window with "a sedate confession". His friends often complained that the six-foot tall man with, as he put it himself, the physique of a cornet-player in a German band, had no right to project himself as a withdrawn and winsome figure, but that is the persona that was crucial to his essays, and the voice that won the loyalty of thousands of readers. He begins with an autobiographical sketch, alluding without naming him to the fact that his father, E.W. Benson, had been Archbishop of Canterbury, and outlining his own education, at Eton and King's College Cambridge. He then returned to teach at Eton, and gradually became disillusioned with the education provided by the school's Classics-based curriculum, resigning in 1903 to undertake an edition of Queen Victoria's early letters.

 I am going to take the world into my confidence, and say, if I can, what I think and feel about the little bit of experience which I call my life, which seems to me such a strange and often so bewildering a thing.

Let me speak, then, plainly of what that life has been, and tell what my point of view is. I was brought up on ordinary English lines. My father, in a busy life, held a series of what may be called high official positions. He was an idealist, who, owing to a vigorous power of practical organization and a mastery of detail, was essentially a man of affairs. Yet he contrived to be a student too. Thus, owing to the fact that he often shifted his headquarters, I have seen a good deal of general society in several parts of England. Moreover, I was brought up in a distinctly intellectual atmosphere.

I was at a big public school, and gained a scholarship at the University. I was a moderate scholar and a competent athlete; but I will add that I had always a strong literary bent. I took in younger days little interest in history or polities, and tended rather to live an inner life in the region of friendship and the artistic emotions. If I had been possessed of private means, I should, no doubt, have become a full-fledged dilettante. But that doubtful privilege was denied me, and for a good many years I lived a busy and fairly successful life as a master at a big public school. I will not dwell upon this, but I will say that I gained a great interest in the science of education, and acquired profound misgivings as to the nature of the intellectual process known by the name of secondary education. More and more I began to perceive that it is conducted on diffuse, detailed, unbusiness-like lines. I tried my best, as far as it was consistent with loyalty to an established system, to correct the faulty bias. But it was with a profound relief that I found myself suddenly provided with a literary task of deep interest, and enabled to quit my scholastic labours. At the same time, I am deeply grateful for the practical experience I was enabled to gain, and even more for the many true and pleasant friendships with colleagues, parents, and boys that I was allowed to form.

What a waste of mental energy it is to be careful and troubled about one's path in life! Quite unexpectedly, at this juncture, came my election to a college Fellowship, giving me the one life that I had always eagerly desired, and the possibility of which had always seemed closed to me.

I became then a member of a small and definite society, with a few prescribed duties, just enough, so to speak, to form a hem to my life of comparative leisure. I had acquired and kept, all through my life as a schoolmaster, the habit of continuous literary work; not from a sense of duty, but simply from instinctive pleasure. I found myself at once at home in my small and beautiful college, rich with all kinds of ancient and venerable traditions, in buildings of humble and subtle grace. The little dark-roofed chapel, where I have a stall of my own; the galleried hall, with its armorial glass; the low, book-lined library; the panelled combination-room, with its dim portraits of old worthies: how sweet a setting for a quiet life! Then, too, I have my own spacious rooms, with a peaceful outlook into a big close, half orchard, half garden, with bird-haunted thickets and immemorial trees, bounded by a slow river.

And then, to teach me how "to borrow life and not grow old," the happy tide of fresh and vigorous life all about me, brisk, confident, cheerful young men, friendly, sensible, amenable, at that pleasant time when the world begins to open its rich pages of experience, undimmed at present by anxiety or care.   (pages 3-6)

There is, if anything, among the Dons, too much business, too many meetings, too much teaching, and the life of mere study is neglected. But it pleases me to think that even now there are men who live quietly among their books, unambitious, perhaps unproductive, but forgetting the flight of time, and looking out into a pleasant garden, with its rustling trees, among the sound of mellow bells. We are, most of us, too much in a fuss nowadays to live these gentle, innocent, and beautiful lives; and yet the University is a place where a poor man, if he be virtuous, may lead a life of dignity and simplicity, and refined happiness.   (page 9)

The worst of a University is that one sees men lingering on because they must earn a living, and there is nothing else that they can do; but for a human-hearted, good-humoured, and sensible man, a college life is a life where it is easy and pleasant to practise benevolence and kindliness, and where a small investment of trouble pays a large percentage of happiness. Indeed, surveying it impartially—as impartially as I can—such a life seems to hold within it perhaps the greatest possibilities of happiness that life can hold. To have leisure and a degree of simple stateliness assured; to live in a wholesome dignity; to have the society of the young and generous; to have lively and intelligent talk; to have the choice of society and solitude alike; to have one's working hours respected, and one's leisure hours solaced—is not this better than to drift into the so-called tide of professional success, with its dreary hours of work, its conventional domestic background? No doubt the domestic background has its interests, its delights; but one must pay a price for everything, and I am more than willing to pay the price of celibacy for my independence.

The elderly Don in college rooms, interested in Greek particles, grumbling over his port wine, is a figure beloved by writers of fiction as a contrast to all that is brave, and bright, and wholesome in life. Could there be a more hopeless misconception? I do not know a single extant example of the species at the University. Personally, I have no love for Greek particles, and only a very moderate taste for port wine. But I do love, with all my heart, the grace of antiquity that mellows our crumbling courts, the old tradition of multifarious humanity that has century by century entwined itself with the very fabric of the place. I love the youthful spirit that flashes and brightens in every corner of the old courts, as the wallflower that rises spring by spring with its rich orange-tawny hue, its wild scent, on the tops of our mouldering walls. It is a gracious and beautiful life for all who love peace and reflection, strength and youth. It is not a life for fiery and dominant natures, eager to conquer, keen to impress; but it is a life for any one who believes that the best rewards are not the brightest, who is willing humbly to lend a cheerful hand, to listen as well as to speak. It is a life for any one who has found that there is a world of tender, wistful, delicate emotions, subdued and soft impressions, in which it is peace to live; for one who has learned, however dimly, that wise and faithful love, quiet and patient hope, are the bread by which the spirit is nourished—that religion is not an intellectual or even an ecclesiastical thing, but a far-off and remote vision of the soul.

 (pages 12-14)

Benson stressed that, even though he viewed the world through College windows, there was nonetheless a varied perspective:

But even so, though on the one hand I look upon the green and sheltered garden, with its air of secluded recollection and repose, a place of quiet pacing to and fro, of sober and joyful musing; yet on another side I see the court, with all its fresh and shifting life, its swift interchange of study and activity; and on yet another side I can observe the street where the infinite pageant of humanity goes to and fro, a tide full of sound and foam, of business and laughter, and of sorrow too, and sickness, and the funeral pomp of death.    (page 15)

He returns to Magdalene after a winter afternoon walk:


The sun flares red behind leafless elms and battlemented towers as I come in from a lonely walk beside the river; above the chimney-tops hangs a thin veil of drifting smoke, blue in the golden light. The games in the Common are just coming to an end; a stream of long-coated spectators sets towards the town, mingled with the parti-coloured, muddied figures of the players. I have been strolling half the afternoon along the river bank, watching the boats passing up and down; hearing the shrill cries of coxes, the measured plash of oars, the rhythmical rattle of rowlocks, intermingled at intervals with the harsh grinding of the chain-ferries. Five-and-twenty years ago I was rowing here myself in one of these boats, and I do not wish to renew the experience. I cannot conceive why and in what moment of feeble good-nature or misapplied patriotism I ever consented to lend a hand. I was not a good oar, and did not become a better one; I had no illusions about my performance, and any momentary complacency was generally sternly dispelled by the harsh criticism of the coach on the bank, when we rested for a moment to receive our meed of praise or blame. But though I have no sort of wish to repeat the process, to renew the slavery which I found frankly and consistently intolerable, I find myself looking on at the cheerful scene with an amusement in which mingles a shadow of pain, because I feel that I have parted with something, a certain buoyancy and elasticity of body, and perhaps spirit, of which I was not conscious at the time, but which I now realize that I must have possessed. It is with an admiration mingled with envy that I see these youthful, shapely figures, bare-necked and bare-kneed, swinging rhythmically past. I watch a brisk crew lift a boat out of the water by a boat-house; half of them duck underneath to get hold of the other side, and they march up the grating gravel in a solemn procession. I see a pair of cheerful young men, released from tubbing, execute a wild and inconsequent dance upon the water's edge; I see a solemn conference of deep import between a stroke and a coach. I see a neat, clean-limbed young man go airily up to a well-earned tea, without, I hope, a care, or an anxiety in his mind, expecting and intending to spend an agreeable evening. "Oh, Jones of Trinity, oh, Smith of Queen's [sic, for Queens'] .... Make the best of the good time, my boy, before you go off to the office, or the fourth-form room, or the country parish! Live virtuously, make honest friends, read the good old books, lay up a store of kindly recollections, of firelit rooms in venerable courts, of pleasant talks, of innocent festivities. Very fresh is the cool morning air, very fragrant is the newly-lighted bird's-eye, very lively is the clink of knives and forks, very keen is the savour of the roast beef that floats up to the dark rafters of the College Hall. But the days are short and the terms are few; and do not forget to be a sensible as well as a good-humoured young man!" (pages 20-22)

The Magdalene to which he returns is easily recognised in this evocative passage, with perhaps one exception. The Porters' Lodge was considerably extended in the late 1960s, and now incorporates the former B Staircase of First Court. The reader has already encountered some of Benson's regrettably twee formulations (e.g. "bird-haunted thickets"). This section has singing kettles and flickering firelight, as well as Benson's irritating affectation that the past tense of the verb "to sit" is "sate". Nowadays, there are no 'gyps' (Fellows' servants) to wait on Magdalene dons. The "troops of alert, gowned figures" heading for Hall must also be regarded as an exaggeration: Magdalene had around forty students in residence.

And thus I went slowly back to College in that gathering gloom that seldom fails to bring a certain peace to the mind. The porter sate, with his feet on the fender, in his comfortable den, reading a paper. The lights were beginning to appear in the court, and the firelight flickered briskly upon walls hung with all the pleasant signs of youthful life, the groups, the family photographs, the suspended oar, the cap of glory. So when I entered my book-lined rooms, and heard the kettle sing its comfortable song on the hearth, and reflected that I had a few letters to write, an interesting book to turn over, a pleasant Hall dinner to look forward to, and that, after a space of talk, an undergraduate or two were coming to talk over a leisurely piece of work, an essay or a paper, I was more than ever inclined to acquiesce in my disabilities, to purr like an elderly cat, and to feel that while I had the priceless boon of leisure, set in a framework of small duties, there was much to be said for life, and that I was a poor creature if I could not be soberly content. (pages 36-37)

        And so I sit, while the clock on the mantelpiece ticks out the pleasant minutes, and the fire winks and crumbles on the hearth, till the old gyp comes tapping at the door to learn my intentions for the evening; and then, again, I pass out into the court, the lighted windows of the Hall gleam with the ancient armorial glass, from staircase after staircase come troops of alert, gowned figures, while overhead, above all the pleasant stir and murmur of life, hang in the dark sky the unchanging stars.    (page 38)

It was not easy to describe Benson's role as a Fellow. He taught History, a Tripos subject since 1875, although Magdalene had only ever seen one candidate graduate, with a Third in 1890. Generally, he aimed to contribute to College life, setting out with the enthusiasm of a collector to invite every undergraduate to lunch. It seems that his enthusiasm was not always reciprocated, although it helped to establish a tradition of friendly relations between dons and students that remained a hallmark of the Magdalene for many decades.

It is not necessary to be extravagantly youthful, to slap people on the back, to run with the college boat, though that is very pleasant if it is done naturally. All that is wanted is to be accessible and quietly genial. And under such influences a young man may, without becoming elderly, get to understand the older point of view. (page 11)

I am as conscious as every one else of the exquisitely stimulating and entertaining character of my own talk; it constantly pains me that so few people take advantage of their opportunities of visiting the healing fount. But the fact is incontestable that my talents are not appreciated at their right value; and I must be content with such slender encouragement as I receive. In vain do I purchase choice brands of cigars and cigarettes, and load my side-table with the best Scotch whisky. Not even with that solace will the vagrant undergraduate consent to be douched under the stream of my suggestive conversation. (pages 82-3)

Magdalene had passed through a difficult phase before the appointment of Benson's friend Stuart Donaldson to the Mastership in 1904. He was well aware that small colleges faced considerable challenges if they were to justify their existence, but he insisted that large institutions could be cliquish and anonymous. Magdalene took the point: between 1906 and 1911, four Fellows were elected from outside.

My college is one of the smallest in the University. Last night in Hall I sate next a distinguished man, who is, moreover, very accessible and pleasant. He unfolded to me his desires for the University. He would like to amalgamate all the small colleges into groups, so as to have about half-a-dozen colleges in all. He said, and evidently thought, that little colleges are woefully circumscribed and petty places; that most of the better men go to the two or three leading colleges, while the little establishments are like small backwaters out of the main stream. They elect, he said, their own men to Fellowships; they resist improvements; much money is wasted in management, and the whole thing is minute and feeble. I am afraid it is true in a way; but, on the other hand, I think that a large college has its defects too. There is no real college spirit there; it is very nice for two or three sets. But the different schools which supply a big college form each its own set there; and if a man goes there from a leading public school, he falls into his respective set, lives under the traditions and in the gossip of his old school, and gets to know hardly any one from other schools. Then the men who come up from smaller places just form small inferior sets of their own, and really get very little good out of the place. Big colleges keep up their prestige because the best men tend to go to them; but I think they do very little for the ordinary men who have fewer social advantages to start with.

The only cure, said my friend, for these smaller places is to throw their Fellowships open, and try to get public-spirited and liberal-minded Dons. Then, he added, they ought to specialize in some one branch of University teaching, so that the men who belonged to a particular department would tend to go there. (pages 7-8)

One challenge for a small College was the provision of adequate Library facilities. In fact, much Cambridge teaching was narrowly focused on small numbers of set books that students could purchase, and the idea of education through wide exploration of books and journals would develop relatively slowly during the twentieth century. Benson here elides Magdalene's two collections, one (now known as the Old Library) which reputedly had not acquired any new titles since 1835, and the other, of major importance, bequeathed by Samuel Pepys. The account here of the deciphering of the famous Pepys diary is not very accurate. Students were rarely admitted to either, and the Old Library was used as a depository for a door, removed from the Screens passage between First and Second Courts, following a student riot. Nonetheless, although desolate, Magdalene's Old Library contained (and retains) more than the odd "mute and unsuspected treasure", but in fact many rare titles. It was not until 1960 that the College began to establish an effective undergraduate teaching Library. It quickly encountered constraints of space, and in 1973 was extended into Benson's ground-floor apartment on Left Cloister.

The one room in my College which I always enter with a certain sense of desolation and sadness is the College library.  ... There are, indeed, many books in our library; but most of them, as D. G. Rossetti used to say in his childhood of his father's learned volumes, are "no good for reading." The books of the College library are delightful, indeed, to look at; rows upon rows of big irregular volumes, with tarnished tooling and faded gilding on the sun-scorched backs. What are they? old editions of classics, old volumes of controversial divinity, folios of the Fathers, topographical treatises, cumbrous philosophers, pamphlets from which, like dry ashes, the heat of the fire that warmed them once has fled. Take one down: it is an agreeable sight enough; there is a gentle scent of antiquity; the bumpy page crackles faintly; the big irregular print meets the eye with a pleasant and leisurely mellowness. But what do they tell one? Very little, alas! that one need know, very much which it would be a positive mistake to believe. That is the worst of erudition—that the next scholar sucks the few drops of honey that you have accumulated, sets right your blunders, and you are superseded. You have handed on the torch, perhaps, and even trimmed it. Your errors, your patient explanations, were a necessary step in the progress of knowledge; but now the procession has turned the corner, and is out of sight.

Yet even here, it pleases me to think, some mute and unsuspected treasure may lurk unknown. In a room like this, for over a couple of centuries, stood on one of the shelves an old rudely bound volume of blank paper, the pages covered with a curious straggling cipher; no one paid any heed to it, no one tried to spell its secrets. But the day came when a Fellow who was both inquisitive and leisurely took up the old volume, and formed a resolve to decipher it. Through many baffling delays, through many patient windings, he carried his purpose out; and the result was a celebrated Day-book, which cast much light upon the social conditions of a past age, as well as revealed one of the most simple and genial personalities that ever marched blithely through the pages of a Diary. (pages 39-41)

...  these College libraries are almost wholly unvisited. It seems a pity, but it also seems inevitable. I wish that some use could be devised for them, for these old books make at all events a very dignified and pleasant background, and the fragrance of well-warmed old leather is a delicate thing. But they are not even good places for working in, now that one has one's own books and one's own reading-chair. Moreover, if they were kept up to date, which would in itself be an expensive thing, there would come in the eternal difficulty of where to put the old books, which no one would have the heart to destroy.

Perhaps the best thing for a library like this would be not to attempt to buy books, but to subscribe like a club to a circulating library, and to let a certain number of new volumes flow through the place and lie upon the tables for a time. But, on the other hand, here in the University there seems to be little time for general reading; and indeed it is a great problem, as life goes on, as duties grow more defined, and as one becomes more and more conscious of the shortness of life, what the duty of a cultivated and open-minded man is with regard to general reading.   (pages 43-4)

Benson's ruminations eventually return to the College library

...  where the old books look somewhat pathetically from the shelves, like aged dogs wondering why no one takes them for a walk. Monuments of pathetic labour, tasks patiently fulfilled through slow hours! But yet I am sure that a great deal of joy went to the making of them, the joy of the old scholar who settled down soberly among his papers, and heard the silvery bell above him tell out the dear hours that, perhaps, he would have delayed if he could. Yes, the old books are a tender-hearted and a joyful company; the days slip past, the sunlight moves round the court, and steals warmly for an hour or two into the deserted room. Life—delightful life—spins merrily past; the perennial stream of youth flows on; and perhaps the best that the old books can do for us is to bid us cast back a wistful and loving thought into the past—a little gift of love for the old labourers who wrote so diligently in the forgotten hours, till the weary, failing hand laid down the familiar pen, and soon lay silent in the dust. (page 57)

Benson was obsessed with his own inability to experience beauty with the full electric vividness that he believed he should feel. One friend commented that he reserved his confrontations with beauty to two hours a day. In any case, it seems likely that he wrote with his back to the window, so this explosion of the delights of Magdalene's Second Court, although superbly detailed, was perhaps not surprising in its reported rarity.

I was visited, as I sate in my room to-day, by one of those sudden impressions of rare beauty that come and go like flashes, and which leave one desiring a similar experience. The materials of the impression were simple and familiar enough. My room looks out into a little court; there is a plot of grass, and to the right of it an old stone-built wall, close against which stands a row of aged lime-trees. Straight opposite, at right angles to the wall, is the east side of the Hall, with its big plain traceried window enlivened with a few heraldic shields of stained glass. While I was looking out to-day there came a flying burst of sun, and the little corner became a sudden feast of delicate colour; the fresh green of the grass, the foliage of the lime-trees, their brown wrinkled stems, the pale moss on the walls, the bright points of colour in the emblazonries of the window, made a sudden delicate harmony of tints. I had seen the place a hundred times before without ever guessing what a perfect picture it made.  (page 94)

Benson was undoubtedly better at capturing a cameo of detail than at attempting a broad-brush picture of the University town as a whole. The clichés abound – "embowered gardens", "palaces of learning". Arthur Benson cannot resist the ultimate fantasy-term: "Camelot".

Here, if anywhere, in this town of ancient colleges, is abundant material of beauty for eye and mind. It is not, it is true, the simple beauty of nature; but nature has been invoked to sanctify and mellow art. These stately stone-fronted buildings have weathered like crags and precipices. They rise out of dark ancient embowered gardens. They are like bright birds of the forest dwelling contentedly in gilded cages. These great palaces of learning, beautiful when seen in the setting of sunny gardens, and with even a sterner dignity when planted, like a fortress of quiet, close to the very dust and din of the street, hold many treasures of stately loveliness and fair association; this city of palaces, thick-set with spires and towers, as rich and dim as Camelot, is invested with a romance that few cities can equal; and then the waterside pleasaunces with their trim alleys, their air of ancient security and wealthy seclusion, have an incomparable charm; day by day, as one hurries or saunters through the streets, the charm strikes across the mind with an incredible force, a newness of impression which is the test of highest beauty. (pages 118-19)

Late at night, as he is about to 'sport his oak' (close his outer door against intruders), Benson drinks in the stillness of Magdalene, and splendidly captures the College clock as it makes its asthmatic preparations to strike. His unconventional religious views are glimpsed here. The world's great monotheistic religions are united in each regarding their deity as omnipotent. Benson's God, on the other hand, "would make all plain, if He could", but His inability to explain Himself unfortunately leaves us ignorant of the purpose behind the Universe.

The night grows late. I rise to close my outer door to shut myself out from the world; I shall have no more visitors now. The moonlight lies cold and clear on the little court; the shadow of the cloister pillars falls black on the pavement. Outside, the town lies hushed in sleep; I see the gables and chimneys of the clustered houses standing in a quiet dream over the old ivy-covered wall. The college is absolutely still, though one or two lights still burn in studious rooms, and peep through curtained chinks. What a beautiful place to live one's life in, a place which greets one with delicate associations, with venerable beauty, at every turn! The moonlight falls through the tall oriel of the Hall, and the armorial shields burn and glow with rich points of colour. I pace to and fro, wondering, musing. All here seems so permanent, so still, so secure, and yet we are spinning and whirling through space to some unknown goal. (pages 324-5)

Now in its mouldering turret the old clock wakes and stirs, moves its jarring wires, and the soft bell strikes midnight. Another of my few short days gone, another step nearer to the unseen. Slowly but not sadly I return, for I have been for a moment nearer God; the very thought that rises in my mind, and turns my heart to His, comes from Him. He would make all plain, if He could; He gives us what we need; and when we at last awake we shall be satisfied.   (page 326)

In 2017, Magdalene announced plans to build a new Library and Archives Centre. Benson's rooms in the Pepys Building will be returned to academic, administrative or residential purposes. The view from his College window still takes in the scenes that he evoked to give a spurious scholarly cachet to his expressive essays.