A.C. Benson and Cambridge: II, 1885-1925


The continuation of A.C. Benson and Cambridge: I, 1862-1884



"I was never big enough to embrace and overlap Eton"

Boys, Beauty and Brides

"Wider still and wider / Shall thy bounds be set"

By appointment: "more capable, more suitable and more trustworthy"

"... the poor little College ... so out of elbows and out of heart"

The old Magdalene and the new

Successor to Donaldson?

"Humanitarian Hockey and Socialist Spillikins"

"... the abject farce of compulsory Greek"

From a Stodger's Window

"I have been for a moment nearer God.... He would make all plain, if He could"

The Case of Dr Crippen

"The Christian Theory of War"

"...Lord Braybrooke hardly hesitated"

"...one of our great Masters"



Imperialism – Sexuality – Biography –"... and I not there": a possible comparative approach –  "What an odd book this diary is!" – "I am very early Victorian in my tastes" – Educational Reformer – Mental Health

Tailpiece: Understanding Benson's College?





"I was never big enough to embrace and overlap Eton"[1]

The second part of this essay is cast in thematic highlights, an approach that is bound to be to some extent unsatisfactory. A historian of Eton, for instance, would no doubt insist that the eighteen years he spent teaching boys could only have been fundamental to his life story. Benson's 1907 reflection that "my schoolmastering period seems utterly wiped out of my life, as if it had never been" surely underestimates the effects of his experience, even if he could not, or would not, come to terms with it.[2] Looking at the last four decades of his life in overview, it would be tempting to divide his adult career into two simple periods: the first, from 1885 to 1904 as a master at Eton, the second, 1904-25, in that delightfully undefined role of a Cambridge don. But, with closer examination, Benson's adult life is more fruitfully considered as comprising four loosely defined phases, each about a decade in length. By identifying transition points around 1896 and 1906, it becomes possible to appreciate that Benson's election to a Fellowship at Magdalene in 1904 marked not so much a new beginning as part of the culmination of a period of change in his trajectory. Even in 1904, the Fellows of Magdalene were wary of his intrusion. It is by no means certain that he would have proved acceptable even two years later.

One winter afternoon in 1900, Benson raged against the "fierce, arid, consuming work" that threatened to engulf him, and vented his frustrations at the unchanging Eton scene of top-hatted boys deferentially chatting to masters: "they were doing this twenty-six years ago when I was a boy; and here I have been practically ever since, fast bound."[3] Looking back on himself when he had joined the staff at the age of 22, Benson felt he had been "just a big shy schoolboy ... with no ideas about anything, except a liking for boys, a wish to teach classics, and a desire to write feebly imaginative books." In fact, he had been chained to his old school for far longer. Throughout his time as an undergraduate at King's, he had continued to feel "a strong and abiding love for Eton".[4] Percy Lubbock, who understood his one-time housemaster perhaps more profoundly than Benson himself liked, believed that it was "a misfortune that he was called back to school so soon, with no interval left him in which to wander and collect his mind and broaden his experience."[5] This over-rapid return to familiar haunts probably partly explains his mid-life bid for freedom in 1903. However, his return to teach at Eton in 1885 was – at the time – something more than a sad retreat to a familiar comfort zone (while – as will be discussed later – modern readers should be cautioned against reading too much into his "liking for boys".) Indeed, Benson himself drew a distinction between his days as a pupil and his time on the staff at Eton. "I had some happiness there as a boy, but no experience," he wrote in 1916, "and as a master some experience but not much happiness."[6]

Edmond Warre, who became headmaster in 1884, immediately reformed the curriculum, retaining the existing emphasis on Classics while diversifying into a wider liberal education – an initiative that had become overloaded and creaking by the eighteen-nineties.[7] On his return, Benson found "the place had undergone a great change in certain directions", and the new philosophy suited his free-wheeling approach to education.[8] (He was one of several bright young Etonians whom Warre lured back at this time.) It also enabled him, in effect, to park the issue of his eventual career, postpone any consideration of ordination, and sidestep the influence of EWB by operating within an area of activity that was very much his own. Able boys responded positively to his refreshing classroom style. "Arthur Benson was the only master who ...ever made Homer come alive for me," recalled the future Viceroy of India, Lord Halifax. Benson's technique involved "disposing quite quickly of the thirty lines set for the official lesson and then racing through as much more as time allowed, so that for half an hour we really caught a little of the romance and poetry of the Greek".[9]

Benson threw himself into school life. In October 1885, he turned out for the Masters, playing alongside Edward Lyttelton and Stuart Donaldson against the School at the Eton Field Game. A football code unique to the school, the Field Game has some distant affinities with Rugby, with a 'rouge' corresponding to a try. Packing more bone and muscle, the Masters won by two rouges and a goal to the single rouge scored by the boys. Twenty years later, Benson invoked the metaphor to explain his reluctance to become a reforming headmaster locked in conflict with a resistant and reactionary staff. "I could ... run in at the head of a rouge, well pushed by strong men; but I can't drag the rouge with me, if they are reluctant and retrograde."[10] After an injury forced him to give up football in 1889, he began to rebrand himself as a critic of the cult of organised games, as a protest against what he saw as the increasing cult of "athletics". His appointment as a housemaster in 1892 further enabled him to project himself as a figure of wisdom and gravity.

But Benson's activities at Eton should not be viewed as a career tunnel closed to all external perspectives. EWB's promotion to Canterbury, the prospect that had seemed so terrifying in November 1882, proved to have its advantages. If now slightly detached, at least in term time, Benson was still part of the family, spending holidays with them, and managing to find a ringside seat at Lambeth when great events were in prospect. One notable instance was the Lincoln Judgement, when EWB grasped the nettle of determining at what point the number of candles on an altar passed from illumination to idolatry. The grandees of the Anglican Church gathered in the library of Lambeth Palace on a foggy November afternoon, and Benson too managed to escape from Eton and position himself discreetly close to his father. In the darkening gloom, EWB found increasing difficulty in deciphering his own manuscript. "He turned, caught sight of me as I stood close behind him, and asked me to summon one of the chaplains". There followed an ecclesiastical jest about the need for lights "for practical purposes", and candles were duly produced.[11] That was definitely a Church occasion, where Benson's presence could only be unofficial. But, three years earlier, on the occasion of Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee, EWB had given his son the role of "apparitor" (assistant), and the two had travelled together to Westminster Abbey in the Archbishop's official coach. Benson witnessed his father's fury when a police inspector at the security cordon on Westminster Bridge refused to recognise his official pass, forcing EWB to utter the chilling threat: "unless you allow me to proceed, there will be no service today."[12] On other occasions, the carriage would deposit EWB at the House of Lords, and then "take Arthur to some other rendezvous", no doubt a stylish way to arrive at a West End party.[13] However, Benson himself did not feel at ease with this way of life. He recalled that he was "very needlessly frightened of the world in those days" because the family "had been shot from a very simple and reverential life into a kind of official prominence, and had not yet had time to get used to it all."[14]

Of course, Benson was also seen, on his own merits, as a rising force in the schoolmastering trade. A minor participant at an official dinner in Lambeth Palace, he was charmed when the octogenarian Leader of the Opposition, Mr Gladstone himself, broke away from the tedious ear-bashing of "some prating person" to seize him by the hand and exclaim "Floreat Etona" (May Eton Prosper).[15] Nonetheless, to many people, he was primarily, in the words of a Swiss mountain guide, Herr Erzbischofzohn, Mister-Son-of-the-Archbishop.[16] A few months before his father's unexpected death in 1896, Benson arranged for EWB to visit Eton, and persuaded him to preach extempore to the boys. In their last conversation, as Benson returned to Eton after his summer holidays, EWB "sent particular messages to our Headmaster", the redoubtable Edmond Warre.[17]  When Gladstone died in 1898, the great statesman's family pressed Benson to attend the State funeral in Westminster Abbey, but his ticket for admission went astray. He pleaded his case for admission to a dismissive official, but there was a change of tone when he gave his name. "The late Archbishop's son? ... Why not go in with the House of Lords?"[18] Indeed, Benson habitually identified himself as EWB's son, not to seek preferential treatment, but to avoid any potential embarrassment. Whenever casual acquaintances mentioned the Archbishop, it was Benson's practice to murmur "'My father' ... in case people say awkward things."[19]

Very occasionally, he attempted to exploit his unusual status. His senior colleague, Edward Austen Leigh (known to Eton boys as "The Flea"), bludgeoned his way through life, dismissing inconvenient opinions and contravening unpalatable facts: even relatively uncontentious statements would be greeted with a snorted "Possibly!" or a sceptical "Perhaps!" Becoming Lower Master in 1887, he marked his first Ash Wednesday by reading in chapel the Commination, a blood-curdling statement of "God's anger and judgements against sinners". It was probably Austen Leigh's delight in voicing the Prayer Book's threats of fire and brimstone that prompted Benson to point out that The Flea had no right to read the rubric, since he was not an ordained clergyman. "I shall continue to read it!" was his scornful reply. Mischievously, Benson consulted a Lambeth Palace lawyer, whose bemused advice was that if Austen Leigh persisted, he might be open to prosecution for "brawling in church". "So he may think!" was the Lower Master's predictably caustic response. "But he never delivered the exhortation again."[20] However, there were definite limits to the Lambeth magic formula. In 1887, Benson published a slight study of the seventeenth-century Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, which he hoped would secure him election to a Fellowship at King's. The book was seasoned with intimations that the author was an insider, moved to write about Laud through the experience of "living in the house which is so closely connected with him ... talking below his portrait". "I have had free access to the Lambeth papers, which contain many curious points, many delightful confirmations, too minute to enter into larger histories, but which I have endeavoured to embody in this little study of a character and a life." Benson's claims to scholarship were as contemptuously rejected as his hints of self-importance were silently ignored. Although he later claimed to have learned from the experience, the rebuff began a thirteen-year period of estrangement from his college.[21]

Benson's rise within Eton was both smooth and rapid. Most masters had to wait around twelve years to be given a boarding house.[22] From his earliest time at the school, Benson was marked out as a future housemaster, with parents "besieging him to take their children, ten years on".[23] In 1889, four years after his initial appointment, he took temporary charge of Donaldson's during the serious illness of his colleague.[24] He was given his own House in 1892 – after just seven years on the staff. A decade later, in 1903, he looked back on it as "the great change in my life". As a fellow master recalled, "to start a House is no easy task, and he began to be troubled with sleeplessness."[25] Remarkably, the boys in Benson's care never knew that he was struggling with depression throughout the early years of his housemastership.[26] The workload and the responsibility were enormous. Although he resigned after just eleven years, he moved premises three times, to accommodate more boys, and had to cope with a flood in November 1894: perhaps predictably, he placed an inscribed brass in his dining room, recording the height of the water.[27] Benson once wrote that an Eton housemaster had to combine the roles of hotelier, clergyman, lecturer, tutor and policeman.[28] There was a revealing aside to a starkly terrifying incident in 1896. Mountaineering in Switzerland, Benson fell into a crevasse, and found himself facing death. "I had no edifying thoughts", but "wondered who would succeed to my boarding-house, and how my pupils would be arranged for."[29]

Although – characteristically – he would write a manual about his trade, one of Benson's pupils regarded him as "a good and conscientious school master", but not a natural one. Rather, he was "a pleasant, cultured, and refined English gentleman of literary tastes, who, by accident rather than design, had taken up school-mastering", but without any overwhelming desire to mould the rising generation. His style was friendly, his methods were humane. "I am no believer in punishments," he declared in The Schoolmaster.[30] As an assistant master, he was in an unusual position among contemporary pedagogues of having no personal resort to corporal punishment. Bizarrely, at Eton it was the senior boys who enforced discipline through beatings: as a pupil, Benson himself was once "gently caned" by a future bishop.[31] More serious offences were punished by floggings, inflicted only by the Headmaster and the Lower Master. Benson himself witnessed a school ritual in 1877, when the Captain of the School formally presented the newly appointed Lower Master, J.L. Joynes, with a birch "tied up with blue ribbons".[32] "At one time I used to think that corporal punishment of any kind should be forbidden," he wrote in 1902, but he came to accept its "occasional use" as a last resort, especially when it was required to back the authority of a house captain.

If part of his success lay in his personality, much was also owed to his impressive physique. Massively built and over six feet tall, he was exceptionally imposing in academic dress. No Eton master could equal the "voluminousness, length, and silkiness" of his gown: "when proceeding majestically along the street he had a peculiar trick of drawing the folds of it around him," as if he were wrapped in the toga of a Roman Senator.[33] We have a similar glimpse of him striding across Magdalene's First Court in later years, "tall and immense in his great gown, rubbing his clasped hands together, breathing gustily, his head bent forward as he moves with that curious pad-footed prowling walk, as though he were threading a jungle".[34] His size and his innate dignity inspired respect. The boys of his house tried to fasten a nickname upon him, but "Big Ben" was "too much a man of the world to become a character among the fraternity of Eton masters."[35]

Every Eton House was "a city-state within the large vague boundary of the school".[36] "Benson's" was "distinguished by an air of urbanity and laissez faire." Its housemaster radiated a friendly aura, an unusual approach at the time. "Small boys or big boys, he treated us all as highly civilised beings and listened to our conversation with a deference that was almost flattering." He encouraged his youngsters to share amusing anecdotes with him. "How delighted he was if you told him a good one! Eyebrows bent approvingly on you; and finally face raised ceilingwards and a shake or two of the great shoulders."[37] There was, too, a unique Sunday evening ritual, forty minutes of story-telling before supper. Although attendance was optional, boys packed into his study, cramming themselves around the furniture and the floor. At the appointed hour, Benson would materialise, "bury himself in his great, deep leathern arm-chair" and proceed to narrate his tale "in a low conversational tone of voice, with never a check", his large figure a "blurred outline" masked by a green lampshade.[38] "I always told stories for an hour on Sunday evenings to the boys in my house," he wrote years later, "and though few of my intellectual and ethical counsels are remembered by old pupils, I never met one who did not recollect the stories."[39] But Benson's apparent light touch in running his House was an illusion: "he was paramount, he was absolute in his rule, and our freedom was never laxity; nor was it entrusted to our own guiding and disposing as much as perhaps we thought. To give a young disciple the sense of greater responsibility than he is really allowed — that is surely the stroke of a clever-handed master." Looking back, Benson felt that he had made the mistake as a housemaster in "being my own Captain too much, and not leaving enough authority in the hands of the upper boys". The problem, he felt, was that in five years out of six, "boys of strong and independent character" would gain from the exercise of responsibility, but in the sixth the burden would be too much.[40]

Boys regarded him "with real affection ... mixed with awe ... but the fear of his disapproval was a very real thing."[41] He believed in "repartee" as a means of control. "A certain quiet irony as long as it is not cruel, is a very effective weapon ... because a boy above all things dislikes being made to feel a fool before others."[42] Benson preferred to use the "half-humorous rebuke" where other masters would have set a punishment. Once he came upon an irascible small boy who had been provoked into calling his tormenter – an unkind elder brother – "you bloody swine". He drily described the outburst as "a most expressive remark, but rather more suitable to the pothouse", and so the incident was dismissed.[43] Occasionally, even Benson was lost for words. One Saturday night – when their housemaster was usually absent as a guest at Eton dinner parties – three small boys decided to use newly acquired water pistols to ambush the first unsuspecting person who entered their ringleader's room. When the door duly opened, "several well-directed jets of water were discharged at close quarters" before the conspirators realised that Benson had for some reason returned to the house.  Soaking their housemaster in full evening dress – Eton dinner parties were black-tie functions – was clearly a serious offence. But beyond Benson's "disgusted exclamation" ("Weally, weally, this is beyond a joke") as he retreated to change his clothes, and a subsequent "caustic remark" about "scuggish" behaviour, nothing more was heard of the incident. Its value to posterity is to reveal that Benson biographers have omitted to convey the difficulty he had with the letter R: a favourite term of condemnation, "deplorable", was rendered especially memorable by it.[44]

Four inmates of "Benson's" wrote tributes to their housemaster,[45] and we have Lubbock's testimony that there was a high turn-out of old boys at a farewell dinner for him in November 1903.[46] Yet it is harder to assess his overall influence. There are seventeen boys in the annual house photograph for 1893, thirty-four in 1903.[47] This suggests that somewhere between seventy and one hundred boys passed through Benson's house. Of these, the handful who became devoted friends had mostly risen to the trusted status of house captain.  The others presumably made their way into the world, and may not have felt much long-term impact from their housemaster.                                                               

There was no single turning point that marked the beginning of Benson's withdrawal from Eton – there rarely is – but 1896 marks a change of gear leading into a new phase. The year was dominated by EWB's death. It was unexpected, since his medical advisers had sensibly concluded that as he would certainly refuse to slow down, it was better not to warn him of the full extent of the risk to his heart. And it was appropriately grandiose, an almost imperceptible transition while attending morning service at Hawarden, Gladstone's parish church. Benson quickly established himself as EWB's biographer, an exercise that added massively to his workload, but which enabled him to begin a coming-to-terms with his father. ("He strove with pathetic earnestness – though not ... always with success – to understand and appreciate his father as he really was," was Randall Davidson's Delphic verdict, speaking in the nil nisi bonum atmosphere of Benson's memorial service in 1925.[48])  He began to appreciate that EWB's career, so imposing on paper, so intimidating for a son to emulate, in fact contained its own insecurities and lucky strokes – a theme argued in the first part of this essay. Edward Lyttelton was probably unfair – where Benson was concerned, he was habitually devoid of charity – in hinting that the project was censored by his mother,[49] and there were areas of the parental marriage which, as Goldhill has argued, could not be dragged before the public for another thirty years.[50] But, whatever the constraints of Victorianism and filial piety, Benson managed to be remarkably open about the dark sides of his frightening father. EWB continued to be a powerful presence, especially during his night hours, but there can be little doubt that Benson felt freer to chart his own career course once he had confronted and so to some extent liberated himself from parental incubus.

Unfortunately, 1896 also saw the start of the decline of the other senior male figure who had influenced his adult life. The victim of poor health, Edmond Warre began to lose his grip on the headmastership, at just the point where the shortcomings of his earlier reforms were becoming apparent.[51] Speculation would increasingly point to Benson as a likely successor, an outcome that Warre himself would have welcomed.[52] Although he was sometimes the subject of virulent criticisms in Benson's diary, Warre was undoubtedly a notable headmaster, and his first decade shaped the school for years to come.[53] He modernised the school's administration, for the first time providing effective back-up for masters. The school day was extended, to make room for new subjects, and internal examination procedures were improved. A pension scheme was started, to ease staff into retirement: it would play a small part in Benson's decision to get out in 1903.[54] The headmaster also took to descending upon classes unannounced, to deter the endemic misbehaviour that undermined those masters who were ineffective disciplinarians.

Warre also pushed for new buildings, a programme that aroused resistance, not least because it strained the school's finances, which the headmaster did not control. Some masters felt that resources were diverted away from their salaries, others objected on aesthetic grounds. Many of Warre's new buildings were required to provide classrooms and laboratory facilities for the new subjects that he had added to the curriculum. But there is always a danger that an academic leader with a construction bug will become obsessed with the sheer grandeur of bricks and mortar for their own sake. Eton's fine Renaissance Chapel could no longer accommodate the whole school. Younger boys attended services in an alternative, inadequate space. Warre secured the erection of a second place of worship, the Lower Chapel, demolishing existing teaching accommodation to clear the site. Critics argued that it ought to have been possible to reorganise the timetable to allow for two services in the existing building. Warre also seemed obsessed with the desire to build an even larger meeting hall, to enable the whole school to assemble under one roof.[55] Masters were irritated by his airy assertions that there were a thousand and one reasons for building such a chamber, with one complaining that it would help if Warre could focus on just one of them. Eventually, the project came about in the form of a memorial to Etonians killed in the Boer War.[56] Benson was unimpressed by Warre's "great love of bricks and mortar", unaccompanied as it was by any pronounced aesthetic sense. "All he required was that a building should be sound, solid, and, if possible, big."[57]

Warre suffered health problems in 1896, leaving him sleepless and run down. As headmaster, he had always been remote from his pupils. Boys generally only met him when referred for flogging, encounters that hardly constituted face-to-face meetings.[58] But he now began to lose lost touch with his masters as well, seeing them mainly at staff meetings, where he combined an increasing irritation towards dissent with a declining ability to provide cogent leadership. The collapse in the headmaster's energies and the eclipse of his awe-inspiring presence coincided with an increasing concern – certainly on Benson's part – that Warre's teaching reforms of the mid-eighteen-eighties were unsustainable. Warre had insisted that Eton should continue to be primarily a Classical school, and that Latin and Greek formed the core around which other subjects could be taught. But "the weakness of the classical curriculum is that it does not bring boys in touch with the modern progress of the world, the social tendencies, the great fruitful ideas which underlie progress". Benson savoured "the unexpected quality of great teaching, the sudden surprises, the unsuspected connections, the gleam of wide and far-off horizons."[59] Unfortunately, literatures confined to the Mediterranean world before 100 AD provided limited jumping-off points for the lateral exploration of global geography and history. In 1898, Benson despairingly called Classics "a poor pabulum [diet]", adding, in agonised and convoluted wording: "I live in dread of the public finding out how bad an education is the only one I can communicate. We do nothing to train fancy, memory, taste, imagination; we do not stimulate."[60] Warre's attempt to combine Classical and Modern teaching seemed increasingly fraudulent.[61] "We shoved and rammed in a good many other subjects into the tightly packed budget we called the curriculum," he recalled, looking back in 1906. "But it was not a sincere attempt to widen our education ... it was only a compromise with the supposed claims of the public, in order that we might try to believe that we taught things we did not really teach." Benson called Eton "an enormous and elaborate machine; the boys worked hard, and the masters were horribly overworked. The whole thing whizzed, banged, grumbled, and hummed like a factory; but very little education was the result."[62] In letters to The Times, he hammered at a simple message. "Simplification is absolutely necessary in secondary education; the congestion of subjects is almost grotesque."[63] Benson's initial answer, as we shall see, was that Greek should be relegated to a specialist and minority subject. In the years that followed 1902, he would make the transition from a mildly heretical Eton master to a dangerously radical Cambridge don. The first steps on that journey were taken in the years around 1900, as he found himself increasingly out of sympathy with Edmond Warre's leadership of the school. That alienation would also force him to confront the issue of his own motivation as an educator. 

Although Warre was undoubtedly and quintessentially a great Victorian headmaster, he was also, in many senses, strikingly modern. For instance, he urged his masters to register with the government as authorised teachers, as Benson waspishly doubted whether his headmaster's own occasional classroom appearances would have passed muster with any inspector of schools.[64] Unfortunately, as Warre became more remote from his staff, so he increasingly manifested the destructive faults of modern academic management, with its pointless work-creation projects, and calm assumption that subordinates functioned within limitless working hours. Warre was a great believer in paperwork and paper trails. As a master, he had insisted on his pupils acquiring "great square notebooks, the paper divided into columns", each segment devoted to notes about different aspects of the text to be studied.[65] As headmaster, he revelled in "slips, marks, foils and counterfoils, ruled compartments – it is his idea of intellectual systems."[66] His disciplinary system, a form of probation introduced to reduce dependence upon corporal punishment, was colour-coded, with boys failing to respond to a yellow ticket finding themselves on a last-chance white version. But the headmaster's tendency to respond to problems by creating new administrative machinery irritated Benson. "Warre has broken out again with pink and blue books, foils & counterfoils, forms and memoranda," he noted in 1901.[67] It seemed clear that the headmaster "did not realise that his reforms had entailed a good deal of extra work on the Staff". Masters felt that in putting forward new schemes, "he seldom considered the amount of work that the changes might add to the duties of men who were already over-worked."[68]

Another of the headmaster's regrettably modern wheezes was his proposal to establish a liaison committee of senior boys in each boarding house, "in the interests of order and morality". Housemasters protested that they already maintained close relations with their more responsible pupils on "matters which seriously concern the welfare of the house", that a formalised structure would be regarded by boys as "a sort of vigilance committee" based on spying, and that there was a danger that boys who were themselves tainted with immorality might be chosen as gamekeepers. (It is not clear whether Warre proposed that boys should elect the committee members.) Masters succeeded in blocking the headmaster's scheme, but their trust in his judgement was further undermined.

Again depressingly ahead of his time, Warre fervently believed in what later generations would call 'mixed ability' teaching. The headmaster, "often at the mercy of a metaphor", wanted to combine "light and shade" in each class. His theory was that able boys would be reminded of basic grammatical groundwork as it was drilled into their slower classmates, while less gifted pupils would be inspired by the intellectual gymnastics of their talented confrères. "He overlooked the fact that when the duller boys were being drilled in grammar, the cleverer boys did not listen; and that while the cleverer boys were disporting themselves in intellectual regions, the duller boys had no idea what was going on!" Eton masters were appointed as subject specialists, none of them having them any formal teacher training. Not surprisingly, they lacked the techniques that might have enlivened a mixed-ability classroom. Benson's solution was to treat each class as "two sets, and teach them alternately, finding some occupation for the clever boys while one was slowly drilling elementary work into the others."[69] Although probably the only practical strategy, it was hardly efficient.

Perhaps the most notable feature of Warre's dogged defence of mixed ability teaching – he finally relented to unanimous pressure in 1900 and acquiesced in streaming[70] – was his failure to sacrifice his own preference to secure the trade-off for further curriculum change. The problem was that for Warre, like many one-time reformers, his basic system was fundamentally sound and therefore essentially sacrosanct. "We must say boldly that we give a classical education," he told Benson. "We must keep Greek." The Classics would continue to dominate "a good general Trunk scheme" through the lower school, opening the way to specialisation by the older boys.[71]  But this was to approach the teaching of other subjects from the wrong end, as was seen in the decision, in 1899, to make French a compulsory subject for senior boys, when proficiency in the language clearly required a much earlier start.[72]  But it was not simply the timing of additional options that was educationally difficult to defend. The key problem was that the extra subjects were simply added on to an already creaking timetable. Benson caustically described proposals advanced by Warre in 1902 as an attempt "to keep the present system intact and specialise a little more – and call it a reform."[73] The system required radical surgery. "We attempt to teach too many subjects .... The only cure ... is simplification; and the first question is, what must go?"[74]

By the time he began to keep a regular diary, in 1897, Benson felt oppressed by his workload. The Eton "system", he complained that year, was already designed "to crush the master under mechanical and useless work ... knock him up with exhaustion".[75] In fact, his burdens were partly self-inflicted, since he had also undertaken the massive task of writing his father's biography. (Unlike his later and lighter books, which were mainly published as instant first drafts,[76] his two-volume account of the life of EWB involved considerable rewriting, as ecclesiastics in particular criticised his initial accounts of Church matters.) He actually drafted a letter of resignation in June 1897, which specifically referred to the additional work that had fallen upon him as a result of EWB's death (Benson was his father's executor, a responsibility of more than merely family importance), and claimed that he could only conscientiously discharge one third of his burdens as an Eton master.[77] Although he drew back at that time, he continued to resent the drudgery of schoolmastering, comparing himself to a squirrel in a rotating drum, engaged in "whirling work, of which so much is absolutely useless." In a 1901 diary entry, he raged against a "hateful day of fierce, arid, consuming work".[78] So much of what Eton stood for seemed pointless. "If we turned out our boys knowing anything, caring for anything, I should not complain. But eighty per cent leave us ignorant of everything, even Greek and Latin, hating books, despising knowledge, admiring athletics, mistaking amiability for character — and that is what we sweat our brains out to produce. It is simply deplorable."[79] "I have no call to schoolmastering," he wrote, as he finally broke with the job in 1903. "The wonder is that, caring for it so little in many ways, I do it as well as I do."[80] The question needs to be posed: why did he remain at Eton for so long. Two answers emerge from his diary. One was the practical financial issue: "I am not rich enough for my modest desires."[81] But the other was pregnant with possible meaning. "If I was not greatly interested in my boys I could not stand it."[82] If we are to understand the meaning of that statement, we need to turn aside to explore Benson's sexuality.

Boys, Beauty and Brides

It seems fair to generalise that modern biographical scholarship must accept three basic points regarding sexuality. The first is that exploration of a subject's sexual identity (and the ways in which it was expressed) is vital to the creation of a fully rounded portrait. The second is establishing that identity is not always easy for the student, not least because it was often far from straightforward for the subject. Both Newsome and Goldhill note that Benson apparently only became aware of the concept of homosexuality (or at least the term, which he rendered as two words, and in just two diary entries) in the last year of his life.[83] "It is hard to name Arthur Benson's queerness," Goldhill concludes, because "he can never quite find the words for it himself."[84] (However, it may be pointed out that deficiencies in technical vocabulary did not inhibit the emergence of an active gay scene in Benson's undergraduate college.) The third is that the interpretation of evidence is complicated by the problem that we may hear messages in the vocabulary of a century ago that were never intended by the original writer: Benson's claim to be "greatly interested in my boys" almost certainly falls into that category. Similarly, his comment in 1911 that a theosophist might conclude that "I have the soul of a woman in the body of a man" was a reflection on his preference for male company over female, not (as might be interpreted nowadays) a plea for gender realignment.[85] It does not help that, even within the intimacy of his diary, Benson tended to clam up about certain experiences: "there are at least two thoughts, often with me, that greatly affect my life, to which I never allude here."[86] One of these forbidden areas was probably his fear of mental illness – in the stark language of the time, of going mad. The other might have been his obsessive belief in his early – even imminent – death.[87] But it is much more likely to have related to his sexuality, an area where, on crucial occasions, the diary retreated into enigmatic formulae, mnemonics designed to enable him to recall some incident, but not to communicate its nature to any subsequent reader.

As Newsome sensitively documented, Benson's orientation was homosexual. Even without a self-defining classificatory vocabulary, he could write: "I think I have a very Greek fibre somewhere within me."[88] Does this, then, illuminate Benson's statement that he was "greatly interested in my boys"? Somewhat ungraciously, the school's official historian wrote that "while he was at Eton he kept his pederasty and depression at bay."[89] Resisting the depths of depression was a recurrent, maybe even a constant problem. Was the other half of the problem equally pressing? Indeed, could the charge be even more serious? In the twenty-first century, we are all too aware of repeated and horrific child abuse scandals in institutions, frequently perpetrated openly, and by men who were respected, even sometimes idolised. Are we entitled to read backwards from these episodes, and confront the possibility that there was an unhealthy element in Benson's dedication to his charges? There were certainly aspects of his philosophy and practice that can give concern today. "I see each new boy alone," he wrote in 1901, "try to find out where he stands with regard to moral difficulties – and then with all my might I try to convince him that whatever happens, even if I am officially cross, we are friends."[90] The confidential discussion, the probing of insecurities, the pledge of friendship – these are classic grooming ploys of the paedophile, and it can only alarm the modern reader to encounter them as Benson's own watchwords. (Nor is this necessarily an over-reaction of retrospective moralising: after the publication of The Schoolmaster, Benson received a series of obscene anonymous letters.[91]) Moreover, at Eton, it was "the custom for the housemaster to go round after prayers and see the boys until the lights are out",a ritual that Benson found a "pleasure".[92] Benson discreetly omitted in his book the fact that, by the time he began his rounds at 9.15, most of his charges were already in bed.[93] One pupil, who became a life-long friend, remembered him "sitting on the end of my bed one night", and commenting indiscreetly on the teaching methods of a colleague.[94] Benson, it will be recalled, was a large man; Eton boys slept in single beds and, no doubt given the constraints of space, small ones at that. The dangers of the situation are all too obvious.

And yet – the notion of Benson as a child abuser seems absurd. He devoted one hour each evening to visiting thirty boys, enough for a two-minute chat with each. It was also an understood convention that a boy who did not wish to be disturbed could simply blow out his candle and pretend to be already asleep: few seem to have availed of this obvious self-protection strategy.[95] Benson himself was aware of the dangers of emotional involvement. "It is the temptation of some men, and especially of celibates, to feel a kind of tenderness for what is young and bright and attractive".  A housemaster's relations with his pupils "should be paternal and not sentimental", not least because "boys are quick to notice any favouritism".[96] Benson may have been idealising them when he described his charges as "brave and pure-minded boys, with good homes" but, more to the point, they were the children of influential and assertive families.[97] A common theme in modern-day child abuse scandals is that the victims are usually friendless and vulnerable. That could not be said of Eton pupils. A murky scandal was uncovered in another house in 1902 because a junior boy unburdened himself to himself to his parents about a culture of bullying, which was assumed to include sexual exploitation: the housemaster was not involved, but he lost his boarding house anyway.[98] Eton parents took for granted that their offspring were subject to flagellation, but they would have been quick to cry foul had their treatment extended to sexual interference.

In any case, it is undesirable to convict anybody of a successfully resisted tendency to malign behaviour on the basis of the absence of evidence that such behaviour ever occurred. In the whole of his life, Benson never held up a bank, but this should not be taken as proof that he continuously wrestled with a temptation to commit armed robbery. It might be more helpful to shift the focus of the discussion, and enquire what precisely was meant when Benson and contemporaries talked of "boys". Hyam was critical of Newsome's loose employment of this key term. "He does not seem to know what a 'boy' is."[99] Goldhill asserts that Benson himself was equally vague: "they are all 'boys' to him".[100] In fact, it is important to distinguish between young men and children. Primarily, Benson was romantically attracted to the former, to sixth formers and undergraduates. So long as they remained platonic, such relationships were not illegal, even in the era of the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act. From a modern perspective, they would be regarded as undesirable only if the older person exploited a position of authority to secure favours from a student (or bestow privileges upon him). However, considerable concern would be felt, both now and then, at any expression of sexual attraction towards young adolescents: it will be recalled that boys generally entered Eton at the age of thirteen, around the time of puberty. Physical interference with pre-teenage children has aroused utter disgust in every era. Benson's attachments to handsome undergraduates may seem embarrassing, but is there any indication that he desired younger adolescents or even lusted after small children?

In confronting these distasteful questions, we need to bear in mind that Benson's diary, so discursive on general matters, puts up one of Francis Turner's NO ENTRY signs when it comes to his most intimate thoughts. One Sunday in December 1904, he "crept" into Eton College Chapel and sat through the service. By this time, he had left the Eton staff: his presence was thus unofficial, associated with his editorial work on Queen Victoria's letters at nearby Windsor Castle. It was a choral service, including Mendelssohn's 'Hear My Prayer'. The rendering was "delicious", but its sentiments, of farewell to sin and sorrow, "had no inner voice for me". Rather, his thoughts strayed, but he could not bring himself to chronicle his ruminations: "yet even now in this book, where I write so freely, I cannot say what I mostly thought about; vague reveries, tending one way."[101] The modern reader may cynically suggest 'choirboys' – there are certainly diary entries where he comments on choristers[102] – but the rest of the entry suggests that he was ranging over his thirty-year association with the school, as pupil and teacher, at a time when his name was in play as a possible successor to Warre in the headmastership. However, a few months earlier, he had written more explicitly about an experience, an accidental episode of voyeurism.

Strolling through the Eton precinct late one May evening, returning from a dinner engagement with Stuart Donaldson, he had spotted "a boy in a nightgown" through the lighted window of a boarding house – just the sort of detached cameo observation in which he delighted, "like a window opened in heaven". The strange feature of the actual window was that it was "full of flowers". The boy placed a candle on the window ledge (its brightness almost certainly obscured the peeping Benson from his view), and began to re-arrange the flowers, smiling as he did so. "And then came a further surprise, of which I will not here speak, but which I shall not easily forget." The diary entry is provokingly enigmatic. Newsome saw in the incident the sadness of a man "who can see life, but not live it." Goldhill quotes the same passage, but adds that Benson rounded it off with the Latin phrase "inter lilia", which he interprets as a coded allusion to eroticism.[103] The coy conclusion suggests that the "further surprise" was some form of sexual experience – perhaps a sudden erection or an unheralded orgasm? – but we do not even know whether it engulfed the observer or the observed. Equally unclear is the age of the "boy". However, it is possible to hazard a guess. One feature of Eton is its lack of communal dormitory life. Every boy has his own room, an arrangement that encourages individuality, sometimes extending to eccentricity. Boys may decorate their rooms, in the sense of providing their own pictures and ornaments. The youth with the candle obviously had a penchant for flowers. This suggests a relatively senior boy, since a younger lad would probably have felt inhibited from engaging in such display, and would have been open to mockery had he festooned his room with blossom. Deductions can only be tentative, but it seems fair to suggest that, if this episode was sexual in nature, the focus of Benson's erotic impulse was at the very least well advanced into adolescence.

This postulated qualification of the categorisation of Benson as homosexually inclined makes all the more incomprehensible, if not distasteful, a strained passage in Newsome's generally impressive biography. Walking in Sussex in 1925, a few months before his death, Benson encountered two small boys, wheeling a younger brother in a primitive perambulator. In high good humour, Benson asked if they were planning to sell him, and playfully offered to purchase him for sixpence. A century later, such banter would certainly be ill-advised, but there is nothing to suggest that Benson's comments stemmed from anything more than an elderly gentleman's joviality. "It was almost the last financial transaction of his life," comments Newsome, "and in itself exquisitely symbolical: to make as if to buy himself a little boy."[104] The passage is little short of monstrous, and the insertion of the weasel disclaimer, "as if", provides no defence for its inclusion. Not only does it play, however unwittingly, to the hate propaganda that equates homosexuality with the abuse of small children, but it entirely distorts the nature of Benson's feelings towards young men. The fact is that he rarely encountered small boys, and there is nothing to suggest that he found them sexually exciting.

Indeed, Benson's sexual experiences seem to have been very few, and notably low-key. From the fact that both Newsome and Goldhill relate the boy-in-the-nightgown floral-window episode, it would seem that voyeurism is not a major and consistent theme in the diary. Ardently gay, Hugh Walpole could be an unsettling companion. At lunch with him in 1905, Benson experienced "a strange thing ... a door opened – of which I must not say more." The following year, when Walpole was staying with him, there was "an odd and inexplicable incident which I won't record: unintentional I think" – but sufficiently disturbing to cause him a sleepless night.[105] Explicit indications of episodes that brought Benson into direct communion with his sexuality seem to have been few, and recorded only opaquely. These are not the Black Diaries of Roger Casement. He could not cope with Walpole's tempestuous emotions. In fact, he came to find the young man's homosexuality too much to bear. "He has a strongly developed sexual instinct, but rather abnormally perverted," was Benson's comment in 1911, as he allowed the friendship to lapse.[106] Similarly, he wrote of "the foul cur" that had overwhelmed William Johnson Cory, and the "ugliness" of Oscar Wilde's "vice".[107] His fundamental problem, as he admitted in the slightly more open days of 1924, was that he had been "brought up to regard all sexual relations as being rather detestable in their very nature; a thing per se to be ashamed of."[108] "I often wish I had not been so cautious and so timid in my relations with others," he had written in 1905.[109] "I have never been in vital touch with anyone", he confessed in 1913, " – never either fought anyone or kissed anyone!"[110]

Thus far, this discussion of Benson's sexuality has drawn extensively upon material exhumed by Newsome and Goldhill, if with some difference in emphasis. But the biographical focus upon "boys" – whether as small children or young men – risks becoming self-reinforcing, and needs to be widened. Benson was reticent about committing to paper his deepest thoughts on sex. "This is one of the few things about which I do not speak my mind," he commented when George Mallory hinted at the "darker moral region" behind undergraduate friendships in 1907.[111] On the other hand, Benson did write a good deal about the concept of beauty, in various manifestations from the scenic to the physical. "What a pretty thing the human body is!", he commented during the heat wave of 1911.  "I saw a fine radiant boy come out of the water, looking like a little god: in five minutes he was clothed and shouting, a horrible cad!"[112] If we filter this diary entry through the prevalent assumptions that Benson was tacitly gay, then we can interpret this entry as an expression of sexual desire. But is also possible that it does indeed represent what it purports to state: that there is beauty in the human body. (In a Freudian age, we can of course concede that all interpersonal contact contains some element of sexual appraisal, but there seems no reason to apply this insight more stringently to Benson than to anybody else.) Four years earlier, the sight of "long-limbed brown-skinned girls and boys" playing on a Sussex beach had momentarily made him wish that he had a "family of jolly children". Newsome interprets this as an expression of Benson's "voyeur element", but the inclusion of both girls and boys may indicate that his primary response was aesthetic. "What a beautiful thing the human form is after all," he wrote, as he watched the "delicious sight" of "a little brown boy" diving off a pier.[113] But such moments did not form an agenda for fantasy sexual predation, but rather a substitute for any form of engagement. At Norwich Cathedral in 1910, he noted that it was "pretty before service to see two little blue-cassocked choir-boys in the Dean's stall, finding his places."[114] A sexual response? Perhaps, but maybe he was simply struck by the charming and colourful sight of two youngsters, apparently charged with the responsible task of ensuring that that the Dean opened his prayer book at the correct page. He enjoyed the sight of choirboys, but there does not seem to be any indication that he ever tried to talk to them: that would have risked destroying the cameo. "I can see life as a series of beautiful pictures," he wrote in 1902. "I cannot live it."[115]

The diary has been quarried for descriptions of boys, but less attention has been accorded to his cameos of girls. There was the "beautiful, red-haired kitchen-maid" in the bishop's palace at Norwich whom he spotted in 1910, or "a bare-legged girl under a walnut-tree, driving a flock of hens with a switch", glimpsed to his delight in Somerset two years later.[116] If we conclude that there is nothing (or, pace Freud, very little) that is sexual in such descriptions, then we might equally accept that many of Benson's cameo pictures of young boys are also aesthetic, such as the Norfolk lad who was "roguish ... with a perpetual smile and large white teeth – a common country boy, but of extraordinary graceful carriage."[117]  One possible objection to such an interpretation might claim that Benson's girls were in fact honorary boys. (He certainly did confess, "I like women better the more they approximate to men"[118], but this comment was more about behaviour than bodies.) Yet the faint traces of ambiguity in his writing seem, if anything, to be the other way around. He was briefly interested in an undergraduate contemporary at King's, a "pretty, sensitive boy" with a "feminine" nature.[119] On a shooting party in Norfolk in 1902, he was struck by the appearance of young beater, the gamekeeper's son who "could have been dressed up to make a really beautiful woman."[120] This is one of many entries where the reader would have liked some clue about the youngster's age. The lad was obviously old enough to be trusted among guns, and was perhaps a young teenager.[121] Published extracts from the diaries do not seem to suggest that Benson used the descriptive "boyish" for girls who caught his eye. When Frank Salter married, he called the bride "a little boyish-looking demoiselle", but this probably referred to the fact that she was slight and slender in build – the adjective derived from masculinity was here counter-balanced by a noun that undoubtedly spoke of femininity.[122]

With young women, his responses could be unexpectedly complex. It was not that he experienced any strong heterosexual attraction. A steamy novel of 1904 left him genuinely bewildered. "Do all properly constituted men feel like that? A wild and rather brutish pursuit of a mate? ... I have never felt this".[123] Yet he could find himself enchanted by youthful femininity, if only occasionally. At a dinner party in 1907, he sat next to "a pretty and charming girl to whom I rather lost my heart." When Lady Lyttelton tried to offload an attractive daughter on Monty James, he wrote wistfully, "I wish it were going to be my good fortune to deserve her."[124] At a lunch in Trinity in 1912, he met a "simply enchanting" young woman "– about twenty, simple, pretty, so that I really fell quite in love with her, and watched her every movement and laugh.... I was entranced and absorbed ... it made me light-headed to see and hear her." "That is the kind of creature I should like to marry; and I really feel what a donkey I am to be fifty, and yet never to have had the sense to ask some nice girl to walk through life with me. This clean fresh pretty lively modest girl would be a delightful partner".[125] On another occasion, he was captivated by Miss Morgan, daughter of the Master of Jesus College. "If polygamy was the fashion, I should like to have such a girl as a subordinate wife".[126] It is striking to encounter fantasies about polygamy from the man rightly regarded by Goldhill as the quintessential bachelor.[127] In part, Benson's occasional yearnings towards marriage no doubt represented a coveting of status: "One ought to be married no doubt," he wrote in 1904, adding that "it is too late now" (he was forty-two).[128] As Percy Lubbock put it, with exquisite sarcasm, "sometimes he wished, he very regretfully wished, that he was already married, but he never had the least disposition to begin to be." Benson's own explanation, as he recognised in The Upton Letters, was pathetic, and obviously evasive. "I have never, God forgive me, had time to be in love! That is a pitiful confession."[129]

Yet there are indications that perhaps he had not finally ruled out the possibility of marriage, even though he confided in his diary it was "not at all likely" in 1912.[130]  During his passing enchantment with Miss Morgan, he even faced the prospect that, if left alone in her company, he might "ask her to marry me ... probably a very bad mistake."[131] Even more intriguing was his decision, around 1914, to build himself a house in Grange Road, part of the west Cambridge donnery that housed married academics. He was wealthy and he enjoyed such projects, but it is hard to see why he needed a large private residence. There was little prospect that he would be ever evicted from Magdalene's Old Lodge – colleges were relaxed about the life tenure of dons in those days, and the former tenant, Newton, had died there. Benson never lived at "Howlands", as he called it: he rented the property out, and used the income to finance a junior academic post at Magdalene.[132] The construction of Howlands might suggest that Benson had not finally abandoned the possibility of marriage.[133]

In his published writings, he gave a mixed message. "God has sent me many gifts, both good and evil," he wrote in his 1910 book, The Silent Isle, "but he has not sent me a wife". (Lubbock would perhaps have smiled at Benson's assumption that it was up to the Almighty to run a celestial dating agency.) He recognised that he shared his avoidance of marriage with his siblings. "Providence has never pushed a pawn to me in the shape of an official wife, and has markedly withheld me from nephews and nieces."[134] It was at about this time that the very wise Blanche Warre-Cornish told him that he "made the mistake, like many clever men, of thinking marriage too transcendental a thing." Benson's response was to express the "fear" that marriage "would be transcendental with me: ... I should so get to detest the ways and the physical presence of anyone with whom I lived – unless it were a simply negative clean comeliness – that I should be obsessed by it, unless saved by a very high sort of passion."[135] Nonetheless, there are suggestions that, at about the same time, he may have contemplated a less-than-perfect marriage. "I should doubtless be a better man, even with a shrewish wife and a handful of heavy, unattractive children," he wrote The Silent Isle. "I should have to scheme for them, to make things easier for them, to work for them, to recommend them, to cherish them, to love them." Once again, this was not an option that it occurred to him he should pursue himself. "These dear transforming burdens are denied me."[136] It is surprising to find such frequent speculations about the possibility of marriage coming from the pen of a man who gave every appearance of being, to use the coded term of the time, a confirmed bachelor.

Benson confronted the issue of his own possible marriage in Watersprings, published in 1913 at the time he was contemplating the building of Howlands. Watersprings is not a great novel but, until its bizarre denouement, it is more readable than most of its author's ephemeral fantasy writing. The hero, Howard Kennedy, is a bachelor don in his forties, easily recognisable as Benson himself, while Beaufort College is very obviously Magdalene.[137] Most of the action takes place in Somerset, where Kennedy has a family home, and it is there that he unexpectedly falls in love with the nineteen year-old daughter of a local clergyman, discovers to his amazement that she idolises him, and marries her a year later. The plot is too close to the life story of Benson's Eton hero, William Johnson Cory, for the resemblance to be accidental. Cory, in his fifties, married the twenty year-old daughter of a neighbouring Devon clergyman, after she confessed her ambition to marry "an old clever man, good, tender and true", and bluntly informed him: "You are the man."[138] Newsome interprets Maud Sandys as an honorary boy: Kennedy is struck by her resemblance to her brother Jack, a Beaufort undergraduate, "and the moment of realisation that he has fallen in love with her comes when he sees her dressed as a boy."[139] Certainly "Maud had an extraordinary likeness to her brother" (siblings often do resemble one another) but, Kennedy added, "with what a difference!"[140]  Kennedy was already well aware that he had been knocked off balance when Maud appeared to talk a stroll with him wearing "a rough cloak and cap", which he found "enchanting" –  not cross-dressing but outdoor wear for the Somerset hills.[141] The text can no doubt be read in different ways. Envisage Maud Sandys as a serious but appealing young woman – "transcendental" even – and Benson's evocative prose suggests either that he was remarkably effective in plagiarising heterosexual love stories, or that he was genuinely able to generate a tender portrayal of his heroine. Insist on seeing Maud, like the Norfolk gamekeeper's son, as a boy dressed in girl's clothes, and Watersprings becomes trapped in a filter of perceived homosexuality. But it is possible to see the novel as expressing a yearning for marriage, although what kind of marriage may remain open to definition.[142] Yet it may even be that observers on the wilder shores of literary criticism might suggest that Maud was neither girl nor boy, but a symbol of Benson's adopted college.  Was the author of Watersprings indicating that he was ready to pledge his troth, not to a woman but to Magdalene?

There are surely enough allusions by Benson to the possibility of marriage to make it worth asking: why did he never make it to the altar? Plenty of gay men married in that era, although it was (of course) not always a good idea that they should. Sophisticated upper class women in Victorian Britain were surely aware that husbands educated at public schools had encountered same-sex experiences. Seventeen year-old Nellie Van de Weyer reassured her fiancé Reginald Brett: "do not think to frighten me with your two-sided character – show me which side you please."[143] The Edwardian elite were even more relaxed. When Maurice Bonham-Carter told Violet Asquith during their honeymoon that he had been "married" at Eton, she found the information sufficiently interesting to share it with a friend.[144] Nor would Benson's apparent lack of a sex drive have necessarily ruled out a companionate marriage. It is likely that the union between his uncle Henry Sidgwick and Eleanor Balfour was never consummated, but they constituted an affectionate and formidable partnership all the same.[145] Perhaps more crucial was his claim to dislike the entire female gender. "I think there is something very horrid about women – so self-conscious and inconsequent!", he exclaimed in 1911.[146]

His most notable outburst of misogyny had come four years earlier, attributing his difficulty in maintaining his female friendships to "a certain bluntness, frankness, coarseness, which does not offend men, but which aggravates women." The problem, of course, was with them: "at a certain juncture they begin to disapprove and to criticise my course, and to feel a responsibility to say disagreeable things." Benson felt unable "to take it smilingly and courteously" because "I don't like the sex. Their mental processes are obscure to me; I don't like their superficial ways, their mixture of emotion with reason." By contrast, his male friends "never criticise, they take one for better and worse. ... My own feeling is that one's duty to a friend is to encourage and uplift and compliment and believe in him. Women, I think, when they get interested in one, have a deadly desire to improve one. They think that the privilege of friendship is to criticise; they want deference, they don't want frankness." Benson went through the motions of blaming himself for his inability to relate to women ("it is a vital deficiency in me"), but he was equally sure that he had no intention of doing anything about it.[147] 

The student of Benson must generally accept the statements that he confided to his diary, even if it is reasonable to express reservations at the occasional flight of fancy. It is rare to find a passage that is pure poppycock, but this one passes the test. Benson was obsessive in making critical comments about his friends: in From a College Window, he defended his right to do as one of the privileges that enriched friendship.[148] They reciprocated the lack of compliment: he often resentfully noted their criticisms, but rejected attempts to improve him. There were spats and squabbles aplenty with male friends too.  The outburst was not a proclamation of his eternal rejection of marriage, but rather the frightened explosion of a man who had recently escaped entanglement. An amicable association with the novelist Mary Cholmondeley had assumed frightening dimensions. She had written to him in 1903 confessing that she felt "a kind of large and predestined friendship" towards him – an initiative that certainly looked like an invitation to propose marriage. The forty year-old Benson panicked, and even contemplated asking his mother to help him evade the trap. (This might not have proved an effective strategy, since Mary Benson was almost certainly a co-conspirator with her daughter-in-law elect.)[149] Of course, it was for Benson to decide whether he wished to lead Mary Cholmondeley from the altar, and there were aspects of her mind that did not appeal to him. But in many respects, she would have been well qualified as a mid-life bride. She was a family friend, and they had shared interests in literature. She was also three years his senior, and as her earlier novel, Red Pottage, had been denounced for immorality, she would presumably have been capable of negotiating explicit limits to marital relations. In the event, Mary Cholmondeley took her revenge in her 1906 novel Prisoners. Wentworth Maine, the central character if hardly the hero, was both younger and physically smaller than Benson, but the author signalled the identification to her victim by attributing remarks from their confidential conversations to him. Maine was devastatingly dismissed as "a sedate, self-centred young man ... mainly occupied in transcribing the nullity of his days in a voluminous diary", who "regarded as friendship a degree of intimacy which most men and women regard as acquaintanceship."[150] Benson was deeply hurt, and lashed out accordingly.[151]

Like most confirmed bachelors, Benson offered more than one reason for his avoidance of matrimony. He claimed that celibacy was an asset to a public school housemaster, even though colleagues such as Stuart Donaldson and Edward Lyttelton not only managed to combine job with family, but almost certainly gained from their partnership with intelligent and energetic women.[152] Institutional life, at Eton and later at Magdalene, gave him some of the support that he might have gained through marriage. Although he was occasionally conscious of loneliness, he could also declare – in 1904, in the aftermath of the Cholmondeley escapade – that "I think I love my liberty better".[153]  But it was less independence that mattered to him, but detachment. "I don't want to claim or be claimed." "I don't want to marry – I don't want anyone so near me as that."[154] The inwardly flawed region that he needed to protect, the aspect of himself guarded by the NO ENTRY signs that Turner would detect, was his vulnerability to black depression. In 1895, before the commencement of the regular diary, he had rejected hints from his parents that he should marry: "even if I were so tempted, it would be criminal – even to run the risk of handing to another my own miserable disposition – and to admit another into the torture chamber that I call my life."[155] This was written at a time when he felt himself trapped in "acute and deadly depression",[156] but the warning note seems to have always present, if sometimes in a less dramatic tone. When he berated himself as a "donkey" in 1912 for failing to find a partner in life, he recognised that he was "kept off it by stupid moods and fastidiousnesses."[157] Occasionally, if cornered, he might lift the veil slightly, in the hope of frightening off the female interloper: Mary Cholmondeley was apparently taken aback by "the grim self-knowledge" he displayed in a letter warning her to keep her distance.[158] In The Silent Isle, he fell back on a sardonic jest so often told about the stubbornly unmarried: God had not sent him a wife, "perhaps in pity for a frail creature of his hand, who might have had to bear that tedious fate!"[159]

Benson's 1899 statement that he was "greatly interested in my boys" has prompted this lengthy excursion into his sexuality. My discussion is no doubt inadequate, but it can be summarised reasonably succinctly. Benson's orientation was homosexual. He was romantically attracted to young men – sixth-formers and undergraduates – but there is little or nothing to suggest that he was a threat to younger boys. There are problems of interpretation in using the diary to understand his sexuality, since it was an area of his life that he explicitly refused to explore. By contrast, he had something of an obsession with the concept of beauty, and in particular with his own feeling that he could witness beautiful sights but not truly experience them. If he often wrote appreciative descriptions of boys and young men, it should be remembered that he also sometimes wrote of girls in terms of artless admiration. He was not impervious to feminine charm, and it seems a brutal strategy to assume that the young women who occasionally delighted him were, in his heart of hearts, transvestite boys. He contemplated the theoretical possibility of marriage – or, perhaps more accurately, the acquisition of marital status – often enough to make it merit consideration as an agenda item in considering his life. His homosexuality no doubt disinclined him to seek a bride, but comparison with contemporary gays suggests that it might not have represented an inflexible barrier – although Benson's distaste for all forms of sexual expression and activity would have been a larger handicap. The real barrier that prevented him from seeking a partner in life – of either gender – was his awareness of the fragility of his mental health, his reluctance, as he put it, to invite another human being into "the torture chamber that I call my life".

"Wider still and wider / Shall thy bounds be set"

When Benson died in 1925, his Oxford opposite number, the President of Magdalen, Herbert Warren, hailed his "old and cherished friend" as the author of Land of Hope and Glory, "to-day the accepted anthem of the Empire." "There's not much in it," Benson had modestly told Warren. "It was made by Elgar's music."[160] Warren was right about its standing by the nineteen-twenties, but Land of Hope and Glory acquired its prominence to some extent by accident, and Benson himself signalled that it did not entirely reflect his personal opinions.

Throughout his final seven years at Eton, from 1896, Benson was called upon by Windsor Castle from time to time to churn out hymns and odes for royal occasions. As a master at nearby Eton, he was readily available. He belonged to the 'establishment', in the most literal sense as son of the archbishop, and, perhaps above all, he was not Alfred Austin, the unregarded Poet Laureate appointed earlier that year when the Queen refused to accept either Swinburne or Kipling. Occasionally, as with his ode on the 1902 Anglo-Japanese alliance, we encounter a versifier desperately searching for something to say, but basically, Benson was a clever wordsmith, who frequently took only a few minutes to supply the requested material.[161] There is no reason to assume that the sentiments that so glibly flowed from his prolific pen reflected any deep commitments of his own.

Land of Hope and Glory originated as the last of six parts written for Elgar's 1902 Coronation Ode. Much of the earlier verse had hailed the return of peace at the conclusion of the South African War. The final section was in fact a celebration of the actual crowning of Edward VII, culminating in the stirring words: "Hearts in hope uplifted, / loyal lips that sing; / Strong in Faith and Freedom, / we have crowned our King!" The phrases that would later resonate as the unofficial anthem of Empire were less prominent: "Land of hope and glory, / Mother of the free, / How shall we extol thee, / who are born of thee? / Truth and Right and Freedom, / each a holy gem, / Stars of solemn brightness, / weave thy diadem." Curiously enough, for all Elgar's "wizard-like music", as Benson called it, the Coronation Ode was ousted from the concert repertoire by its revised form embedded in Pomp and Circumstance March, No. 1.[162] There are differing legends about the transition; one that the King himself wished to have a stirring popular song quarried out of the Coronation Ode, another that Dame Clara Butt wanted a declamatory piece appropriate to her formidable singing voice.[163] It was at this point that Benson added the famous (or notorious) chorus: "Wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set / God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet." There is no more reason to assume that these words reflected Benson's own sentiments, any more than "Be this our plighted union blest / Oh ocean-thronèd empires of the East and West" indicated his personal excitement at the alliance with Japan.[164]

Indeed, there is evidence both that he felt little enthusiasm for the Empire and its component parts. In his later years, he did his best to distance himself from "wider still and wider," even at the risk of offending his mass patriotic readership. Benson disliked vulgar manifestations of patriotic enthusiasm: he was outraged by the riotous behaviour of Eton boys on Mafeking night.[165] The colonies interested him not at all. He recorded without comment a complaint by the sister of the Earl of Glasgow, who had served as Governor of New Zealand, that she had been forced to meet doctors and dentists at the dinner table of Government House Wellington.[166] He was amused by the advice given by a formidable woman friend to her daughter who was compelled to visit a primitive region of South Africa. On waking each morning, she was to say to herself: "(1) I am an Englishwoman. (2) I was born in wedlock. (3) I'm on dry land."[167] There was no sense here of any excitement about founding new British societies overseas. His sketch of his own personal father-confessor, largely failed to recognise the importance of G.H. Wilkinson's visit to South Africa as a turning point in his career.[168] The romance of Britain's non-European dependencies equally passed him by. He found himself ill at ease with Cambridge's Indian students ("bright-eyed ... with their dusky-faces and unintelligible English".)[169]

In his writings, he could be arch about the assumptions behind his own imperial anthem. "We English are of course the chosen race," he wrote with a touch of sarcasm in 1906; "but we should be none the worse for a little more intellectual apprehension, a little more amiable charm."[170] Addressing the readership of the Church of England Family Newspaper in 1912, he came close to repudiating Land of Hope and Glory altogether. "We hear much said nowadays about the Empire, and said wisely and bravely, too; and we are told to hold out hands of brotherhood, and to keep our hearts warm towards our unknown friends and fellow-citizens over the sea, and to be proud of the great outward-beating wave of English life and talk and thought which surges over the globe." He agreed that "England may well rejoice in the old blessing of the Psalms that she is truly a joyful mother of children" – close to the very words he had penned for Elgar – but, he added, "I sometimes wish that it were all done and said a little less militantly, and that the happy family would think and talk a little less of crowding out and keeping in their corners the other children who have their playground here, too, by the far-off purpose of God."[171] He felt no enthusiasm about Empire Day festivities, on Queen Victoria's birthday, 24 May, every year. "The 'Empire', thus treated, leaves me cold," he wrote in 1917. "I think most people have quite enough to do with thinking about their neighbour. How can little limited minds think about the colonies & India, & the world at large, and all that it means?" Again, he refused to "back our race against all races. I believe in our race, but I don't disbelieve in theirs".[172] In 1923, he recalled a sermon preached in Lincoln Cathedral forty years earlier, ostensibly on behalf of missionary activities. The visiting cleric became carried away by his imperial enthusiasm, and "ended by an impassioned plea for the maintenance, and if possible the extension, of the Empire, the responsibilities of which we had assumed and continued to sustain, he assured us, at great inconvenience and expense to ourselves, with no hope of any gain and advantage, but solely for the benefit and profit of our subject provinces."[173]  Benson had found the experience indescribably funny. He could only have told the story in The Trefoil to signal that he did not wish God to make the Empire mightier yet.

Benson was, of course, very English. His insistence upon regarding Wales as part of England may have reflected EWB's strong stance against the disestablishment of the Anglican Church in Wales, although his description of the Welsh people as "like goats ... surly, stupid and conceited" seems an unduly harsh generalisation from his criticism of the evolving national ritual of the "absurd" Eistedfodd as "idiotic buffoonery".[174] He may have spent more time in Scotland than the record that can be culled from the diary suggests: the 1891 census found him at a hotel in Inverness-shire, no doubt on a shooting holiday.[175] He enjoyed staying with his Eton colleague, Stuart Donaldson and his wife Lady Albinia, who were able to afford to rent two estates in succession, Dunskey in Wigtownshire, and Humbie in East Lothian, both equipped with grouse moors. Located on the south-west coast of Scotland near Portpatrick, Dunskey benefited from the Gulf Stream, and Benson especially enjoyed the "mossy sea-woods" of its sheltered glen: this was not Scotland in its full Caledonian rawness.[176] An excursion from Humbie brought him to Whittinghame, the country home of his kinsman Arthur Balfour. He was surprised by the "magnificence" of the mansion, surrounded by an estate "trim, groomed, splendidly kept".[177] It is not difficult to conclude that he liked Scotland in proportion to its resemblance to England. But the landscape and the small towns of the Borders did not please him, precisely because they were distinctively "Scotch".[178] He seems to have visited Ireland just once, spending a brief visit as a guest of the Lord-Lieutenant in January 1902 – not out of any desire to observe the neighbouring island, but because Earl Cadogan was the father of one of his pupils. The windows of the Viceregal Lodge did provide a grim view of the spot where Lord Frederick Cavendish had been murdered in 1882, but the great house in the Phoenix Park was hardly the ideal location to observe Ireland and its problems. Despite his own Eton and Cambridge conditioning, he seems to have known very little about the Ascendancy ("I had no idea that Trinity was so big and so rich", he confessed in his diary), and he appears to have spent forty years moving on the fringes of the political world without taking much interest in nationalist and Catholic Ireland.[179] Benson was not so much a Little Englander as an Englishman who gradually managed to exclude the rest of the world from his consciousness.

By appointment: "more capable, more suitable and more trustworthy"

In the summer of 1903, Benson was as discontented as ever with the "terribly irksome" burden of his Eton teaching post. One July day, he received a telegram – the Edwardian equivalent of a modern e-mail – from Lord Esher informing him that "the king wished him to speak to me on a matter of importance!"[180]  Esher was Reginald Brett, the young man whose amours had triggered the ousting of William Johnson Cory from Eton. His Court title was Deputy Constable of Windsor Castle, but in modern political terminology, he was Edward VII's chief of staff. Esher lived in a village on the far side of Windsor Great Park, and Benson made the five-mile cycle ride the next day. Esher took him for a walk around his meticulously detailed garden, and Benson would recall the phases of their momentous conversation against a vivid backdrop of individual flowerbeds of roses shedding their petals. The king had approved the publication of selections from the letters of Queen Victoria: "would I edit it with him (Esher)?" Benson barely even bothered to make a formal reservation of his reply. "Suddenly in the middle of all my discontent and irritability a door is silently and swiftly opened to me." The image of a door opening was one that Benson often used for life-changing opportunities. Within twenty four hours, he had formally accepted the commission, and submitted his resignation from Eton.[181]

Benson's scholarly qualification for the task was, of course, his two-volume biography of his father. But his selection also had elements of a patronage appointment. EWB had come into contact with national politics in the early eighteen-eighties: the Queen Victoria letters project would stop at 1861. A number of well-documented biographies had already appeared dealing with politicians such as Melbourne, Peel and Russell, while Sir Theodore Martin's monumental five-volume biography of the Prince Consort had set what might be called the official interpretation of the role of the monarchy in the first quarter-century of the reign. Benson enjoyed reading memoirs, but his taste was for the lives of literary figures, and there seems to be no indication that he had shown any curiosity about political and constitutional history.[182] However, precise academic qualifications were a secondary consideration: the emphasis in the selection of the Queen's correspondence would not be upon the minutiae of inclusion but upon the imperatives of omission. The king had set narrow restrictions: nothing could be published that might damage the State or the Crown, while "all passages that could inflict pain upon the near relatives of persons mentioned should be excised."[183] Esher had known Benson for at least a decade, well before he had inherited his peerage. As far back as 1892, they had discussed the publication of William Johnson Cory's letters and journals, with Brett initially holding back because "I don't like selections".[184] Although Benson had adopted something of a paving-slab approach to the inclusion of documents in his Life of EWB, he was adjudged by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Randall Davidson, to be "more capable, more suitable and more trustworthy"  than any other potentially available candidate.[185]

The project was not without operational problems. Benson's respect for his sovereign was muted – he once likened Edward VII to the pantomime character, Buttons – and he was happy to leave the management of "His Gracious Goodness" to his co-editor.[186] But Esher manipulated his monopoly of access to the King so he could control the project. Benson came to feel that he was treated with mild contempt, [187] and his enthusiasm for "editing one of the most interesting books of the day – of the century" quickly cooled. The Round Tower at Windsor Castle, now the home of the Royal Archives, was basically a huge muniments store, with neither the organisation nor the facilities to support historical research. As his father's biographer, he had possessed the advantage of familiarity with EWB's handwriting. Now he had to tackle challenges of decipherment, and long hours of drudgery. He soon arranged to subcontract much of the work to his Eton and King's contemporary, H.R.E. Childers, a barrister-turned-journalist, who was evidently happy to secure the income. Childers was the son of a former Liberal cabinet minister, and himself a functionary of the Convocation of the Province of Canterbury, making him a safe pair of hands to handle confidential material. When Esher decided to follow up the success of the Letters with two volumes on the girlhood of Queen Victoria, he cut out the middle man – Benson was by this time engulfed in mental illness – and used Childers as his own editorial assistant.[188] However, despite the lack of real trust and the occasional outright disagreements between the editors, in one respect Esher treated his colleague very generously. A wealthy man himself, he allowed his colleague by far the larger share of the royalties from the project. In 1909, a 'popular' edition of the Letters netted Benson a cheque for £4,600, "the income I require for life".[189]

"... the poor little College ... so out of elbows and out of heart."[190]

Deeply moved by the outpouring of affection and regret that engulfed his formal departure from Eton, Benson allowed sentimentality and the pressures of friendship to lead him into a temporary false move. Although formally resident in Cambridge, where he had leased the Old Granary in Silver Street (now Darwin College), he accepted the offer to lodge with his friend and Eton colleague, A.C. Ainger, under whose roof he spent much of 1904 while working at the nearby Castle.[191] He would have done better to settle in Windsor itself, putting the Thames between himself and the scene of his former labours. Nonetheless, he did spend time in Cambridge, and was relaxed enough to undertake some sightseeing. Thus it was, on a January day, in an often-described episode, that he strolled into Magdalene, a place that he seems hardly to have recalled from his own student days. The College was not only down-at-heel, but mourning the recent death of Latimer Neville, who had ruled for fifty-one years. The appointment of a successor was in the hands of Neville's son, Lord Braybrooke. True to family form, he had tried, and failed, to identify a relative who could afford to take on the Mastership.[192] It is not surprising that Benson imagined himself in the role: he had a habit of fantasising about living in every house that caught his eye, settling in every picturesque village that he visited. The mirage soon dissipated. "I don't suppose I should like it all really," he admitted, as he thought of difficult dons, problem students and the challenges of financial management.[193] Nor should we be surprised that he picked up a rumour that he might indeed be offered the post. It is a truth universally acknowledged – in Cambridge anyway – that a prominent personality in possession of a private income, must be in want of a college Mastership.[194]

The outcome, in early April 1904, delighted him. "Stuart Donaldson is Master of Magdalene!"[195] The two men were such old friends that their exchange of civilities could include some gentle leg-pulling. Benson mixed his good wishes with the information that he had simultaneously received a letter of mistaken congratulations on receiving the appointment himself.  Donaldson entered into the spirit of the exchange, agreeing that Benson would have been an excellent appointment, but regretting that he "could hardly now withdraw his acceptance!"[196] A few weeks later, in May 1904, the newly installed Master held forth about his plans and problems. There was one immediate challenge: Magdalene needed to elect a Fellow to bring the College to its statutory minimum of five, but the College's limited income simply could not meet the salary costs. "Why not take me?", Benson boldly suggested, pointing out that his private income meant that he could accept a non-stipendiary post. "To my surprise he caught at it," Benson recorded.[197] Benson had taken the initiative, but it is likely that his friend had been testing the waters: Donaldson could be spectacularly obtuse, but surely he realised he was broaching a subject that probably pointed to the recruitment of his friend.

It was not strictly true, as later legend had it, that the existing Fellows were "delighted to have so agreeable and distinguished addition to their number".[198] Opposition came mainly from the Classics don, A.G. Peskett, who questioned the quality of his Benson's degree. He also favoured an alternative candidate, E.K. Purnell, the College historian and a master at Wellington, whose life had intersected with Benson's at various points – and who happened to be Peskett's brother-in-law.[199] Although the concern does not seem to have been articulated, the fact that Benson was Donaldson's friend was probably regarded with some suspicion. In Magdalene, there was an institutional gulf between the Master and Fellows, a distance that Latimer Neville had certainly maintained: for instance, it had been de rigueur for Fellows calling at the Lodge to wear full academical dress of cap and gown. It was a dictum of Alfred Newton, Magdalene's veteran Professorial Fellow, that "the walls of the Combination Room have no ears", and he was accustomed to unrestrained after-dinner conversation even with much younger colleagues.[200] It would not have been surprising if the established Fellows felt that in accepting Benson, they were admitting a spy to their midst, and Newton resisted his recruitment the end. But opposition was overcome, and Benson's election in October 1904 was reported to be "unanimous".[201] Thus originated the legendary partnership of Donaldson and Benson – "a perfect team; what either lacked, the other had."[202]

As we accompany Benson into the third phase of his adult life, the Cambridge don and popular writer of Edwardian days, it is important to re-examine the received story of his impact upon Magdalene. It is well established that, by the eighteen-nineties, the College was mired in poverty. It had never been lavishly endowed, and so had no cushion against the fall in income caused by the late-nineteenth century agricultural depression. Expenditure on necessary modernisation, for instance in connection with the Cambridge sewerage system of 1895, drove it close to bankruptcy. To make matters worse, so the accepted narrative goes, the outbreak of the South African War in 1899 caused an exodus of the students, upon whose fee income the institution had become both undesirably and dangerously dependent. As Benson himself put it (writing of a time before he joined the College), "when the Boer War broke out, and commissions were offered freely to University candidates, a number of Magdalene men accepted them, and the college was much depleted in numbers."[203] Latimer Neville, ageing and in poor health, was incapable of turning the College's fortunes around. An obituary of Donaldson identified the challenge when the Mastership fell vacant with Latimer Neville's death in 1904. "A head was needed who would attract Etonians and other public schoolmen of the type that, while devoted to sport, takes the lecture-room more seriously."[204] Donaldson met that specification. Even so, and with Benson as his lieutenant, Donaldson was also taking on a larger challenge in 1904 that Cambridge opinion regarded as heart-breaking and hopeless, the revivification of a seemingly moribund institution. Yet they succeeded within a few years in creating a larger, livelier, and more likeable "new Magdalene".

Much of this picture is true, but some of it requires revision. Magdalene had indeed contributed a large number of officers to the Boer War – 30 in total.[205] However, 22 of these had entered before 1895, and would not have been in residence in 1899. Of the remaining eight, one graduated in 1900 before joining the Army, while another had taken a commission by May 1899 after spending – as was not unusual among the less committed young men – one year in Cambridge. Another, who had come up in 1897, served in the later stages of the conflict, during 1901-2. At most, five men who might have been in residence left for the front during the first year of the War. They included one student who was severely wounded in the relief of Ladysmith, but who survived the 1914-18 conflict and was able eventually to graduate in 1920, under special regulations that recognised wartime service. Magdalene's student entry was not much affected immediately either: 16 students matriculated in 1896, 17 in 1897, 13 in 1898, 16 in 1899 and 14 in 1900.[206] It was 1901 when numbers fell, dramatically to 8, followed by 13 in 1902, 10 in 1903 and again in 1904, rising to 17 in 1905 and 26 in 1906, the number that became the benchmark for the "new Magdalene". Something similar happened across the entire University. The most likely explanation is that young men who otherwise might have wasted a year or so at University were responding to the heightened and militarised patriotic atmosphere of the Boer War, and joining the Army direct from school instead. "There was a drop in the entry in all Colleges and we suffered more than most," recalled A.S. Ramsey, then a junior Fellow, who, in 1904, would take over as Bursar and turn the institution's finances around.[207] For the first time in several years, matriculations across the whole University dipped below 900 (to 887) in 1897, but recovered to 931 (1898), 946 (1899) and 932 (1900), before falling to 896 in 1901, with a slow recovery to 909 (1902), 929 (1903), 935 (1904), followed by a flowering, 1047 (1905) and 1079 (1906).[208] The new Magdalene regime no doubt attracted undergraduates in 1905 and 1906; the Cambridge Independent Press, which was well placed to observe, commented a decade later that Donaldson's appointment had caused "a quick and pronounced improvement" in student numbers.[209] But it may also have been the case that a rising University tide helped refloat the Magdalene boat. "Magdalene has flourished greatly," Benson recorded, as he reviewed 1906.[210] So rapid an escape from the doldrums suggests some wider influence than merely the efforts of two individuals, however committed and enthusiastic.

In reviewing the problems of Magdalene, it is also important to distinguish between quantity and quality. 'We're at a low ebb, Sir," a porter told Benson when he dropped into Magdalene one day in January 1904. "We have only forty and could hold sixty."[211] But, as Benson himself noted, even though there were barely forty undergraduates, none were "of the traditional type". The legendary Magdalene riding man had been largely phased out in the eighteen-nineties. If the Boer War was a major factor, it operated by diverting those who might have come up in 1901 and the years immediately following into the military: in intellectual terms, they were probably no loss to the institution. The problem for Magdalene was that the fall in undergraduate numbers pushed the College dangerously close to the point of financial extinction, and this, in turn, discouraged qualified applicants. "It often happens that an institution is judged more by previous reputation than by present performance," Benson pointed out, adding that "the element of legendary undergraduates, who came to Cambridge purely on social grounds" had in fact been replaced by "serious students", but the older reputation of "a sporting and extravagant college" still clung to Magdalene.[212]

Two weeks after the death of Latimer Neville, Magdalene's constitution and culture came under unprecedented public attack. The Spectator, an influential weekly magazine, condemned the Visitor's right to appoint the Master as an "indefensible anomaly", a sharp attack which had the wholesome effect of stopping the new Lord Braybrooke in his attempts to appoint any of his relatives. The Spectator's denunciation was all the more effective because it adopted a scatter-gun approach, a lengthy diatribe that found nothing to praise in the hapless institution. In reality, the attack was aimed at a Magdalene that had ceased to exist, "a pleasant residential sporting club for well-to-do and more or less well-descended young men", amongst whom by the "quaintest anomaly" a handful of scholarship lads struggled to survive. (Indeed, even the Spectator conceded that matters had improved under the guidance of A.G. Peskett. "An occasional First Class or Wranglership, and a fair number of Second Classes, have been obtained." Even so, nobody could maintain that Magdalene's occasional successes represented "a tribute to the advantages of its peculiar constitution.")[213] The publication of Lubbock's selections from Benson's diary in 1926 disconcerted some senior Fellows: Magdalene "had not sunk as low as that."[214] A.S. Ramsey recalled that, in 1903, there were only 28 students in residence, but they "were nearly all scholars or exhibitioners and a keen lot."[215] There were Firsts in Mathematics ("Wranglers") in 1903 and 1907, and in Classics in 1903 and 1904. In the eye of the alleged crisis, a Magdalene candidate had carried off two University prizes in 1900 – Sir William Browne's medals for Greek and Latin epigrams, the first such success for the College since the notorious Gunton had won a Browne's medal for Latin odes in 1865. The following year, the same candidate carried off the Chancellor's English Medal, the scalp that Benson himself had just failed to capture in 1884.[216] By contrast, although 292 students entered Magdalene between 1905 and 1914 – the golden age of the Donaldson-Benson partnership – few achieved outstanding academic success: the partnership of I.A. Richards and C.K. Ogden constituting perhaps the sole world-beating exception.[217] Benson's heretical campaign against the supremacy of Classics ("Hard at work destroying Greek?" Warre had muttered to him when they met in 1910[218]) perhaps discouraged potential top candidates in that field from coming to Magdalene. Nonetheless, it became the received view that Magdalene had been in a bad state before 1904, and that it was the addition of Benson to the Fellowship that had turned the College around. The extreme view was stated by the Ulster novelist St John Ervine, in his rollicking biography of Charles Stewart Parnell. It suited Ervine to portray his subject as encountering the worst elements of upper-class Englishness during his time at Cambridge. "Mr A.C. Benson's refining influence had not yet been exercised to make Magdalene seemly, and it was then essentially a sporting and rowdy college.... The authorities were astounded when a Magdalene man took a degree, and ... among themselves the men considered such an act slightly disgraceful."[219] The two Magdalene legends had become symbiotic.

The old Magdalene and the new

In the renewal of Magdalene in the years after 1904, it seems clear that Donaldson spent his own money refurbishing the Master's Lodge – built in 1835, it was estimated by 1904 to require expenditure of around £1,000 – while Benson funded much of the work on other College buildings.[220] However, here – as with the question of overall numbers – the dynamic duo benefited from two other sources of finance. In the late-nineteenth century, the kitchens had been outsourced to a College cook, who made enough money out of the arrangement to make an impressive investment in local property. His retirement in 1901 enabled the Steward, A.S. Ramsey, to take over direct control of catering operations. Even in the first year, with only forty undergraduates in residence, the Kitchen Account generated a £200 profit. In 1904, the efficient Ramsey took on the office of Bursar – Latimer Neville had bizarrely combined it with the Mastership – and imposed a healthy, indeed austere, control on the finances. By 1910, internal revenue – much of it from catering – had passed £3,500. The income provided additional scholarships (which were also subsidised by Benson to secure favoured young men), and made possible basic upgrades, such as the introduction of electricity (although not in the candlelit Hall), and the paving of the Hall.[221] As numbers increased, and additional accommodation became necessary, Magdalene was able to draw upon a second financial resource, the £5,000 legacy left by Mynors Bright, a former President in 1883. Bright's intention was to provide a house for a married tutor to live in the College precinct, the celibacy rule for Fellows having been abolished the previous year. In the event, internal disagreement over the location of such a building, plus the simple fact that it was not required, left the bequest to accumulate. Bright's Building, completed in 1909,combined two sets for Fellows' with undergraduate rooms.

Benson's new colleagues were initially reluctant to accept his largesse. In 1906, the Fellows' Garden was subjected to a ruthless clearance: Latimer Neville's strategy for keeping it in check had been to graze cattle there, and their disappearance had turned the close into a wilderness of hay meadow.  "Such a routing it has not had for a hundred years," Benson noted, as he looked out from his Left Cloister rooms over mounds and pits and ladders and uprooted timber. "The very thing I want to do with the public schools!" He offered to buy new trees, but – in a repetition of a rebuff he had received with a similar initiative at Eton – his gift was declined on the grounds that it was inappropriate to accept private acts of generosity.[222] But before long his flowing munificence was found acceptable. Chapel services were enlivened with an organ. The acquisition of a sports field on the Milton Road in 1911 was largely at his expense, as he made discreetly clear in Watersprings, where the Benson-like hero is genially upbraided for "overdoing your philanthropics".[223] It would prove to be a long-term gold-mine: the College sold it to a developer for over £4 million in the nineteen-eighties. But many of Benson's projects were essentially ornamental. The ceiling of the Hall was drab. A print existed that showed that the Chapel had possessed a handsomely patterned ceiling before its Victorian restoration in 1847. Benson arranged for a version to be installed in the Hall, an example of the invention of tradition, for today few would suspect that it had twentieth-century origins. Some of his additions were fussy – such as the heraldic stained-glass in the Hall windows, memorialising the often barely memorable. Some questioned whether "the profusion of brass plates about the College", especially in the Chapel, was "really necessary". "Surely ... the Master and the Fellows, after so many years, are not likely to forget which their particular seats are ... or would they like finger-posts to point the way as well?"[224] Benson was successful in placing a brass plate on C staircase, First Court, to mark the undergraduate rooms of Charles Kingsley, but a similar attempt to commemorate Charles Stewart Parnell in the Pepys Building ran into undergraduate opposition, and the plaque was not erected until 1967. The would-be donor was undeterred. "We have to chronicle fresh benefactions from Mr Benson, who seems to be always searching for ways in which he can promote the comfort and welfare of the College," the Magdalene College Magazine reported in 1911.[225] Benson took the view that he was making windfall money from his popular writing, and that he was entitled to "throw a little about". By 1914, he was planning to underwrite, and so drive forward, plans to buy houses on the west side of Magdalene Street, and so prepare the way for a major extension of the College precinct.[226]

There were other initiatives under the new regime that cost less, but were intended to shape a sense of shared College identity and culture. Benson was rarely far from them. The Kingsley Club, established in 1906, was clearly modelled on the Chitchat Club of his King's undergraduate days, although it would later evolve into a semi-secret organisation more closely resembling the Cambridge Apostles. The Kingsley Club met in Benson's rooms to hear papers read by its members: they thanked him for "his unfailing aid in discussions".[227] Proceedings were occasionally enlivened by an offering from the host himself. His October 1911 paper on Kingsley "was Mr Benson at his best: the picture of Kingsley he presented was exceedingly clear and lifelike, and the reader gave us some most amusing stories about Kingsley from his personal experience."[228] Sometimes the Club fell short of its founder's hopes. Although it was "in a flourishing condition" in March 1911, with papers "of a distinctly high standard", when it came to discussion, there was "a lack of interest, except in one or two members". Paper-givers were urged "to lay hold of any points which seem likely to arouse the expression of different views."[229] But not all offerings were capable of stimulating disagreement. A "crowded meeting" enjoyed a "sketch" of Beethoven in February 1913, accompanied by extracts on the piano, a presentation that can have allowed little scope for questions or challenges.[230] The presenter, A.W. Tedder, would go on to command the Allied air forces on D-Day, and to be elected Chancellor of the University.

The Magdalene College Magazine, launched in 1909, itself formed part of the new image: neighbouring St John's had issued such a publication for half a century. Benson contributed occasional ghost stories, which hardly merit rediscovery, as well as some verses, which mostly deserve oblivion. Another institutional development, frivolous rather than scholarly, was a Magdalene May Ball. The death of Edward VII, in June 1910, forced the last-minute cancellation of the first attempt at such venture, but a successor came off triumphantly a year later. A marquee was erected in Second Court for dancing to the music of a German band. Some of the bolder participants attempted a routine called the "Bogie-Walk".[231] Enterprises like the Magazine and the May Ball required financial guarantors, and it seems likely that Benson was ready with his cheque book – although he did make sure that he was out of Cambridge on May Ball night.

Benson was not the only newcomer to the Fellowship: Magdalene soon reached out to recruit from other colleges. In 1906, Benson secured the appointment (and almost certainly paid the salary) of Percy Lubbock, his former Eton pupil, as Pepys Librarian. Lubbock left after two years, but was succeeded by another Kingsman – another former Eton pupil – Stephen Gaselee, who had been beaten for a Fellowship in his own college by John Maynard Keynes.[232] Two years later, Benson masterminded the importation of Frank Salter from Trinity – "bluff, strong, sensible, amiable – just what we want."[233] Salter was hired to teach History, a decision that passed over Magdalene's first successful product in the subject, Robert Keable, who had taken a First in the same year as the newcomer. Keable, destined for ordination, was already developing a wayward mysticism: Newsome says Benson found him "unappealing". Evidently, it seemed safer for him to head off to a curacy in Bradford, his first step on a route that would take him by way of Basutoland to notoriety as a novelist and conversion to the Church of Rome.[234]

Benson himself oversaw the teaching of History, a subject that Magdalene had previously virtually ignored: his role became the blueprint for a wider system of directors of studies established after 1910. He did not actually teach the subject, but undertook to coach undergraduates in essay writing, since the Historical Tripos included a general paper.[235] It appears that Benson urged his pupils to begin by determining a succinct answer to each proposition, and then elaborate the basic proposition into a themed discussion at greater length. Thus "Optimism in Literature" should generate the response "Belief in God", while "The Object of Punishment" could be summed up as "Deterrence". It was a discipline that would have improved some of his own discursive writing. Benson also "deprecated all strong expressions of opinion", a sentiment that might have surprised some of his wider readership.[236] In 1912, he invited students to consider the proposition that "It is the baser part of the soul which enjoys success". This "evoked a good deal of real interest" and resulted in "some rather illuminating talks with the boys".[237] He was careful, rigorous but also supportive in his dissection of student essays, as Francis Turner found when one of his first-year effusions was analysed in 1920, receiving "a very encouraging, entirely sympathetic, but rigidly thorough criticism" of his work. In Robert Keable's novel Peradventure, the hero achieves a First in History, as did Keable in 1908, and rushes off to tell the Benson figure, "Thanks to you more than to anyone."[238]

While Benson's influence undoubtedly permeated Magdalene, it would be claiming too much to assume that he and Donaldson dictated every aspect of the College. An undergraduate community is bound to take on a life of its own, and the regular turnover within a student body can change its tone within a short period. In 1908, when there was still a powerful sense of Magdalene renewing itself, "practically the whole college" turned out to cheer its oarsmen in the Lent Races on the Cam, a "keenness" that was noted across the University. 1908 was a particularly successful year for the Boat, under the captaincy of George Mallory. Two years later, far fewer undergraduates showed support during the Lent Races, and it was reported that freshmen were reluctant to join College teams. In the 1911 Lent Races, the Magdalene Boat "rowed over" – escaping being caught from behind but unable to catch the crew ahead. The following year, the Boat was bumped three times in the Lent Races, and suffered the humiliation of being overbumped in the Mays.[239] The revival of Magdalene rowing that had characterised the years from 1904 to 1911 had collapsed thanks to the decline in enthusiasm. Yet, with ninety undergraduates in 1909, the College had more than doubled in numbers since its low point five years earlier. Welcoming the freshmen that year, Donaldson insisted that it was "one of the traditions of the college that everyone should know everyone else, and there should be no cliques". But by 1910, Magdalene undergraduates were split into rival camps, with "bloods" pitted against the more serious-minded, mainly middle class students.[240]

 Donaldson and Benson also set out to put Magdalene on the map, both locally and nationally. Benson's particular contribution was a series of annual lectures – interrupted during his period of mental illness in 1908-9 – on literary topics. Some of the lectures, like those on Ruskin in 1911, were dry runs for books; others, like the series on Carlyle delivered in 1910, were "not intended for publication". ("Mr Benson gave us a lot of himself,"  was the intriguing comment of the Magdalene College Magazine on his interpretation of Carlyle.) A series on William Morris in 1912 drew "a full attendance", evidence of "the University's appreciation of his work." In 1913, he turned his attention to Robert Browning, perhaps drawing a line under his sabotaging of the Browning Society in his undergraduate days: "nearly three hundred people" turned up, and dozens could not be admitted.[241] Paradoxically, the fact that there was no English Tripos (it was introduced in 1919) added to the glamour of Benson's offerings, and the incidental cachet that they conferred upon Magdalene: the audience came, not in search of examination fodder, but for the illumination of literature at the hands of a master craftsman. Illumination added to their mystique in a more practical way. The lectures were delivered in late afternoon, the venue being the candlelit Hall of Magdalene. It would be "full of men sitting at the tables, with some on the stairs leading up to the Combination Room and in the gallery." With the aid of "a few extra candles to enable him to read his manuscript", Benson lectured from a dais at High Table, "a fine and imposing figure in his voluminous black silk gown, speaking in a voice that seemed low and just a little husky, but carrying with ease to the furthest corners of the Hall."[242] "You can imagine the scene, but scarcely the atmosphere," A.W. Tedder wrote to his girlfriend. "The dark old Hall, crammed with people standing, sitting, squeezing into every bit of space." Lines of single candles were reflected in the polished tables, with Benson himself, lecturing behind three candles with red shades, "a big shadowy figure", whose face and spectacles could only be occasionally glimpsed from the back of the Hall. (Tedder had been one of the last to force his way in.)[243] From their earliest days, the lectures contributed to a growing Benson cult. In 1906, there was an unexpected burst of laughter when he alluded in passing to the theory that Shakespeare's plays were really the work of Francis Bacon. It transpired that the previous day's issue of the satirical magazine Punch had taken aim at Benson's fecundity of publication, and attributed the works of the Bard to him.[244] Stephen Gaselee was surely right to assert that Benson's lectures "were among the most universally popular of any given in Cambridge during the period."[245]

Donaldson initiated one institution designed to project the new Magdalene to the outer world, an annual feast to mark the birthday of Samuel Pepys. This was an implied riposte to the pre-1904 view that the College was a "hole and corner place",[246] and was deliberately undertaken on a lavish scale. The Master himself remarked, "If we are going to make a splash we may as well make a big one."[247] Each year some aspect of the varied interests of Magdalene's most famous product was chosen as the theme, and distinguished men from that field invited as guests. In February 1911, for instance, the world of literature assembled in Hall: Hilaire Belloc become "hopelessly drunk", eventually lighting a cigar at both ends.[248] In 1912, the feast honoured Pepys in his role as a witness to the birth of modern English science. The anniversary was brought forward a few days, to fall on Shrove Tuesday, since unfortunately the diarist's birthday fell that year just inside Lent. The Hall was packed with Fellows of the Royal Society, and their President, the geologist Sir Archibald Geikie, proposed the toast to the immortal memory. The speech of the evening came from the Nobel Prize winner, J.J. Thomson of Trinity, who proposed the health of the College. Benson was in the process of rebuilding his residence, the Old Lodge, and Thomson directed some "delicate banter" at the "new palace".[249] The last pre-War Pepys Dinner turned to the world of music. The guest of honour, Edward Elgar, was forced by ill health to cancel at the last minute, but C.V. Stanford delivered an "eloquent speech" on the role of music in education. Cambridge had no PhD until 1919, but it did grant doctorates in Music, making this a rare occasion when the Hall was filled with "picturesque robes". The 1914 event established two new Pepysian traditions: the Magdalene kitchens reconstructed Pepys's recipe for Game Pasty, and his song "Beauty, retire" was performed – on this occasion, by a nine-year old girl who was permitted to intrude on the collective masculinity.[250] The Magazine congratulated the College on having established the event "as one of the most interesting and original of Cambridge Feasts", noting that the virtuoso nature of the diarist's interests "enables us to welcome to Magdalene a constant variety of distinguished guests".[251] The wider world saw the Magdalene of 1914 in a far more positive light – or should we say, haze? – than it had troubled to perceive ten years earlier.[252]

Relations between the old Magdalene and the new were sometimes awkward. The product of a Suffolk grammar school, Arthur Peskett had achieved the unprecedented distinction of Senior Classic in 1875, at a time when Magdalene's examination record was undynamic. Famously taciturn, Peskett was regarded by undergraduates, a polite obituary tactfully observed, as "something of a friendly mystery".[253] Benson was less impressed, likening him to "a mouse, nibbling at the heels that walk past it." Peskett, he fumed in his pages of his diary, did his job as Tutor badly, "& then when we try to move, he throws cold water on it."  Living in Magdalene, Benson was determined to stamp out rowdy behaviour. Even Donaldson, semi-remote in the Lodge, was not always helpful on this issue, but Peskett's philosophy – "the young don't like to be interfered with" – was a counsel of futility.[254] He was a married Fellow – Benson took an instant dislike to Mrs Peskett – and, on nights when trouble was expected, he took care to sleep at home.[255] Peskett objected to the importing of Fellows from other colleges – "another Kingsman" was his complaint about Lubbock's election. Benson occasionally attempted to build bridges. He primed G.T.F. Nuttall, who spoke for the College at the 1909 Pepys Dinner, to praise Peskett and Ramsey "for their devotion to the College in its bad days." Nuttall, a distinguished scientist, was a relatively recent arrival in Cambridge, who had only just been elected to Magdalene's professorial fellowship from Christ's. Clearly, he was not speaking from his own knowledge, and Peskett responded positively to Benson's message. At a Governing Body the following day, he in turn declared that "the new element had done much for Magdalene", a sentiment that Ramsey loudly seconded. But the truce was short-lived. As student numbers rose, Benson pressed for the appointment of a second Tutor. In defence of his fee income, Peskett resisted.  Prior to 1904, it was as if the new Tripos subjects introduced into later nineteenth-century Cambridge did not exist for Magdalene: almost all Honours candidates studied either Mathematics or Classics. The new regime tackled a broader range of subjects, and Benson argued for a system new to the University, the appointment of specialist directors of studies. Again, Peskett defended the exclusive authority of the Tutor – powers that, in Benson's opinion, he neither would nor could exercise effectively. The problem was eventually solved, in 1912, by Peskett's retirement to Southwold, in his native Suffolk, after major surgery, although, as a Life Fellow, he continued to attend Governing Body meetings.

Friction with Peskett was an intermittent irritation, but his opposition could usually be overcome. If nothing else, his presence allowed Benson the sardonic reassurance that Magdalene must be fundamentally strong, if it could survive the perennial inefficiency of such a nonentity. However, causing offence to A.S. Ramsey, whose work was so vital to the regeneration of the College, was a more serious matter. Here, Benson blundered, in an episode that showed a negative aspect of his character that was usually disguised by his warmth and friendliness. Benson first met Ramsey as a guest at Donaldson's Scottish estate in 1904. He does not seem to have appreciated that this "quiet, sad, pleasant, donnish man" was exhausted from a round of Tripos examining. Perhaps, too, he failed to make allowances for the fact that invitation formed part of what we would now call a "bonding" exercise – Ramsey was getting to know Magdalene's new head – nor did he take account of the likelihood that country house life was an alien environment for a Nonconformist who hailed from Batley in Yorkshire.[256] Benson should certainly have noted that he would be working with a man of a very different background and personality; that is how colleges function.

But the coolness that developed between them had its origins not in matters academic but in a literary disagreement. In 1910-11, Benson published a series of biographical sketches in the Cornhill Magazine. One of these was devoted to Alfred Newton, Magdalene's veteran Professorial Fellow, who had died in 1907. Benson claimed that he had begun by fearing "the Professor" but had ended up loving him. That was probably true, but he injected a good deal of genial vitriol into his description of the journey. Not only was Newton portrayed as selfish, tyrannical and utterly resistant to change, but there was an easily discernible sub-text, in which Benson was shown to be generous, helpful and keen to move with the times. Ramsey was not impressed, and his annoyance can still be detected in the memoirs that he wrote a quarter of a century later. He objected that Benson had only encountered the Professor during the last two years his life, when increasing immobility largely confined Newton to his rooms. He had been resident in College for almost six decades, and it was natural that he should be suspicious of changes to cherished customs at the whim of apparently capricious newcomers.

Benson's response to Ramsey's objections does not show him a very good light. He reprinted his essay in the book that emerged from the Cornhill series, The Leaves of the Tree. He did however, omit some details and he re-wrote the opening section to take note of the criticisms he had received – while insisting that some of Newton's friends recognised it his sketch as "an accurate and even vivid portrait". "One has no business to wound the susceptibilities of friends," he wrote, "and I sincerely regret any pain or dissatisfaction that the paper may have caused." It was a declaration of war masquerading as a statement of conciliation, for it was immediately followed by the proclamation that "I do not believe in any but the most truthful biography; I do not believe that idealised and improved portraits of personalities do the least good, either to those who read them, or ultimately to the memory of those who are thus delineated." The message was clear: Benson was right, his critics were sentimental and misinformed. To Ramsey's evident fury, Benson reiterated petty stories of Newton forcing the Fellows to accept his choice of High Table menu. "He had no sense of the rights of others in the matter." In his memoirs, Ramsey retorted that this was "sheer nonsense". It is difficult to acquit Benson of using his pen and his access to the reading public to take revenge upon a distinguished scholar who had opposed his election as a Fellow of Magdalene.  His thirty page essay contained just one paragraph that mentioned Newton's contribution to the study of ornithology, and even that managed to point out that "his name is connected with no discovery of first-rate importance" – and entirely ignored his early and vigorous support for Darwin.[257] By 1911, Benson was a prosperous author, with, as he put it, "wealth in abundance".[258] He had no need to engage in catchpenny word-spinning. Newton was hardly a figure of public interest: few of Benson's readers would even have known that Cambridge possessed a Chair of Comparative Anatomy, much less possessed any reasonable entitlement to know at what hour its first holder took his breakfast. The fundamental objection to Benson's lifting of the veil on the inner life of Magdalene was that it represented a breach of trust. In accepting a Fellowship, he had been invited into a small and embattled society of men whose communal life depended upon mutual confidence and the tolerance of each other's idiosyncrasies. Of course, In 1911 Benson could not have known that he would publish a similar book of life sketches, Memories and Friends, in the very different world of 1924, a time when he might have looked back upon Newton as he did, with astringent sympathy, on the Magdalene career of his friend Stuart Donaldson. But to have poked such unrelenting fun at Newton, just four years after the Professor's death, was to risk his High Table colleagues wondering which of them might next be pilloried in print.[259]

In his novel, Watersprings, published two years later, Benson attempted, if not to make amends, at least to engage in damage limitation. As already noted, Beaufort College was obviously Magdalene, and the hero of the tale, Howard Kennedy, Benson himself. The narrative required at least one other don to act as Kennedy's interlocutor and help develop the plot. The role was supplied by Redmayne, a gruff but warm-hearted senior academic, who had lived all his life in the college. To some extent, as so often in fiction, he was a composite character, but the borrowings from Newton were evident enough, and made in a conciliatory fashion. However, at a key point in the tale, it became necessary to introduce another Fellow of Beaufort, the Dean, a man who was "immensely conscientious and laborious ... who was not interested in education, and frankly bored by the irresponsibility of undergraduates".[260] The chief undergraduate character in the novel, Jack Sandys, arouses the Dean's wrath for being drunk and abusive, and his father is formally notified that Jack risked being sent down. Kennedy brokers an apology, and – a touch implausibly – it is arranged that Jack's father and sister should visit Cambridge. In introducing the necessary character of the angry Dean, Benson faced a problem: in the re-allocation of posts following the retirement of Peskett the previous year, A.S. Ramsey had become Tutor (happily for Magdalene, combining his new job with that of Bursar). Ramsey was something of a stickler for rules, and it would have been embarrassing had the suspicion got loose that he was the irascible Dean, and that Benson was taking revenge for his condemnation of the Newton essay. Benson's solution was ingenious, the subtlety of his choice of name being capable of decoding by only a few intimately engaged members of Magdalene. Certainly few outsiders would have registered the Dean's surname, Gretton. William Gretton had been Master of Magdalene from 1797 until his death in 1813. He had been identified by E.K. Purnell's history of the College, published in 1904, as a foe of the Evangelicals, under whose rule Magdalene achieved poor examination results. A portrait of him survived, in the form of a caricature, showing a personality of smug intolerance.[261] The tacit invocation of a historical figure was  a signal that the fictional angry Dean was not intended as a skit on the sometimes rule-bound Tutor.

Ramsey's strong sense of duty, combined with his loyalty to Magdalene, ensured that there was never an open breach between the two, despite Benson's crushing private comment that Ramsey "indulges his moral indignation, as a drunkard indulges in whisky."[262] Benson helped him financially when income from tutorial fees crashed as undergraduates rushed to join the Army in 1914, and appointed him President, effectively his deputy, when he became Master in 1915. Ramsey not only kept Magdalene running during Benson's second extended illness after 1917, but presided over the resuscitation and expansion of the College as it entered a tumultuous new era in 1919. The two men were never close: Benson found his host "genial but a little frozen" when he visited the family for lunch in 1923, an experience that was "something of an ordeal".[263] There was never a complete fusion between the new Magdalene and the old, and the relationship between them remained awkward to the end.[264]

Successor to Donaldson?

"Walked with the Master and discussed various schemes and cases with great care."[265] The diary entry, from January 1912, is one of many clues that indicate that Benson was effectively a working partner in the Donaldson Mastership. Indeed, a Magdalene historian has asserted: "If the construction of the 'New Magdalene' had been left to Donaldson it certainly would have failed.'[266] Without doubt, Donaldson was a person of transparent goodness and innate decency – qualities that did not always make him a good judge of others – but he comes across as an oddly two-dimensional character.[267] One of Benson's first recollections of the man who was seven years his senior was of Donaldson as a young master teaching in an adjoining classroom at Eton, and bellowing "you booby!" at some slow-witted pupil in mock wrath.[268] Descriptions of Donaldson's boundless, indeed bounding, energy and his utter imperviousness to embarrassment often seem to conjure a picture of a large and enthusiastic dog. He was a teetotaller who served his ginger-beer at dinner parties. "Leave alcohol alone and you will be healthier and richer all your lives," he told a group of young soldiers shortly before his death at the age of sixty.[269] He could be spectacularly tactless in his "sometimes over-frank expressions of opinion", although he would hasten to apologise where he had caused offence, and was honourably free from the bearing of grudges himself.[270] One evening in May 1910, the Second Master at Winchester, M.J. Rendall, was a guest at High Table.  Rendall had reached the stage of his career where he was an actual or rumoured candidate for headmasterships – a distinction that he achieved through promotion at Winchester the following year. At the time of his visit to Magdalene, there was a vacancy at Harrow, where he had been a pupil. Donaldson waded in. "I have been hearing a lot about the Headmastership of Harrow," he remarked to the guest, "and I gather that the choice of the Electors is not going to fall upon you."[271] His strategy for simulating interest in people was to bombard them with questions ("like feeding turnips into a turnip-cruncher", said Benson), although it does not seem that he took much notice of the answers. "Though an insatiable asker of questions," his obituary in The Times cautiously commented, "he perhaps never got to the real meanings of University politics".[272] In 1910, he suffered the public humiliation of being passed over for the rotating office of Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University. The ensuing events turned Benson's mind to the possibility that he might become the next Master of Magdalene.

Stuart Alexander Donaldson had been born in the Sydney suburb of Darlinghurst in 1854.[273] His father, after whom he was named, was a leading colonial entrepreneur, who briefly held office in 1856 as first premier of New South Wales. The family settled in England in 1859. Notwithstanding the Cambridge joke that wallaby was served on Magdalene High Table, Donaldson does not appear to have identified with the land of his birth, and it was pure coincidence that he should have married, at the age of 45, Lady Albinia Hobart-Hampden, whose family surname had been used for the capital of Tasmania.[274] For all his shortcomings, Donaldson was no dullard, taking a First in Classics from Trinity in 1877. (In 1909, he would publish a theological monograph, Church Life and Thought in North Africa AD 200, making him the first Master of Magdalene to trouble the cataloguers of the University Library for over a century.) His original intention to become a barrister was overtaken by an invitation to return to teach at Eton, where in due course he became a housemaster, and a characteristically enthusiastic rowing coach. In 1889, he suffered a serious illness. Exhausted from chasing and haranguing the Eton First VIII from the towpath, he had taken a bathe in no doubt polluted waters, which led to "a sudden and severe attack" of what may have been rheumatic fever. He recovered by taking a long journey abroad, and returned "full of life and interest", incidentally sporting a beard which did not long survive the disapproval of his colleagues.[275] He continued to lead a life of unselective hyperactivity: even after his return to Cambridge, he rowed until his late fifties in a dons' boat (appropriately called the Ancient Mariners).[276] The problem was that the 1889 crisis had left a permanent mark. Not only was his eyesight impaired – although he continued to rent estates for shooting and chivvy his guests in pursuit of grouse, he could no longer handle a gun himself. Worse still, there were signs that his heart had been damaged. By 1900, there were fears that his health would break down entirely under the pressures of the Eton teaching regime.[277] The birth of two daughters, in 1901 and 1903, no doubt also pointed to the need for a more normal environment for family life. Accepting the Mastership of Magdalene made a great deal of sense. The College would benefit from his Eton connections and his wife's social eminence. "They are well-off," Benson commented on hearing of the appointment: he thought of his friend's "high ringing laugh", and pictured him revivifying the institution simply by guffawing in each of Magdalene's two small courts.[278]

The problem was that, after three decades at Eton, Donaldson could not transcend the persona of a schoolmaster. Unlike Benson, he had taken Holy Orders, and forms of worship dominated his existence. "It took some time for him to realise the difference between school and College discipline." Indeed, he arrived at Magdalene with a breathtakingly foolish scheme. Under Cambridge's bizarre federal constitution, colleges present their students for graduation, a procedure that allows them to certify that each candidate has met the residence requirement, of nine terms for the BA degree. Donaldson wished to refuse certification if a student had failed to attend Chapel on a minimum number of occasions. In 1902, during the supposedly Dark Ages of Latimer Neville, the Governing Body had abolished Chapel fines on the grounds that it was morally wrong to penalise principled objection to taking part in worship. (Given the state of Magdalene's finances, and the fact that the Chapel's maintenance costs had been largely paid for by impositions upon non-attenders, this was an enlightened move indeed.) Without specifying the embarrassing details, Benson called it "a scheme of rigorous and almost over-accentuated discipline – the natural bias of the successful schoolmaster". Fortunately, Donaldson's new colleagues persuaded him against pursuing a project that could only have brought disastrous publicity upon the College.[279] However, Chapel attendance remained technically compulsory, but was enforced by forms of moral suasion. Donaldson summoned backsliders and unbelievers, haranguing them on their duty to attend Chapel in a bluff, man-to-man style, "with the same breezy candour that he would have argued it with a contemporary." Benson, who was present on several occasions, did not find the encounters edifying. "It escaped him that it was not decorous or natural for the undergraduates to employ the same frankness", with the result that some were cowed into participating in ceremonial that was meaningless to them.[280] As a Magdalene historian has remarked, "Donaldson was before everything a clergyman".[281] He took personal charge of the conduct of Chapel services, introducing more frequent celebrations of Holy Communion, and insisting on reverence in worship: compulsion not unnaturally fostered manifestations of indifference. There was probably a real-life basis to the incident in Watersprings, in which an ebullient undergraduate was reprimanded by the Master for lack of respect in a reading from the Bible. "Far be it from me to deny it was dramatic," the fictional Master drily remarked, "... but I should prefer a slightly more devotional tone."[282]  Music – not a feature of Magdalene Chapel since the Reformation – formed another aspect of the drive to encourage the rituals of spirituality. Benson's gift of an organ was followed by the formation of a choir, but in the summer of 1909, the Magdalene College Magazine reported that "their standard is not yet sufficiently high to warrant the singing of the Psalms."[283]

Donaldson was also a vigorous supporter of mission work, both overseas and at home. Under his aegis, Magdalene adopted a boys' club in Camberwell, which undoubtedly did useful work in a deprived area of south London. With varying degrees of enthusiasm, undergraduates subscribed in support of the venture, and enough of them rallied round to provide hospitality and put together a cricket team for the annual lads' visit to Cambridge:  one year the they arrived crowded on the back of a lorry. However, few students responded to the call to service by actually visiting the club, which passed through several organisational crises in its early years. Other colleges supported similar ventures (Magdalene was, if anything, a latecomer), but the underlying problem was almost certainly that the public schools had run missions in urban areas for at least two decades: St Clair Donaldson had been a particularly enthusiastic supporter of the Eton presence in Hackney Wick.[284] In pressing the Camberwell connection, Donaldson was once again behaving like a schoolmaster, but most Magdalene undergraduates had moved on from responding to worthy causes like dutiful schoolboys.

Technically, Cambridge elected its Vice-Chancellor for a twelve-month term, but the incumbent was invariably re-elected for a second year, with the name of his successor tacked as a kind of pre-selected running mate. Vice-Chancellors were chosen from the ranks of Heads of Houses, with the office going in reverse seniority, so that a newly elected Master could expect to shoulder the additional burden of heading the University relatively early in his term of office. It was obviously a system that militated against firm leadership for change, both in its limited tenure and in its propensity to foist the office upon relatively inexperienced academics. The increasing complexity of University business added to the demands of the office, opening the possibility that, at some point, it might fall upon shoulders not designed for the burden. Of course, it would be invidious, if not downright humiliating, to be the first individual to be designated as unsuitable for the post. For a few unsettling months, that fate seemed to hover over Stuart Donaldson.   

The incoming Vice-Chancellor in 1908, Arthur Mason, had been elected Master of Pembroke in 1903. Donaldson, appointed in 1904, was next in line, and in the normal course of events would be formally nominated in 1909 to take office the following year.[285] However, during Mason's term of office, opposition arose to the designation of the Master of Magdalene as his successor. In 1910, he was passed over, and Robert Forsyth Scott, Master of St John's, elected as Mason's successor. Benson tactfully offered various explanations. Donaldson had not taken much part in University affairs, "and perhaps his frank avowal of his incapacity for financial business stood in his way". More generally, it was felt "that he had entered rather late on University life", that his interests were primarily collegiate and clerical, "and that he hardly had enough experience of University problems and needs."[286] The plain fact was that a solid segment of Cambridge opinion had concluded that Donaldson was not up to the job. Scott, elected at St John's as recently as September 1908, had only narrowly won the Mastership. In addition to his massive new duties, he was also engaged in editing a historical register of members of the college. He can hardly have coveted the role of Vice-Chancellor so early in his term of office, and he found the post burdensome. However, in the eyes of the anti-Donaldson faction, he had the double advantage of experience in University affairs, backed by twenty of years of financial acumen as bursar of St John's, where he had actually managed to increase revenues despite the difficult years of the agricultural depression.[287]

Although outwardly gallant, Donaldson felt the rebuff "very deeply", while his wife was openly bitter.[288]  More to the point, his rejection was seen both as an affront to Magdalene as institution, and also as a vote of no-confidence in its recent renaissance. Barton Wallop, a joke product of the era of untrammelled patronage, had held the Mastership from 1774 until he drank himself to death seven years later. He was regarded as "totally illiterate", and the Archbishop of Canterbury had tried to block an appointment that would "disgrace both himself and the University." But even Wallop had discharged the office of Vice-Chancellor, with no obvious disasters – although, of course, in far easier times. Was it seriously argued that Donaldson was more absurd than Barton Wallop?[289] The Fellows protested strongly against the snub to their Master, and the tide of Cambridge opinion turned in his favour. Scott's election still went ahead in 1910, but with Donaldson's name bracketed as successor. "We may therefore certainly assume that two years hence he will succeed in the ordinary course of events", said the Magdalene College Magazine, "and that the College will not be unjustly deprived of a privilege which it has not been able to exercise for over fifty years." The Cambridge Review had hailed the outcome as a fairy-tale ending, but – as the Magdalene College Magazine noted – "the happy end was by no means certain a year ago".[290] In November 1910, Donaldson was elected to the Council of the Senate, the University's cabinet, the reaction in his favour being demonstrated by the fact that he ran second behind the experienced Mason.[291] This experience was deemed to have given him the necessary experience in academic high politics, and in 1912 he acceded to the Vice-Chancellorship, with M.R. James of King's as his designated successor.[292] But many observers would remember, as his obituary in The Times would put it, that the office "did not come to him in the ordinary order".[293]

During the period of uncertainty over Donaldson's future, it seems that there was speculation that advancement in the Church might provide an honourable means of easing him out of an unpleasant situation. His combination of insecure health and dynamic insensitivity made Donaldson an implausible candidate for a bishopric, but his concern for the forms of worship, plus his experience managing a Cambridge college, seemed to make him an excellent person to become Dean of a cathedral. A deanery would have given him a suitable platform to support missionary work, while Lady Albinia would have added an acid touch of Barchester Towers to any cathedral close. The rumours were strong enough to make Benson consider the possible implications. In June 1910, a few weeks after Scott's election, he reviewed possible options for his own future. One was intriguing. "If S.A.D. were promoted I might be Master here."[294] He liked the idea and, being Benson, used his own writing to stake his claim. In his 1913 novel, Watersprings, a cheeky undergraduate challenges the hero: "Has the Master been made a Dean, and have you been elected Master? They say you have a chance."[295] 

As sometimes ensues with predictions of catastrophe, the Donaldson Vice-Chancellorship proceeded smoothly enough, although the claim that it was "a conspicuous success" is perhaps a little too much. As Donaldson had already shown in Magdalene, he was a good chairman and, if his grasp of University business was far from profound, he had the sense to defer to the academic politicians who ran the institution. As a veteran of the pulpit, he was adept at delivering impromptu speeches which gave "tactful generalities" an aura of profundity. [296] The Donaldsons were also charming and attentive hosts: as the Magdalene College Magazine put it, "the hospitalities of the Lodge were unintermittent and all-embracing".[297] (They were also, of course, non-intoxicating.) Donaldson's personality – "fearless, crystal-clear, simple, direct, affectionate", Benson called it in his funeral tribute[298] – could only disarm his critics. And he loved the job. Benson, his long-time friend, never recalled seeing Donaldson "so happy or in such high spirits as in the early days of his Vice-Chancellorship."[299]

Unfortunately, the fairy story was heading for a less happy ending. In his funeral oration for his old friend, Benson hinted that the legacy of Donaldson's serious illness of 1889 had been more debilitating than he had revealed, that he constantly struggled with "ill-health of a distressing and hampering kind."[300] Early in that heady first term, friends "thought that they found him looking a little thin and worn", but they accepted Donaldson's explanation that his doctor had put him on a diet.[301] But polite denial could not long obscure reality. "The Vice-Chancellorship is killing your Master," Ramsey was told, a few months into his term of office; "if he attempts a second year, he won't get through it."[302] In October 1913, as he began that second year, Donaldson's doctors intervened, warning him of the "serious risk of completely breaking down in health". With "extreme reluctance", he resigned his office, pitchforking M.R. James into premature succession.[303] Uncertainty over Donaldson's health kept alive the possibility of a vacancy in the Mastership of Magdalene. Both during his friend's year in office, and throughout his sick-leave in the Michaelmas term of 1913, Benson was de facto Acting Master. In February 1915, Donaldson sounded him out: would Benson accept the post if offered? Benson reserved his position, but we may be sure that it echoed his own comment, a decade earlier, on the elevation of his friend Monty James at King's: he hated being Provost, but he would have hated not being Provost far more.[304]

Once again, the issue seemed to recede. In March 1914, the Magdalene College Magazine had "great satisfaction" in reporting that Donaldson had "practically thrown off the effects of his illness," that he was back in residence and "gradually resuming all his old activities". The loss of the Vice-Chancellorship was a matter for regret, but "we are glad to have him back among us with recovered health and vigour upon any terms."[305] But a greater ordeal would soon follow. The outbreak of war produced paradoxically contrasting reactions in the two friends. Benson, the depressive, took matters in his stride as his privately tragic world turned into reality.[306] Donaldson, on the other hand, was shattered by the collapse of his Panglossian optimism. Until the last minute, he clung to the belief that intercessory prayer might avert the disaster. Benson was contemptuous of his theological naivety: "If I were almighty and meant to send war, the prayers of individuals would be no more than the chirping of sparrows."[307] In public, Donaldson accepted his responsibility to keep up morale, but he "felt the misery and unhappiness of the war most acutely". Benson encountered him one day in Magdalene Street. "He shook his head with a very downcast look, and said that he felt that he could not bear the anxiety and sorrow of the time." Even so, there was another rally, and Donaldson seemed to recover his spirits even though it became clear that the war would continue, perhaps even indefinitely.  But at a Sunday Chapel service in October 1915, he suffered a stroke. Donaldson lingered for a few days. Although barely able to speak, he greeted visitors with "his old natural smile", and there were the usual death-bed hopes that he might recover.[308] He died on 29 October 1915.

In retrospect, it has seemed not only appropriate but virtually inevitable that Benson should have been appointed as the twenty-seventh Master of Magdalene.[309] This is not so. The notion of a seamless transition obscures the complication that, in the decade since his election to a Magdalene Fellowship in 1904, Benson had become a controversial figure who had forfeited popularity and even respect in many influential quarters. Before his departure from Eton, it was already well established that he was a critic of the dominance of Classics in the public schools, and that he argued for allocating less time and emphasis to Greek in order to clear timetable space for other subjects. By 1906, he was a fully-fledged curriculum reformer, even – in 1910 – contemplating secondary education without Latin and Greek at all. Once resident in Cambridge, it was natural that he should be drawn into one specific aspect of the wider question, the role of Greek in the Universities, an issue that provoked much donnish debate. In occasionally intense exchanges, Benson was capable of engaging in an invective that entirely contrasted with the winsome tone of his popular writing. How far his campaigns for educational reform affected Magdalene, it is difficult to say. Of course, a Cambridge college should be ready to provide a haven, and a platform, for those who shock consensus with unpalatable views. A century later, his opinions seem unexceptional, but at the time his insistence that classrooms should be made places of interest to children was capable of arousing outright derision. In the eyes of the public school masters who prepared boys for the ancient universities, Donaldson was a safe pair of hands, one of themselves, who could be trusted to preside over a traditional academic education, however sterile it might be. Benson, to some extent, must have seemed a loose cannon, or at least a countervailing influence.  Only in the changed world of the nineteen-twenties did Benson's College attract unusual and creative personalities among its student body – and, by then, his direct influence upon Magdalene was restricted by his ill health.

In his decade as a Fellow of Magdalene, Benson also emerged as a popular author – although there were signs by 1914 that his popularity may have peaked. His volumes of reflective essays sold in massive numbers, both in Britain and the United States, generating lavish royalties, some of which he diverted to Magdalene projects. His devoted readership included one benefactor who gave him a large sum of money to spend at his discretion, a windfall that also massively benefited the College. But the quality of his output was variable, and sometimes even embarrassing. He also made the tactical mistake of publishing too much and in basically the same voice, so that the chunky broth of From a College Window in 1906 was steadily diluted into the thin consommé of its forgettable successor volumes half a dozen years later. As the success of his Magdalene lecture demonstrated, he retained a respected status as an interpreter of nineteenth-century English men of letters, and he also had some standing as a biographer and editor. But the paradox of his popular writing was that it was regarded with amused contempt by his associates, and with despair by his friends. Although hardly susceptible of proof, it is likely that Magdalene gained no academic cachet from his literary vogue: the people who bought his books did not send their sons to Cambridge.

Moreover, there is one feature of his popular writing that has not yet been fully explored. Although the formative episode of his student days had taken the form of an outburst of triggered by a revivalist meeting, he set out to expound, even to preach, his attitude to religion. In keeping with general tone of soothing balm that characterised so much his popular writing, he offered a reassurance that coolly ignored most of the key dogmas of the Christian faith. As will be discussed later in this essay, he dismissed Hell, criticised the doctrine of the Atonement, doubted the Resurrection, had serious doubts about life after death and flirted with reincarnation. Again, we may concede that these issues are the subject of serious discourse among modern students of divinity. But Benson never attempted to wrap his ideas into an overall theology. He simply offered a consumerist Christianity, with most of the difficult bits bluntly abandoned. This approach, although contributing enormously to his massive popularity as a writer, was intellectually unsatisfactory. In the context of early twentieth-century Cambridge, which was still formally orthodox, his ideas about religion were hardly a qualification for high academic office. King's and Trinity might cherish agnostic Fellows to their institutional bosoms, but it would be a huge leap for Magdalene even to accept a Master who was not an ordained clergyman, let along one mired in heresy.

Hence we need to retrace our steps over the decade before Donaldson's death, and examine how Benson evolved into a controversial curriculum reformer, an embarrassing author and a heretical guru. His path to the Mastership of Magdalene was much less straightforward than it might appear.

"Humanitarian Hockey and Socialist Spillikins"

The bruising 1904-5 episode of the headmastership of Eton accounted for the rapid acceleration in Benson's trajectory as a curriculum reformer from sceptic to revolutionary. In The Schoolmaster, his 1902 reflections on teaching methods, he cautiously challenged the arguments of those who insisted on the retention of Greek in the curriculum on the grounds that it possessed "so august a literature". He agreed about the quality of the culture. His problem was that "a very small percentage of boys who do Greek ever get within measurable distance of appreciating it as a literature", although many of them were "capable of appreciating style and treatment in their own language." Yet, far from calling for the excision of Greek from the curriculum, he offered tips on how to encourage boys to master its irregular verbs, from mobilising their sense of competitiveness by offering marks for the quickest answers, to bluntly telling a class that none of them would move on to a more interesting topic until they had all demonstrated their comprehension of some difficult grammatical construction.[310]

In February 1903, Benson responded to a proposal in The Times that boys should be taught a broad diet of modern languages, mathematics and basic science as well as classics, Greek as well as Latin. On the basis of his classroom experience, he commented that "such a curriculum could be instituted with satisfactory results in the case of boys of exceptional ability, but not in the case of boys of ordinary capacity." Again, he insisted that he was not a foe of Latin and Greek – "indeed, very much the reverse" – but "the time that can be given to these subjects is so limited by the pressure of other subjects that I venture to say that most boys of ordinary capacity never become aware, in the case of Greek and Latin, that they are in the presence of a literature at all." Benson's conclusion was that "Greek ought to be a special subject both at schools and Universities; and what we should aim at in the education of boys of ordinary capacity is a certain education in a balance of subjects" – a balance that was distorted by the attempt to teach three or even four languages, ancient and modern, at the same time.[311]

A century later, Benson's arguments seem unexceptional, even plain common sense. But they must be read against the background of the politics of Eton, where it was obvious that Edmond Warre would before long retire from the headmastership. His successor would have to confront both the issue of curriculum congestion – much of it caused by Warre's attempts to add new subjects – while any adjustments would have to be made alongside conflicts around the privileged status of masters teaching Classics. It was widely assumed that Benson would be a front-runner for the job, and his February 1903 letter to The Times should be viewed as a move to put down a marker that would foreshadow a manifesto for change. Warre himself had intimated that he hoped Benson would succeed him, telling him in 1901 that the headmastership "needed an Eton man and a wise man, who would make wise changes and not fear popular clamour or the newspapers."[312] But, as Warre's departure came closer, Benson's main concern was not the pressures that he might face from outside Eton, but the resistance he would meet within: as he put it when he finally drew a line under the possibility, he could not "form a ministry" among the powerful senior masters.[313] There was a foretaste of the opposition he would encounter in 1904, at the time of his election as a Fellow of Magdalene, when he was nominated to become the masters' representative on the school's Governing Body. He might well have won the election, but the strength of opposition from the diehard Classicists led him to withdraw.[314] Very early in the manoeuvres for the headmastership, Benson had no doubt of the issue that would block his way. "I have spoken out over this Greek question; and I daresay I have what a prudent man would call spoilt my chances." Reviewing the debate over the Classics curriculum twenty years later, when the battle had been substantially won, he claimed the right to comment "as one whose whole career was profoundly modified by the controversy."[315]

It was at this time that Benson became a Fellow of Magdalene, elected in October 1904 and formally inducted a month later. The publication of his father's biography, late in 1899, had established him as a serious scholar, while his selection as editor of Queen Victoria's letters would briefly place him on the frontiers of research into historical knowledge. It was on that basis that he was elected to his Magdalene Fellowship in 1904, to oversee teaching of a Tripos subject that the College had previously ignored. His identification with the College was to some extent a rebound from his rebuff at his old school. Failure to win a seat on the Governing Body meant "the end of my connection with Eton. I must throw in my lot with what I suppose is the smallest educational establishment in England, instead of the largest."[316] But there was still a slight sense that Magdalene was a staging post, a temporary withdrawal before Benson's reappearance at Eton, on his own terms.[317] Before long, the question of the succession to Warre, which dominated the early months of 1905, re-opened the question of his suitability for the headmastership.

Benson's approach to the vacancy was criticised at the time, and has been censured since.[318] In fact, he was placed in an awkward position. He regarded the Eton headmastership as the equivalent in the educational world of Canterbury in the ecclesiastical firmament. He also resented the process of appointment that made him appear to seek an office that he could only realistically accept with a definite external mandate. "It ought not to be a question of sending in names. It should be treated like a bishopric. Imagine papa sending in his name for the archbishopric!"[319] Yet he could not turn his back on the school that had nurtured him, and where he had spent almost two decades of his adult life. At the very least, he was bound to champion his ideas for educational reform. On leaving Eton in 1903, he had circulated a privately printed Vale, a farewell essay couched in the autumnal terms of a lifelong Etonian pulling up his roots. It would be unduly cynical to regard it as an extended job application, but his discussion of the need for curriculum reform was couched in conciliatory terms. It is at least possible that, if Warre's retirement had been deferred for a year or two, the additional space for reflection might have led many – although not all – of his former colleagues to welcome him back as headmaster. He made a further attempt to mend fences with the unyielding Classicists in a letter to The Times in January 1905. Supporters of compulsory Greek "are too apt to write ... as if all who desired that the Universities would see their way to making Greek an optional subject were inspired by a kind of personal animus against the study of Greek language and literature." Not so: Benson declared that "it is a noble language and has a magnificent literature. No one doubts that." The problem was that Greek was too difficult for the average schoolboy to master sufficiently well to be capable of appreciating its beauties. It was pointless to "attempt to teach boys of moderate ability two dead languages". Benson was "not be prepared to give up Latin, or even to give up Latin and retain Greek". Hence Greek should become "special subject", thereby recognising that "the central core of education must be devised on simple and general grounds."[320] Unfortunately, Benson's refusal to declare himself a candidate for the headmastership created the impression that this was a take-it-or-leave-it manifesto. However, he did agree to submit a memorandum to the governors outlining the directions in which he believed the school should move. (The document apparently does not survive, but its immediate proposals were apparently mild – but enough to mobilise his opponents.) But, by early March 1905, he made clear that he would refuse any offer of the job. Privately, he concluded that "there is a sad lack of good candidates, and that this alone has forced me into prominence". Benson had feared being "cornered", that he would have been offered the headmastership "in such a way that it would have been cowardly and unpatriotic to refuse."[321]

There was a brief tailpiece to the affair, a coda that suggested that Benson was right to fear that he might have no alternative but to accept office. He had been right about the quality of the candidates. In mid-March, the Eton Governing Body had interviewed five applicants, one internal candidate and four headmasters, all of them former members of the Eton staff, but no appointment was made.  Benson was now invited to present himself for an open-ended discussion, which he did two weeks later. The meeting resulted in an impasse. J.J. Hornby, the veteran Provost (Eton's equivalent of a governor-general) sought to embarrass him with a direct question: would he accept the headmastership if it were offered? But Benson regarded this as approaching the matter from the wrong end. He had to face the obvious objection that he could not provide effective leadership to a staff of schoolmasters, many of whom abominated his philosophy. "If all the staff had been with me, set on the same objects as myself, ready to make concessions and compromises, and valuing the principle above the detail; if the Governing Body had summoned me cogently and constrainingly, I would have gone, not gladly, but willingly," he concluded. "But with a G.B. who don't know their own mind, and with a staff who distrust me, and with a hopeless dislike of the whole business of administration, how could I go?"[322]

Overall, Benson had handled the affair with wisdom and dignity. But, in personal terms, his rejection hurt. His departure from the Eton staff had revealed to him something of the high regard in which his colleagues held him. Now it appeared that many of them, including close friends, rejected him as a possible headmaster. One colleague gently suggested that if Benson "had been a less kindly man, probably he would not have taken it so much to heart, and might even have smiled at his cantankerous colleagues." As it was, he felt "betrayed".[323] He resolved to break his links with Eton, and it would be thirteen years before he revisited the school – exactly the interval that he had exiled himself from Cambridge after his failure to secure a King's Fellowship in 1888. The breach with Eton reinforced his new links with Magdalene. It also accelerated the radicalism of his ideas about educational reform.

In his 1905 book, The Upton Letters, Benson reiterated the position he had expounded in The Schoolmaster: "My own belief is that Greek and Latin are things to be led up to, not begun with; that they are hard, high literatures, which require an initiation to comprehend; and that one ought to go backwards in education, beginning with what one knows." But he also foreshadowed a wider, more radical approach to curriculum reform. "Personally I would retain Latin for most, but give up Greek altogether in the majority of cases. I would teach all boys French thoroughly. I would try to make them read and write it easily, and that should be the linguistic staple of their education." To this would be added modern English history, geography, introductory mathematics and elementary science. "Such boys would be, in my belief, well-educated; and they would never be tempted to disbelieve in the usefulness of their education."

In From a College Window, in 1906, he went still further, launching a passionate call for an entire revolution in teaching. His essay on Education was one of his most effective pieces of writing, and it was explicitly argued from the point of view – and the absolute freedom – of somebody who had put Eton behind him.[324]  "I was a public-school master for nearly twenty years; and now that it is over I sometimes sit and wonder, rather sadly, I am afraid, what we were all about." He reiterated his basic complaint that "to provide a classical education for the best boys, everything else was sacrificed. The boys were taught ... as if they were all to enter for triposes and scholarships, and to end by becoming professors." But now he could cut loose and envisage a wholly different curriculum. "The staple of education should be French, easy mathematics, history, geography, and popular science. I would not even begin Latin or Greek at first." Boys (as noted, Benson never contemplated the possibility that girls might also qualify) would gradually specialise in areas where they had some aptitude, while maintaining basic studies across a wider range of subjects. "The result would be that when a boy had finished his course, he would have ... learnt classics, or mathematics, or history, or modern languages, or science, thoroughly; while all might hope to have a competent knowledge of French, English, history, easy mathematics, and easy science. Boys who had obviously no special aptitude would be kept on at the simple subjects." The aim would be to produce "boys who could read French easily, and write simple French grammatically, who knew something of modern history and geography, could work out sums in arithmetic, and had some conception of elementary science".[325]

Benson offered novel ideas not merely about what should be studied, but how it should be taught.  He proposed "all sorts of experiments." Even the dullest boys could handle "easy precis-writing", being set the task of analysing "a simple printed correspondence".  "I should read a story aloud, or a short episode of history, and require them to re-tell it in their own words. Or I would relate a simple incident, and make them write it in French ... it would be easy thus to make one subject play into another, because they could be made to give an account in French of something that they had done in science or history." To the sneers of his "sterner colleagues" that he "only wanted to make things amusing" and produce amateurs, Benson offered the crushing reply that "amateurs are at least better than barbarians".[326] In reality, it was in the interests of the conservatives to confront the issue of the role of Classics in the classroom. Failure to tackle curriculum reform would inevitably mean that "the growing dissatisfaction will reach such a height that the old system will be swept away root and branch". "We have a great and instinctive tact in England for avoiding revolutions," he concluded. "But I would rather have a revolution, with all its destructive agencies, than an unintelligent and oppressive tyranny."[327]

Studies of Benson have not emphasised his highly public campaign against the traditional Classical curriculum, and its extension into radical demands for curriculum reform. His increasing iconoclasm was treated with suspicion by some, but with derision by others. In February 1908, Punch published a lampoon, in which Benson revisited his old school to give "a surprise lecture on 'What I would do if I were Headmaster of Eton'." His announcement that he "would have to give up writing any more books" provoked a riot, and the boys spent the rest of the morning "playing the new games of Humanitarian Hockey and Socialist Spillikins."[328] The skit could be described as affectionate (and was presumably published without awareness that Benson was in a nursing home coping with mental illness). But it does suggest that he was regarded as an eccentric by the large section of upper- and middle-class England to which Punch appealed.

Benson had still not fully recovered from his breakdown when, in January 1909, he decided to use the columns of The Times to open a new front in the curriculum war. Out of 326 candidates for the Army qualifying examination, 233 had failed. Examiners reported that English essays were muddled and there were "grotesque mistakes" in spelling and punctuation.  Over half the candidates had failed in mathematics, one third in French, while German translations were dismissed as "worthless". Benson concluded that "there is something very wrong somewhere in an educational system which cannot produce better results". Once again, he blamed "the disproportionate importance assigned to Latin and Greek", which prevented schools from allocating adequate time to more useful subjects. He concluded with the wide-ranging declaration that "the education received by the average public school boy is practically no education at all". It was another sweeping attack, but, this time, the headmasters fought back, and Benson was forced to concede some ground in subsequent letters. It was argued – slightly speciously, given the social composition of the officer class – that nobody could be sure that the candidates in fact were from public schools. More to the point, many had no doubt come through "Modern" sides, where they would have encountered precisely the kind of non-Classical curriculum that Benson championed. Indeed, the fact that two-fifths of candidates had failed in Latin suggested last-minute cramming. Examiners had failed to discern any merit at all in the sole candidate in Greek who had presented a list of ten words. This farcical performance was hardly the product of slewed classroom attention to the ancient languages. As the headmaster of Clifton put it, "nearly all Army candidates come from modern sides, where Greek is not taught". 

It was also alleged that Benson did not understand Army entrance procedures. The qualifying examination was the first of two hurdles: it was claimed that candidates took a premature chance on getting through in order to have more time for the more competitive final round. Nor was it the only path towards officer training.  The Army also accepted the School Certificate (the forerunner of GCEs and GCSEs), which was a harder test but one that, presumably, better equipped them for subsequent studies at Sandhurst or Woolwich. Since most public schools prepared their Army candidates in this way, the qualifying examination was in practice the refuge for weaker candidates who could not achieve the School Certificate. One headmaster likened Benson to "a doctor who judges of the physique of a school by reading the chest measurements of a few boys found in the infirmary."[329] Seven years previously, Edmond Warre had hoped Benson would succeed him at Eton. Now he joined in the general schoolmasterly denunciation, publicly deploring the fact "that Mr Benson had employed the great powers of his pen in attacking classical studies." Curriculum reform was a complex subject, but his former colleague was simply saying: "Let the schools get rid of the classics and all will be well".[330] It was a magisterial rebuke, and from a man who surely knew that Benson was recovering from mental illness. Always aggressive in controversy, Benson mounted a fighting rearguard, for instance criticising pass rates for School Certificate examinations, but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that his standing as an authority on matters educational was damaged by the exchanges.

Benson's radical ideas brought him into contact with corners of the educational world that he probably would not have encountered as an Eton master. He was appointed to the board of governors of Gresham's, Holt, a Norfolk boarding school which was passing through a revolution of its own. This brought him into contact with the school's trustees, the Fishmongers' Company in the City of London, which elected him a member of its Court in 1911. He also served as a governor of the Perse School in Cambridge, and of Soham  Grammar School in the county. Perhaps the most unlikely position that came his way was the presidency of the Modern Languages Association, a strange honour for a man who could speak no contemporary European languages. In January 1910, the Association met in Cambridge, and Benson contributed an address to a session on "Humanistic Education without Latin".[331] (In the event, he was "prevented by indisposition from being present", and his paper was read on his behalf.[332])

The challenge was already implicit in From a College Window. "The defenders of the classical system say that it fortifies the mind and makes it a strong and vigorous instrument," he had observed, before posing the devastating question: "Where is the proof of it?"[333] Benson now began by proclaiming that "if I am to be found in the ranks of anti-classicists, it is not because I am an opponent of the classics." Rather, he objected to the "grave intellectual disaster" of "the study of the classics by the wrong person, and their continued preponderance in education." As a polemicist, Benson understood the tactical advantage of proclaiming that his beliefs were marching towards inevitable victory. The battle over Greek, he implied, was as good as won. In a little-noticed move, Cambridge had just changed the rules for its benighted Pass degree, allowing its weaker students to avoid studying Greek once they had passed the retrospective entrance examination, nicknamed the Little-Go. The "farce" of making Greek compulsory for admission to the University "without requiring it to be studied after entrance, cannot surely be much longer maintained." (The awkward insertion of the adverb "surely" here was the equivalent of a preacher raising his voice to gloss over a weak argument.) Once the fortress of Greek had tumbled, pressure would inevitably mount against Latin.

Benson discerned two elements undermining the position of the language of ancient Rome in modern classrooms. The first was his familiar concern, timetable congestion. "Latin is of no use unless it be studied very thoroughly" but "to study it thoroughly demands more time than can be allocated to it in the curriculum." Conditions had changed during the past fifty years, modern subjects now formed part of the education staple, and "if those studies are to be pursued with any thoroughness there is not time for Latin to be studied too." He had now reached a decisive point where he was prepared to break with Latin altogether: "if it is a choice between studying remote and ancient conditions of life, and studying living and breathing facts and problems, I frankly say, let the older go."

Benson's second line of attack was devastatingly insidious – and, incidentally, showed why, from their own point of view, conservatives had been right to defend the teaching of both dead languages. He started from the argument that the study of a language was the key to appreciating its literature. In previous discussions, he had pointed out that most pupils never became sufficiently proficient in either Greek or Latin to reach that standard of comprehension. Now he advanced a more shocking argument: "it seems to me absurd ... to dispense with Greek and to retain Latin." Put bluntly, "the Greeks made their mark upon the world by their words, the Romans by their deeds." To understand the Greek mind, it was necessary to study Greek literature (a proposition that he had specifically denied in a letter to The Times two years earlier[334]), but the political and military achievements of the Romans "can perfectly well be approached without studying their literature". There followed a dismissal of Roman authors that was remarkable for its lack of respect. Virgil and Livy were too difficult for schoolboys. Benson did not think much of Ovid, while Horace was the Latin equivalent of Thackeray, crisp, good-humoured and stoical. Caesar was "terribly dull"; Cicero was dismissed as "the most relentless of twaddlers". "Catullus is perhaps the greatest genius among Latin writers, but the body of his work suitable for youthful perusal is small." This was a coded allusion to the complication that Catullus was both erotic and bisexual. Anyone assessing the value of Roman culture through Benson's eyes would have been puzzled to understand why Latin was taught at all.

He was equally contemptuous of other arguments advanced by the classicists. He doubted the claim that the study of Latin helped boys grasp the mechanics of languages in general, and hence enabled them to learn other tongues. Nor did he accept the suggestion that mastery of Latin fostered elegance in the writing of English. "I have done for some years the essay work of the history men in my college." He was convinced that "the men who have been educated on modern lines use English with more flexibility than the classical men", who generally wrote in "a stiff and crabbed style". There was "very little marked difference" between the two groups in the handling of logical argument – if anything the classicists were slightly inferior, whereas they "ought, of course, if the claims made for the classics are to be substantiated, to be superior". This piece of evidence was certainly subjective and probably tendentious. Benson had not been supervising essay work for "some years", but since his election to a Fellowship in 1904. The numbers admitted to read History were small: two in 1908, five in 1909, four in 1910; by 1909, just eight had graduated.[335] Since proficiency in Latin and Greek was required for entry into the University, they had all endured some exposure to Classics.

Benson also challenged the argument that knowledge of Latin helped in the acquisition of the Romance languages which derived from it. To this, he responded: "why not go direct at the ultimate object, instead of round a corner?" (A lifetime devoted to Latin had not encouraged Benson to slip into Spanish or Italian.) He pointed out that most Latin-derived terms had undergone subtle changes of meaning in English: schoolmasters generally barred boys translating Latin passages from using "the corresponding word in English, because it so seldom does correspond." No doubt it was of interest to note the Latin origins of standard terms, but nobody seemed to be interested in the ancestry of that large part of English vocabulary inherited from the Saxons. How many boys – "or men for that matter" – were aware that hale, whole, holy and halibut shared a common derivation?

Much of this no doubt struck chords with the modern languages practitioners whom he was addressing. But Benson did not expect the early disappearance of Latin from the classroom: the inertia of tradition would preserve it for the foreseeable future. Nor, despite his title, did he outline an alternative curriculum. Perhaps the jibe about "Socialist Spillikins" deterred him from putting forward even the outline that he had supplied in From a College Window. It may also be worth noting that the address, although published in the widely read Cornhill Magazine, did not find its way into any of his subsequent books – but this may have been because its frank expressions did not fit with the increasingly ethereal quality that his essays exuded after 1910.  But if he was short on detail, he was resolute on spirit: "no scheme of education can be called truly humanistic that is not based upon development rather than upon tradition". He closed with a call to "rank the needs of the present and the possibilities of the future higher than the claims of the past, however august and venerable those claims may be". It had been seven and a half years since he had expressed mild reservations about the role of Classics in the classroom in The Schoolmaster.[336] Five years before his Cambridge address, he had insisted that he was not prepared to give up Latin. Now he contemplated an education system without either of the ancient languages at all. He had come a long way in a short time, alienating himself as he travelled from much of the scholastic and academic world to which he had naturally belonged.

Nonetheless, it is worth making clear that, however shocking his opinions within the public school and ancient university world, there were definite limits, even blind spots, to his radicalism. He was exclusively concerned with the public-school training of boys from the upper classes. Despite family connections, for instance with Newnham College Cambridge, he showed no interest in the education of girls and women. His approach to the classroom was as narrow in class terms as it was by gender. The year of The Schoolmaster, 1902, saw the passage of a major Education Act, which reorganised and extended the provision of mass secondary schooling. He regarded the curriculum of the elementary schools – by which he seems to have meant the State system generally – as "a grotesque thing, because it aims at culture and information rather than the direct arts of living", but quite what that meant, or how it might be remedied, was not his problem.[337]

Perhaps most notable of all, he was ambivalent – to say the least – towards the growing practice of formally training teachers before they entered the classroom. In The Schoolmaster, he confessed himself "somewhat sceptical about the training of teachers", an exercise which he likened to "training people to become good conversationalists" or "teaching a man to swim upon dry land".[338] He favoured what we would now call 'mentoring', entrusting "a young master on first going to a public school, to some competent senior – to get the senior to be present when he takes a lesson". But the value of such an attachment was to some extent undermined by Benson's jovial claim that "as far as mere methods are concerned, I am sure I could tell a young man in half an hour the simple dodges which have proved in my own case useful and effective." As a compromise, he suggested that "the best system of all" might be "to send a young man for a few weeks to a training college after he has had say a year's experience teaching in a school. He will have learnt by that time what his weak points are, he will have some idea of what the difficulties are."[339] In a letter to The Times that year, he accepted that "a certain period of training would probably be beneficial to most secondary teachers – and particularly to teachers who first had some practical experience of teaching", but rejected claims that "a training in pedagogy necessarily makes a man into a competent teacher."[340] With graduate teacher training becoming an increasingly established feature of the educational world, his views seemed not merely outdated, but easily subjected to mockery. "The best teachers I have ever known have been untrained," he remarked in 1902, prompting the retort that until very recent times, no public school masters had received formal training. His argument that "boys who have passed through a public school have been practically trained as teachers" was a staple of public-school defence of the talented amateur. "They have seen innumerable lessons given, and they can to a certain extent discriminate methods."[341] It was riposted that, on the same basis, very sick people must make ideal doctors, since they had been on the receiving end of enough medical practice to determine which procedures worked.[342]

At first sight, it may seem curious that the author of The Schoolmaster was able to evade involvement with the University's teacher-training programme for six years after his return to Cambridge. Although surprisingly little was achieved, no fewer than three institutions were engaged in the field. Two of them involved the petulant and preposterous Oscar Browning, the third was for women. These ingredients were sufficient to keep Benson at distance. Browning had been the driving force behind the establishment of the Teachers' Training Syndicate, which had begun to provide lecture courses and certificate examinations in 1879. The chronology is important here, for it may be confidently assumed, first, that Benson was aware of the programme in his undergraduate days – Browning was a Fellow of King's, and anything but shy about pressing his own interests upon those around him – and, second, that he made no attempt to benefit from it before his return to Eton. The Syndicate's qualifications could be taken by extra-mural students, and this facilitated the foundation in Cambridge of a training college for educated women, which developed alongside the University but was ignored by it. The project was supported by progressive male dons and, in 1895, it acquired a building – the nucleus of the modern Hughes Hall. With two strikes against it, an uncongenial gender and an intrusive professionalism, Benson showed no interest. In 1891, a third entity appeared, also driven by Oscar Browning, a programme for the training of male teachers. Confusingly, to qualify for financial support under a government programme, this was also called a training college, although it was slow to acquire premises, and its students were in fact distributed around the existing colleges, where they combined classroom training with studying for the Cambridge BA.[343] Most of the students came from humble backgrounds and were destined for elementary schools: Benson recognised that Browning "showed great liberality and kindness in assisting them", but they were people of no interest to him, destined for careers that were way outside his experience. In any case, there was one overwhelming reason for keeping clear of the whole enterprise, Browning himself. The 'OB' "gave a great deal of trouble to the Syndicate which controlled the Training College. He was unbusinesslike, he disobeyed explicit directions, he acted on his own responsibility, and was extremely indignant if he was criticised."[344] Eventually, in 1909, he was forced to retire. Once Browning had departed, Benson could hardly decline the invitation to become a member made the following year.

Benson's appointment placed him in an awkward position. He had received no teacher training himself, and the proceedings of the Syndicate did nothing to persuade him of the utility of the enterprise. "How hopeless to teach people how to teach," he confided to his diary, rehashing the jibe of 1902, "like teaching people how to talk at dinner!"[345] Yet it was obvious that he had been recruited because his standing as a commentator on education might bolster the standing of an unglamorous project seeking to recover from its traumatic association with Oscar Browning. Benson's solution was to deliver a public lecture, under the Syndicate's auspices, in May 1910, on the theme "The Choice of Method". It was a clever combination of knockabout autobiography and inspirational generalisation, a performance that delighted his audience without actually committing him to the support of any specific training programme.

Benson began by defining himself as someone who had been "concerned in more or less active educational work for 25 years", adding that "for 15 years before that he was, he supposed, being educated". That set the scene for some barbed comments about the men who had taught him. As a boy, it had never occurred to him that "his teachers had any particular aim in view, or much sense of personal responsibility in the matter."  They were "beings who laboured under a certain dull sense of duty: as men who had to work a turnip slicing machine – so many turnips to dismember, so many turns of a handle to make, it was just a matter of business." (Since he also applied the image of the turnip-slicing machine to the conversational skills of his colleague the Master of Magdalene, it may be that he had Donaldson in mind here.) Benson "hardly ever felt really in contact with any of his teachers' minds. ... He never felt that he was being guided, encouraged or wooed to knowledge – rather flung good-naturedly enough into a sea of gerunds and particles, and invited to sink or swim. He kept his head above water in the interests of self-preservation, and he did not at all like the liquid in which he was immersed." The laughter of his audience masked the inconvenient fact that the young Benson had much more deeply involved in the Classics than he implied.

He went on to mock his own lack of preparedness for the classroom, noting that he started teaching "without any training or educational theories whatever". "He had not the slightest mistrust or misgiving as to his complete competence to fulfil his duties. His only feeling from the very first was that it was splendid fun." The audience laughed again when he confessed that he sometimes ran out of knowledge in a class, but simply switched to some other topic. His problem, he gradually realised, was "that he had no clear idea what it was all about". Only gradually did it dawn upon him "what a tremendous affair it all was – nothing less than the development of human minds and souls." Over the years, he had attended many conferences and committees formally dedicated to education, but, sad to say, "the subject was rarely mentioned at those gatherings". "We had a horrible passion in England for organisation, and most of the meetings he attended seemed to be entirely concerned with questions of administration. The point seemed to be to know what their victims were doing, rather than why they were doing it, or what they ought to be doing." Even when serious topics were discussed, "the aim of education theorists seemed to be not to develope [sic] the individual, but to flatten him out, not to emphasise differences but to obliterate them."

Thus far, the address might have pointed towards a reasoned argument for subtle and creative training of teachers, either before they entered the classroom, as the Syndicate provided, or as a parallel component in early career development, as Benson himself had previously conceded. But the second half of his lecture veered off into a stratosphere of inspirational generalisations, of the kind that he was so skilled at delivering. He obscured the absence of firm proposals by exalting teaching as the highest of callings – "not merely the communication of instruction. It was a much bigger and finer thing than that, it was a close and very beautiful kind of human relationship, it was a dramatic thing and an emotional thing, it was a vital contact, perhaps the most vital of all human contacts, next to love and motherhood." Once motherhood had been invoked, it only remained for his peroration to tick the patriotism box. Their calling was "nothing less than the moulding and guarding of a nation", their task was "to give to the children a love for the three great motives upon which all national greatness and individual happiness was ultimately founded – the great forces of labour, and order, and peace." The audience loved it, but Benson had said not one word about how a young man was to learn to structure a lesson or to tease out responses from his pupils.[346] Had he embraced the unglamorous cause of teacher training, he might have opened a devastating second front against the public schools, chiding them not just for inculcating the wrong subjects, but for their amateurish approach to the imparting of even irrelevant knowledge. But Benson remained a very narrow reformer, concerned with what was taught rather than how it was imparted.

"... the abject farce of compulsory Greek"

One aspect of Benson's campaign for curriculum reform needs to be stressed. Following the episode of the Eton headmastership, his contributions to the debate after 1905 became sharper, and more personal.  In January 1905, when it was still possible that he might not be able to evade the job, he had attempted to mollify the extreme classicists, writing in The Times of his veneration for Hellenic culture. Yet, in the Upton Letters, published just a few months later, his tone was very different.  Benson complained that defenders of the "preposterous system" of compulsory Greek ("wiseacres", he called them) were "profoundly irritating" in their arguments, advancing absurd claims that "the human intellect had reached its high-water mark" in Hellenic culture, and even asserting – the inverted commas suggested a quotation from an actual colleague – that the language possessed "'such a noble grammar'".[347] As one of his Eton friends would later remark, "he thought he was fighting almost single-handed on the side of common sense, and this made him at times a little less than fair to the claims of Greek."[348]

In theory, some compromise might have possible. A short course – we would now call it a 'module' – might have been put together, introducing pupils to the Greek alphabet, with some simple sentences to demonstrate the basic parallels with Latin grammar. A glossary of perhaps one hundred words would have drawn attention to the derivation of English terms such as aristocracy, chronology and geometry, while a seasoning of Greek myths would have identified parallels with Roman gods and heroes. Many modern university Classics departments have reinvented themselves by teaching popular courses in Greek and Roman Civilization. Then, as is certainly the case now, some students might have been wooed to study the language and literature of their own volition. On first reading, Benson's January 1908 letter to The Times might suggest that he was thinking on those lines. He advanced his now-familiar argument that "the majority of boys never come into touch with the Greek spirit at all", that far from mastering the language they were "little more than wandering about in a blind alley". Dropping the expensive and wasteful inculcation of grammar might be a step to helping boys realise "that every province of human thought has been intimately and profoundly permeated by the Greek influence." But Benson undermined this potential olive branch by adding a personal recollection that was little more than a sneering put-down. As a child, he said, he had "gained a much clearer insight into Greek ideas through Kingsley's 'Heroes' than through my desperate struggles with short snippets of the Odyssey."[349] Kingsley's book had been written for very young children (originally, in fact, for his own), and was couched in the patronising talk-down tone that made the author of The Water Babies so deeply irritating. The suggestion that youngsters might learn more about ancient Greece from Kingsley's kiddywink language than from Homer was certainly not calculated to win friends among the Classicists.[350]

It might have been expected that Benson's retirement from Eton would have distanced him from curriculum politics. However, by settling in Cambridge, he found himself involved with the question of compulsory Greek from the other end. Nobody was satisfied, he claimed, with the "miserable standard demanded in Greek" required for formal admission to the University. Benson told the story of a student with a photographic memory who treated the set text as a gigantic pictogram, at the same time memorising a crib. Fortunately, he was able to identify trigger symbols on the examination paper, and roll out a translation. He derided the whole notion that Greek required compulsion to survive: "if the existing Classical Tripos, an array of Fellowships and scholarships, and a long list of University prizes cannot even attract the intellectual pick of the public schools to continue their Greek, why then the foundation on which that study stands must be artificial and insecure indeed!"[351]

Benson was an outspoken controversialist, adept at welcoming setbacks as steps towards ultimate victory. Both at Cambridge and at Oxford, the constitution of the University was an obstacle, since major decisions were put to a vote of all Masters of Arts. Resident members – working dons – might favour reform, but were liable to be swamped by the votes of country clergy, emerging from their rectories to have a day out and defend the integrity of their own education. It was a complication that many Cambridge men, especially those who had taken the despised Pass degree, had taken Orders, and bishops required ordinands to be able to read the New Testament in Greek. There were some inconsistencies here. As a lingua franca, New Testament Greek was a simplified version, so that study of the classical form did not necessarily provide an efficient gateway to the language of the Gospels.  In any case, the subject could have been offered as a specialist option for those treading the clerical path. There was also a certain paradox in making it compulsory to study legends of pagan gods as a step to comprehending the origins of Christian belief. Moreover, as Benson himself pointed out, nobody insisted on a knowledge of Hebrew for the study of the Old Testament.[352]

When the reactionary party won a "crushing victory" over the progressives in 1906, Benson immediately challenged "the most unbalanced and  uncompromising defender of the principle of compulsory Greek"  to accept that with triumph came responsibility. Defenders of the language now had a responsibility to raise the standard of its teaching. "If Greek is destined to accompany the educational pilgrim ... cannot it be made a lantern for his feet, rather than a burden to his back?"[353] A similar defeat at Oxford in 1910, he dismissed as "waste of time", merely delaying the inevitable. "Where could it happen except in an academical assembly that four out of five of the reported speeches on an important question should be in favour of reform, and that the proposal should afterwards be rejected?" Menacingly, he claimed to welcome diehard resistance. "I had rather on the whole that those who wish to retain compulsory Greek would continue to resist rational reform. A compromise now would weaken the hands of those who like myself desire frankly to modernise the curriculum. ... if only the resistance is unflinchingly continued, we shall eventually be able to destroy the vicious system once and for all, instead of accepting a compromise which would probably combine the weakest features of the old and the new, and allow the two opposing principles simply to nullify each other."[354] In 1913, he announced that "the battle is practically won and the classicalists are surrendering in all directions." It was clear that the "abject farce of compulsory Greek", indeed the entire "classical tyranny" would soon collapse. He joined with three like-minded colleagues in petitioning the Council of the Senate to initiate a thorough-going review of the entire Cambridge examination system – predicated on the assumption that Greek was on the point of collapse.[355]

Benson also continued to attack the role of Greek in the public schools. One argument that annoyed him was the claim that the abandonment of Greek by the Universities as an entry requirement would make it impossible for smaller schools to justify the expense of teaching the subject to the handful of boys likely to become proficient in the language. "Compulsory Greek is to be retained, not in the direct intellectual interest of the boys who have to learn it, but in order that at smaller secondary schools there may be enough boys compelled to learn it to justify the headmaster in engaging a man whose real function is to teach Greek to the two or three boys who may ultimately do well in it." He interpreted this to mean that "the parents of the boys in general are to be taxed to pay a master needed by the few Greek specialists, instead of paying for the instruction which their own boys really need." His comment was crushing: this was "a very practical system of protection, but it cannot be described as a very honest one."[356]

This sharp and uncharitable caricature of the arguments of his opponents was followed a few weeks later by a caustic attack upon Edward Lyttelton, a remarkable lapse in courtesy towards a former – indeed, still, officially, a current – friend, and showing marked disrespect for the headmaster of England's most famous public school. Moreover, it is doubtful whether Lyttelton merited the lash that Benson so jauntily applied. In a letter to The Times, Lyttelton had substantially accepted criticisms of the intrusive role of Greek in the school curriculum, recognising the problem of "pupils addled with more languages than they can learn". He identified two key issues: how to lighten the burden of a congested timetable upon less talented boys, and what kind of "literary attainments" were to be expected of specialists in science and mathematics? He ended by declaring that these matters were "ripe" for discussion.[357] In the circumstances, Lyttelton's letter was a considerable concession to the Benson point of view. It was the prerogative of the headmaster of Eton to speak in cloudy generalities. No institution, however eminent, could move forward on its own, without a consensus among the leading public schools and the acquiescence of the Universities. The questions posed were enough to indicate Lyttelton's preferred solutions, while the pejorative term "addled" would certainly not have emerged from the pen of Edmond Warre. Yet, within twenty four hours, Benson had fired off a sarcastic reply, a response that verged upon personal abuse.

Benson characterised Lyttelton's contribution as a "cautious and cheerful" defence of compulsory Greek, suggesting that he had failed to decode its message. He then denounced it as "a typical instance of the way in which practical reforms are blocked by well-meaning educationists. The method is to involve a network of theory, to indicate all possible and impossible contingencies, and to say that the time is ripe for facing the questions involved." He accused Lyttelton of writing "in a pleasant, disengaged fashion, as though he had no particular concern with the question of education, but viewed it with sympathetic interest for the sake of old associations." Benson demanded action, not discussion: making boys study Latin, Greek and French simply meant that "at the end of their time they know neither Latin, Greek, nor French. What common sense dictates is that the hours now given to Greek should, if possible, be given to French." Lyttelton's apparent inability to grapple with the issue reminded Benson "of the old Scotch minister who, when confronted in the course of his exposition by a rather tough text, said, 'Let us face the difficulty bravely, my brethren, and pass on.'"[358]

Benson would have been better advised to use the confidential pages of his diary as an outlet for his sardonic abuse. His public outburst probably did him no favours. It was an era when the headmaster of Eton was a personage of some majesty, certainly not one to be assailed so contemptuously from within his own cohort. (Did Benson not envisage Eton boys grinning at the debunking of their head?) It was unlikely that many readers of The Times would have been aware of the intricacies of curriculum politics in the appointment to the headmastership in 1905, but many hundreds would have known that Lyttelton had got the job, and Benson had not. However strong his anger at the lingering tenacity of Greek, Benson had surely made a tactical error in publicly attacking his former colleague. In any case, the assault was not misguided, but downright unfair. It would have been preferable to have welcomed Lyttelton as an ally, and turned his fire on the obstacles that prevented such an enlightened educationalist from moving forward faster. But his attack on Lyttelton was part of a wider campaign of invective that had called the teaching of Greek "preposterous" and "farcical", that had dismissed his opponents as "wiseacres" and "unbalanced", that had censured not merely their intelligence but even their honesty. Benson had made himself a controversial figure, sharp of tongue and short of charity. The paradox was that the ruthless commentator on matters educational emerged during precisely the same years as the winsome popular writer who defensively watched the world from the sidelines, seeking to avoid conflict through gaseous quantities of herbivorous goodwill.

From a Stodger's Window[359]

The A.C. Benson of 1900, who had served on the committee to recommend the first winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, was definitely not the A.C. Benson of the years after 1906, the popular writer idolised by a mass audience, whose output was largely ignored and often despised by the people around him. In fact, he enjoyed a relatively brief vogue. Looking back a decade later, he reflected that his four best-selling books were issued anonymously. In fact his authorship had been quickly confirmed. Perhaps more to the point was that they appeared in a narrow band of years, immediately around his election at Magdalene. As he noted, "none of my subsequent books have been as popular".[360]

The 1905 Upton Letters were well received, but the turning point in Benson's fortunes as a writer was the massive instant success of From a College Window. A collection of essays, some of which had already appeared anonymously in the Cornhill Magazine, the book was published on 3 May 1906 – its first impression already sold out through advance orders.[361] "Hardly since In Memoriam was published has any Englishman, in a book not avowedly religious, written so intimately of his own soul face to face with the mysteries which surround us all," wrote a reviewer in the Morning Post.[362]

There was something contrived about the title of From a College Window. It began with "a sedate confession. 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."[363] The implication was that the reader was about to share in the distilled wisdom of a career spent observing the universe through the mullioned and ivied casements of an ancient college. In fact, Benson had only moved in to the Left Cloister of Magdalene's Pepys Building in February 1905, shortly before the Cornhill series began.[364] In 1917, he would reflect that the book had wrongly branded him as "an extremely secluded and leisurely person, turning from ancient folios to contemplate the sunset, without anything particular to do except to rejoice in gentle sentiments." In reality, From a College Window was "a little romance, born of a period when I exchanged the busy life of a school-master for the quiet of college rooms. Other work soon flowed in speedily, and I became a much-occupied man ... on the whole I enjoy such a life more than the contemplative life."[365]

Nor did Benson continue to view life through that particular college window for very long. On the death of Magdalene's veteran professor, Alfred Newton, in 1907, he was offered the Old Lodge, apartments large enough to be turned into a house-within-a-precinct.[366] From his ground-floor windows in the Pepys Building, Benson could "see the gables and chimneys of the clustered houses standing in a quiet dream over the old ivy-covered wall"[367] – the broken roof line of the houses on Quayside, across the Cam. In 1883, the Reverend Mynors Bright had bequeathed the College £5,000 towards the construction of a new building.[368] Since, by the early twentieth century, Magdalene could not manage to recruit enough students even to fill its existing premises, the money had remained on deposit. However, in 1908-9, Bright's Building took shape, and Benson almost certainly decided to relocate rather than have his precious tranquillity invaded by an adjoining building site. Stephen Gaselee, who took over the Left Cloister rooms, had to cope with "a constant stream of visitors, especially from America in the summer months," seeking "the exact window" through which Benson had observed the world.[369] It seems that this may have been the architectural equivalent of that great symbol of medieval veneration, fragments of the True Cross. Nonetheless, there can be no doubt of the book's massive popularity. In Britain, the book was in its sixteenth printing by 1914, while a cheap edition had achieved nineteen impressions.[370] More generally, he was recognised as a writer who gave voice to the taciturn and confused. "No one has ever to the same extent combined academic culture with popular thinking," the Westminster Gazette pronounced in 1913. "Sitting in his room at Magdalene College, Cambridge, he is able to divine with an almost unerring instinct what ordinary people would like to think about themselves and the world and poetry and the universe, if they only knew how. Mr. Benson teaches them how".[371]

Benson was especially popular in the United States, where one reviewer called his 1907 book Beside Still Waters "the ripest, thoughtfullest, best piece of work its author has yet produced." His enterprising American publisher produced boxed sets of Benson's most popular offerings, and these seem to have sold well as gifts. "Pleased to make your acquaintance, Mr Benson," remarked Theodore Roosevelt on his 1910 visit to Cambridge; "we know about you on the other side of the water."[372] Indeed, he was a major literary figure throughout the English-speaking world. When, in 1913, the Reverend H.J. Lewis proposed to deliver a public lecture on "A Prose Poet of the Twentieth Century: A. C. Benson", the Library Committee of the small New Zealand town of New Plymouth took the "sourly pessimistic view" that the likely audience might be packed into the tiny Council Chamber. In the event, although the entire Town Hall was scoured for extra chairs, many people had to stand. A great enthusiast, Lewis went perhaps further than most of admirers, declaring that "Arthur Christopher Benson is the great connecting link between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries". He praised Benson's writings for "their bright, sunny optimism, their radiant sparkling cheerfulness. Benson is never morbid, never gloomy. There is not a savage sentence nor a surly line in all his pages." He also admired "their sober sanity. Though always cheerful, he is never frivolous. ... His optimism is the optimism of a cool, calm, thoughtful man who has deliberately come to the conclusion that the bright side of life is the only true view of it for a rational man to take." (Lewis would no doubt have been surprised to learn of his hero's battle with depression, and surprised to read his more venomous dismissals of the case for compulsory Greek .) "The crowning charm of Benson's essays is the lofty spiritualism which runs through them all. There is not a grain of cant in his writings. There is nothing of the prig about him. He never preaches. ... he is in the highest sense of the term a true prophet." A noble tribute, but it was unfortunate that Lewis believed Benson was product of Oxford.[373]

The instant success of Benson's most celebrated book may be seen in Punch's skit, "From A Stodger's Window", in the 30 May 1906 issue, within a month of publication – and sufficiently recognisable without Benson's name either mentioned or hinted at.[374] Edward Lyttelton, against whom Benson had taken a side-swipe in his College Window essay on ambition, particularly enjoyed Punch's rambling evocation of its style, taking wicked pleasure in recalling (with some slight telescoping) the sentence: "I often think how much the postman does for us and how little we do for the postman."[375] Even so, for all its embarrassing idiosyncrasies, From a College Window contained a number of cogent and interesting essays. Benson's frenetic output during the years, even the months, that followed, could not possibly maintain that standard, nor did it. For many, his shallow hyperactivity made him a joke. Benson himself was amused when Punch attributed to him the Apocrypha and the plays of Shakespeare, and announced that he was working on a book called At a Safe Distance. "I find myself giggling over it – but one must take care not to be too much in evidence."[376] There was not much else he could do, as he discovered in 1907 when he objected to a reviewer who claimed that he wrote essays "with a yard measure". Benson objected that the comment would be "gross and unpardonable discourtesy" if uttered face to face, but a correspondent of the New York Times thought it "very silly" of him to attempt "to impose tea-table etiquette on book reviewing".[377]

Benson made himself an easy target. A rising force in the clerical universe was the prolix and self-regarding Canon Hensley Henson. It was too tempting for Punch not to invent the parallel Canon Arthur Bensley Benson, of (and this sally was predictable) "Maudlin College Cambridge".[378] A particularly sharp satire appeared in September 1908, a lampoon in which assorted public figures gathered to protest against acts of alleged cruelty by vegetarians. Benson announced that two of his forthcoming eleven books would be dedicated to the campaign, The Private Diary of a Parsnip and The Musings of an Introspective Vegetable Marrow.[379] Lyttelton took savage delight in that too; Benson, recovering from clinical depression, may not have found it so amusing. Benson's fluency continued to invite criticism. The "Arthur Benson" was a recommended rose in a Punch gardening column of 1909: "Very prolific, flowers freely produced throughout the season; good in the bud, but flat when opened."[380] "My wants are simple," Punch imagined him saying in 1910. "Four typewriters and four amenuenses, so that by working them in shifts of two hours each I can dictate for eight hours a day; congenial surroundings, an outlook on smooth-shaven lawns and immemorial elms – and I am content."[381] For good or ill, Benson and Magdalene were irretrievably linked. In 1913, in one of the most recurrent themes of British public debate, there were calls for closer links between the universities and the world of business and industry. Punch's suggestions included a business card for "A.C. Benson, Magdalene College Cambridge" and his "College-Window Cleaning Company". When the outbreak of the First World War threatened to cut off the supply of new books to its literary page, Punch invented an author called Principal Toshley Potts, whose book of essays, The Hill of Havering, had led him to be hailed as "the Scots A.C. Benson."[382]

If Benson was something of a figure of fun among the sophisticated middle classes, he was a hate figure in the world of avant-garde literature. He was shaken by a review in 1913 that damned him for being "complacent, condescending, superfluous, otiose", but he was capable of characterising a typical day of his scribbled output as "the usual twaddle – you know my style!".[383] Some hostile commentators were merely contemptuous. J.C. Squire recalled a reviewer who wrote: "Mr Benson dived into two feet of water and returns to the surface branding a common pebble."[384] Others were angry at the way he seemed to infest and contaminate the official literary world, "a terrible and solid phalanx of A.C. Bensonism," as Ezra Pound's fiancée Catherine Shakespear put it in 1913.[385] Arnold Bennett unleashed a savage attack on a reissue of a "Benson book" (as they were sometimes called) in 1910. It was bad enough that "heaven has been pleased to deprive him of any glimmer of humour, and that he is the victim of a style which, under an appearance of neatness and efficiency and honesty, is really disorderly, loose, inefficient, and traitorous." Worse still was the author's knowing confidence that God would one day allow him to write a truly beautiful book. "Personally (conceited though I am), I never put myself to the trouble of formulating hopes concerning the Infinite Purpose, but if I did I should hope that He just won't." To Bennett, some of Benson's writing was "merely absurd. Some of it is pretentious, some of it inept. All of it is utterly banal. All of it has the astounding calm assurance of mediocrity." Yet most galling of all was its popularity. "It is a solemn thought that tens of thousands of well-dressed mortals alive and idle to-day consider themselves to have been uplifted by the perusal of this work." Max Beerbohm made the point in a more kindly spirit, in a 1908 caricature showing Benson aggressively wooing an overweight and mature lady. The caption read: "Mr Arthur Christopher Benson vowing eternal fidelity to the Obvious."[386]

Benson's popularity was equally incomprehensible to his friends. Monty James roguishly praised his role as "the consoler of a number of people who did not well know what was troubling them". His obituary in The Times (possibly influenced by James) suggested that the fact that Benson had "no very profound philosophy" probably made his writings "all the more acceptable to the average person, who is soothed and uplifted by a tranquil optimism." Unfortunately, James noted, "the method by which the healing was conveyed was ... very susceptible of ridicule". People "who had once found something to laugh at in the books often ceased to be able to find anything else." The Times politely regretted the "rather cloying sweetness" of his prose: what on earth made him write: "I have made friends with a new flower"?[387] Edward Lyttelton asserted that none of his myriad votaries could possibly state "what they had learnt from his pages which they did not know before."  Punch put the point more charitably, stating that "the intellectual masses ... like reading in beautiful language (and print) actually the very things that they have always thought for themselves." To Lyttelton, his erstwhile friend's skill lay in that fact "that he wrote charmingly, and in a very kindly spirit, but had nothing particular to say. ... His books are bought and read for the same reason as young people go to the cinema."[388]

Privately, Benson himself was capable of agreeing. "The sorrows of the world!," he confided to his diary in 1910. "All I do to help is to write timid and chatty articles for maiden aunts." He described his followers as "the people who read my books and love them – who think them original and high-minded and sincere and beautiful – who like the donnish and the aristocratic flavour, the flavour picked up in Episcopal palaces and county society and Eton and Cambridge – and believe they have really found the charm of culture." He found it "humiliating" to cater for a public that was literate but not profoundly educated. "I don't think it is a critical or an intellectual audience; but it is there, and its real and urgent goodwill is there."[389]  Among undergraduates, his literary reputation was mixed, and possibly tended to decline in response to overproduction. James Beaumont-James, a freshman in 1906, "vividly" recalled his first glimpse of Benson, heading across First Court towards the Porters' Lodge: he had read the College Window instalments in the Cornhill Magazine, "and was ready therefore to accord him some measure of youthful hero-worship". But in an autobiographical novel, one of Robert Keable's fellow students dismisses the outpourings of "Tressor", the Benson figure. "Of course he can write rattlin' English, and it all flows placidly enough, but there's nothing much in it. It's extraordinary what the public will read."[390]  But the royalties that he reaped were also extraordinary, and enabled him to lavish much-needed cash upon Magdalene buildings and Magdalene students.

In 1910, Benson despairingly wrote off his readership as "the wrong people ... the maiden aunts, and the silly middle-aged men, and the foolish maidens."[391] But his postbag brought him into contact with one admirer who did not fall into any of these categories. Far from imposing demands upon him, Eugenie de Nottbeck made an astonishing proposition. Lubbock outlined the story, in fairy tale mode, as it unfolded for Benson in 1915. "For some time past he had been in constant correspondence with an American lady, personally unknown to him – a reader of his books, living abroad – with whom a friendship had grown and prospered, always by letter.... This lady now put to him a request; it was that he should accept from her the gift of a considerable fortune – it was no less – to be used by him in any manner and for any purpose that he preferred." Benson was touched by the gesture, but felt that he could only decline the offer. "He did refuse it; but it was repeated, and again repeated, not with generosity only, but with such considerate grace that at length the gift passed from the one to the other as simply as a birthday present between old friends."[392] It was more than a mere birthday gift: in July 1915, he accepted £4,000, a ten percent instalment of a promised endowment of $200,000.[393]

Eugenie de Nottbeck's  mother was a grand-daughter of the American millionaire John Jacob Astor. She had married a Russian diplomat, variously called John Nottbeck and Johann Von Nottbeck. The family were Baltic Germans, businessmen in Tsarist Finland who acquired the status of nobility in 1855. She married a Von Nottbeck cousin, and settled with him in Geneva. Presumably because they lived in a French-speaking part of Switzerland, the family had switched to "de Nottbeck" well before the First World War. Eugenie may already have known something about the environment in which Benson worked: a cousin, Charles Astor Bristed, had published in 1852 a sympathetic account of his studies at Cambridge, Five Years at an English University. Her correspondence with Benson has not survived, but a family tragedy may offer a clue. Not only was Eugenie's mother mentally impaired during the final years of her life, but, at her death in 1906, two of her four children were ruled incapable of inheriting by the New York State courts. At the age of 55, her sister Gabrielle could only play with toys, while her brother Peter had lost the power of speech. Medical evidence spoke of "dementia", but whether in the same clinical sense that the term is used today cannot be established. The outcome was that their inheritance passed to Eugenie and another sister, who lived in Vermont. The amount was two million dollars.[394] We may guess that it was Benson's frank account of his first nervous breakdown, in his 1912 book Thy Rod and Thy Staff, which drew her to his writing. Perhaps he helped her understand the darkness that had engulfed her siblings; maybe, too, she feared that she had inherited her mother's disability. Benson's natural hesitation in accepting her gift would no doubt have been reinforced had he known – as he could probably have found out – that there was a family history of insanity, as mental impairment was baldly termed in those days. But in pressing her case, Eugenie could well have argued that the money she had acquired through the court decision was a bonus that could be rightly devoted to good causes.

Benson never met his benefactor. He had abandoned continental holidays by the time they fell into correspondence: in any case, between 1914 and 1923, War and his own second mental breakdown ruled out foreign travel. It is perhaps more puzzling that Eugenie de Nottbeck was apparently never invited to see Magdalene for herself, but perhaps their relationship was one best conducted, to plagiarise Punch, at a safe distance.

More intriguing is the virtual eclipse of this generous benefactor within the now happily supplanted but long-enduring masculine culture of Magdalene. If mentioned at all in College sources, she has been formally referred to as "Madame de Nottbeck", with no attempt to give the dignity of a precise identity, and no enquiry about her motivation.[395] For most of the twentieth century, senior Fellows of Magdalene – even those who were married – functioned within a masculinist cocoon, which relegated women to such marginal roles as wives, mothers and bedmakers. When Magdalene eventually, in 1987, became the last of the traditional colleges to admit female students, the Master explained, with insouciant chauvinism: "we were cutting ourselves off not only from the chance of admitting any women, but also many excellent young men."[396] Benson had named Eugenie de Nottbeck in his Will,[397] but she was metaphorically frozen at arm's length even in nomenclature. By denying "Madame de Nottbeck" a specific identity, Magdalene's male culture ensured that there could be no exploration of her intentions. The process became circular: once it was tacitly determined that Eugenie de Nottbeck possessed only a marginal existence, there was of course no reason for curiosity about her intentions. (Francis Turner came closest to speculating about the relationship, with the negative comment that there was "nothing in the nature of an imaginary love-affair between them".)[398] Having already spent much of her largesse on the College, Benson bequeathed three-quarters of the outstanding balance of her gift to Magdalene, the remaining quarter going to the Royal Society of Literature. Mynors Bright, who left the College £5,000, has a building named in his honour. Eugenie de Nottbeck, who gave perhaps six times that amount, is all-but forgotten.[399]

"I have been for a moment nearer God.... He would make all plain, if He could"[400]

Contemporaries who dismissed Benson's philosophy as lacking content were perhaps focusing on the style rather than the messages. Goldhill has recently noted that it is "odd" that those who have written about him have failed to see "religion as an integral element in his life".[401] Reading the diary for a single year, 1904-5, Hyam was struck by the "theological radicalism of his reflections about religion."[402] Benson was anticlerical, although – as might be expected from the son of an Archbishop – he emphasised this aspect of his thinking mainly in his private diary. He was heterodox in his opinions, even downright heretical in his doubts about fundamental tenets of Christianity. Potentially, his views were very controversial. Perhaps the scandal that they might have caused was masked by the fact that his intellectual and professional peers virtually gave up reading his popular writings altogether. However, his opinions hardly made him an obvious Master for Magdalene, which was still a very orthodox institution in the early twentieth century.

In his dealings with clergy, as with so many aspects of his life, Benson was complex and paradoxical. He enjoyed their company. An evening party of High Church parsons in 1910 stirred in him "the old ecclesiastical feeling – it reminded me of Truro – the mild and godly mirth, the general submissiveness of tone. I know exactly what to do and say." But he was irritated by a speaker who addressed the gathering about missionary work. "The two things he said were important were: (1) to conciliate the natives; (2) to hold one's own against other denominations. That was a Christian programme." That same year, he was outraged by "a dreadful performance" from the pulpit in Norwich Cathedral. Taking as his text "Compel them to come in", the preacher seemed to wish that "religious persecution ... could be restored as a guiding force....  His argument was that the heathen were wrong to persecute Christians, because the Christians were right and the heathen were wrong; but the Christians, being right, would do well to persecute the heathen, though he deprecated excessive torture."[403] Present at a doctrinal argument between two future bishops, Lang and Winnington-Ingram, he objected vehemently to the way they spoke "as if they were the possessors of the mind of God."[404] Yet, in his writings, Benson frequently and confidently expounded the thoughts of the Almighty, and it is striking just how often the Almighty echoed the bluff good sense of his earthly interpreter.

Hence, before reviewing Benson's interpretations of Christianity, it is important to ask how and why he felt himself entitled to hold forth, prophet-like, on the subject. In 1923, a holiday in Cornwall gave Benson the chance to revisit Truro, forty years after his family had departed for Lambeth. At the bishop's palace, he encountered a gardener who had been a boy on the outdoor staff in EWB's time. The man addressed him as "Your Lordship", evidently believing that Benson had inherited his father's status. Did Benson subconsciously make the same assumption? (To have confronted such a claim, let alone articulate it, would have been enough to expose its absurdity.) When he rented a house in the Fens in 1906, the local rector invited him to read lessons and preach sermons. Benson accepted, only to receive a questionnaire about his opinions from the Bishop of Ely. He angrily refused to submit to "mild and meek ecclesiastic tyrannising", although it is difficult to see why the bishop lacked the right, or indeed the responsibility, to vet the front-line personnel of his diocese.[405] In his student days, it had been generally assumed that he would become a clergyman himself, and the possibility was mooted by Warre as late as 1901. "I cannot take orders, of course," was Benson's response.[406] Yet his essay on "Priests" in From a College Window, seemed to foreshadow an intention to adopt the role himself. He began by declaring that the outstanding priests he had known were not all eminent ecclesiastics: indeed, he had encountered "famous ecclesiastics" who were "vigorous, wise, energetic statesmanlike men" who were not priestly at all. (Perhaps he had Randall Davidson in mind.) Episcopal laying-on of hands did not necessarily confer priesthood: indeed, "a man may also take such a consecration for himself". "The true priest must not obscure the oracles of God; he must beware of teaching that faith is an intricate intellectual process." There spoke the exasperated King's graduate student who had struggled with theology through the Michaelmas term of 1884. But was the Crawford Prize for Divinity sufficient qualification to address tens of thousands of spiritually hungry people on the fundamentals of faith? Benson seemed to assume that it was. The ideal priest, he said, "must pare religion to the bone, and show that the essence of it is a perfectly simple relation with God and neighbour." He must ignore ceremony, "fight against precedent and tradition and custom" and "realise that one point of union is more important than a hundred points of difference." (A vigorous assault on the Pope in a later essay suggests that this last sentiment was not especially ecumenical.)[407]

Benson had already declared his entitlement to speak for the Almighty in a book of essays published first in November 1905, although it would be several years before The Thread of Gold came under the withering scorn of Arnold Bennett. "It may be a vain hope that I nourish, but I think that God has put it into my heart to write this book, and I hope that he will allow me to persevere."[408] He certainly did persevere, ending the volume with a distinctly consumerist attitude to ceremonial and spiritual support. He called upon the Church (presumably implying all denominations) to "concentrate her forces" on the "inner fortress" of the personality of Christ, "and quit the debatable ground of historical enquiry." This led him to a declaration of faith that suggested that if Benson was a member of the flock, organised religion might usefully have welcomed an epidemic of atheism: "neither scientific critics nor irrational pedants shall invalidate my claim to be of the number of believing Christians.... I can neither affirm nor deny the literal accuracy of Scripture records." He admitted that he was "not in a position to deny the superstructure of definite dogma raised by the tradition of the Church about the central truths of its teaching", but neither could he "deny the possibility of an admixture of human error in the fabric." He claimed a "right to receive the Sacraments of my Church", since "they invigorate the soul ... and constitute a bond of Christian unity", a statement that made Holy Communion sound like a dose of patent medicine. But he declined to accord unquestioned acceptance to "any human pronouncement whatever", whether from scientists or from theologians. "There is indeed no fact in the world except the fact of my own existence of which I am absolutely certain. And thus I can accept no system of religion which is based upon deductions, however subtle, from isolated texts, because I cannot be sure of the infallibility of any form of human expression."[409]

He reiterated his themes in the culminating chapter of From a College Window, an essay on "Religion". To the questing believer, he offered simple reassurance. "He need not trouble himself about traditional ordinances, elaborate ceremonials, subtle doctrines, metaphysical definitions."[410] This was to return Christianity to its founder's intentions: "if ever there was a Divine attempt made in the world to shake religion free of its wrappings, it was the preaching of Christ.... Christ aimed at bringing religion within the reach of the humblest and simplest souls. ... The astonishing part of the revelation was that it was so absolutely simple .... The simplest child, the most abandoned sinner, could take the great gift as easily as the most honoured statesman, the wisest sage". Indeed, the innocent and uncomplicated had a distinct advantage over the powerful and prosperous, "for it was the very complexity of affairs, of motives, of wealth, that entangled the soul and prevented it from realizing its freedom." Vested interests, Benson implied, could not permit the free circulation of such a simple message of personal empowerment. "Metaphysicians scrutinized the humble and sweet mystery, overlaid it with definitions, harmonized it with ancient systems, dogmatized it, made it hard, and subtle, and uninspiring."[411] In The Thread of Gold he had conceded that the dogmas of theology might or might not be true. These reservations were now swept aside: theology simply did not matter. A year later, he was to complain that critics alleged that "I want to minimise and melt down the old stern beliefs and principles of morality into a kind of nebulous emotion"[412] – much the charge that the reactionary Classicists made against his proposed classroom reforms. It is hard not to feel that his detractors had a point.

"I am a faithful member of the fold, up to a certain point," he had written in 1901.[413] That "certain point" did not take him very deep into the fundamental tenets of his faith. In 1906, he amused himself during a dull church service by reading the Thirty Nine Articles, the basic statement of Anglican beliefs. He found he could assent to just five of them, although four of those with reservations.[414] In 1912, he confided to his diary: "I think I am an almost pure agnostic, though I believe in Christian principles".[415] But while Christian belief may manifest itself in positive rules of conduct, the distinguishing feature of the religion is a series of dogmas. Benson was remarkably cavalier about almost all of them, although his dumping of basic tenets is scattered throughout his writings, a distribution that tends to disguise his overall deviation from orthodoxy.

Benson stated his credo in The Thread of Gold. "I claim a Christian liberty of thought, while I acknowledge, with bowed head, my belief in God the Father of men, in a Divine Christ, the Redeemer and Saviour, and in the presence in the hearts of men of a Divine spirit, leading humanity tenderly forward."[416] This very general statement only alluded obliquely to the central Christian beliefs, that Jesus died on the Cross to atone for the sins of mankind, and that on the third day he rose from the dead. Benson disliked the doctrine of the Atonement. "Sacrifice is, I believe, a merely savage idea," he wrote in his diary in 1904. "Propitiation of a more or less hostile power."[417] He could not square the thought of a loving God with the "dark profanity" of the idea of a deity so angry with humanity that the gruesome death of Jesus was required to pacify his ire. In his 1910 book, The Silent Isle, he rejected the belief that "God should come himself on earth to die, in order that he might thereafter regard the human race more mercifully". Such a belief "seems to me, if it were true, to be a helpless piece of metaphysical jugglery. If that were true of God, there is nothing that I could not believe of him."[418]

Benson's writings on religion are also notable for the near-total absence of any mention of the Crucifixion and the events that Christians believed followed it. A rare exception was a tortuous comment he offered on "the mysterious incidents of the Resurrection" in The Thread of Gold, in which he would say only "that it is plain from the documents, if they are accepted as a record at all, from the astonishing change which seems to have passed over the Apostles, converting their timid faithfulness into a tranquil boldness, that they, at all events, believed that some incredibly momentous thing had happened, and that their Master was among them again, returning through the gates of Death."[419] This stand-offish formula fell notably short of a proclamation that Jesus Christ had risen from the dead, taking neutral refuge instead in the remarkable fact that his Apostles believed that he had returned to them. Privately, Benson "wondered about the Resurrection....there is simply no historical evidence as to what did happen."[420]

Indeed, for much of his adult life, he doubted the whole concept of an afterlife. In 1906, he wrote in his diary of his growing belief that "no personal identity survives the grave (yet I cannot bear to give up the hope)".[421] In his 1911 book, The Leaves of the Tree, he admitted that for many years he had assumed that "death was the end of soul and body alike". It had been his own experience of his own mental breakdown, "intense and prolonged suffering of a most grievous kind", that had changed his opinions. This "stern emptying of the soul" had persuaded him that "the soul is a very ancient and tenacious and long-lived thing; that its past is not bounded by birth or its future by death".[422] Indeed, Benson likened his recovery from mental illness to "a resurrection from the dead", one of the few occasions in which he used the term.[423] Yet to have written so confidently about Christian belief at a phase of his life when he had doubted the idea of an afterlife does seem remarkable. 

Yet, even here, the swing back to orthodoxy contained the germ of theological waywardness. Christian belief holds that each human soul is immortal, but generally assumes that it has a finite beginning at the moment of conception: religious concerns about abortion hinge on this point. Benson's discovery that the soul was "not bounded by birth" opened the way to speculation about reincarnation, which he explored in his 1912 fantasy, The Child of the Dawn. It is a deeply embarrassing book. The basic theme, the wanderings of a soul through an indeterminate afterlife, had some affinities with Newman's Dream of Gerontius, which Elgar had set to music in 1900. But the grandeur of Newman's verse owed much to its foundation in a recognised theology. By contrast, the post-death experiences of the Benson-like hero contain much that is merely silly. He forms an entirely pure relationship with a female spirit called Cynthia – another manifestation, it would seem, of Benson's frightened fascination with marriage around 1912 – and they even have a child. It arrives, in fact, in the back garden, as if delivered by a stork. "Where on earth has this enchanting baby sprung from?" asks Cynthia (the words "on earth" were obviously redundant here), as she develops instant qualities of maternal love, while the wraith of Benson jocularly threatens to make the infant study Latin grammar. Benson himself is ushered through paradise – which reassuringly resembles Wiltshire – by a spirit guide called Amroth, who owed his name to a place in Wales that had caught Benson's fancy. Amroth's job involved a great deal of shuttling between Earth and Heaven: his favourite terrestrial location was Tooting. (This bizarre touch can only have been a nod to Benson's suburban readership.) Benson's soul is not so fortunate as to be reincarnated in south London. He eventually finds himself drawn to a house beside a muddy river estuary, close to a town fortified by earthworks, "and a gate, with a curious roof to it, running out at each end into horns carved with wood." Groans from the house lead him to a woman in bed, "very pale, the eyes closed, and the lips open, her hands drawn up over her head as in an agony of pain." At this point, the spirit of Benson merges into childbirth, and the tale comes to a merciful end.[424]

It is difficult to be sure how serious Benson was in endorsing this fantastical narrative of reincarnation. "For the purposes of literature Mr. A. C. Benson has feigned to accept it," wrote a reviewer in The Spectator.[425] But it may be that he was more serious than he wished his readers to believe. In 1916, he contributed a brief note to a collection of essays on life after death with the bald statement: "I can conceive of no process by which life or matter can either be originated or brought to an end."[426] Benson's disappointment at the initial failure of The Child of the Dawn to attract much attention – for which he ought to have been grateful – suggests that he took the book seriously. "I had great hopes of it, and even anticipated a row; but it's going to be a fiasco," he noted in his diary.[427] In his preface, he attempted to reserve his position, but explained – as with the more general revival of his belief in an afterlife – that his concentration upon the soul was a product of the "dark cloud of dejection" that had enveloped him for two years. (In 1904, before his breakdown, he had rejected as "so horribly undignified" the thought of having "to begin again with all the wretched incidents of infancy, the dependence, the birth of sin, the facing of the world.") He also suggested that the idea of the transmigration of the soul offered "a possible solution for the extreme difficulties which beset the apparently fortuitous brevity of some human lives", probably an allusion to the accidental death in 1909 of "his best and dearest friend" Herbert Tatham, to whom the book was dedicated "in love and hope".[428] Reincarnation is certainly integral to the great religions of south Asia, although they allow for the possibility that the soul may reach perfection and fuse with the infinite, and none of them accords sacred status to Tooting. However, some people were captivated by his story. One of Benson's American admirers reported that she had called her daughter Cynthia after his heroine.[429]

Benson's fascination with reincarnation was incompatible with another element of Christian belief, the threat of eternal punishment. "A God who could design such a scheme must be essentially evil and malignant," he pronounced in 1914. "Hell is a monstrous and insupportable fiction, and the idea of it is simply inconsistent with any belief in the goodness of God." The Bible might be quoted to prove "that punishment could be so demoniacal and so infinite" but "we must not allow any text ... however sacred, to shatter our belief in the Love and Justice of God. And I say as frankly and directly as I can that until we can get rid of this intolerable terror, we can make no advance at all."[430] Benson would have come across the opinions of J.W. Colenso, the heretical bishop of Natal who caused headaches for EWB, but he had steered clear of the issue of eternal punishment in his father's biography.

"I have never really had a personal mystic apprehension of God," he admitted in a diary entry on Easter Sunday, 1914. Yet, in the closing passage of From a College Window, he claimed to have come close to the infinite mystery of the universe while taking the night air in Magdalene's Second Court. "I have been for a moment nearer God .... He would make all plain, if He could".[431] This was a curious sentiment. The world's major monotheistic faiths differ widely in their tenets and teaching, but they are united in their assumption that their deity is omnipotent. Benson was aware that modernist theologians were "discussing whether God's laws are self-imposed or imposed from outside". He thought the argument "futile", since if "they are from outside, then the Power that imposes them is what is what I mean by God".[432] As he defined the issue in an essay of 1907, "the essence of God's omnipotence is that both law and matter are His and originate from Him; so that, if a single fibre of what we know to be evil can be found in the world, either God is responsible for that, or He is dealing with something He did not originate and cannot overcome."[433] Benson never did find a solution to the theological Problem of Evil, but arguably nobody else has done so either.

At one point in From a College Window, he seemed on the threshold of a breakthrough in his conceptualisation of God the Father. Theological debate, he complained, was dominated by "anthropomorphic ideas of God": no prophet "has ever conceived of the Supreme Deity as other than masculine ... and yet the conception of God as masculine is in itself a limitation of His infinite perfection." Projecting "our conception of sex into the infinite is perhaps a mere failure of imagination", which, if abandoned, might lead to the conclusion that "the true priesthood of life could be exercised as well by women as by men, or even better".[434] This was radical indeed, but he seems never to have developed the theme, nor did he spell out its practical implications. He was equally doubtful of the divinity of Jesus, although less explicit about this in his published writings. In 1905, he wished he "could be sure that the miraculous elements of the Gospels were false", because then he could form "a far nobler conception of Christ because I could then feel him truly human, instead of only masquerading in human guise."[435]

These shafts of rationality compare curiously with Benson's implied claim that he had once had a vision of Christ. The circumstances, a time when he was overwhelmed with exhaustion and grief, compel sympathy, but his decision to publish the story a decade later casts doubt on his judgement, and makes understandable the desperation of his friends at the character and trajectory of his popular writing. EWB's unexpected death in October 1896 had thrown a heavy burden upon his eldest surviving son, suddenly thrust into the roles of head of the family, his father's executor and most obvious biographer. The Benson family was offered a temporary home at Farnham Castle, the country estate of the bishops of Winchester, and it was there that Benson attended church on Christmas Morning. In a nearby pew, he noticed "a little old woman", wearing "a little old bonnet of unheard-of age" and "dingy, frowsy black clothes" that passed for her Sunday best. A widow resident in the local almshouses, she had lived a hard life, and was alone in the world.  But on this Christmas Day, she was in "a festal mood" for, thanks to the kindness of a neighbour, "she was going to have a bit of meat for dinner". For Benson, burdened by bereavement, the glorious optimism of Hark the Herald Angels was too much to bear, and his emotions gave way. But the elderly woman raised her head and her voice. As he heard her sing, "Join the triumph of the skies!", "a sudden mist of tears" filled Benson's eyes. It was through this film of grief "that I had my vision." Standing behind "the old dame", he saw a "very young and beautiful man", who was "clothed in a dim robe, of an opalescent hue and misty texture, and his hands were clasped together." The young man too was singing the carol, "but his eyes were bent upon the old woman with a look, half of tender amusement, and half of unutterable lovingness." It was striking that "of all the worshippers in that crowded church he had singled out the humblest and simplest for his friend and sister." Benson blinked back his tears, and the young man vanished among "the gleams of the frosty sunshine that came and went among the pillars."[436] He did not name the robed and kindly apparition, leaving his readers to infer that Jesus had appeared to him in Farnham church on Christmas Morning. As a mirage of consolation at a time of family tragedy, the incident is understandable. The decision to publish the story is less so.

It is hardly likely that Benson's more radical ideas were entirely novel. Forty years earlier, for instance, J.R. Seeley had written of Jesus in Ecce Homo as if he were an ordinary, or extraordinary, human being – with Seeley himself regarded by many as remaining ambivalent on the question of Christ's divinity. Benson pushed the approach to its limits, but even so he confined his most devastating iconoclasm to the pages of his diary. Some of his outspoken statements were in effect straws from the wind of wider theological debate – for instance, he was aware of the work of Hastings Rashdall, who had proposed a progressive interpretation of the Atonement in his 1898 collection of sermons, Doctrine and Development.[437] But perhaps the most noteworthy point about Benson's heresies is that they were scattered so widely, even though sparsely, throughout his copious writings. Had he completed the questionnaire sent to him by the Bishop of Ely, a concise picture of a startling and dangerous disturber of doctrine might well have appeared. As it was, his partly-educated audience of those "wrong people" probably accepted the occasional shock as evidence of his erudition and superior wisdom. But his following included clergy of all denominations. Benson himself was amused to learn of a parson who, facing the ordeal of surgery – a dangerous experience in those days – had himself wheeled to the operating theatre clutching a copy of The Thread of Gold. His writings particularly appeared to Nonconformists. Sylvester Horne, a prominent Congregationalist and Liberal MP, told him, "you are a kind of chaplain, you know, to many of us!" Edward Lyttelton heard of a Welsh minister "who charged his congregation with the utmost earnestness not to let a week go by without reading some portions of Benson's essays."[438]

It may be useful to attempt to set Benson as a Protestant guru into the context of three men who influenced his life. The first, of course, is EWB, whose long shadow intrudes at almost every point in the story. The father had wanted his son to take Orders, and Benson's refusal to comply was perhaps his first and most defining act of resistance to this overwhelming parental influence. His brother Hugh had rebelled by joining the Church of Rome, taking the path of religion but as a Catholic priest. Benson hated "the thought of my father's son doing this", adopting as his own form of resistance the more subtle strategy of priesting himself. As a private society, Magdalene could decide for itself whom it invited to preach, and from early in his Fellowship, Benson delivered sermons. His address on Whitsunday 1907 threw him into the depths of insecurity, which he could not explain. "I had a neat typewritten simple sermon ready. I had only to stand up for ten minutes and read it out to a congregation of some twenty people, all of whom I know, and whose opinion I do not really regard." He barely slept the previous night, terrible dreams finally leading to the appearance of his father. EWB "was in his easiest, simplest, most loving mood," telling his son, "It is such an age since I have seen you, dearest boy" – but the idyll was destroyed by the thought of mounting the pulpit the next morning, "and I ran from him in stricken haste".[439] The episode suggests that the man who had so steadfastly refused to seek ordination could still find it hard to adopt one of the public functions of a clergyman, the preaching of the Gospel.

Unlike his brother Hugh, Benson does not seem to have made a parade of repudiating his father's beliefs, but he did notably dissociate himself from one of EWB's cherished political campaigns. EWB had been the first Archbishop of Canterbury to confront the political threat to the Welsh Church, during the fourth Gladstone ministry of 1892-5. In 1911, the question of the disestablishment of the Anglican Church in Wales returned to the political agenda. Benson was relaxed about the issue. In a letter to The Times, he deprecated disendowment of the Welsh Church as a punitive measure of confiscation, but he concluded that the only practical effect of breaking the link with the State was that Welsh bishops would no longer sit in the House of Lords. In fact, many bishops did not have seats in the upper house (EWB had not been senior enough in his Truro days), and the blunting of the Lords' power of veto made a legislative role less inviting anyway: "what else the Church in Wales would lose by Disestablishment I do not quite see, and I never could find any one who could explain."[440] It was an issue on which he could easily have kept silent. Many readers of The Times would have noted the implicit rejection of his father's defence of the Welsh Church.

The second person whose example might be cited was his uncle, Henry Sidgwick. When Benson wrote of himself as "an almost pure agnostic", it is permissible to ask: would he have been happier had he, too, abandoned the struggle to define himself as "a faithful member of the fold" while dumping so many of its central tenets? But here an assumption must be questioned. Happiness and Henry Sidgwick were hardly congruent concepts. It seems certain that Benson's uncle never found joy in his rejection of religion, nor even much contentment. Part of him continued to feel guilty at his abandonment of the Anglican Church.[441] For Benson, such a step would have been doubly harder – first, because of the total and public repudiation of his father that it would have involved, and, second, because he drew consolation from Anglican ceremonial, and what he himself once called "the nice, close, comfortable clerical fug" in which he revelled when he moved in ecclesiastical circles. His feeling that mankind was "speeding into darkness" was too deeply engrained to be replaced by rationalism. When he fell into his own personal horrors of mental illness, rejection of the concept of God would not have spared him the agony of believing that God had rejected him.[442]

The third personality who might be thought to interact with Benson's religious writings must be the evangelist whose rousing call for commitment on that November night in 1882 had plunged him so deeply into prolonged misery. Should we think of Benson having turned away from the example of his father, somehow transmuting himself into Ira D. Sankey in the process, a Sankey not of the revivalist meeting but of the printed word? But there was a difference between the American evangelist and the English essayist and, if it were not for complication of a potential pun, it might be called a crucial difference. Sankey's appeal had culminated in the words: "The way to Jesus was a straight road; but across that road lay a cross, which everybody must pick up. Let them take up that cross".[443] There is reason to believe that it was at that moment, as others crowded forward to claim their salvation, that Benson had staggered into the night, his universe shattered by a searing sense of his own unworthiness. But by rejecting the doctrine of the Atonement, Benson stripped the Crucifixion of much of its spiritual meaning, while his doubts about the Resurrection equally downgraded the importance of the reported events that followed Christ's death. In his principal writings of the 1905-7 period, he seems never once to have mentioned the Cross as a Christian symbol, not in The Thread of Gold, nor From a College Window, The Altar Fire or At Large. It is curious indeed that the many thousands of people who regarded Benson, like Sylvester Horne, as "a kind of chaplain", apparently never noticed his indifference to the central symbol of their religion.[444]

The Case of Dr Crippen

Although he was familiarly referred to as "Doctor", Hawley Harvey Crippen's American medical qualifications were not recognised in England. He was at most a paramedic, who worked with pills and potions, and he knew his poisons. A short, insignificant man, he was unhappily married, bullied and cuckolded by his Polish-American wife Cora. Crippen formed a relationship with a slightly built young woman called Ethel Le Neve: Benson's interest in the case may have been aroused by the fact that she was easily disguised as a boy. Early in 1910, Crippen circulated reports that Cora had returned to the United States, and Ethel moved in as his partner. When grisly rumours circulated, the pair took fright and fled to Belgium, where they boarded a liner to Canada. Police then discovered a dismembered body buried in the cellar of their former home. The captain of the liner became concerned when Crippen was observed kissing his alleged teenage son. Summoned by wireless, a Scotland Yard detective boarded a faster ship, and was on hand to arrest the couple in the Gulf of St Lawrence. It was a sensational case, so much so that Crippen's name endures in the annals of murder most foul. Two elements aroused especial public interest. One was the use of science: Crippen's arrest was the first time a killer was traced by radio, while his conviction rested upon Cora's identification by skilful pathology. The other was no doubt a certain sense of sympathy for the accused, an anti-hero who probably had a secret appeal for downtrodden married men, and who fought a dogged, and successful battle, to protect his partner. Crippen was hanged at Pentonville in November 1910, after the failure of his last-minute scheme to smash his spectacles and slash his wrists.[445]

It is impossible to explain Benson's desire to share his responses to the case with the readers of The Times. However great his "sense of horror" at the "frightful business" of Crippen's execution, it has to be assumed that his comments harmed his reputation for good sense. Nor were his opinions on the death penalty clear and straightforward. Although he was repelled by the grisly ritual of the gallows, he sought not abolition but some kinder, gentler form of capital punishment. "I cannot help thinking that ... a condemned man should be able to choose both the time, within a fixed limit, and the manner of his death". This conjures  the delicious image of a deferential official submitting a menu of modes of death to the condemned prisoner, although Benson's insistence upon a "fixed limit" in the choice of date was a nice thought, in case Crippen should have nominated some time in 1940. This was the Benson of At a Safe Distance, the Benson who preached religion without the burdens of dogma. "His letter is full of pity for himself and full of pity for Crippen," replied one critic, "but he has apparently no thought or word of pity for Crippen's victim". One correspondent of The Times expressed "astonishment" at Benson's views. Another suggested that if the mere picture of the gallows filled him with "indescribable horror", "I should advise him not to look at it."[446]

The Spectator devoted a lengthy and contemptuous article to Benson's "absurdities". How had this unworldly Classical scholar managed to transmute a squalid wife-murderer into a second Socrates – he had drawn the parallel himself – worthy of a dignified death by a draught of hemlock? "Hanging was no worse for Crippen than for some poor fellow, much less undeserving, of whom the majority of Englishmen never heard." (As a critic in The Times pointed out, Benson's strange fascination with Crippen suggested that "he does not know how many persons are usually hanged in England in a year, or how many have been hanged in the last six months.") The Spectator wondered why mercy killing should be reserved for the cruellest of criminals. "The innocent person who dies of a dreadful disease in lingering agony must endure it, till the mercy of death comes, as best he may. The murderer, however, is to choose his anaesthetic or sleeping-draught and invoke the law to make everything as comfortable as possible for him." The logical conclusion was "that the only way for a suffering person to procure euthanasia within the Bensonian law would be to commit murder." In any case, the authorities would still determine the time and date of executions, since "criminals would choose the last possible moment" in the hope of reprieve.[447] Had Benson advanced a reasoned argument against capital punishment, he would still have flown in the face of public outrage, but at least he would have had the credit of making a principled stand. Instead, he had delivered himself of a muddled and self-indulgent exposure of his own emotions. "It is only the super-refinement of Mr. Benson's mind which makes him morbidly afraid of morbidity," was the devastating rebuke of the Spectator. All this was a gift to Punch, which portrayed an irate Benson complaining "if I were not so bitterly opposed to capital punishment, I might be tempted to exclaim, 'Hang it!'"[448]

"The Christian Theory of War"[449]

As already noted, in the years from 1910 to 1914, Benson began to think of himself as a possible successor to Donaldson as Master of Magdalene. Yet it was during those same years that there were two public Benson personae, sharply contrasting, but neither of them especially conducive to the headship of a small and conservative college. On the one hand was the writer who generated acres of soothing saccharine prose, offering indeterminate reassurance to a mass audience. In 1912, he estimated that "about half-a-million people are interested in what I say."[450] On the other was the combative controversialist, who sometimes seemed to lack a sense of judgement in the causes he embraced and a sense of proportion in the onslaughts he unleashed. The main outlines of his criticisms of the Classical curriculum can be traced through his books, and his letters to The Times, but his campaign was almost certainly conducted more widely: an article in the English Review in 1912 was described in the Australian press as a "formidable indictment" of the public schools.[451] A century later, his criticisms may seem reasonable, but they were not calculated to make him popular among the headmasters who helped steer potential undergraduates towards Cambridge colleges. Benson's rapid transition from mild criticism of Greek to total abandonment of Latin must also have made him seem a maverick, while his sardonic mockery of Edward Lyttelton in the pages of The Times would have struck at least some readers as disproportionate. Add his bizarre solicitude for the feelings of Dr Crippen, and his flirtation with reincarnation, and Benson probably seemed to many to be a perverse and wayward personality.

It was at this point that he announced he was a socialist. The First World War would Underline the idealistic aura of socialism, through the argument that if societies could be totally regimented to destroy life, they might equally be organised to sustain it. But, to the Edwardian upper classes, it was a dangerous and repugnant doctrine. When Keir Hardie was invited to the Guildhall at Cambridge in 1907, undergraduate mobs attempted first to kidnap him, and then to wreck the venue.[452] Characteristically, Benson's version of the subversive doctrine was idiosyncratic, even to the point of being meaningless ("the best form of socialism is really the highest individualism", he wrote in 1908)[453], and far from red-blooded. Socialism, he wrote in 1910, was "coming inevitably", in a form "which I should welcome with all my heart and soul". But he seems to have had no notion of State ownership or proletarian dictatorship. Rather, he favoured "a gradual levelling up and levelling down" through progressive taxation – not very far from mainstream ideas of radical Liberals.[454] In 1911, he delivered a public lecture to about 800 people packed into the City Temple, on London's Holborn Viaduct: "the socialist part was loudly applauded in one corner."[455] The following year, he repeated his support for "true Socialism, the constructive socialism not based on confiscation but on participation".[456] Benson does not seem to have contemplated the possibility that progressive taxation might have affected his own comfortable life style. "I am myself a sincere believer in socialism," he wrote in 1908; "that is to say, I do not question the right of society to deprive me of my private property if it chooses to do so. It does choose to do so to a certain extent through the medium of the income tax."[457] There is something faintly droll about the preaching of socialism from a man who, in 1907, had bought his own motor-car, and hired a chauffeur to maintain and drive it. (Privately, he excused the indulgence with the reflection: "I think I am rich enough." "Such property as I possess has ... been entirely acquired by my own exertions. I have never inherited a penny", he protested in 1908, although he did admit that he had probably been overpaid at Eton.)[458] Although he cultivated the acquaintance of the handsome Rupert Brooke, one of the founders of the Cambridge Fabians, Benson apparently did not align himself with any left-wing organisation, nor – it seems – did his linguistic flirtation re-surface in the last couple of years of his life, when Britain actually had its first, if brief, Labour government. With characteristically idiosyncratic paradox, he feared in 1906 that democracy would "submerge all that I think beautiful". After attending a Liberal party election meeting in 1924 (Salter was the candidate), he condemned the idea of democratic government as "outrageous". Obstreperous local youths he dismissed as "town scum". But these sentiments he kept to himself. Just as he espoused Christianity without dogmas, so he favoured socialism with doctrines. Nonetheless, his vague support for socialist ideas was striking and unusual.[459]

In his 1912 collection of essays, Along the Road, Benson wrote with sadness on the theme of War. "To glorify war seems to me but the unchaining and hounding on of the ferocious beast that lies beneath the surface in most of us." He hoped that a day would come when "men will think with a bewildered compassion of the time when war was an accepted practice." These were idealistic sentiments, but there was a certain unreality about them. Wars rarely broke out, and if they happened, they were fought in remote places like the Balkans, or on distant colonial frontiers. Yet he warned that "we ought to regard war as a horrible ultimate possibility. If a nation loses its head with greed and excitement, and invades a peaceful territory, then the invaded land must appeal to force and sternly repel the aggressor."[460] Two years later, in late July 1914, that nightmare suddenly became a reality. What Benson's scenario did not foresee was that the invaded land, Belgium, had no chance of sternly repelling its attacker, and that its appeal had to be for others to come to its defence. Once again, it is tempting to suggest that Benson's instinctive reaction had been summed up in that book title that Punch had attributed to him, At a Safe Distance.  But he was not alone among the academic community in warning against the rush to war.

On 30 July 1914, Benson had privately deplored the "awful fatality" about the process: "it seems as if we might be plunged in war for simply nothing at all". Two years later, he recalled his belief on the eve of War that "a European crisis would somehow be avoided", that Germany had "a taste for shaking a mailed fist" but "would in the last resort turn out to be civilized and reasonable and even sensible".[461]  He signed his name to a manifesto from Cambridge dons, published on August 3, which expressed "their conviction of the supreme importance of preserving England's neutrality in the existing situation, considering that at the present juncture no vital interest of this country is endangered, such as would justify our participation in a war." Many of the University's leading intellectuals also signed – philosophers C.D. Broad, J.M. McTaggart and Bertrand Russell along with the historians J.R.M. Butler, J.H. Clapham, J. Holland Rose, F.A. Simpson and E.M.W. Tillyard. But when an Oxford academic don replied to their manifesto, it was "Mr Arthur Benson and the other signatories" that he criticised.[462] Particularly damaging was the manifesto's endorsement of German culture. "We regard Germany as a nation leading the way in the arts and sciences, and we have all learnt and are learning from German scholars." To fight Germany on behalf of backward Russia "will be a sin against civilisation". While there was still any chance of avoiding war, the signatories protested "against being drawn into the struggle with a nation so near akin to our own, and with whom we have so much in common." The sentiment was in fact uncharacteristic of Benson, who had never shown much interest in Germany. (In April 1915, no doubt in the hope of penetrating the Teutonic intellect, he attempted to read Nietzsche's The Joyful Wisdom, but "felt neither joyful nor wise.") The manifesto produced a devastating rejoinder from Professor Stuart Jones of Trinity College, Dublin: "France, too, has rendered similar services to scholarship ... Germany is not governed by scholars, but by statesmen, who solemnly believe that might confers not only the right but the duty of attacking the weaker."[463] Within weeks, Benson was to find the neutrality manifesto rebounding against him.

Privately, he reflected "we can't avoid war if France is invaded -- it would be neither honourable nor prudent".  "I'm not a Pacifist any more," he wrote after war was declared on 4 August. But he still attempted to minimise the unfolding horror, describing Britain's involvement as "a police intervention", to protect a weak nation against a bully.[464] He would soon learn that it was not his diary that he needed to persuade of a change of heart. In the last week of August, the German war machine destroyed much of the university town of Louvain, including its ancient library. The disaster prompted criticism of Cambridge dons who had so badly misread the international situation, particularly from the jingoistic Daily Mail. Photographs of the shattered ruins of Louvain easily conjured thoughts of the symbol so closely associated with Benson. "If a German army, marching from the east coast upon London, paused in its march to demolish the celebrated college window, would Mr Benson ...  still acclaim their beneficent conduct of the war?" Punch was equally nasty, denying a report that "Mr A.C. Benson's forthcoming Christmas book is to be a Eulogy of German Culture, and to bear the title, Some Broken Panes from a College Window (in Louvain)."[465]

There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of Benson's decision to endorse the war, a change of attitude shared by many others who had resisted involvement but accepted the reality forced by events. Like Lloyd George in the parallel realm of politics, he turned his original doubts into sturdy championship of the Allied cause, thereby recovering from his original unpopularity to earn a kind of double credit as a pacifist prodigal son. In September, he joined a group of twenty leading literary figures in a manifesto stating that Britain had gone to war for honourable motives. This gave him the opportunity to issue a personal statement. "Before the war began I was deeply anxious for peace, but never for peace at any price. But when Belgium was invaded I whole-heartedly supported the decision of our Government to intervene. Further, the ghastly revelation of German aims and ambitions, the gross and vile barbarity of her methods of warfare, have made me feel as indignantly and emphatically as any Englishman can possibly feel that we must make any and every sacrifice to stamp out a military tyranny which menaces the liberty of Europe and is a disgrace to civilisation and Christianity."[466]

In effect, Benson was working his way back into public favour. Had he not thrown off the pacifist label, it is doubtful that he would have been appointed to the Mastership of Magdalene little more than a year later.  He possessed two assets upon which he could capitalise. First, his collaboration with Elgar gave him a claim as an exponent of imperial patriotism, however little he valued that emotion. He wrote two extra verses for Land of Hope and Glory.[467] Second, he could call upon his recognised position as a popular exponent of a simplified Christianity. If he could mobilise his serene and gentle form of religion to fight the Germans, he would serve the national interest – and, no doubt incidentally, his own. On 11 November 1914 – the War had exactly four years to run – he delivered a lecture at Manchester Cathedral on "The Christian Theory of War".[468] He argued that "a Christian nation ... was justified in prosecuting a relentless campaign against the forces which lay behind this appalling onslaught of humanity which Germany was making." The German philosophy of war "was the old lust of conquest and spoil in disguise. ... The theory was that if a nation was independent enough to prefer another sort of ideal to the German it must be exterminated." He argued that Germany had failed as a colonial power "because when she was supreme she was also tyrannical. She believed that men could be converted by the sword." Europe must ensure that "this ruthless and tyrannical theory was once and for ever exploded." For all its "passionate self-righteousness and self-worship", Germany "had no ultimate chance of victory because it had no desire to convert but only to terrorise." Hence Germany's cult of conquest was "utterly opposed to the Christian ideal".[469]

Benson also continued to contribute to the Church Family Newspaper. Unlike his pre-war offerings to this publication, these articles were not republished as collected essays. A few of them can be traced through extracts reprinted in the overseas press. In the same week as his Manchester address, Benson not only assured its readers that Germany had failed to win the war, but he went further, and engaged in the risky business of prophecy; "the Germans are at present in a less favourable position than they have yet been since the war began: and it is absolutely necessary for them either to gain some indisputable success or else to withdraw to their frontiers within the next month." No doubt clinging to the optimistic belief that the war would be over by Christmas, he failed to appreciate the first rule of political prophecy, that prediction must be set at a safe interval in the future. Holding forth of the inevitability of a development in, say, three years not only confers an aura of omniscience upon the prophet, but also provides a degree of security against the failure of the proclaimed event to materialise. Three years on, few will even remember the original prediction. If they do, it can be explained away by learned allusion to changes in circumstances: for instance, the collapse of timetable leading to 1917 could have been blamed on the unforeseeable implosion of Russia. Luckily for Benson, weekly publications are ephemeral, and it is unlikely that his British readers marked their calendars to celebrate peace on 13 December 1914. But the article did cause puzzlement to one reader of the Church Family Newspaper in distant New Zealand, as he sat down in the New Year to read the issue that had just arrived by sea mail. "It is nearly two months since these words were written by a man who is usually very well informed, and who is living at the centre of things in England, and yet the enemy is still in much the same position both in Flanders and in France, though he has not gained an indisputable success."[470]

The Church Family Newspaper gave Benson a platform for his familiar style of uplifting rumination, of the kind that was believed to have brought solace and balm to tens of thousands of readers in times of peace. In December 1914, he announced that there was a new spirit abroad. Denying that he wished "to attempt to sweep away all the sorrows and distresses of the war in a tide of mild optimism", he admitted that he had "suffered loss and sorrow and anxiety myself", although he recognised that "countless men and women ... have suffered far more. We have passed through darkness and distress; we have much darkness and distress ahead of us." Even so, he could not accept "that all was dark and evil .... I do not profess to explain the misery that has fallen on many – the darkened homes, the stricken lives," but he firmly believed "that a chance is given us, on a vast scale, of setting right the values which had been distorted by peace and prosperity."  Something would be gained if people could learn "not to depend upon material comfort, easy prosperity, ignoble happiness [and] contented life", although he did not explain the precise benefit. He hoped that "through the mystery of suffering, and through the sharpness of death, we have been led already to a truer sense of the brotherhood of man", which seems an odd reflection on a war of mass killing. However, it was but the first step: "belief in the Fatherhood of God is not very far off, though we may discern it dimly through loss and suffering, and through a drift of falling tears."[471] Benson himself accepted that there was "some seeming inconsistency" in his professed hope that the war would bring a lasting peace.[472] One can only speculate on the degree of help these words may have given to people burdened by worry or grief.

Benson seems to have appreciated the futility of his outpourings, confessing in February 1915 that "my mistake has been to philosophise about the war. I don't see widely enough or know enough." Benson had usually managed to ignore the outer world. Now that it intruded on his private universe, he felt "bewilderment". Lubbock believed that he managed to wall off the frightfulness of it all, so that "the war, it always seemed, left no mark on him at all." It might be thought that he was better equipped than many of his contemporaries to adjust to the horror that engulfed them. He had always lived with nightmares and the threat of depression. It was simply that the external world now conformed to the inner torment with which he had lived for so long. But, in 1916, he told American readers that "the first few months of the war were a nightmare which I do not willingly recall." Cambridge University in general and Magdalene College in particular seemed to "melt away at the call to service; and much of my time was spent in trying to help our men to obtain the military work they wanted." It was like "presiding at my own funeral".[473]

Benson tried to make his contributions to the Church Family Newspaper in a practical spirit. In the early summer of 1915, he reminded his readers of their obligations to Belgium. "Never has a small and peaceable nation risen more nobly to a great occasion. We must ease the strain on Belgium by every means in our power, welcome and comfort her refugees, house them, feed them, take them to our hearts". The needs of Belgium must not be forgotten when peace returned. "God bless and reward Belgium!"[474] Soon after, he brushed aside concerns aroused by the National Registration Act, which required all adults to supply information that could be used to work out how best they could contribute to the war effort. (Known as the Derby Scheme, it was widely distrusted as a step towards compulsory military service.) Cambridge dons, he revealed, had already set up their own scheme, supplying the Vice-Chancellor with information about their various talents.[475]

Occasionally, he lapsed into the "A.C. Bensonism" that so irritated his sharper critics. In the autumn of 1915, he asked: "How can we regain the quiet heart and the peaceful temper after these days of tumult and anguish?" He ruled out some obviously impossible options. "Not by flying into solitudes among wild birds and shining sands and windswept skies! This little silent corner of the world cried out that peace was not there. ... No, we must join hands somehow, move together shoulder by shoulder. We must grow to understand each other better, to trust each other; we must share and not hoard our happiness." For people whose happiness had been destroyed, these weary clichés can hardly have represented helpful advice. In a huge leap of logic, he declared his hope "that our great alliance will leave us this legacy, that it is not enough only to cherish our national interests, but that we must grow to believe in the solidarity of the whole race."[476]  

Of particular interest is an article that has to be reconstructed from disparate extracts in New Zealand newspapers around New Year 1916. It merits examination because it was written around the time of Donaldson's death in late October 1915, and its outspoken and quotable sentiments may have formed part of an attempt to remind the Visitor, Lord Braybrooke, that he was a national figure who could not be passed over for the Mastership of Magdalene. Once again, it was the rumination of a man who hated the war but was resolved to see it through to the end. "I wished with all my heart to-day that the conflict could be over, but I would not stop it, even if I could, till the work is utterly accomplished. ... We have to set our teeth and harden our hearts." But it also repeated his confident view of twelve months earlier that the ultimate result of the conflict was certain. "Germany is not making any real progress, but is struggling like a great fish caught in a net, and making desperate efforts to escape." Accordingly, it was vital that the Allies should not succumb to "anxiety and faint-heartedness" and "desire at any cost a cessation of the hideous carnage and loss", for this was "the game which Germany is now playing." Hopes of conquest were gone. "The most she hopes for is to get terms which may allow her to recuperate her shattered fortunes, and to begin preparing for a like struggle in the future."  Fundamentally, Benson's analysis was sound. Germany had failed to repeat its rapid victory of 1870, and could only hope to grind down the disparate coalition of its enemies.[477] Yet the whole nature of the article, as a rallying cry and pronouncement on global strategy, was out of character, and one can only wonder whether its claim to speak as a national voice was connected with his hopes to succeed Donaldson. Precisely when it appeared, and whether it influenced Lord Braybrooke, cannot be determined. But, on 11 November 1915 – one year to the day since his Manchester address – Benson received a letter from the Visitor offering him the Mastership of Magdalene.[478]

"...Lord Braybrooke hardly hesitated"[479]

When Donaldson died on 28 October 1915, Benson was widely seen as the favourite candidate for the Mastership of Magdalene. "There could be little doubt in any mind as to his successor," wrote Lubbock, "and before long Lord Braybrooke ... had offered the mastership to Arthur Benson."[480] In fact – and Lubbock's "before long" reveals a clue – the succession was less straightforward than it was subsequently made to appear. If anything, the history of Magdalene suggested that it was a disadvantage to be the preferred internal candidate: Samuel Nicholls in 1746, Laurence Elliot in 1760 and Frederick Warter in 1852-3 had all been backed for the Mastership by their colleagues, and each had wanted the job. The same would happen in 1925, when A.S. Ramsey was passed over, in favour of the Lower Master from Eton.[481] Indeed, the vesting of the appointment in an external arbiter virtually ensured such an outcome: if the Visitor was simply expected to ratify the favoured internal candidate, there was no point in the system of independent selection. It is difficult to explore the reasons for Lord Braybrooke's decision: since he never spoke in the House of Lords, there are few clues to his opinions. However, it is worth noting that he was not a complete outsider to the College, but rather a direct link with the pre-Donaldson era. As Latimer Neville's son, he had grown up in the Master's Lodge, and graduated (with a Pass degree) from Magdalene in 1877. In a general revision of Statutes in 1882, a government commission had insisted on removing the provision which required Masters of Magdalene to be in Holy Orders. Latimer Neville had formally protested that this would open the office not only to laity, but even to a non-Anglican. In 1915, his son was believed to favour a clergyman for the post.[482]

As has been already discussed, there were other ways in which Benson fell short of the ideal candidate to head a Cambridge college. He did indeed have a public profile as a writer, but much of his output was embarrassing. His opposition to the dominance of Classics was not shared by public school headmasters, and some of his more controversial attacks on compulsory Greek had been unduly combative. His endorsement of controversial ideas, such as reincarnation, socialism and neutrality, would have alienated more conservative spirits, while his solicitude for Dr Crippen could only have thrown doubt on his judgement. Looming behind all of that, there must surely also have been some concern regarding Benson's breakdown in 1907-8. Would the responsibilities of the office prove too much for him? Working in his favour was the timing of the vacancy, in the unprecedented circumstances of total warfare. The minimum age for the Mastership of Magdalene was thirty, but, in practice, by the early twentieth century, the appointment would go to a man at least twenty years older (Benson was 53), somebody who had demonstrated qualities of responsibility and leadership.

To have appointed a Master more distinguished than Benson would have been to poach a candidate whose talents were required for some aspect of war work. It was unlikely that any such candidate could be found.[483] By November 1915, almost all such individuals were engaged in some form of patriotic public service, and could hardly be diverted to the headship of a small college that was virtually in abeyance anyway: one of Benson's colleagues did actually suggest that the office should be left vacant until the return of peace – and of the undergraduates.  In the public schools, younger masters had joined the Army, adding to the workloads of their senior colleagues. However, the two-week interval between Donaldson's death and the offer of the Mastership to Benson suggests that the outcome was less clear-cut than his admirers would later claim. Evidently, Lord Braybrooke reviewed the options, and probably consulted on potentially available personalities. There were at least two plausible alternative candidates, and it is worth exploring why one was probably considered but rejected, while the other seems not to have been regarded as a possibility at all.

Aged sixty, Sydney Rhodes James was a former member of the Eton staff, and a recently retired headmaster. Quixotically, he had resigned his post the previous year "because he was sure Malvern must have had enough of him."  He was a clergyman: an obliging bishop had ordained him to make him eligible for his headmastership, despite the fact that he had never undertaken parochial work. He was available, but he was not an especially glittering prospect.  Whatever its merits, Malvern did not carry the prestige of Eton. It was in the second tier of public schools, one of the new foundations of the Victorian era that replicated older institutions like Eton and Harrow: Malvern was explicitly modelled on Winchester. It was a relatively recent foundation: James's more practical explanation for his early retirement was that the school was about to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, and needed to have a new headmaster in place to take it forward. Benson thought him "rather a bully and unintellectual", but he was not the most charitable judge of his professional colleagues. Mrs James was regarded as something of a figure of fun – her malapropism that Malvern was eight miles from Worcester "as the cock crows" caused huge amusement in male chauvinist circles.[484] (At least James could have endowed the Lodge with an official hostess, an amenity that Benson could not provide.) But perhaps the major complication about Sydney James was that he was the older, and definitely less talented, brother of the Provost of King's, M.R. James, Benson's friend and supporter. Had Sydney James been appointed, Magdalene would have suffered in the comparison. At best, he would have been a second Donaldson. But that may have been what Braybrooke wanted. At all events, Newsome believes he was considered, although not chosen.

The other potential candidate is a more intriguing possibility. It was a working principle in Edwardian England that, whenever a prestigious office was on offer, there would usually be a member of the extensive Lyttelton family seeking the preferment, backed by the blatant sense of entitlement endemic in the entire clan. It was believed that Edward Lyttelton had rejected the Mastership of Magdalene in 1904, when he had his eyes on the larger ambition of the succession at Eton. Unfortunately, ten years after he had secured that prize, his headmastership was generally regarded as lacklustre. Although he could not be blamed for the obstructions to change that had discouraged Benson from seeking the appointment, his achievements had been few, while his grip on the job was insecure. The gentle and generous Hugh Macnaghten mildly commented that he was "perhaps not supremely good in any of a headmaster's duties, such as preaching, teaching or organisation", a devastating combination of shortcomings. His own nephew, an Eton master, concluded that Lyttelton had "a head full of feathers". He was sometimes under-prepared to teach the Sixth Form, and the boys knew it.[485] However, since his wife's heath was poor, a deal might have been manufactured that would have given Magdalene the prestige of acquiring the headmaster of England's leading school, and bearer of an honoured surname, while freeing Eton to look, so it would have been rotundly declared, towards post-war challenges. Unfortunately, if any such scenario was even remotely considered, there was a large rock in its path. And that rock was called Gibraltar.

Late in March 1915, Lyttelton had preached a stupendously silly sermon, which was reported under the headline, "Christian charity towards the Germans". More than a little remarkably, he announced that "we had no right to expect that the Germans should hold any other feeling towards England than that of vindictive wrath." When the war ended, the Allies would demand the neutralisation of Kiel Canal, the waterway that had been widened just before the First World War to enable Germany to move battleships between the Baltic and the North Sea. Lyttelton suggested that a balancing gesture of self-abnegation, Britain should offer to place Gibraltar under international control as well. It is difficult to overstate the stupidity of such a proposal at such a time, while Lyttelton's subsequent claim that he had not expected his remarks to appear in the newspapers merely underlined his naivety: St Margaret's Westminster is not an obscure pulpit.[486]

Lyttelton would have not have known that Germany was encouraging Spain to attack Gibraltar and Tangier, and even Portugal, but he ought to have possessed enough sense to appreciate that such behind-the-scenes manoeuvres were highly likely.[487] Spain's weakness following its humiliating defeat by the United States in 1898, coupled with its political and regional divisions, made it virtually unthinkable that it would enter the European War. Fortunately, for the Allies, Spain's grinding colonial war in Morocco depended upon tacit British and French support, and the danger of a diplomatic clash was avoided. Nonetheless, if Lyttelton's unwise and unauthorised comments had encouraged the country's politicians to issue face-saving demands in regard to Gibraltar, he would have risked a souring of international relations, which might have forced France into the precautionary diversion of troops to the Pyrenees – at a time when every soldier was needed on the Western Front.  It was a classic example of the irresponsibility of private citizens meddling in relations between governments.

If Lyttelton's sermon had been ill-advised in risking complications with Spain, it was downright absurd in its attitude to Germany. A letter to The Times from Henry Wakefield, the Bishop of Birmingham, barely contained its angry contempt. Having studied in Bonn as a young man, he was well qualified to assert that German hatred for England had little to do with the present conflict, but dated back decades. Bishop Wakefield warned that the German mentality would simply see compassion as cowardice: even the British resolve to treat prisoners of war humanely was interpreted as fear of German vengeance in the inevitable hour of victory. It was quickly reported from Switzerland that Berlin was circulating Lyttelton's sermon in neutral countries as evidence of the weakening of British resolve. "Eton's Indiscreet Headmaster" aroused widespread fury and contempt. One Tory MP expressed "the gravest misgivings when the greatest school in England is under the guidance of a man showing such a lack of judgment". A recent Old Etonian, still smarting (literally, it seemed) from a flogging by the headmaster, took his revenge. He well remembered, as he had buttoned up his trousers after the flaying of his bare buttocks, that he had felt the same hatred that Lyttelton now attributed to the German people. Applying the headmaster's principles, it would seem that harmony could not be established between them "until he has shown that there is no ill-feeling left by allowing me to have a go at him with the birch." Almost more damaging was the well-intentioned statement by the three most senior boys in the school that they had never heard their headmaster utter a pro-German sentiment. Fate then intruded its own sardonic comment, as Eton was swept by an epidemic of German measles. At first, Lyttelton had bullishly defended himself, but he was obliged to apologise when the school's Governing Body stated that its confidence in him was "seriously impaired".[488]

The headmaster of Eton had narrowly escaped outright dismissal, but it was now a question not of whether he would go, but of when and how. In his own sweet way, Lord Braybrooke was committed to the interests of Magdalene, but he was also a loyal Etonian, as he would demonstrate at the next Mastership vacancy in 1925. In 1904, when Magdalene was in the doldrums, it seems that he had sounded out Lyttelton to head the College. Now, with a complete reversal in their respective institutional and personal standings, it seems that he saw no reason for Magdalene to provide a refuge for a man who Eton was anxious should depart.

Although he was not cast in the clerical and conformist mode of a traditional Cambridge Head of House, Benson did possess some specific advantages. He had a public profile, and his literary trademark, the College Window, was very much associated with Magdalene. Given widespread expectation that he was the obvious successor to Donaldson, the appointment of anybody else would have given rise to negative comment. He also possessed options not open to past and future internal candidates for the Mastership. Nicholls, Elliot and Warter, the rejected in-house candidates of earlier times, were clergymen operating in an era of patronage: if passed over for one preferment, they could trade their disappointment for advancement somewhere else in the system. A.S. Ramsey in 1925 was a hard case: a career academic with a family to support, he had no alternative but to accept the frustration of his hopes. By contrast, Benson was independently wealthy. He received no salary from Magdalene. Indeed, as he noted with some asperity during the nervous fortnight in which no word came from Braybrooke, he had spent £10,000 on the College, and advanced another £5000 in low-interest loans. "If a Master is appointed over my head, I shall certainly resign my position here".[489]

It is also important to note that it was not merely his own money that might be at stake: a few months earlier, he had accepted the first of the generous series of gifts from Eugenie de Nottbeck – a benefaction to be allocated entirely at his discretion. The previous year, the historic English church in Rotterdam had been demolished. Benson had arranged to ship its eighteenth-century panelling to Cambridge, where he had presented most of it to Selwyn College. This was not a shot across anybody's bows, but rather a filial gesture in memory of EWB, for his father, as Archbishop of Canterbury, had been Selwyn's first official Visitor when the college opened in 1882.[490] But the gift did make the point that Benson might turn his activities and his generosity elsewhere. To put the matter bluntly, he had invested a great deal of money in Magdalene. Of course, he had not set out to buy preferment, but it would have been difficult for any other Master to have reaped the benefit of his generosity. He was right to foresee that his position would be impossible in such a situation.

After reviewing the options, Lord Braybrooke came to the same decision. On receiving the offer of the Mastership, Benson wrote to A.S. Ramsey to say that "he was unwilling to accept it unless I could assure him that it was the wish of his colleagues that he should do so." Benson was obviously thinking of the situation he had found himself ten years earlier at Eton, where he had the virtual offer of the headmastership but knew that he could not "form a ministry" among the Masters. Ramsey did not even bother to consult the other Fellows, but responded immediately urging him to accept. When he reported his course of action to his colleagues, "there was general approval and gratification". According to a local newspaper, there were "no two opinions in Cambridge as to the fitness of the appointment". As Benson himself put it, "we all felt a great relief that we were not having to welcome a stranger to rule us" – an acknowledgement that the choice might have fallen upon an outsider. We can hear the voice of the Fellows in the congratulations of the Magdalene College Magazine: "while the appointment would have been welcome at any time, it is doubly so now, when we need a steady head and a generous heart to guide us through these troubled times." For Benson himself, becoming Master of Magdalene offered some resolution of the problem he had intermittently struggled with, and against, since that November evening in 1882 – how to prove himself worthy of his father, how to carve out a role equivalent to the achievements of EWB. "I am almost exactly the age that papa was when he went to Canterbury."[491]

"...one of our great Masters"[492]

Stephen Gaselee's verdict was written in tribute to Benson soon after his death. 'Greatness' is a subjective concept: does it refer to personality or to the individual's record in office? A modern historian of Magdalene has offered the more temperate verdict that "Benson was one of the two or three best masters the College ever had", although the same source accepts that it is difficult "to be entirely objective" about him.[493] It is certainly true that much was achieved during his Mastership, made possible in large measure by his personality and, perhaps above all, his money. Much of the latter, as he generously acknowledged in his diary, came from Eugenie de Nottbeck and her husband.[494] Yet, as in the renewal period of 1904-6, developments were partly driven by an overall increase in student numbers across the University, a post-war surge creating challenges to which Magdalene had to respond at a time when he was out of action.

Benson held office for nine and a half years. Yet for barely two of them were both Magdalene and its Master fully functioning. Although his term spanned less than a decade, it may be divided into four phases, the better to appreciate his contribution to the College. He took office in December 1915, presiding over an institution that contained only a handful of undergraduates, young men unfit for military service, plus a few students from neutral countries. In the summer of 1917, his depressive illness returned. From August 1917 until October 1920, Benson was out of action, sometimes in a nursing home, at other times in directionless holidays at places like Hastings and Rye. He was then persuaded to return to Cambridge, but for two years he kept a low profile in the Old Lodge, seeing few people and taking little part in College business. Early in 1923, he suddenly climbed out of his own depths and assumed a full role in Magdalene. Newsome calls this fourth and final phase his "Indian summer", but it is possible to suggest that the terrifying energy of the upswing might have been followed by a third breakdown. In the event, the saga ended – to the deep distress of everyone who knew him – with his death in June 1925. The final illness came unexpectedly, and he was 63 when he died. Gaselee's refection, that Benson's friends "had all hoped for him another twelve or fifteen years of active life" catches their sense of sudden loss.[495]

Benson was inducted to the Mastership on 9 December 1915. He was the first President of Magdalene to progress to the office since 1713: in the Chapel ceremony of installation, his retired predecessor, Peskett, had to be brought in to conduct him to his new stall. He enjoyed his new status as "the unquestioned boss of the very small show". Benson was efficient in the discharge of business (the meanderings of University committees often frustrated him) and his association with Donaldson meant that he was already closely involved with the running of the College. The Mastership conferred the automatic right to a doctorate, a higher degree that he coveted but had been warned would be refused to him if sought on the merit of his published work. Not surprisingly, he revelled in wearing his scarlet gown. He disclaimed most of the income of the Mastership, taking only an allowance for entertainment expenses, a gesture that made possible increases in the stipends of his colleagues. He also decided not to move from his own house, the Old Lodge, to the more formal residence of the Master's Lodge.[496]

Officer cadets on short training courses had largely replaced undergraduates. Magdalene "became the headquarters of a divisional staff, and our Hall table a military mess – a refreshing and interesting experience," in Benson's upbeat words. As A.S. Ramsey later recalled, he "spent time and money on the Cadets who were quartered in the College and succeeded in making many of them feel that while they were here they belonged to the place." Benson was impressed by their unpretentious sense of duty, quoting one young man who remarked: "I want to see this through, and it isn't bad fun; but of course I shall be glad to get back to my work."[497]

Benson continued to write, for instance outlining his views on how education should develop after the war in the Nineteenth Century magazine. His articles continued to appear in the Church Family Newspaper but, as the war ground on, they seem to have been quoted less frequently in the wider press. An exception was his sketch of a small, elderly and cheerfully diligent porter whom he had once encountered in a Midlands hotel. The article, which appeared late in 1916, was penned in the cloying style that Punch had once lampooned in its imaginary Bensonian tribute to the postman. "I could not live his life; but I can see the beauty of it; and I could wish in most ways to be more like him." A sketch of General Smuts from the same newspaper aroused interest, as the South African leader – and one-time Boer enemy – was seen as a symbol of Empire unity, and a possible war-winner by the British public. Benson was present when Smuts addressed a gathering in the hall of Queens' College Cambridge, "in a quick, natural voice, with a slightly foreign accent".[498]

Literary reviews confirm that Benson's younger brother Fred (E.F. Benson) was now definitely the more popular author, his fluent escapism proving attractive in troubled times. But there remained devotees of what an Australian newspaper called "A.C. Benson's amiable button-holings". In 1915, he had published anonymously a novel, Father Payne. It was reissued in 1917, and the author was identified. Punch, which had not mentioned him since the angry days of the German advance through Belgium, now wondered how anybody could have "failed to detect in it the gently persuasive hand of the Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge. ... Bensonians (of the A.C. pattern) will certainly be glad to have what surely must have been their suspicions confirmed".[499]

By far his most important piece of writing – and one that has slipped from sight – was the article he wrote for the American periodical, Atlantic Monthly, in response to a request for his personal view of the war.[500] His first reaction had been to decline, feeling that as "an elderly non-combatant", his view of the conflict would be about as useful as an ant in an ant-hill attempting to describe an earthquake.  Fortunately, he had second thoughts, and produced a short piece that conveyed, in cleverly understated terms, British determination to destroy the menace of German militarism. He praised the way in which the rapid formation of a mass Army had not provoked extreme reactions among the public. "My associates through the war have been mainly dons and soldiers, but I have not come across a trace of either pacifism or militarism. One would suppose that there was a large and influential group of men so besotted by the idea of peace that they wished to bring the war to an end at any cost. There is no such thing."  The soldiers were well behaved and popular. "Only one who has lived and moved about in England during the war can realize how little the militarism of the country has interfered with the civic life and organization."

Benson dismissed attempts to dignify the conflict with deeper meaning. "I do not feel that the attempts to call the war a sacred war have really met with much favor in England. That savors of unreality. It seems to us merely disgusting and hateful that another nation should believe in aggression; and the sooner such nonsense is put an end to, the better. ... The young men whom I have known, who have flocked to the colors, have done so primarily out of adventurousness and then out of camaraderie. There has been little solemnity about it ... rather the wish to have a part in a big affair". The small number of students rejected by the Army on medical grounds felt "frank personal disappointment".

He was on less secure ground when he attempted to describe the responses of ordinary people, for the obvious reason that he did not encounter many ordinary people, and was not in the habit of seeking their opinions. In a convoluted passage, he argued that "the deepest and most passionate craving of all human beings is the desire to be interested. The desire for pleasure is not so strong as the desire for excitement – that is to say for a quickened and fuller sense of life. People are happier in so far as they can believe in the significance and importance of what they are doing". Presumably he assumed that the war had brought a sense of meaning and purpose into otherwise humdrum lives. Of course, Benson could not possibly know this. Indeed, his attitude to bereavement verged on the insensitive. "There has been no glorification of self-sacrifice. It has simply appeared in the light of a heavy stroke to be endured. ... Heavy and grievous as the casualties have been, the percentage as compared with the population is small." This, of course, was written on the eve of the battle of the Somme.

Benson also gave indications of the ways in which the war had affected his own thinking. One point was essentially minor: for years, he had criticised the dominance of organised sport ("athletics" in his terminology) in the public schools. Now he recognised that the culture of games had produced "a sense of united effort which has gone much deeper than one had imagined." More widely, the bloodshed forced confrontation with questions about the role of religion, a field in which he was at home as an essayist. The faith that the European continent had formally embraced for centuries suddenly seemed to command no depth of loyalty at all. "I cannot help feeling that Europe is still living more on chivalrous and knightly ideals of virtue rather than Christian ideals."

The war was "the severest test" that Christianity had ever faced. "I myself feel so clear on the point that the only hope of civilization lies in the crushing root and branch of the aggressive ideals of Germany, that I am forced to consider whether I am entitled to call myself a Christian honestly and sincerely. If non-resistance is a Christian principle, then I am certainly not a Christian." Indeed, the "vast outbreak of evil forces" threw into doubt "the whole Theistic theory". It was hard to sustain "belief in the fatherly guidance and providence of God" and "impossible for the sane and candid man to look upon the war as a divinely appointed educative experience." The post-war world would have to decide "whether religion is going to be a sentiment, or whether it will attempt an altogether wider task, and face, instead of evading, the problem of moral evil." He could only hope that the ordeal "will immensely enlarge our spiritual horizon", shifting religion from a temperamental to a scientific basis. As so often in Benson's writings, an inspirational appeal vanished into a nebulous fog of imprecision. It was the voice of a writer whose sense of a personal spirituality prevented him from taking the final, logical step of recognising his own agnosticism. The tone of philosophical depth reinforced the terse reiteration of German war guilt in his conclusion. Even allowing for its inevitable idiosyncrasies, it was a well-crafted essay. There was no explicit appeal for the intervention of the United States, nor did Benson imply any moral shortcoming in the American stance of neutrality. Of course, its impact is impossible to gauge, but we should not forget that Benson enjoyed a large following in the United States as a peacetime author who invoked a world of tranquil reflection. His low-key account of a nation uncomplainingly mobilised to resist the challenge of evil that it had not sought, can hardly have passed without notice. Benson's Atlantic Monthly article has a fair claim to rank among the most important works that he ever produced.

Although Magdalene was "practically empty of undergraduates", there was plenty of work to be done to keep the University machinery ticking over. Benson was closely involved in a working party on the future of the general degree, the Pass Examinations Syndicate. He was elected to the Council of the Senate, "the innermost oligarchy" as he hailed it. Additional work fell upon him in relation to the three schools of which he was a governor. In October 1916, he was co-opted to Cambridgeshire County Council: it was the local education authority, and he knew the county well from walking and bicycling. "They like having the Master of a College among them," he noted. In a league table of attendances, he was reported in March 1917 to have turned up for 24 out of 29 possible Council and committee meetings.[501] Benson had been elected to the Court of a City livery company, the Fishmongers', in 1911, the connection having developed from his role as a governor of their school, Gresham's, at Holt in Norfolk. He was "nearly always present at the Courts and Committees", and took on additional responsibilities in wartime. It may have been in this phase of his life that he travelled so often to London that he bought a season ticket.  He was on his way to a meeting on 13 June 1917 when German bombers made an undetected raid on London, killing over one hundred people, including thirteen at Liverpool Street station, where his train was heading. He was shocked to see the shrouded figure of a corpse carried out of the terminus, as ambulances took casualties from a platform that had been bombed.  This was not the world of At a Safe Distance.[502]

The Liverpool Street raid was perhaps one of the triggers in the return of his depression. Early in July, he began to experience attacks of the malady so familiar to him from 1907-8. He attributed them to overwork, and this explanation of his renewed illness was generally accepted at the time, and since. However, it had also been assumed that the earlier outbreak was an indirect result of his decision to leave Eton, with its grinding workload, leaving him with unoccupied time in which to brood over his life. His brother Hugh, for whom he felt an exasperated affection, had died in 1914, and his sister Maggie, pitiably sick in mind, had followed in 1916. One friend blamed his decision to write memoirs of them for his relapse. Perhaps the illness was simply cyclical: some further speculation about its nature seems appropriate at a later stage of this essay. On 18 August 1917, Benson was admitted to a private nursing home at Ascot. He remained there until late in 1919, when he transferred to lodgings at Hastings, before returning to a reclusive life at Magdalene's Old Lodge during the Easter (early summer) Term of 1920.[503] There he maintained a fragile and defensive existence for a further two and a half years, until his depression suddenly lifted early in 1923.

At the weekend of 15/16 June 1918, Mary Benson, his mother, died at Tremans, the Sussex home where the clan had regrouped in 1899. Both Ascot and Horsted Keynes, the local station for Tremans, were served by train from London's Victoria. On the Monday, it seems to have been judged safe to allow Benson to travel by himself to the family home to pay his respects. The decision to allow him to make train journeys without any escort was almost certainly a mistake. While purchasing a ticket in the booking office at Victoria Station, Benson placed on a ledge an attaché case containing about £16 in banknotes. He then walked to the platform and was about to board his train, when he remembered that he had not picked up the case. By the time he returned, it had disappeared. The alarm was raised and the missing item was quickly traced to the Left Luggage office. The case had been taken by a woman in what was obviously an opportunistic theft, probably an instance of the popular belief, finders-keepers. Not knowing what to do with her trophy, she had deposited it in Left Luggage, and was arrested when she returned to collect it shortly afterwards. Benson was obliged to return to London two days later to act as prosecutor in the police court. The culprit was bound over, a sign that she was not a career criminal, and probably evidence too that Benson lacked the heart to press the matter. Mary Benson's funeral took place on the Friday. The Times carried a brief report, identifying a number of distinguished persons who had followed the coffin. Unusually for such notices, family members were not mentioned. The inference would seem to be that Benson, the obvious chief mourner, was so exhausted by the episode of the attaché case that he had been unable to attend his own mother's burial, and the report was abridged to disguise his absence.[504]

One of the few redeeming features of Benson's five-year ordeal was the open and sympathetic attitude of his College. In December 1917, the Magdalene College Magazine announced, "with much regret", that "the Master has not been able to reside this term". He was "paying the penalty for a long period of over-work, and having an enforced rest". Optimistically, it claimed that there were good reports of his progress, "and we hope before long to have him back here in residence again". During the dark months that followed, the Fellows resolutely refused to accept Benson's attempts to resign. In December 1919, the Magazine relayed the good news that Benson had left his nursing home, and there were now "great hopes ... of his return to us early next year". This would mean that "there will have been practically no member of the College so unfortunate as to have passed the whole of his time up here without the great benefit of his acquaintance". The sentiment was a tribute to Benson's personality, but it was also an indication that Magdalene was functioning without him – indeed, operating successfully on an unheard-of scale. No fewer than 69 freshmen joined the College in October 1919; for the calendar year as a whole, there were 111 newcomers – almost double the numbers in the pre-war institution. Even after the immediate backlog of delayed applications had been absorbed, Magdalene was still admitting around sixty new students annually throughout the early nineteen-twenties. (In his absence, one of Benson's most passionate campaigns finally achieved victory: in 1919, Greek was abandoned as a qualification for admission to the University, and this may have contributed to the increase in applications.) Larger numbers, in turn, meant that a major policy decision had in effect taken itself: the College was going to get larger, and would have to tackle issues of accommodation and teaching. Thus two of the major achievements of the Benson Mastership, the post-war revival of academic life and the decision to grow, both happened when the Master himself was out of action. Indeed, the new agenda was manipulated to help his recovery. Early in 1920, the President, A.S. Ramsey, engaged in benign conspiracy with Benson's medical advisor, Dr Ross Todd. The Governing Body was to conduct a special strategic review, and the Master was assured that his presence was essential, however brief and low-key his visit might be. In March 1920, the Magazine reported that it was "an open secret" that he had spent a night in the Old Lodge "in the middle of the term", and there were good hopes that he would soon return for longer periods. In June 1920, the news was that he was at least back in residence, with hopes "he will soon feel himself able to resume his former place in the life of the College".[505] In an era when mental illness was routinely referred to as "madness" or "lunacy", the Magdalene response had been admirably generous.

"The increasing part which the Master is taking in the life of the College makes us feel that we are steadily returning to the happy conditions of old days," the Magdalene College Magazine cheerfully remarked in December 1920. Benson was once again dining in Hall, receiving a few visitors and meeting undergraduates. He advised a former Eton colleague, J.D. Bourchier, who had become Britain's leading interpreter of Bulgarian affairs. The country's prime minister was to visit Cambridge, and Bourchier needed help in making contacts for him. It was a sensitive matter, since Bulgaria had sided with Germany in the War. Benson's Magdalene colleagues "were on the look out for any means of drawing him by slow degrees more fully into the life of the place". Francis Turner, a freshman in October 1920, found his essay on the poetry of Milton referred to the great man for comment. As he made his way nervously to the secluded environment of the Old Lodge, he feared that he would be like a bull in a china shop. In reality, "I was the china shop and he the bull, although a seemingly friendly bull to be sure". With amiable severity, Benson condemned the young man's research, dissected his arguments, and won his lifelong fealty. Turner departed "his grovelling and devoted slave, but I left a very tired man behind me." The magic did not always work. Benson failed to make a disciple of another Magdalene undergraduate, J.R. Ackerley, who was bent on a career as a dramatist. Asked to advise on Ackerley's play, The Prisoners of War, which was based on theme of unrequited homosexual attraction, Benson was repelled by its "harrowing and distressing" character. "I doubt if it would be wise for you, if you have a literary career in view, to begin with a work in so tragic a key." Ackerley was one Magdalene undergraduate – probably in a minority – who was not captivated by the atmosphere of the College. The Prisoners of War was staged in 1925.

Benson made some attempts to emerge from his seclusion. He hosted the Pepys Dinner in February 1921, "his first 'function' ... since his convalescence," the Magazine noted. "May it be the Rubicon which determines the complete conquest of his troubles!" The following year, he welcomed the guest of honour, in a speech of "characteristic felicity and charm", praising the Dean of St Paul's, "as one who resisted the temptation ... to indulge in an indiscriminate optimism". It was a pleasant irony, for William Inge was known as "The Gloomy Dean". Yet, when he looked back on those two events in 1924, Benson recalled them as part of "the horrors of 1921 and 1922".[506]

Always happiest when he could focus on tiny details, he found delight in the birds that visited the Old Lodge, Although barely yards from the traffic of Magdalene Street, his tiny garden was surprisingly "rich in bird life".  He encouraged them by hanging split coconuts in the trees, filling them with mutton fat and pine kernels as he had once laid out decanters and cigars to lure undergraduates into his company. There were blue tits, which occasionally flew into his study, crashing against the windows as they tried to escape. There were also great tits, coal tits, thrushes, a defiant robin, plus rare visits from unusual species such as bullfinches and woodpeckers, and memorable appearances by a tree creeper and a golden-crested wren. "I am much attached to my little family," Benson wrote. One magnificent May morning an avian row drew him to the ivied walls of the adjacent Chapel, where a brown owl was raiding a sparrow's nest, occasionally turning its "baleful glare" at the mob of sparrows that were "addressing him in obviously opprobrious terms", the more courageous even dive-bombing the intruder. "I cannot exactly approve of its methods," Benson reflected, "yet we certainly have too many sparrows, and I am disposed to wish success to its crusade."[507] At last, he had mastered the art of perceiving simplicity through a College window.

Benson the ornithologist comes to us through two cameo pieces in the Magdalene College Magazine. Not surprisingly, he wrote (or at least, published) little during the twilight years of the early nineteen-twenties.  After their mother's death, Benson and his brother gave up Tremans, but kept their link with Sussex by renting a town house at Rye for holidays. In 1922, the Cornhill Magazine carried an essay on the adjoining town of Winchelsea. Although pleasant to read, it is simply a combination of travel writing and local history, with no trace of Benson's idiosyncratic skill at extracting paradoxical reflection from everyday scenes.[508]

Benson once described his recovery from mental illness in 1908 as "like blinds being drawn up around the room of the mind". He pulled out of his second, and longer, ordeal more slowly. April 1923 was the turning point: as he celebrated his sixty-first birthday on the 24th, he rejoiced to find himself "in good spirits, not remorseful, interested in life and work." He celebrated by firing off a letter to The Times, criticising Anglican ecclesiastics for turning inward in a frenzy of liturgical revision – a theme that would arouse his most sardonic and combative side two years later.[509] His literary output not merely resumed, but went into overdrive. There were two novels, assorted pieces such a hymn in honour of new gates at King's College, and – most important of all – two biographical works, different in conception but attractively narrated and powerful in their insight. Both – The Trefoil in 1923, and Memories and Friends – have already been drawn upon in this essay. At this point, they merit examination for their role in the settling of scores – central in the first case, incidental in the second. Of course, both books were written because they flowed from their author's pen, but their underlying personal agenda helps explain that driving force behind them.

The Trefoil was explicitly intended as a companion volume to Benson's heavy two-volume official biography of his father. It was presented as an attempt to correct the balance in EWB's favour: his life in the decades before he went to Canterbury possessed "an intensity and a romantic quality infinitely more arresting and vivid than the later years, when he was overburdened by the cares of his high office".[510]  Yet the book also formed a further stage in his attempt at to exorcise EWB's glowering influence. In some respects, he was still trying to reach out to his father. In his night hours, EWB often appeared in Benson's dreams, usually in clerical garb, but sometimes giggling and playing with toys. And Benson could not rid himself of the thought that maybe his father was still out there somewhere, keeping watch on his son and upon his life work. From Magdalene, on the eighth anniversary of EWB's death, he wrote in his diary: "I can't help wishing that he could know about my Fellowship. Perhaps he does?"[511] A decade later, he was an honoured guest at Wellington, and duly admired the progress of its building programme. "I couldn't help feeling how it would all rejoice my father's heart, and perhaps does rejoice his heart," he wrote, in an effusive thank-you letter to his host.[512] It was in The Trefoil that he finally turned the tables, and sat in judgement upon the man who had so successfully masked his paternal love under a continuous mask of censorious disapproval. Even here, he had to wrap his condemnation of his father's decision to go to Canterbury in a convolution: "I am by no means sure that it was not the greatest mistake in his life."[513] He was now determined to re-write the record: EWB was to be put in his box, and that box was Truro. As he explained to the readers of the Church Family Newspaper, he was "placing as many little relics of him as I can collect in the Cathedral library".[514] The Master of Magdalene College had finally faced down the Primate of All England.

Benson's essays in Memories and Friends were a less direct riposte, but they can incidentally be read as a warning to a rival author to keep off his turf. The book was in many respects a sequel to previous collection of biographical sketches, The Leaves of the Tree, but, during the interval between the two publications, another and very different author had invaded Benson's biographical turf. Lytton Strachey had begun to plan his Eminent Victorians in 1912, initially as a dozen sketches – both the timing and the format suggest that Strachey planned to use Benson's format to subvert the era which Benson seemed to embody. (When, in February 1912, Benson gave a paper to a small literary group in Trinity, "a strange bearded man" turned up, accompanying Bertrand Russell. It was Lytton Strachey.) Before the book appeared, in 1918, Strachey had slimmed down his focus to just four personalities, one of them General Gordon, about whom Benson and his friend Herbert Tatham had written in their 1892 collection, Men of Might. The two Eton masters had praised Gordon's heroism; Strachey, writing after Kitchener's bloody re-conquest of the Sudan in 1898, sneered at imperial revenge. He had also trenched upon Benson's methodology, aiming, as he put it, to lower a small bucket into a deep ocean, or "shoot a sudden, revealing searchlight into obscure recesses". Strachey's condemnation of commemorative biography would also have struck home: "Those two fat volumes with which it is our custom to commemorate the dead – who does not know them, with their ill-digested masses of material, their slipshod style, their tone of tedious panegyric, their lamentable lack of selection, of detachment, of design?"[515] Benson's life of his father was elegantly written and – given the constraints of the father-son relationship – admirably independent in judgment, but it was criticised at the time for its overloading of evidence. Strachey followed up Eminent Victorians three years later with an incisive but unflattering life of the Queen herself. He drew upon Victoria's published letters, even citing the three-volume edition in his bibliography – although omitting the names of the editors. Benson did not explicitly present Memories and Friends as a reply to Strachey, although he did describe his essays in their American edition as studies "of influential, if not notably conspicuous personalities, in that tranquil and prosperous period covering the closing years of Queen Victoria's reign". And there was one waspish side-flip, in his portrayal of Lady Ponsonby, long-time companion of the widowed monarch: she "understood the character and temperament of the Queen, which in spite of her apparent simplicity was really a very complex, impassioned, and emphatic character, better than anyone, even than Mr Strachey!"[516]

Refreshed and renewed, Benson also laid about him in public controversy. His April 1923 letter to The Times professed to be "a humble plea against the excessive zeal for revision of services which at present seems to have seized upon the representative Church Assemblies". He was troubled by the trend towards providing "alternative services", which he saw as "the deliberate introduction of the sectarian principle inside the Anglican Communion."  It was argued that this was necessary to prevent the secession of the High Church faction. Benson doubted the threat: "where will they go? Will they form a separate Nonconformist body, or join the Church of Rome?" Rejecting the idea of appeasement, he announced that he "would rather that they went out rather than that they established a monopoly of tone within the Anglican Church."[517]

Two years later, he returned to the charge, professing himself to be "seriously concerned about the influence and the future of the Church of England". Clergy were not being replaced as they retired and died off, congregations were falling, and yet, in the post-war world, "the ethical side of religion, problems of life and conduct, the growth of character and responsibility, arouse more interest than ever in the minds of the younger generation .... It is the old sharply-defined dogmas, the ancient sanctions and title-deeds, the crudely miraculous claims of medieval theology, which have lost their hold upon the increasing intelligence of the nation." Far from debating social problems, the Church Assembly seemed obsessed with points of dogma and pirouettes of ritual, its members "engaged, with enthusiasm and even animus, in discussions which would seem to be more suited to the private proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries." Moderate people could only assume that Church had lost interest in any wider moral mission.[518]

There was nothing new in Benson's anticlerical impatience. At a service in Wimborne Minster in 1905, he had felt the celebrants to be "dilettante and silly.... the clergy had no business to be sitting there dressed up, feebly wishing things were otherwise, and bending in prayer .... They ought to have been trying to mend the world ... not engaged in sleepy mooning orisons. I felt a hatred of all priestly persons, eating the bread of superstition and sentiment." But there was surely some contradiction in Benson's opposition to Prayer Book reform: how else could the Church get rid of what he called "the old stupidities", if not through liturgical reform? He was a particular critic of Compline, the evening service now not much emphasised in the Anglican church, but loyally celebrated in the Benson household, even after EWB's death. He hated it with "every fibre of my being", not least because, as a big-built man, he objected to being forced to kneel. He felt "sulky despair" at "the utter meaninglessness of the whole absurd drama". He was embarrassed by the "idiocy" of Psalm 91, with its strange sentiment that: "Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder: the young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under feet."  "It isn't true as a statement; it isn't poetical or uplifting." Benson's position was also inconsistent since he had earlier served on a Church committee to revise the Psalter, and was singled out in 1923 by Herbert Ryle, the Bishop of Winchester, as one of its authorities on modern English expression.[519] Perhaps he feared that the very slight adherence he was able to give to fundamental Anglican principles would become untenable if they were actually translated into comprehensible language. Perhaps, too, he recalled the Revised Version of the Bible, much of it the work of his father's friend, Brooke Foss Westcott, which had been completed during EWB's Primacy. Although there were optimistic expectations that it would revolutionise popular attitudes to religion, its sober language lacked the inspiration of the Authorised Version of 1611.

Benson's attack on the Church Assembly was criticised by Aubrey T. Lawrence, a prominent barrister who served as Chancellor of several Anglican dioceses. Lawrence acidly suggested that isolation in his "secluded backwater" had led the Master of Magdalene to miss much that was going on in the Church. This provoked Benson into caustic retaliation reminiscent of some of his angrier outbursts against compulsory Greek. In a tone of mock humility, he pretended to have wondered "whether in the secluded backwater of Cambridge I might have missed seeing the accounts of some serious national work being done by the Church Assembly". However, Lawrence's account of its practical agenda set his mind at rest. "I think I have never heard so loud a fanfare of self-congratulation heralding so lean a proclamation!" He continued to insist that the Anglican Church was wrong "in allowing it to appear that her own ceremonial, even her own private business arrangements, are her chief preoccupations." Although he had initiated the attack, Benson adopted the strategic defence of portraying himself as a victim. "I have been criticized, particularly in Church papers, with that particular quality of acrid personal bitterness which seems to be the special privilege of religious-minded people when their toes are trodden on." Benson's flourish was slightly dented when Lawrence pointed out that it would have been easy to check that he was not a member of the Church Assembly himself.[520]

A large element in Benson's distaste for Prayer Book reform was undoubtedly his dislike of the Church's ritualist wing. Visiting an old-fashioned church in Sussex in the summer of 1924, he had noted with pleasure, "no Anglo-Catholic nonsense". In his last public statement, he joined with 130 other prominent Anglicans in "A Call to Action", a manifesto protesting against a resolution passed by the House of Clergy in favour of recognising the festival of Corpus Christi. The signatories objected that the festival lacked Biblical validation, that it was something accepted by medieval Church in 1215, and based upon "a nun's supposed vision", The core complaint here was against the Anglo-Catholics, who "having for years successfully defied authority, are now claiming to wield it, and impose their will upon the Church as a whole."[521]

In the face of Benson's demonic energy, his tiny corner of Cambridge seemed anything but a secluded backwater. "He was now for the first time Master of Magdalene as a going concern, and a very actively going concern, more than half as large again as it had ever been, and improving every year in the quality of its intake." "He knew everyone and everything," Turner concluded, and "the whole College was inspired with his personality and friendly happiness."[522] Turner himself had now graduated, and turned his interests to literature, and to the promotion of music within the College. A First World War pilot, his face had been disfigured in a crash, a handicap that predisposed him to depressive introspection. He would treasure a letter from Benson that insisted: "you mustn't say that you receive and don't give. You have done everything for our music and an immense deal to keep everything friendly and serene."[523] Benson had resumed his energetic programme of inviting undergraduates to lunch. The experience could be an ordeal for gauche youngsters: one freshman, from a day school at Gloucester, was offered a whole pineapple for dessert. Never having encountered the fruit before, he was obliged to pass. But Benson had a gift for drawing people out, and it was usual for his young guests to leave "feeling that we had talked brilliantly." Especially amusing anecdotes were formally recorded in a record called the Yellow Book. "What he stood for was a large part of the experience of Magdalene and of Cambridge for me and many of my contemporaries," recalled J.E.H. Blackie, a product of a minor public school, Bradfield.[524]

Benson also resumed his lavish expenditure of cash for the benefit of the College. To celebrate his recovery, he gave £1,500 of his own money for a student common room, known until 1965 as the Reading Room, linking together ground floor rooms on C and D staircases in First Court.  Two further lavish gifts from Eugenie and Edouard de Nottbeck in 1924 and 1925 helped him complete that project: the Magdalene College Magazine reported that "the College is indebted to the generosity of the Master and an unknown lady donor". Other projects included fives' courts, a "parlour" behind the High Table to enable the Fellows to assemble for Hall, a common room for bedmakers, the paving of paths in Second Court, extra bathrooms and improvements to the Chapel. "The Master's liberality has never assumed a more lavish form," the Magazine reported in December 1923. There were quiet acts of charity too, bursaries for needy undergraduates, "not necessarily of first-rate intellectual ability, but likely to do credit to themselves and the place of their education if they could stay in Cambridge long enough to take a degree." By 1924, the College was actively preparing to expand on the west side of Magdalene Street. Benson's money underwrote the purchase of an old brewery which was ripe for conversion and extension. The death of his former pupil, George Mallory, on Mount Everest that year gave the new court an honoured name.[525]

All this munificence was excellent, but it was not without its dangers. He described his £1,500 gift for the Reading Room as "a small thank-offering to my dear and kind colleagues." But it was taken for granted that his dear and kind colleagues would accept his priorities. Turner, his admirer, now a Bye-Fellow, noted that "he was a despot, and an entirely benevolent one, but absolute; and he would brook no opposition." Two of his senior colleagues had personally benefited from his financial assistance, at a time when Cambridge academics generally and Magdalene dons in particular were poorly paid. All gained indirectly from his decision to disclaim most of the salary of the Mastership. "Senior Fellows had sometimes difficult passages, hardly keeping pace with his swift adaptability." As A.S. Ramsey put it in his obituary of Benson, "a rebuke from him was in itself an encouragement to better things". It is impossible to imagine what might have happened had some problem arisen that divided the Master from the College community. Although issues of deep principle were not the Magdalene style, even such small matters as appropriate dress had the potential to cause disagreement: Benson's note of one Governing Body meeting in 1923 was "absurd strife about knickerbockers".  Turner was surely right when he wrote of Benson's magisterial ascendancy: "Such a phase in the life of a College must be unusual and perhaps it had better be short."[526]

In addition to the blizzard of energy with which he engulfed his College, Benson also resumed his manifold activities outside Cambridge. He was "moved almost to tears" by the welcome he received when he reappeared among the Fishmongers, his City of London livery company, in June 1923.  The following year, he was elected to the office of Renter Warden, which carried responsibility for the welfare of the Company's pensioners. He set out to visit them all, finding himself in parts of London that he had never seen, from the back streets of Clapham Junction to the fringes of Epping Forest. The Renter Warden was also in charge of hospitality, and Benson "was careful to see that everything was carried out finely and with dignity". His Fishmonger friends felt that "his long absence made him appreciate the social side of life even more than before". At formal dinners, "he radiated geniality and contributed much more than his share to the pleasure of the evening." They intended that he should take his turn as Prime Warden, the head of the company, in June 1926. Benson took the prospect seriously. In March 1925, he visited Billingsgate, where the Company retained responsibility for the disposal of rotten fish (it was taken by barge to Wapping and made into poultry food). It was not a pleasant experience: the stench "made me feel almost faint, and remained with me all day".  Yet it is hard to see how Benson could have allowed himself to be seen as the incoming head of a City livery company, since he was also in line to become Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University.

Indeed, on 2 June 1925, just two weeks before his death, he was pre-nominated for the Vice-Chancellorship of Cambridge University, meaning that he would be elected in that same month, June 1926, to commence a two-year term in October. The office was a heavy burden under any circumstances. By 1925, it was already possible to foresee that Benson's term of office would be exceptionally challenging: it is necessary to look ahead a little to illustrate just how onerous the workload and responsibility would have proved.

 Effectively, the University adopted a new constitution on 1 October 1926. Between 1919 and 1922, a Royal Commission had reviewed post-war Cambridge, and recommended extensive changes in the Statutes. This process came to fruition during the winter of 1925-6. Decision-making was vested in a new body, the Regent House, comprising Masters of Arts actually working in the University and Colleges: no longer could carefully pondered schemes of reform be swept aside by hordes of country clergymen, motivated by unreasoning nostalgia. Throughout 1926-7, supporting regulations were required to flesh out the Statutes, and more than one hundred reports were considered on other aspects of reform. There was a major shift towards the centralising of undergraduate teaching, under the control of entities called Faculties (other universities generally called them Departments). A General Board was established to coordinate their activities. The Royal Commission had recommended that the University's small central administration should develop into an efficient secretariat, but the evolution of academic super-bureaucrats would not happen overnight. The transfer of existing College lecturers to the University payroll involved a great deal of preliminary work to create new employment structures. Management of these new institutions obviously required a Vice-Chancellor who was unusually well-informed and closely informed in all aspects of academic business.

In addition to breaking in the new structures, Benson as Vice-Chancellor would have had to oversee other developments. Three new Chairs were created between 1926 and 1928, in Economic History, Law and Mathematics. The long-serving Regius Professor of Modern History, J.B. Bury, died in 1927. The appointment lay not with the University but with the government, but back-channel consultations would almost certainly have taken place. Fortunately, the prime minister, Stanley Baldwin (Harrow and Trinity) appointed the outstandingly qualified G.M. Trevelyan (Harrow and Trinity). Money was a perennial headache, both for running costs and capital projects. In October 1928, the International Education Board, a Rockefeller-funded body, announced an offer of £700,000 – one of the largest gifts ever made to Cambridge – on condition that the University itself raised another £229,000 in matching funds. (Fund-raising by the University proved to be very effective, which may explain the relative failure of Magdalene's own rival appeal in 1928.) Preliminary negotiations for the Rockefeller benefaction would have taken place during Benson's term of office.[527]  The two Royal Commissions in Victorian times had imposed changes in the face of widespread resistance. On this occasion, reform was generally consensual: the Vice-Chancellor. G.A. Weekes of Sidney Sussex, who had stepped into the breach after Benson's death, reported in 1927 that "no controversies had ruffled the surface of university life."[528] This might not have been the case had Benson held office, since his tenure would probably have been complicated by the controversy over the proposed adoption of the New Prayer Book, an issue upon which he had already held forth.

It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that Benson could not have simultaneously held the highest offices in a City company and an ancient university. The looming workload of the Vice-Chancellorship was daunting enough for a man whose health was precarious: even postponing his commitment to the Fishmongers might not have been enough. "I don't at all want to be V.C. [Vice-Chancellor] nor much to be Prime Warden," he wrote in his diary two months before his death.[529] Yet there is no sign that he intended to confront the issue. Indeed, after the Donaldson imbroglio, it would have been impossible for a Master of Magdalene not to have taken his turn running the University. Gaselee noted of the final two years of his life, when Benson seemed to be in overdrive, that "his friends began to be almost alarmed at the amount of new obligations which he accepted".  M.R. James posed the specific issue. "Would such an accumulation of affairs have proved too heavy?" After Benson's death, there seemed little point in speculating, "but some of us had our misgivings: it hardly seemed possible that the vivid enjoyment of life in which ... he moved in his last two years could be maintained."[530]

Here, we should perhaps pause and ask whether the chronological approach to Benson's life story has led biographers to overlook an underlying threat. In Lubbock's sunlit account, the five years of mental illness "suddenly and completely disappeared ... like the rolling up of a curtain ... all his old ease of work and enjoyment came back to him with a rush, and he was himself again." Hence Newsome characterised that final burst of joyous hyperactivity as his "Indian summer". A retrospective medical diagnosis by a historian lacking medical qualifications should obviously be treated with what might be called a health warning. Nonetheless, the intensity of his illness between 1917 and 1923 does suggest that we should consider the possibility that he suffered from bipolar disorder. In the dark depths of depression, sufferers are victims, but during the violent upswings that follow, they are equally hostages to the condition. Newsome picked up the point, but did not develop it. "It is characteristic of the manic depressive that he can do nothing by halves."  There are suggestive clues, such as A.S. Ramsey's recollection that Benson was "altogether indefatigable. I do not think he ever admitted to being tired. He went to bed late and he woke early" – characteristics associated with bipolar disorder, if not exclusively so. We can only ponder the poignant question posed by M.R. James in the months after Benson's death: "Would the veil of depression have fallen on him again, never to be lifted?"[531]

Benson's inward anguish was detected by two artists in this late period of his life. He was a challenge to any portraitist. "My face is of the vague Teutonic type that looks like everybody else," he commented in 1902, after a tipsy fellow passenger on a train in North Wales had harangued him under the impression that he was Mr Mostyn of Mold.  James Beaumont-James, a Magdalene freshman in 1906, thought that his attraction "was rather the spell of a personality than of a face." Some men have their personalities flamboyantly enhanced by a moustache; reduced to two dimensions on canvas, Benson was more likely to be seen to be hiding behind his sad soup-strainer of facial hair. In 1923, he allowed himself to be painted by a young boyfriend of Percy Lubbock, who saw him as "glaring at things in general ... a rueful fevered man ... full of bitter and resentful endurance".  Benson felt that his face seemed to have been "struck out by smashing blows of a hammer". His temper was not improved by Lubbock's assurance that "it was a perfect likeness, noble in character." Benson's initial reaction was that the portrait should be destroyed, but – in a splendidly Dorian Gray moment – he eventually consigned it to a garret.[532] The following year, he sat for an established artist, William Nicholson. Nicholson had first attempted to paint him in 1917, but the project was apparently abandoned with Benson's breakdown. Perhaps his knowledge of that ordeal coloured Nicholson's interpretation, but it was – and is – a shocking portrait. Nicholson encountered some difficulty in deciding how to capture his subject, making several attempts before painting him in half-profile, turning defensively and almost resentfully towards the viewer. It is a sad face, and the eyes are of an individual who seems both haunted and hunted. Benson was less horrified than he had been by the work of Lubbock's young friend, but definitely not impressed. "I am a stout bilious man, with a heavy jowl and red-rimmed eyes ... all the coarse and bored elements have come to the surface." He left instructions that the picture should be offered to the National Portrait Gallery and, if rejected (as it was), then to the Fellows of Magdalene. They promptly presented it to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. With its magnificent collection, the Fitzwilliam does not always display the picture, but I can recall first seeing it in the nineteen-seventies, and being much struck by realising that Benson was far more complex and tragic figure than an affectionate and superficial tradition seemed to convey.[533]

In the event, it was not his mental stability but his physical health that failed. Until well into middle age, Benson had been something of a fitness fanatic, especially devoted to successive manifestations of the bicycle. As an undergraduate, he had explored the Cambridgeshire countryside on the old high bicycle, a dangerous contraption which he ironically described as being as difficult to mount (he weighed sixteen stone) as it was easy to dismount. In 1888, in his mid-twenties, he had cycled from Eton to Aberystwyth, a journey of around 160 miles. In 1904, aged 43, he covered twelve and a half miles from Cambridge to Newmarket in fifty minutes.  But the acquisition of a motor car in 1907 may have been a turning point: the purposeful afternoon walks continued ("I can't do without exercise – I get stupid and brutal," he wrote in 1912), but he was now often driven to Point A and collected from Point B by his chauffeur.[534] Although Benson tried to be abstemious when drinking wine, the endless round of High Tables, feasts and official lunches took their toll. By the end of 1924, he was at least three stone (20 kilograms) overweight, and was visibly stout. It seems that he tried to cut back on smoking in 1912, but with little long-term success: one word portrait has him "twitching his cigarette with restless fingers".[535] There was at least one bout of illness during those final years: he wrote an amused account of being ordered to stay in bed for five days, from his initial pleasure at missing tedious meetings, through his growing sense of abandonment by the whole world.[536] On 6 June 1924, four days after he had been nominated as Cambridge's next Vice-Chancellor, he became seriously ill with pleurisy. A heart attack and pneumonia followed. To the added distress of his friends, he lapsed into despondency, expressing his fear "that if he recovered he would not have strength to face the future or take up his work again." His Magdalene colleagues found the sudden crisis "monstrous and bewildering": it was the height of summer, and the College was preparing for its annual Graduation Dinner. On 16 June, they were warned that Benson was dying. Married Fellows came in to College to join the bachelors in an unofficial vigil. Twenty minutes after midnight, "they learned that he was no more." Gaselee could find but one consolation. "At least he was spared a third period of mental depression".[537]


The centenary of Benson's death, in 2025, will presumably call, if not for celebration, at least for some re-examination of his life and work. At the time of writing, in late 2017, that anniversary is little more than seven years ahead, and some possible forms of commemoration would require considerable time for preparation. This section suggests and reviews some themes that call for assessment one hundred years after Benson's death. Themes need to be filtered, to clarify what was important about Benson in his own time, as distinct from issues associated with him which retain resonance today. It will become apparent that the suggested agenda implies a symposium or volume of collected essays, and perhaps even a larger-scale team research project. It is the happy prerogative of an emeritus professor to dream of such enterprises, knowing that they can only be taken forward, if at all, by others.


We may start, if not by dismissing outright, but at least by playing down two of the headings. No doubt all members of the British elite were to some extent imperialists, in that they accepted the Empire and connived in its failings, but Benson was far from a jingo nationalist. If Land and Hope and Glory is to be played in his memory, let it be the gentle and moving version from Elgar's 1902 Coronation Ode, so long overlooked in favour of the exhilarating "Wider still and wider" adaptation in Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1. Those who suspect that Benson was some sort of carbuncle upon the music of a great composer should be reminded that Elgar considered writing an opera in 1904, "if Mr A.C. Benson finds the libretto".[538] If the Empire is an embarrassing memory, Benson's narrow and idyllic interpretation of Englishness is hardly more helpful. It is likely that constitutional pressures within the United Kingdom will stimulate further discussion of the nature of English identity but, as previously argued, his Edwardian world of cottage gardens will be of little use in the twenty-first century.


A second element that needs to be placed in perhaps reduced perspective is Benson's homosexuality. Newsome's emphasis on the importance of his "romantic friendships" was an important corrective to the received picture in 1980. Goldhill's emphasis upon Benson's "queerness" forms part of a linking theme covering the while family. But future biographers should perhaps heed the modern Stonewall slogan: "Some people are gay. Get over it." It is difficult to improve upon Ronald Hyam's balanced description of forty years ago, written when 'outing' historical figures was still a relatively novel exercise. "Benson was mildly homosexual, in a chaste and tepidly emotional English early-twentieth century manner." Certainly, a great deal has been written about the sexuality of a person who almost certainly never shared in any act of physical intimacy in his entire life. The future Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, a Magdalene undergraduate during Benson's final golden period, regarded this aspect of his emotional life as of minor significance: "he impressed not a few of us by the range of his friendship to many who were not at all romantic in the least, and this is the Benson whom we remember."[539] Of course, Benson's sexuality would have merited more biographical attention had he been a practising homosexual, since he would have been engaged in behaviour that was against the law. Although his personal crisis in and after November 1882 has been interpreted as largely sexual, this does not seem to have been an element in his later breakdowns, in 1907 and 1917. But then again, we should keep in mind that Benson's form of apparently total disclosure may be a form of concealment, masking elements of denial and self-censorship: if his mental illnesses were triggered by the emotional trauma of male-to-male attraction, it was unlikely that he would have revealed the cause.  However, any such grand passion would surely have left other traces, for instance in his diary. From a modern point of view, some potential issues arise in relation to favouritism. In the 1907 entrance scholarship examination, for instance, Benson personally financed an award for a young man who had charmed him, passing over an abler candidate who resembled "an ill-designed frog", and whose shapeless handwriting had somehow caused offence. But even then, it is impossible to assert with confidence that the preference was entirely sexual – it was the boy's personality that had captivated him – unless we have determined in advance that all Bensonian personal relations were driven by the desire for romantic friendship. (This particular young man does not appear to have entered the orbit very closely anyway).[540]


The centenary will no doubt consider the art of biography. Benson was unusual as a biographer in tackling one subject, his own father, at two levels: first, in 1899, through the much-derided form of a double-volume official Life and Letters, and later, in 1923, retracing the ground covered by the first volume in an informal memoir, The Trefoil. He also conveyed the impression of producing penetrating cameo portraits of personalities, some of whom he knew – or had at least observed at close quarters – with others recreated through adept sketches. In 1913, he ruminated on the "very interesting question" of "the precise limits of discretion and indiscretion permitted to a biographer." This essay was written with his EWB door-stopper in mind. "It is easy to tell nothing but truth about a man, and yet to give a thoroughly erroneous idea about him." In a book written soon after the subjects' death, "it may be practically impossible, with due regard to the feelings of survivors and relatives, to tell the whole truth." (The double category here, "survivors and relatives", almost certainly alludes to the influence exercised on the portrayal by his mother.) One reason why Boswell's Johnson was "probably the best biography ever written" was that there was neither widow nor close relations to contest unflattering revelations. It was noteworthy too that Benson praised Winston Churchill's biography of his father, Lord Randolph, declaring that its author demonstrated "the rare gift of never allowing his critical sense to be overpowered by filial admiration and sympathy." The unstated subtext was that the assessment came from a judge who had achieved a similar measure of affectionate detachment when writing about his own father.

As Benson saw the problem, biography was an exercise doomed to failure: "if a biographer is not intimate with his subject he cannot give a lifelike portrait; if he is intimate, he may hesitate to be frank, or if he is frank, he will be accused of impiety." We seem to be close here to Goldhill's sweeping dismissal of this form of life-writing as "a ludicrous genre. ... the attempt to summon up a life in neatly chronological prose is bound to be an expression of its own failure."[541] Unfortunately, in Benson's case, the problems went even deeper. As his mischievous denigration of Alfred Newton demonstrated, immediacy did not guarantee accuracy. When he attempted imaginative reconstruction of some prominent personality whom he had never encountered in real life, the dangers of outright distortion were even greater. Percy Lubbock, generally so sympathetic of his mentor's shortcomings, saw this as inevitable. Truly to understand another human being "required an imagination that could not only see from without but feel from within". This was a facility that Benson lacked: "it was not likely that one so well secured against invasion himself should be able to break through the inner defences of another." As Lubbock so carefully put it, the driving forces behind human behaviour included some motivations "not the least important, of which he had no knowledge at all". The result was that when he attempted to go beyond external observation, often close and detailed though it might be, "he was reduced on the whole to guesswork, to precarious speculation, very handy and vivacious in itself, but not marked by authority."[542] This was certainly a reasonable criticism of his earliest biographical venture, his 1888 life of Laud.

The further complication with Benson's writings is that there was no clear frontier between biography and autobiography. He wrote a good deal explicitly about himself, from his first-person essays through to books like The Schoolmaster, on his classroom experience, and Thy Rod and Thy Staff, on coping with mental illness. When he depicted his family or his close friends, inevitably the portrayals included a great deal of the author. There is at least one case where it may be argued that he injected himself (or his idealised self) into a sketch of a man he had never met. Benson conceived a curiously intense idealisation of William Johnson Cory, the Eton master of a previous generation dismissed for dubious friendships with boys. He was one of the select group who subscribed to publish a selection of Cory's letters, a volume which he dipped into for inspiration. "I cannot express what that book does for me," he wrote in 1899.[543] In 1905, Benson contributed an introduction to an edition of Johnson's Ionica. There can be little doubt that Benson projected into his character sketch of a man he had never encountered a number of elements which he either possessed or wished he could claim for himself (reading Cory in 1905 made him feel "truly ashamed of my paltry, weak, trivial, sentimental, ignorant mind"). The overall picture was dismissed by Herbert Lane, a Liberal politician and himself a biographer. Lane had been taught by Cory, who left such an impression that, even thirty years later, he instinctively used the phrase "My tutor". Some of Lane's objections were caustic and unfair. Benson's statement that Cory was "a first rate classical scholar" reminded him of a peer of the realm who told Mrs Gladstone that he understood her husband took a "considerable interest in politics". But in other instances, Lane insisted that Benson was simply misinformed. The claim that it was "no exaggeration" that Cory had "one of the most vigorous and commanding minds of the century" drew an acid response. "It is not an exaggeration, because an exaggeration is an overstatement of fact. It is altogether wide of the mark." Lane insisted that Cory's few attempts to influence wider public opinion had been total failures: he was simply a good teacher. Benson attributed "strong common sense" to Cory; Lane recalled someone who was "morbidly, sometimes painfully, eccentric". Devastatingly, he concluded that Benson had produced "an interesting, ingenious little essay, on a character evolved from his own mind."[544]

"... and I not there": a possible comparative approach                     

If biography by Benson provides much scope for speculative exploration, biography of Benson cries out for unifying themes. One phrase that may potentially encapsulate important aspects of Benson is the poignant refrain, "... and I not there", which Newsome chose as an intriguing chapter title. Benson used it wistfully, as he witnessed a busy Eton scene shortly after he had formally left the school staff. He also invoked it with roguish delight to celebrate his absence, on grounds of ill health, from an academic committee meeting. Perhaps most telling was the wistful resentment which he revealed, as he faced the reality that life would continue without him after his death, "and I not there."[545] One of the apparent elements of paradox about Benson is that he seemed snugly located within a world of influence and privilege, but somehow behaved as if were observing it from outside. Son of an archbishop, a product of Eton and King's, a don at an old-fashioned Cambridge College, Benson still somehow managed to create the impression that he was an onlooker, observing with slightly detached disbelief. There may be a parallel in a similar one-man awkward squad of an earlier generation, Goldwin Smith. Smith was born in 1823, the son of Richard Smith, a medical doctor in Reading who made enough money to retire to a country house. Like Benson, he was a successful and satisfied Etonian, who went on to become an educational reformer – in Smith's case, directing his energies towards the University of Oxford. Like Benson, Smith's life was dominated by mental illness, in his case the collapse of his father. Goldwin Smith resigned his Oxford position to become a full-time carer, but during the son's a brief absence from home, Richard Smith took his own life. As the only surviving child (he too had an elder brother who had died at the age of eighteen), Goldwin Smith inherited a considerable fortune – plus, perhaps, a burden of guilt, but if so, one that he successfully internalised. In an ironic counterpoint to Benson's election at Magdalene, Smith's Fellowship at Oriel College Oxford was subject to a means test. His father's death made him so wealthy that he ceased to be eligible to hold it. Aged 44, with independent means and no obvious occupation, he accepted an invitation to help establish Cornell University in New York State. Where Benson transferred to Cambridge and attacked the University's bias towards the ancient languages, Smith subsequently made the more eccentric move to Toronto, despite his declared (and locally very unpopular) view that Canada could never become a true nation and was destined to absorption by the United States. At the age of 52, he married a wealthy and childless widow, who owned a colonial mansion in the heart of the city, where a staff of devoted servants created an enclave of traditional Englishness.

Like Benson, Goldwin Smith was a hyperactive scribbler, whose journalistic effusions were published under the pen-name of "The Bystander". The interests of the two men differed in emphasis. Goldwin Smith published literary studies of William Cowper and Jane Austen, but most of his output contributed to political controversy, often espousing unpopular issues, such as support for the North in the American Civil War, or the attempt to prosecute Governor Eyre for the violent suppression of political disturbances in Jamaica. Where Benson was unenthusiastic about the Empire but was, so to speak, on its payroll, Smith denounced "imperialism" in all its manifestations.  Cold and dogmatic, he differed from Benson in personality too, and it is clear from his long-suffering private secretary and truculent Boswell, Arnold Haultain, that he had no interest of any kind in young men. But the similarities and the parallels remain striking. Both men were historians in a pre-professional era: although briefly Regius Professor at Oxford, Smith's habit of dating events to "the other day" can be frustrating. He resigned from his founding Chair at Cornell University when women were admitted, and was a noted anti-suffragist. Like Benson, he deplored the cult of athletics in the universities. Just as Benson declined to contest the headmastership of Eton, so Smith refused numerous offers of parliamentary seats, both in Britain and in Canada. Considered separately, both Goldwin Smith and A.C. Benson seem maverick figures, moving easily in elite circles – political in the case of Smith, educational and ecclesiastical with Benson – but rejecting many of the values associated with their own background and training. Considered in the context of mutual comparison, they may begin to make sense as members of the wider middle class who found themselves uneasy with the assumptions associated with power and prestige.[546] Those who knew and admired Benson naturally insisted upon his uniqueness, but it may be that additional light can be thrown upon his career if he is viewed as an example of a type, rare though the sub-species may be.

Goldwin Smith was far more open and outspoken than Benson in dismissing traditional religion, although he too denied that he was an agnostic: a devotion to Anglican liturgy made him a regular churchgoer. Essays in his Guesses at the Riddle of Existence (1898) rejected the doctrine of the Atonement and expressed doubts about the evidence for the Resurrection. In his 1903 lecture, The Founder of Christendom (published by the American Unitarian Society), he dismissed the divinity of Jesus. It remains to be established whether Benson was directly influenced by these works, or whether his own essays simply reflected religious doubts acquired through a miasma of fashionable dinner-table talk. Academic theologians will probably assure a centenary review that neither Benson nor Smith were profound contributors to religious debate (although both reached a wide audience).

"What an odd book this diary is!"[547]  

The theme of biography in a Benson centennial review will naturally elide with the independently important question of the utility of his diary. Diary-writing is already the subject of a vigorous academic literature. Here, only some outline and specific points are suggested. It is worth noting that a specific intellectual responsibility rests here upon Magdalene College Cambridge (and I write without knowledge of any current thinking on the matter within the College), for it is the home of the greatest diary in the English language, the journal (as he called it) of Samuel Pepys. Indeed, the Benson centenary will follow immediately upon the three hundredth anniversary of the College's acquisition of the library of Samuel Pepys in 1724, although it would be almost a century before the barrier of Shilton's shorthand was broken to reveal the importance.[548] Sometimes, reading the sharper personal comments in Benson's diary, it might seem that perhaps he felt Pepys looking over his shoulder. However, despite living for two years in the Pepys Building, and enthusiastically participating in the annual Pepys Dinner, he showed surprisingly little interest in his celebrated precursor.

There would seem to be two clusters of questions posed by the existence of Benson's extensive diaries, one concerning motivation and accuracy, the other dealing with approach and access. It may be worth keeping in mind the poignant comment of a fourteen year-old Etonian, Anthony Eden, as he struggled to memorialise his life. "Awfully hard to keep a diary at school because it is always the same every day."[549] A humdrum, or at least well-regulated, existence may in itself trigger an escapist private record. As already argued, the impression that Benson was inspired to start a regular diary (he had made previous attempts) by reading the published correspondence of William Johnson Cory is probably unfounded, since the Cory volume chiefly comprised letters, with some holiday travelogues. In From a College Window, he urged the practice as an aid to developing fluency in writing and elegance in style. "The habit of diarizing is easily acquired, and as soon as it becomes habitual, the day is no more complete without it than it is complete without a cold bath and regular meals." (We should never forget how much we owe to advances in bathroom amenity since the Benson era.) He went on to anticipate young Eden's plaint. "A diary need not be a dreary chronicle of one's movements; it should aim rather at giving a salient account of some particular episode, a walk, a book, a conversation." In The Importance of Being Earnest, Gwendolyn Fairfax takes her diary when she travels. "One should always have something sensational to read in the train." Benson, too, thought it was "a singularly delightful thing to look at old diaries, to see how one was occupied, say, ten years ago; what one was reading, the people one was meeting, one's earlier point of view." How far he maintained the practice of revisiting his earlier life during later years it seems impossible to say, but some passages can hardly have been "singularly delightful" since they were later obliterated. Newsome suspects they were "entries felt subsequently to be too intimate for posterity to read", but they may also have been comments that even Benson, acerbic though he could be in his private judgements, came to feel on reflection were unfair. It was Benson himself who decreed that the diaries should be sealed for fifty years, stating in his Will that he had written "very frankly and intimately about living persons and private matters."[550] We come back to the basic problem that, for all the apparent insight a diary a may give into the writer's innermost thoughts, it is the one literary form that has no court of appeal. Conversational gambits may be rebutted by interlocutors, published work refuted by reviewers, but the private entry in the confidential journal stands supreme. "Arthur Benson talking to himself and Arthur Benson talking to other people were two very different people," concluded Percy Lubbock, who sometimes had difficulty in linking the two together. "A diary has great value for the historian," wrote Michael Ramsey, "but the historian needs to check his [sic] impressions from it by the evidence of some who were living witnesses at the time and knew the subject well."[551] Unfortunately, by the time Archbishop Ramsey was writing, in 1986, he was one of the few survivors who could actually remember Benson.  His message was carefully coded, but it was substantially identical to the concern Frank Salter had voiced to me in 1967: Benson the diarist might be enjoyed but could not necessarily be trusted.

This, in turn, raises the question of how to use Benson's diary. Hyam censured Newsome for approaching the material "with a preconceived notion of what he wanted it to yield to him", a sharp condemnation of his biography's emphasis upon the theme of male romantic friendships. "Seeing enough to sustain it, he lost sight of the need to allow the source itself to dictate the shape of the account. One theme alone cannot make sense of the diary." But, as the preceding paragraph has argued, the diary cannot be allowed to determine the entire content of the resulting narrative, because of the uneven quality of its own emphases. Thus, Benson may have had motives of frustrated status that led him to denigrate successful contemporaries, but it is unlikely that he would have had any reason to exaggerate the miles that he walked, or the hours that he slept (or, in his case, was tormented by insomnia). To quote Hyam again, "obviously the selection of material from a vast source is a matter of judgement, and no two people will ever agree over it."[552]

Thus the issue of approach leads to the challenge of access. Many diaries are now online. The Royal Archives in association with the Bodleian Library made Queen Victoria's journals available in 2012. The University of Durham is sponsoring a major project to make Hensley Henson's private thoughts available. Should the Benson diary be added to them? Back in 1927, the New York reviewer Percy A. Hutchison doubted whether even Lubbock's selection deserved to see the light of day. "Arthur Benson knew ... that in the world of enduring letters he was a failure; therefore ... he was forever whistling, not only to keep his own courage up, but to impress his friends. To make his figure more formidable, he sought out the acquaintance of the great". The criticism was unfair. As Benson wrote in 1904, "I make it a rule never to introduce myself to the notice of distinguished men, unless they recognise me".[553]  In any case, it makes the mistake of confusing the document with its creator: the literary canon would be seriously depleted if the works of all objectionable authors were excluded. More to the point, no editor in 1926 could predict the future careers of the young men whom Benson weighed and judged in his private assessments. Lubbock managed to convey something of Benson's relationship with Hugh Walpole, but there was no way of foretelling that B.K. Martin would go on edit the New Statesman, or that I.A. Richards would develop into one of the most influential literary critics of the twentieth century. Perhaps the centenary could be marked by a second Lubbock, as Richard Luckett called for in 1980, or a sequel to Newsome's own compilation of Benson extracts, Edwardian Excursions. But such a volume would have limited appeal. There would seem to be a case for online publication, assuming that the technology will not have been overtaken by 2025 in favour of some currently unimaginable form of dissemination. Editorial instinct would probably be tempted to opt for severe pruning of the text, since there can be little doubt that Benson harped on about the issues that obsessed him and was repetitive in describing the rituals of his daily life. But for many researchers, it will be the statistical precision of those formulaic entries that will matter. Hyam's charge, that Newsome predetermined and accordingly emphasised passages that implied a romantic interest in young men, can only be adjudged by making available the complete account of his interaction with students. This would point to an electronic project of daunting size. Nonetheless, comparison with similar ventures indicates that it could be done. If its launch is to form part of a centenary commemoration, work would have to begin soon, perhaps around 2020. Much will depend upon an assessment of the innate value of the diary as a source. The devoted Turner hoped that Benson's diary "may yet become – who knows – one of the most enlightening, detailed and significant accounts of the life of any man, and the world in which he lived".[554] Detailed, no doubt; enlightening, perhaps less so, while significance is notoriously a matter of opinion.

"I am very early Victorian in my tastes"[555]

A Benson centenary will naturally consider his place in English literature. We may start from the basic point that he was enormously prolific, and to that obvious statement must be added the recognition that he was remarkably uneven in the quality of his output. Yet this qualification, however embarrassing, should not obscure his strengths. Many a late-Victorian historian would have won an enduring niche for the two-volume life that Benson produced of his father, plus the three edited volumes of the correspondence of his sovereign. His books include six volumes of literary criticism (of Fitzgerald, Morris, Pater, Rossetti, Ruskin and Tennyson), as well as an edition of the poems of the Bronte siblings. The Bronte project required sensitive decisions, since recently discovered manuscript sources indicated that verses ascribed to Charlotte were really the work of Emily.[556]  I.A. Richards, one of the most important literary critics of the twentieth century, had "a good opinion" of Benson's work. The esteem was mutual. In October 1923, at Magdalene High Table, Benson listened with interest as Richards outlined a new approach to the appreciation of poetry, which involved inviting students to comment on selected, but unidentified, verse. A month later, the two co-operated in the selection of six extracts, some good, some bad, which were submitted for comment by candidates competing for a College prize in English. This episode may have been the first outing of what Richards would term Practical Criticism.[557]

At their best, Benson's essays can be cogent and compelling. Almost certainly, he wrote too much – indeed, he was occasionally persuaded against publishing some of the weakest material – but in an era that over-values academic productivity at the cost of devaluing intellectual content, it is hard to fault him for his prolix and prolific output. Perhaps a greater weakness was the one identified by Lubbock, who claimed that "he never really wrote at all ... he talked his books out on paper." Not only was his fluency "a valuable and dangerous gift", but because his writings were so much a product of the transient moment, he could not bring himself to undertake much subsequent revision.[558] Hence many of his essays and, no doubt, some of his books, were published as virtual first drafts. The pressure of submitting to periodicals, such as the Cornhill Magazine and the Church Family Newspaper, contributed to the pressure to produce, and sometimes to weave superficial ruminations into a pastiche of profundity. Perhaps the most ingenious example was his disquisition upon the Aweto, a New Zealand burrowing caterpillar that led a singularly miserable existence, although Benson drew some consolation from the fact that the creature did not appreciate what a rotten life it led.  But even Benson had to admit that while "the poor Aweto is a parable ... of many sad things which happen about us," it would be "a pity to run one's metaphor too hard."[559] Newsome noted Benson's use of oxymoron, frequently in the form of what he termed "the subtle choice of adverbs". Indeed, frequently, his adverbs were not so much subtle, as perverse, even atonal, such as "the stream out of the moat ran hoarsely." Arguably, it was a trick that he overused.[560]  

The mystery of Benson's readership, and what happened to it, forms another aspect of his role as a literary figure. His 1912 estimate, of a readership of around half-a-million people, may have been an exaggeration. His two principal publishers had reported total sales of 185,000 copies of his book, on both sides of the Atlantic, but, since Benson seems to have had a faithful following, the actual number of purchasers may have been much smaller. To this core must be added those who read him in periodicals such as the Cornhill Magazine, the Church Family Newspaper or, in the United States, Putnam's. A possible hypothesis for his rise and fall might suggest that the primary school network created by 1870 Education Act had created a literate but not overly critical population, who were succeeded by a more sophisticated public nurtured by the secondary schools created by the successor Act of 1902: the first group lapped up their Benson, the second moved on to stronger and subtler fare. However, the establishment of the new schools did not happen overnight, few youngsters stayed in the system very far into their teens, and the theory almost certainly attributes a greater cultural influence to State schooling than can possibly be warranted. Nor does it account for his popularity in English-speaking countries overseas. Similarly, to suggest that Benson was quintessentially an Edwardian voice who was rejected in the post-war world may also over-simplify. Benson himself felt that his "vogue" had already passed by 1913.[561] In any case, 'Edwardian' can convey a very broad meaning. The loose, light writing of E.F. Benson was also characteristic of the era, and Fred's currency survived the War. Indeed, it is possible that some of A.C. Benson's following was, in effect, 'borrowed' from his more popular younger brother. 

Benson rarely encountered the people who read his books. "Friends who did not read his books, a public that knew nothing of him personally – such was his choice," commented Lubbock.  Those who became his compulsive correspondents – "the maiden aunts, and the silly middle-aged men, and the foolish maidens", as he called them, were probably atypical. A lecture at the City Temple in 1911 attracted such a large crowd that Benson himself "was refused admittance till I said I was the lecturer". He was intrigued to know what sort of people they were, but the organisers could only say that their lecture programme attracted people who came in by train from the suburbs – "clerks, tradesmen, doctors, teachers, their wives and daughters". Clerks and tradesmen would have been products of the Board Schools, teachers perhaps, doctors almost certainly not. A sizeable segment of Benson's audience was genteel. On one occasion, a clergyman – a Cambridge graduate on a return visit – gate-crashed the sacred space of his College rooms, accompanied by a "simpering female", who stared adoringly while her hero inwardly fumed at the impertinence of the intrusion.[562]

Publishing The Trefoil in 1923, John Murray advertised its Benson holdings in the endpapers. (John Murray had absorbed his other major outlet, Smith Elder, in 1917, and so had a particular interest in boosting overall sales.) The listing confirmed that Benson's popularity was rooted in the years 1904-7, when he produced four books that were frequently reissued. The House of Quiet and From a College Window had both passed through twenty-one impressions; The Upton Letters had registered twenty, while The Thread of Gold had notched up nineteen. Later offerings were notably less popular. The Silent Isle (1910) was into its fifth impression; The Gate of Death (1909), The Leaves of the Tree (1911), Thy Rod and Thy Staff (1912) and the collected essays in Escape (1915) had each been reprinted just once. His sibling biographies had been kept in print, the life of Hugh (1915) in a third impression, and of Maggie (1917) in its second. Two novels, Watersprings (1913) and Father Payne (1915), had each been twice reprinted. But first printings had not yet sold out of the essays in Along the Road (1912), nor of his 1914 Where No Fear Was, a worthy attempt to help readers come to terms with insecurity. But he was still seen as a good sales prospect: on hearing, in 1914, that Benson's bank account was considerably overdrawn, Reginald Smith of Smith, Elder at once offered him a £3,000 advance.[563] (Of course, it helped that Smith had been his fagmaster at Eton.)

Thus Benson's readership was probably shrinking well before his death: his later benefactions to Magdalene depended largely upon Eugenie de Nottbeck's largesse. However, his passing was not the end of the story, at least not immediately. Not surprisingly, publishers sought to cash in on whatever public interest might have been aroused by his career. John Murray offered The House of Quiet, in its twenty-third impression, and The Thread of Gold, in its twentieth.  Meanwhile, his anaemic ruminations about the First World War, was reissued, for the first time under his name: it had failed as an anonymous publication in 1916. A miscellaneous collection of forty essays appeared under the title Rambles and Reflections, with a brief take-it-or-leave-it foreword by his literary executor, his brother Fred. Heinemann issued "the last of the novels of A.C. Benson", The Canon, a continuation of The House of Menerdue, published shortly before his death.  In fact, another novel, Cressage, emerged a year later. In a radical break with Benson's narrative past, it was partly set in Oxford. From a third publisher, Hutchinson, came Basil Netherby, a collection of ghost stories which Fred had found in his brother's papers. It was now 1927, and neither of the last two books attracted attention.[564] The turning point in Benson's reputation came with the publication of Percy Lubbock's edited highlights from the diary. The book went through three editions – Hutchinson's term, it seems, for impressions – in the next few years. Almost a century later, Lubbock's selections and his deft commentary retain both their charm and their utility. At the time, the revelations of Benson's private world did his reputation little good. The Times dismissed the diarist as "distinguished but not great". No doubt more damaging was the discovery by his public that their hero had a low opinion of them. The Daily Telegraph quoted his description of them as a "feminine tea-party kind of audience, the mild and low-spirited people". The Observer highlighted his grumble that he wrote "timid and chatty articles for maiden aunts". Few authors could expect to retain a loyal following after so contemptuously mocking them.[565]

Benson's extensive writings may also be explored to produce a 'map' of the literary influences that shaped him. It might be tempting to assume that an active writer like himself had absorbed a distillation of the totality of English literature: it is implicit, for instance, in the theory of the 'Great Tradition' advanced by F.R. Leavis. However, common sense would suggest that essayists, poets and playwrights would have an uneven knowledge of earlier writers, being attracted and influenced by some more than others: Benson was unusual in discussing his enthusiasms so freely. There are caveats in constructing his literary genealogy. For instance, it is dangerous to declare a negative – that he was not interested in a particular author – simply because he wrote so much that is not easily recoverable: for instance, a contribution to the Church Family Newspaper on Tolstoy can be identified through the lucky chance that it was reported by a newspaper in the Western Australian mining town of Kalgoorlie. Without this shred of evidence, it might have been easy to deduce from the fact that, in 1900, he had not heard of Dostoevsky, that he was totally ignorant of Russian literature.[566] It also seems to be the case that he did not write extensively about some of his most favourite authors. M.R. James described him as "an accomplished Dickens scholar", yet he seems to have made surprisingly few allusions to Dickens in his popular writings, a surprising omission since his wider audience in the periodicals could have been expected to have shared in the references. A further difficulty in tracing influences upon Benson lies in the fact that he was inclined to assess great writers of the past not so much from their writings, as through the filter of biography. When his name was floated as a possible candidate for the Chair of English Literature in Cambridge, in 1912, he disqualified himself by admitting that "I know a lot in a desultory way about literary biography", but lacked systematic professorial knowledge. "I don't really believe in literature and criticism, but in something in and behind it all."[567]

There is also one major lacuna that is surprising in somebody who was so close to the centre of the Edwardian cultural world: the theatre played a very small role in his life. Working first at Eton, twenty miles west of London, and later at Cambridge, fifty miles to the north, he was no doubt limited in his access to the West End: for instance, Benson saw Shaw's Man and Superman at a theatre in Carlisle where he was on holiday in 1912. But the major obstacle must have been his father's disapproval: EWB's insistence that even having supper with Henry Irving was a step towards perdition had caused a major crisis during his undergraduate years. Play-reading groups, it seems, were less of a threat to salvation: EWB enjoyed reading Shakespeare aloud. Benson recalled with affectionate amusement an informal circle at Truro, where, misunderstanding the fantasy nature of one of Macbeth's key soliloquies, a local solicitor produced a dagger and proceeded to address it. As a schoolboy, Benson was sometimes required to study specified works of Shakespeare as a holiday task. "I have regarded certain plays with horror ever since": a scornful allusion to "kerns and gallowglasses" indicates that Macbeth was one of them. He showed little enthusiasm for contemporary theatre. Despite his admiration for Yeats as a poet, he was not impressed by Cathleen Ni Houlihan, staged when Dublin's Abbey Theatre company visited Cambridge. The mystical Irish nationalism obviously did not appeal to him, but his comment was more widely revealing. "I thought the play only different from other plays in being slightly more absurd."[568] The theatre was an unusually important element in the Edwardian cultural world of London (and also of Dublin). By cutting himself off from much of what was happening on the stage, Benson distanced himself from some of the most exciting experiments.

Although he probably knew Shakespeare's plays as texts rather than as stage drama, Benson found himself unexpectedly moved when he visited the Bard's tomb at Stratford in 1904. "He is the Father and Head of all our English writing, poetry and prose". Not surprisingly, he sympathised with the character of Hamlet, plunged into "hopeless melancholy" by the influence of an implacable father which extended even beyond the grave.  Yet his most enthusiastic identification was with Ariel, the "tricky spirit" of The Tempest.[569] The notion of Benson, six foot tall and sixteen stone when fit, seeing himself in fantasy as a flying fairy figure is delightful. Of the wider Elizabethan theatre, Benson admitted that he "knew less than nothing". It was probably for the best that he avoided Jacobean drama for most of his life: he saw the Duchess of Malfi in 1924, and found it "detestable". Nor, it seems, was he much more involved with early seventeenth century poetry. He noted that John Donne was a favourite of Archbishop Laud, but dismissed him as "an uneasy metaphysical poet".[570]

In effect, Benson leaped from Shakespeare to the two towering figures of the mid-seventeenth century, Milton and Bunyan. Lines from Paradise Lost sometimes ran through his head, but it was to Pilgrim's Progress that he turned in times of stress, likening the prospect of the headmastership of Eton to Christian's burden (he was relieved when it rolled away) and desperately re-reading the text in 1917 in the hope of finding the key that would free him from the prison of mental illness. It is curious for such an Establishment figure that the two seventeenth-century pillars of his literary temple should have come from the Roundhead / Puritan tradition. To these he added a third, Milton's associate Andrew Marvell.[571] Although the biographer of Laud, Benson seems to have taken no interest in the Cavalier poets. Equally, despite his enthusiastic embrace of all things to do with Magdalene, he seems to have referred to the sybaritic Pepys only at the annual dinner in the diarist's honour. As a schoolboy he had developed an enthusiasm for Wren's City churches, especially their ornate organ cases, and for St Paul's in particular.[572] Yet he barely mentioned Dryden, surely their counterpart in poetry and drama.

If the seventeenth-century foundations of Benson's appreciation of English literature were selective, even random, the eighteenth century stands out as an almost complete blank. Thomas Gray was an exception, no doubt because he was an Etonian who wrote about his schooldays – even though Benson judged him to be utterly untypical of the breed. But Defoe, Swift and Pope he passed over in virtual silence. As a biographer, he admired Boswell's life of Doctor Johnson: "he knew that many of the things that are usually dismissed as trivial are really the things in which the human mind is most deeply interested."[573] However, although a novelist himself, he apparently had nothing to say about the English-language pioneers in the craft, such as Richardson, Fielding and Goldsmith. In effect, he jumped straight from Milton to the romantic poets of the early nineteenth century.

Benson regarded Keats as the link between Milton, in the seventeenth century, and the Victorians Tennyson and William Morris.[574] This may have been a brilliant critical insight, but it does also have the air of a convenient construct, glossing over gaps in his own reading. He claimed that even as a young man, he had regarded Byron's verse as "withered flowers", but he took delight in identifying a previously unknown portrait of the poet, and in 1924 he publicly regretted the Dean of Westminster's refusal to allow the placing of a memorial to Byron in the Abbey.[575] Benson would have liked to "shake Wordsworth to get some of the pomposity out of him", and he was savage in his dismissals: "all pose and self-absorption", "not a very lovable figure", "a stiff, self-absorbed, commonplace-looking man". Nonetheless, he accepted Wordsworth as a kind of supplementary tourist attraction in his beloved Lake District, having first visited the scenes of the poet's life as a child with his father. "Papa gave me a Wordsworth, bought at Lincoln Station, in honour of the visit."[576] Perhaps the connection with EWB in some way explained his distaste: his father's enthusiasm for Browning may have been an element in the souring of Benson's enthusiasm there as well. Similarly, he admired Coleridge's skill in writing about "the land of dreams and visions", but disliked his personality and preferred to relegate the author of The Ancient Mariner, too, to a tourism niche in the Quantocks, where Benson once walked the lanes "with a holy awe".[577]

It is revealing that Benson felt that it was the interest shown by the Rossettis, and later by Swinburne, that gave the works of William Blake "a title to consideration". (Jerusalem, to Benson, was mainly important for its illustrations: the words of the verse of the same name, captured by Parry in 1916, did not attract the attention of his 1896 essay).[578] "I am very early Victorian in my tastes," he recognised in 1905. As a young man, Benson recalled late in life, he had been "very much preoccupied with Tennyson, Omar Khayyám and Swinburne". His 1904 introduction to Tennyson was "based on admiration and reverent love" for "an inheritance of deep and pure delight". "Come into the garden, Maud", a poem that later generations have found hard to take seriously, always filled him with a "strange glow". However, when he re-read In Memoriam eight years later, he found much of the language "obscure, pedantic, cold, unemphatic, unpoetical" and was "rather horrified to find how it has lost its charm".[579] But his continuing allegiance was to Edward Fitzgerald, to the pre-Raphaelite poets, William Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and to their associates, the essayist Walter Pater and the art critic John Ruskin – all of them subjects of books by Benson. There is something incongruous about the fascination with the pre-Raphaelites shown by this deeply conventional and sexually inert onlooker. It may be doubted whether he ever fully grasped the intensity – not mention the diversity – of the passions which drove their movement. His visit to the ageing Swinburne in 1903 to discuss Rossetti was organised by Theodore Watts-Dunton, the poet's handler and housemate: Benson came away genuinely puzzled by the relationship between those two men who seemed so different. When Henry James heard that his friend Arthur was going to write the life of Rossetti, he colour-coded his alarm: the subject was purple, but his biographer pale green.[580]

Mary Benson reared her children on the novels of Walter Scott. Benson never forgot the impact of the opening chapter of Ivanhoe, which seemed to open a new world to him. At Eton, "in a fit of enthusiasm", he read all the Waverley Novels. "What, every single one?", asked an astonished John Ruskin, who was a visiting speaker at the school's Literary Society. He advised a more temperate strategy of getting to know "a few favourites" by heart. In time, Benson came to agree with him that Scott became "a bad writer" towards the end of his life, when debts drove him to over-production.[581] Benson enjoyed Dickens for his "leaping cataract of irrepressible humour", but felt that "he had no inner dignity". An early enthusiasm for Thackeray was not maintained – The History of Henry Esmond had been the first topic in a joke syllabus for an English degree that he compiled in his undergraduate days.[582] It may be that part of him retained a residual belief, instilled from his background, that literature should be uplifting, and not merely amusing. For instance, Benson believed that Kingsley had a far greater influence on the rising generation than either Dickens or Thackeray in combatting "priggishness", whatever that meant. He was also an admirer of Newman's Apologia, returning again and again to be captivated by "the magical spell of that incomparable style ... its appositeness, its dignity, its music."[583] Given his rebuff by Newman in 1882, this was a generous verdict.

There were, however, two notable absentees in Benson's firmament of nineteenth-century novelists. He once roguishly commented that he wished Jane Austen had been able to depict her eccentric great-nephew, E.C. Austen Leigh, a sometimes-infuriating senior colleague at Eton. His publisher, Reginald Smith, persuaded him to write an article for the Cornhill Magazine on Jane Austen and Lyme Regis.[584] But Austen's novels are never mentioned in his essays. At first sight, this suggests an inability to take seriously a female author, or to engage with intelligent and independent-minded heroines. However, his alternative persona, the narrator of The Upton Letters, enormously admired Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre: he had first read it as a boy at Eton, had returned to it twenty times, and regarded it as a work that conveyed "a sense of genius". When Benson lectured on Jane Austen at Eton in 1888, he treated her world as something of a joke, and compared her novels unfavourably with those of Charlotte Bronte.[585] He also admired the poetry of Christina Rossetti, and of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Indeed, when he included Robert Browning in his Magdalene lecture series, he resolved his own complex relationship with the subject by arguing that his wife was the making of his career. The problem with Austen may not have been gender but parental: his father was a fan, and this may have affected Benson's perception of her.[586] The other major omission from his forebears in fiction was Anthony Trollope. Here, too, we may suspect the towering and glowering influence of EWB. Trollope's reputation was already in decline by the time of his death in 1882, but his portrayal of the clerical world of Barset was almost certainly anathema to Truro and Lambeth.

Scott and Carlyle, the latter the subject of a Magdalene lecture series in 1911, wrote on mainstream subjects in standard English, as North British rather than Scots authors. (A contemporary anglicised Scot, John Buchan, made no traceable impact upon him.) Benson showed no interest in Burns or Hogg, and condemned the insignificant T.E. Brown, who wrote in the Manx dialect, as a "poseur".[587] He "whole-heartedly" admired Shaw for "his courage and good-humour and energy", and especially for his ability to persuade his readers "that they are cleverer than they imagined". Yeats he praised for his ability to cross the threshold into the "land of dreams and visions", but his appreciation was coloured by formulaic allusion to "melancholy Celtic twilight".[588] Both Shaw and Yeats were prominent on the London scene, no doubt to some extent in Benson's eyes transcending their Irish origins. Benson derived no amusement from the West British tradition of the Irish Big House novel – neither Edgeworth nor Lever appears in his writings. From across the Atlantic, Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman appealed. Notably, his interest in New England intellectuals did not extend to Longfellow, in many respects the American counterpart of Tennyson. This was perhaps a Benson family trait: his sister Maggie mocked Longfellow's famous image, "Footprints in the sands of time", pointing out with triumphant derision that they would be washed away by the next tide. [589] Benson made some effort to keep up with modern French literature, for instance between 1902 and 1904 reading at least four novels, all of them in translation. He was predictably puzzled by the passions of Madame Bovary, but he found Zola engrossing. Boarding a London train at Taunton in 1903, he dived into Assommoir. It was "a ghastly book", but the next thing he knew about the journey was the train slowing down to approach Paddington.[590]

Naturally enough, Benson held pungent opinions about his contemporaries. Edmund Gosse, Thomas Hardy and Henry James were friends, but he could still criticise their writing. He preferred Gosse's "melodious and amusing prose" to his poetry, while Hardy's characters struck him as "actors playing a part". They were also driven by sexual passion, making them behave "in a manner so foreign to my own experience" that he found them "incomprehensible" – adding, lamely, "that though I would not deny the truth of the picture ... it is untrue for me, and therefore unmeaning."[591] (This seems a very blinkered attitude to the reception of unfamiliar experiences.) Among younger writers, Benson knew E.M. Forster only slightly, but admired Howard's End. He was unimpressed by the pre-war verse of Rupert Brooke, while acknowledging the "imperishable quality" of his best work – a reasonable enough assessment, as Brooke is largely remembered for one nostalgic poem of wartime farewell.[592] He could be inconsistent in his judgements: Housman he found "rather macabre" in 1912, but reading The Shropshire Lad gave him a rare break in his depression five years later.[593] "I have never fallen under the sway of Rudyard Kipling," he wrote in 1905, confessing himself "ill at ease" with the masculinity of Kipling's characters. By contrast, three years earlier, he had dismissed one of his books as "most feeble" – a favourite Bensonian adjective, conveying imprecise negativity.  However, he made an exception for Stalky and Co., "an amazing book", clever, fresh and incredibly original: "Kipling is a great magician".[594] Similarly, H.G. Wells, with his "extraordinary power of imagining the impossible" was at one moment "a teller of tales and not a dramatist", but a later work could draw the patronising comment, "he's a poet, little Wells".[595]

Benson's long second breakdown from 1917 must not be forgotten in assessing the flexibility with which he embraced new writers. Even if he had been temperamentally attuned to the writings of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, they were essentially writers who came upon the scene around the time of his five years of mental anguish. Catching up with works published during his second illness was not always a productive process: Galsworthy's novels had been reissued in 1922 as The Forsyte Saga: two years later, Benson dismissed it as "a dry ugly book ... too much crowded with uninteresting people". Nonetheless, it is striking that in 1905, he had placed George Moore "at the head of all contemporary novelists", while seeming to be entirely ignorant of Joseph Conrad. Benson himself was aware that many of his favourite writers would probably not endure. He reckoned that only five of his contemporaries would still be read half a century ahead: Chesterton (whom he thought "flashy"), Kipling (about whom, as we have seen, he was ambivalent), Meredith (who set out "to express simple thoughts obscurely"), Shaw and Swinburne.[596] In literary appreciation, as in so much else, Benson was a paradox. He could illuminate Milton's Lycidas for the young Francis Turner in a few atmospheric sentences, yet he also found "absorbing interest" in the forgettable pages of George Gissing, and could ignore driving rain on a train journey by getting "immersed in a Wilkie Collins".[597] Benson's friends deplored the Cambridge intellectual who wrote for the suburbs. But while he was a notable literary critic, there was also a side of him that was also comfortably middle-brow. That duality makes the map of literary influences upon him all the more intriguing. More detailed research would no doubt modify its contours, but the main outlines seem clear.

Educational Reformer

The Benson centenary will certainly be the occasion to underline his role as an educational reformer, an aspect of his activities that has not previously been fully emphasised. The rapid radicalisation of his views on curriculum reform in the public schools has already been described. Hyam labels the Donaldson-Benson impact upon Magdalene as a "stalled revolution", since its impetus was blunted after 1925. It is easy enough to measure the changes of 1904-25 in terms of student numbers, finances and buildings, but, in a sense, these were no more than means to an end. Equally important was the diversification of undergraduate studies into new fields. History, Natural Sciences and Engineering were active subjects before 1914. In the nineteen-twenties, Magdalene added new teaching areas in English and Music. At University level, Benson's role from 1913 in the reform of the Pass degree also calls for closer examination, for it was a project that A.S. Ramsey recalled entailed "a vast amount of work". In this case, the effort led to no long-term achievement, for the University effectively phased out its general degree in the three decades after Benson's death, preserving it only as a consolation award for small  numbers of candidates who failed to obtain Honours.[598]

Perhaps as important as the range of Benson's work for educational reform, and maybe with some continuing resonance to the circumstances of 2025, is the ethos within which he worked for change. "We have a great and instinctive tact in England for avoiding revolutions," he wrote in 1905. The national culture preferred to stress "a wise continuity, a tendency to temperate reform". Central to this process was the device of masking change behind celebration of continuity, a strategy called by historians "The Invention of Tradition".[599] Benson and Donaldson were adept at disguising novelty within the tapestry of timeless ritual. The Pepys Dinner, started in February 1905, was a classic example of the creation of a new tradition, one embodying an instant appeal to the past. Another early move, also in 1905, was the decision to place armorial bearings of former members of the College in the windows of the Hall.[600] While this limited inclusion to those who were armigerous, the gesture sought to harness the old Magdalene to the new – indeed, a surprising number of the luminaries of yesteryear could claim a coat of arms. A fresh opportunity to emphasise an invented antiquity arose when the construction of Bright's Building raised the possibility of  electric lighting. If Magdalene was to face the disruption of installing the new source of power, then it made sense to wire the entire College, or – as it transpired – the entire College with two exceptions. There was some resistance, and it was understandable: some years earlier, Professor Newton, with his scientist enthusiasm for novelty, had introduced "piercing electric light in milky globes" to his residence, the Old Lodge. A correspondent of the Magdalene College Magazine, 'C', referred to "the horrid rumour ... that candles in Hall are to be abolished in favour of electric light." Magdalene was "the only College in Cambridge which has had the courage to retain this ancient form of illumination. May we long continue to do so." 'C' need not have worried: the Governing Body decided that electricity should be installed "throughout the College, with the exception of the Hall and the Combination Room" during the Long Vacation of 1909. Thus was a legacy of poverty boldly turned into a proclamation of distinctive identity. The process was rounded off in 1911 with the insertion of a retro-eighteenth-century ceiling, modelled on one that had once existed in the Chapel.[601] There was a greater degree of continuity between the old Magdalene and the new than is sometimes acknowledged, but the blatant way in which the Donaldson-Benson regime harnessed the past remains striking. Cambridge is highly effective in disguising change behind the rituals of continuity. A commemoration in 2025 may provide the opportunity to hail Benson and Donaldson as patron saints of this clever charade.

Mental Health

Perhaps the most important subject in any centenary commemoration is the one that links a central problem in his own life, mental health, with issues of increasing importance in the modern world. There are three themes that merit discussion. The first is the way in which Benson's vulnerability to mental breakdown shaped his own life. The second would acknowledge Benson's courageous role in identifying himself as a sufferer, and the contribution he made to the recognition of mental health problems as a form of illness, of the same order as cancer or tuberculosis. The third would consider the fact that he was able to continue his career, something remarkable in his own time and perhaps capable of becoming an inclusive model for supporting people afflicted with depression in the workplace today.

One of Hyam's principal criticisms of Newsome's biography was that its emphasis upon romantic friendship tended to pass over the "neurasthenic dimensions" of Benson's life. "We know pitifully little about the causes, courses and cures of these illnesses," he wrote in 1980. "Benson was a highly intelligent and articulate man who attempted to record at least part of his experience of breakdown. ... It is not pleasant reading, but it is important, and not just for understanding Benson."[602] The suggestion is advanced in this essay that Benson might have suffered from bipolar disorder. This theory, it must be stressed, is not based upon any form of medical qualification. Superficially, at least, bipolar disorder would seem to correspond with much of what we know about Benson's mental crises. Symptoms usually first appear in the late teens or among young adults: he was twenty in November 1882. The condition can be triggered by stress, which would fit the looming possibility of his father's appointment to Canterbury. In that case, searching for some specific shock, such as the breakdown of a homoerotic relationship, might be irrelevant. EWB also suffered from dark periods of depression, and bipolar disorder can be hereditary. Here it would be necessary to compare Benson's sufferings with the even more terrifying and tragic experience of his sister Maggie, who often attempted self-harm during her ten years of hell. A diagnosis of bipolar disorder would also severely qualify the generally accepted narrative that Benson "recovered" in 1923, to enjoy a two-year burst of creativity before his death. Some aspects of his behaviour in that final phase – his lavish expenditure and his over-confidence in his ability to take on new challenges – would equally support an assessment that he was not so much "cured" as engaged in a manic upswing phase that was unlikely to last. But each of these characteristics could be explained in other ways. Amateur medical diagnoses derived from Internet forays may be deeply misleading. There is surely enough in Benson's writings to enable a psychiatrist to attempt at least a provisional assessment, and it would be vital to a centenary commemoration that the issue should be tackled.[603]

Benson is also notable in having written about his first breakdown, especially in his 1912 memoir, Thy Rod and Thy Staff. This was a courageous attempt to reach out to others who might suffer a "malady" that was "beyond all pain and suffering". "Others may have the same dreadful path to traverse, and may have to face the same severe extinguishing of personal aims and ambitions." The admiring Turner called it "a perfectly honest, but over-hasty and unconvincing attempt to explain to the world the nature of his illness." Benson movingly described his symptoms, but insisted on infusing his account with "vague philosophy and mysticism". A normally sympathetic reviewer in the Manchester Guardian regretted that the book had been written, and wished it had been kept for "private circulation among friends." Its vacuous mysticism was unconvincing; its concluding appeal to the Twenty-Third Psalm contrived. "Mr Benson's account ... does nothing to lessen one's conviction of the pathological nature of the experience." It might have been more helpful to have stressed that depression was as much an illness as influenza. "Neurasthenia, hypochondria, melancholia – hideous names for hideous things – it was one of these," was his sole diagnostic comment. Benson's descriptions of his symptoms no doubt gave comfort to others facing the same ordeal, but he could have achieved more had he produced a dispassionate analysis of his experience, and given the condition some specific name that might have distinguished it from the negative general characterisation of madness – but this would have required the patient to understand more about the disorder than did his doctors. Of course, it helped that Benson was not dumped in the bleak institutional environment of a lunatic asylum, but found himself in a "luxuriously furnished" nursing home, where he was treated with "extraordinary kindness".[604] Poor people went mad, but with a private income it was possible to suffer agonies of the soul.[605]

Although Benson's attempt to write about his breakdown was received with much distaste and some derision, it is noteworthy that he was able to pursue and indeed an advance a career in academic life. Eight years after the onset of his first collapse into depression, he was appointed Master of Magdalene. During the second illness, his attempts to resign his office were rebutted both by the Visitor, Lord Braybrooke, and by the Fellows of Magdalene. It is almost unprecedented for somebody who had been so deeply – not to mention, so publicly – mentally ill to move on to, and retain, an office of such responsibility.[606] One of the few parallels that comes to mind is the experience of George III, who recovered from madness (as it was bluntly termed in those days) in 1789, and returned to his royal duties – but the circumstances surrounding hereditary monarchy are entirely different from the Mastership of a Cambridge college. In his upbeat phases, Benson could inspire loyalty, even devotion among his colleagues, while his commitment and generosity to his adopted College were undoubtedly appreciated. Perhaps equally important was the fact that depression was a widespread problem in the circles within which Benson moved, even if few were felled so dramatically. Benson noted that many of his colleagues struggled with similar problems. Reginald Smith, his publisher, and Hugh Macnaghten, a gentle and generous-minded colleague at Eton, both took their own lives. The twenty-first century is much more aware of the need to support talented people who pass their mental crises, in order to benefit from their contributions in the workplace. Benson's colleagues made no special arrangements or concessions – Magdalene shared in the duality of the wider culture, in which sufferers were either overworked or recovered – but their generous and unquestioning acceptance of his continuing role remains both striking and praiseworthy. If there is to be a Bensonian legacy one hundred years after his death, perhaps it should be recognition of the need to support people at times of stress and depression, so that they may continue to contribute of their best to the institution.

Tailpiece: Understanding Benson's College?

John Walsh spent ten years at Magdalene, from 1948 to 1958, rising from freshman to junior Fellow in History. The ghost of Benson seemed to infuse the institution: "he was constantly talked about and quoted", and his generous benefactions were gratefully recalled. Ronald Hyam, who came to Magdalene to teach History in 1960, encountered a Fellowship "still dominated by those who had known A.C. Benson." "In the last twenty years," he wrote in 1980, "I have only ever heard Fellows of Magdalene who knew him speak of him with admiration," something that Hyam himself thought "quite a tribute to his memory in a College not noted for sycophancy towards its Masters". But there is a difference between honouring a memory and cherishing a tradition. This essay began with a declared intention, inter alia, of exploring how far an appreciation of Arthur Christopher Benson might contribute to an understanding of the subsequent culture of the College to which he devoted two decades of his life.  How far was Benson a continuing influence?[607]

In his affectionate bemusement at the surreal character of the institution, Walsh sometimes "wondered whether the Magdalene I inhabited and enjoyed was actually a Bensonian construct: an attempt to embody the romantic vision set out from his From a College Window?"[608] But, in key respects, Magdalene had already moved away from Benson. His successor as Master, A.B. Ramsay, had been a venomous antagonist during the Edwardian Classics wars. No doubt someday an ambitious revisionist historian will attempt a defence of Ramsay. He was indeed a kindly person ("a good-natured soul" as the College History puts it), who supported early conservation campaigns. He was also one of Britain's leading modern Latin poets, although this was perhaps not an especially forward-looking area for intellectual investment, while "The Ram's" insistence that his students recite texts with "eloquence and deportment" was frankly ludicrous. His Mastership blanketed Magdalene in charming mediocrity. The mid-nineteen-twenties had seen a cohort of lively undergraduates, some presumably attracted by Benson's reputation. Their putative successors can only have been repelled by Ramsay's narrowness. By 1937, one third of Magdalene undergraduates came from Eton, and the College had slipped back into its Victorian reputation as an idle and conservative backwater. Internally, it retained the atmosphere that Benson had fostered, "a friendly and happy place", but, as Ronald Hyam insisted, "his legacy should have been broader than that."[609] Walsh thought that his Bensonian fantasy was a subversive coping mechanism, but, in fact, it was a response that was subtly manipulated through a tacit revision of the Benson legend. (Ramsay would have preferred to eradicate it altogether, contending that the new court across Magdalene Street should be named in honour of Henry Dunster, seventeenth-century founder of Harvard.) Forgotten was the Benson who challenged the dominance of Classics, doubted the revealed truths of religion and hesitated to support the First World War. His ghost was allowed to pervade the College, but increasingly in the form of a buffer and a buffoon.

In one important respect, the lay-out of the College, Magdalene diverged very early from its Bensonian line of development. The College had been planning to expand to the west side of Magdalene Street: Benson himself financed the purchase of property in 1915, and was actively involved in the establishment of its first foothold, Mallory Court, in the last year of his life.[610] In 1928, Sir Edwin Lutyens designed an imposing – even ponderous – three-sided red-brick court that would sweep down to the Cam, and Magdalene launched its first appeal for funds since 1679. It was not a massive success. The College was competing with other priorities, including the University itself. The world economy turned sour in 1929. But one specific element of weakness was, once again, the Master: A.B. Ramsay could not bring himself to press potential donors for money.[611] We may be reasonably sure that Benson, if in good health, would have acted with greater energy. Recalling his father's struggle to finance the construction of Truro Cathedral, he would have mobilised his Fishmonger friends to tap the City of London. His popularity as a writer would have raised the Appeal's profile, and he would almost certainly have benefited from the munificence of Eugenie de Nottbeck and her husband. In the event, only the western range of the Lutyens scheme could be built. In the nineteen-fifties, this became the backdrop to the development of what is now informally known as the Magdalene Village, a mixture of old buildings and new, conservation imaginatively mingled with in-fill. The long-term result, including the preservation of the historic facade of Magdalene Street, is almost certainly an improvement on the 1928 project. The irony is that modern-day Benson Court, perhaps the most prominent example of the survival of his name, in no way resembles the design that he would probably have been able to carry out.[612]

The fact that there were Fellows of Magdalene who had known Benson and admired him did not mean that they were clones and copies of the original. A fierce defender of the flame, Francis Turner resembled his hero in relishing conversation. But where Benson's inclusive spirit drew people out of themselves and into discussion, Turner saw conversation as a battlefield, one on which he took no prisoners. Whereas Benson could not stop writing, Turner rarely managed to start. To employ a Bensonian adverb, his output, for almost forty years as a Fellow, was deplorably small: even the Kingsley Club paper frequently quoted in this essay was edited for publication posthumously – and Turner padded out his valuable insights with huge quotations from Lubbock's published edition of the diary. "Lazy?", he asked of Benson. "Well, not by my standards". It was a classic example of the unwisdom of posing rhetorical questions. With a commendable anxiety to speak well of the dead, his obituary in the Magdalene College Magazine said that Turner was "largely responsible for the high reputation achieved by the College's feasts and guest nights."

One reason why the memory of Benson remained so strong among senior members of the College was that Magdalene was slow to recruit new Fellows. But the passage of time naturally thinned their ranks. Gaselee died in 1943; A.S. Ramsey in 1954; Frank Salter in 1967; F.R.F. Scott, first elected in 1923, in 1969. I.A. Richards retired to Cambridge in 1972, where he died seven years later. 1974 saw the death of Gavin Macfarlane-Grieve, who first came to Magdalene as a young Army officer during the First World War, and returned to become a student, and later an Honorary Fellow. Perhaps the last Fellow to model himself on Benson was J.F. Burnet, Bursar from 1949 to 1977, who kept open-house for undergraduates at sherry time. "Jock" drew inspiration from Benson, whom of course he had never met, and it may be suspected that his Benson was much more conservative than the original.

Just as the generation who had known Benson departed from the scene, a challenge arose that had the effect of reviving his attitude of defensive masculinity. From 1972, other colleges steadily opted to become co-educational, but the Fellows of Magdalene determined to resist the admission of women. A case no doubt existed for a single-sex men's college to provide continued choice of educational environments within Cambridge: whether that institution should have been Magdalene, with so much negative cultural and intellectual baggage, is another question. It would be difficult to establish how far this initial response was either directly inspired or indirectly derived from Benson. In any case, resistance was relatively short-lived: women were admitted in 1987. Like other organisations within the College, the Kingsley Club adapted to the changed circumstances, and recruited new members accordingly. However, a closed essay-reading coterie with arcane rituals (especially of card-playing, one of Benson's enthusiasms, but something that was no longer a major student pastime) could not adapt to the values of the time. The Kingsley Club, the last Magdalene entity to trace a direct pedigree back to Benson, ceased to function in the early nineteen-nineties.[614] One of the last cultural references to Benson came in 2002, when the Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Duncan Robinson, was appointed Master of Magdalene. His colleagues presented him with a pastiche of Nicholson's 1924 portrait, with Robinson's head substituted for Benson's wild and desperate features. The gesture proved to be a symbolic prediction of a successful term of office, one that perhaps finally moved Magdalene into a new era. Perhaps, too, there was symbolism in the fact that the jest originated outside the College, among the curators of the University's art gallery. 

Given the pace of intellectual change and the proliferation of subjects of study in Cambridge, it would be pointless to attempt much assessment of Benson's longer-term intellectual impact upon Magdalene. Briefly, it may be noted that History – the subject that he was elected to develop in 1904 – was not remarkable for  published research for almost half a century after his death, although it did occasionally produce outstanding examination results. Thanks to Benson, Magdalene was initially in the forefront of the study and teaching of English, through the work of I.A. Richards. But Richards developed new interests after 1929, and left for Harvard ten years later. The subject was boosted in 1953 when C.S. Lewis was elected to the new Chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature – an area of little interest to Benson himself – and opted to move to Magdalene from its Oxford namesake. Magdalene established a scholarship in Music, another of his enthusiasms, as early as 1926, and it was here that Turner made his principal contribution to the life of the College. Although Benson had encouraged the biologist David Keilin, and Magdalene tried to elect Kingsley Martin to teach Economics in 1923 (he refused), subjects outside the Arts mainstream, especially Science and Engineering, were slow to take hold. Notably, in 1921, the Governing Body decided that Magdalene could not offer teaching in Modern Languages: Benson, who had argued for a school curriculum based on French and German, was taking little part in academic business at the time. Architecture, Languages, Law and Theology all developed after the Second World War, with Economics and Geography following.[615]

The fabric of Magdalene has in some cases incorporated Benson's contributions, in others discarded or superseded them. His residence, the Old Lodge, was converted into College accommodation within two years of his death. E.F. Benson portentously pronounced that this represented "no obliteration" of his memory, since the whole of Magdalene was his brother's monument. Indeed, his baronial dining room, Benson Hall, has been cared for with particular sensitivity. The bathhouses in which he took such pride were swept away around 1970 after the installation of indoor plumbing. The Milton Road playing field, which he had helped to fund, was sold in the nineteen-eighties. The Reading Room, fitted up with Eugenie de Nottbeck's money in 1923, was renamed the Junior Common Room in 1965, and soon afterwards became the College Bar, which would probably have startled the eternal schoolmaster in him. Worshippers pass into the Chapel through an entrance passage ornamented by some of the panelling that Benson shipped from Rotterdam just before the First World War. Fellows still gather for High Table in the secret parlour anteroom in Second Court, another product of the 1923 construction spree, although there are now markedly more of them than he planned to accommodate. Further physical growth – Buckingham Court in 1968-70, and Cripps Court in 2005-10 – has perhaps placed earlier buildings in a reduced context.

Ultimately, it is no doubt pointless to seek modern-day traces of Benson either in courses of study or courses of brickwork.  Even in the nineteen-eighties, J.E.H. Blackie, a freshman in 1922, relegated him to a bygone era. "It is impossible to imagine his travelling anything but First Class ... or wearing ready-made suits." (For a few weeks around the time of his departure from Eton, Benson travelled Second Class as an economy measure, but the experiment was brief. In his last years, his suits tended to be shapeless: increasing corpulence defied even the finest master tailor.)[616] For all that survives in diaries and essays, there is much too that is lost. Friends described Benson as a fine artist, but unfortunately one who "set no score" by the sketches that he made on his country walks. He was a wickedly insightful cartoonist, who caricatured the Fellows of King's in his student days, and relieved his boredom in academic meetings by lampooning his colleagues in deft pencil stokes. None of this has survived. Most of his correspondence was destroyed, either in his lifetime or by his brother Fred, acting as his executor. Unpublished manuscripts also perished: Cambridge Revisited, written in 1904-5, might have told us much about his decision to return to a town where he had suffered earlier mental torment.[617] But, most of all, we cannot recover the "level musical tone" of his speaking voice. "I wonder if it is possible to give any indication of the manner of his table-talk to any one who never heard it?", Gaselee mused . Turner thought it impossible to quote his phrases and anecdotes: "they need so much his exact words and intonation, and above all, the strong influence of his geniality."[618] Thus it seems appropriate to take my farewell of A.C. Benson by clawing from the historical ether two of his spoken sentences that place him in a generous and kindly light. After terrifying and enthralling the young Francis Turner by dissecting his freshman essay on Milton, Benson had the grace to say to him: "I wish I could have written like that at your age." The second echo captures his parting words to A.S. Ramsey, a few days before his death. Despite his heart attack, Benson had insisted on opening his ever-voluminous mail. The morning post had brought two requests for testimonials – job references – from former students. In a gasping whisper, he outlined how he wished to reply, and Ramsey promised to have appropriate replies typed for his signature. Anxious to his spare his exhausted colleague any further exertion, Ramsey rose to go.  As he left the room, Benson uttered his parting comment: "We mustn't let people down!" It is not a bad epitaph.


Abbreviations in Endnotes follow from A.C. BENSON AND CAMBRIDGE: I, 1862-1885.

[Note: in 2024, "A.C. Benson in Images" was added to this website: https://www.gedmartin.net/martinalia-mainmenu-3/392-a-c-benson-in-images]

[1] Lubbock, 286 (1916).

[2] Lubbock, 169. Benson would remark ruefully to former pupils, "Once your tutor, always your tutor". As late as 1911, G.G. Morris, Fellow of Jesus, complained to Benson about "my old criticisms of him in my division at Eton". Ryle (Cadogan), 75; Lubbock, 224.

[3] Lubbock, 49 (13 February 1900).

[4] Newsome, 44; Myrtle Bough, 18. He had returned to Eton in November 1883 to take part in the St Andrew's Day celebrations, playing for a Cambridge team against Oxford Etonians in the Field Game, Eton College Chronicle, 13 December 1883.

[5] Lubbock, 30-1.

[6] Lubbock, 286.

[7] Card, Eton Renewed, 83-8. Benson called Warre's system "an almost military organisation" which involved "a considerable increase in the routine work of the place". Myrtle Bough, 19.

[8] Myrtle Bough, 18.

[9] Lord Birkenhead, Halifax .... (London, 1965), 53. Commenting on standard classroom techniques for teaching Classics,  Benson later wrote that even Alice in Wonderland "could only prove a drearily bewildering book, if read at the rate of twenty lines a lesson, and if the principal tenses of all the verbs had to be repeated correctly." A.C. Benson, ed., Cambridge Essays on Education (Cambridge, 1918), 45. (As explained in Part 1 of this essay, the initials "EWB" are used throughout for A.C. Benson's father, Edward White Benson, Archb ishop of Canterbury 1883-96. The usage avoids potentially confusing repetition of the surname, while embodying the idea that Benson senior was not so much a parent as a phenomenon.)

[10]  The Times, 19 October 1885; Lubbock, 106. In 1886, Benson was put in charge of recruiting a "skilled joiner" to work as "Manager of a Boys' Workshop" at Eton. This was probably Warre's project, devolved to a junior but efficient master who was not yet overburdened with responsibilities. The oddity is the assumption that such a man would  read the personal column of The Times. The Times, 22 July 1885. There are other reports of Benson playing the Field Game (Eton College Chronicle, 23 November 1885) and the Wall Game (17 October 1889, 16 October 1890).

[11] LEWB, ii, 362-3.

[12] LEWB, ii, 132.

[13] E.F. Benson, Our Family Affairs, 164.

[14] M&F, 307-8.

[15] Edwardian Excursions, 19.

[16] Along the Road, 107.

[17] LEWB, ii, 719, 771.

[18] Edwardian Excursions, 12.

[19] Edwardian Excursions, 69.

[20] M&F, 174-5.  Austen Leigh was credited with arranging to have Cowper's hymn, "God Moves in Mysterious Ways", played on days of Governing Body meetings. He is said to have flogged 300 boys during his time as Lower Master, and to have intended to hurt them. Some boys assumed that his nickname originated in a desire to draw blood. Card, Eton Renewed, 111.

[21] A.C. Benson, William Laud ... A Study (London, 1887), viii, xiii; Newsome, 45-6. Some years later, an Eton pupil appealed to him to clarify a date for an essay the boy was writing on Laud. Benson "confessed that he was quite unable to give the necessary information, and added in a shamefaced manner, 'and I actually wrote a book about him once.'" Ryle (Ryle), 54.

[22] Card, Eton Renewed, 89. Benson felt it "a very real evil" that "promotion is so slow that masters get houses too late". Myrtle Bough, 25.

[23] Ryle (MacNaghten), 27, and cf. Ryle (Sturgis), 65.

[24] M&F, 262-3.

[25] Myrtle Bough, 23; Ryle (Macnaghten), 28. Benson depended upon his "dame" (housekeeper / matron), Mrs Cox. Lubbock, 45; Ryle (Ryle), 59-60.

[26] Lubbock, 34.

[27] Ryle (Macnaghten), 30.

[28] Newsome, 67.

[29] Along the Road, 105.

[30] A.C. Benson, The Schoolmaster  (New York, 1908 ed., first published 1902), 28.

[31] A.C. Benson, Escape... (London, 1916), 206.

[32] M&F, 103.

[33] Ryle (Ryle), 45.

[34] Lubbock, 188. The "threading" motion was probably the result of the knee injury that ended his career as a footballer in 1889. Awkward posture in a 1903 Vanity Fair cartoon of him as an Eton master may indicate that the injury was to his left leg.

[35] Ryle (Ryle), 57.

[36] Lubbock, 33.

[37] Ryle (Ryle), 44, 55. A Magdalene colleague similarly recalled "him massively quivering with almost silent laughter." Turner, 3.

[38] Ryle (Ryle), 57-8. The stories were published in 1903 as The Hill of Trouble.

[39] A.C. Benson, ed., Cambridge Essays on Education (Cambridge, 1918), 42-3. But when he delivered readings to the Literary Society in 1886, only 13 of the 30 members troubled to turn up. Eton College Chronicle, 18 February 1886. 

[40] Myrtle Bough, 24; Lubbock, 33.

[41] Ryle (Sturgis), 69.

[42] The Schoolmaster, 25 (order of quotations altered).

[43] Ryle (Sturgis), 70.

[44] Ryle, (Ryle), 56; (Sturgis), 71. It is impossible to say whether the Bensonian R resulted from a speech impediment, or was an affectation. Benson's Eton colleague Hugh Macnaghten  and his Magdalene protégé F.R. Salter were similarly afflicted.

[45] Lubbock in his edition of the diary, Ryle, Sturgis and Cadogan in Ryle.

[46] Lubbock, 70.

[47] Photographs in Ryle. Newsome, 74, states that there were 37 boys at one point. Estimating by size, there were 7 new boys in 1903.

[48] The Times, 20 June 1925.

[49] Ryle (Lyttelton), 150.

[50] But the description by one of EWB's former chaplains of "the perfect home life of the Benson family" strained the demands of piety. LEWB, ii, 754.

[51] M&F, 129-30.

[52] Lubbock, 50-2.

[53] Card, Eton Renewed, 82-97.

[54] It is an Eton legend that the first beneficiaries of the pension scheme were called Stone and Broke.

[55] In fact, the rare occasions when Eton gathered en masse were usually outdoor events, such as in 1887 when the boys marched to Windsor Castle to salute Queen Victoria on her Golden Jubilee. As a young master, Warre had commanded the cadet corps: his was the superb orchestration of the Jubilee torchlight manoeuvres in the courtyard. The notion that Eton boys needed to assemble at all was strongly criticised by an Old Etonian MP, Seymour Ormsby-Gore, in The Times, 19 May 1902.

[56] Benson was partly responsible for the success of the Memorial Hall project. One alternative suggestion to honour the fallen was the installation of a commemorative stained-glass east window in the Chapel. In a letter to The Times (itself a sign of his increasing dissatisfaction with the internal workings of the school), he objected to the cultural arrogance of removing the existing window which, although "somewhat crude and harsh in colour", was a characteristic work of Victorian painted glass. His supporting argument that a recent generation of friends of Eton had paid for the project out of "traditional piety" was undermined by the revelation of a veteran Old Etonian that it had been financed by slipping a £1 levy into every pupil's end-of-term bill, without consultation or publicity. But Benson's argument was generally accepted, and the Memorial Hall scheme went ahead without competition. The Times, 19, 21 May 1902.

[57] M&F, 127, 129.

[58] Warre reduced reliance upon corporal punishment, substituting in most cases a probation system which placed offenders on report, requiring them to secure signatures from masters confirming that they had attended class and were of good behaviour. Benson (M&F, 117-18) called it "a sort of ticket-of-leave system".

[59] M&F, 130, 116.

[60] Lubbock, 39.

[61] "Modern" was the technical term for school education that omitted Latin and Greek. It came tacitly to mean "second-class", a distinction that reached its apotheosis in the 1944 Education Act, with its division between "Grammar" (good) and "Secondary Modern" (sink) schools. The pejorative connotation was later transferred to technology, with subordinate institutions of higher education in Britain referred to as "Colleges of Advanced Technology". At the time of writing (2017), Ireland is similarly toying with the idea of "Technological Universities" [i.e. not real universities at all].

[62] FaCW, 154-5.

[63] The Times, 3 February 1903; 21 January 1905.

[64] Newsome, 77.

[65] M&F, 115.

[66] Newsome, 77.

[67] Card, Eton Renewed, 89.

[68] M&F, 133-4.

[69] M&F, 132-3.

[70] Card, Eton Renewed, 91. In 1903, Benson wrote that classroom work had "become increasingly interesting, especially since the creation of homogenous divisions." Myrtle Bough, 26.

[71] Edwardian Excursions, 102 (1902).

[72] Card, Eton Renewed, 90. French was taught to the "First Hundred", but some boys would have left the school before achieving that eminence.

[73] Edwardian Excursions, 102. Benson's criticisms of Warre were underpinned by a structural grasp of his headmaster's system. For Eton's stand at the English Schools Exhibition of 1900, he contributed a chart demonstrating "the Eton system of work and promotion ...  illustrated by the chequered career of an ordinary boy". Eton College Chronicle, 16 February 1900.

[74] The Times, 21 January 1905.

[75] Lubbock, 37 (1897).

[76] Ryle (Lubbock), 129.

[77] Newsome, 62.

[78] Lubbock, 57, 49 (1901). In 1903, he estimated that he had marked "with varying degrees of care" 2,000 exercises in a single 'Half', "an altogether crushing amount of labour". Myrtle Bough, 26-7. The Eton term was called a Half. There were, of course, 3 of them each year.

[79] Lubbock, 57. It will be recalled that Benson's pronunciation of R as W made his use of "deplorable" memorably effective.

[80] Lubbock, 70.

[81] Lubbock, 56 (1901).

[82] Lubbock, 54 (1901).

[83] Newsome, 195; Goldhill, 144.

[84] Goldhill, 149. "Queerness" is an example of a term that has moved from the realm of abuse, through the oblivion of political correctness to emerge as a categorisation of literary criticism.

[85] Newsome, 268.

[86] Goldhill, 70.

[87] "I never used to think I should live to be thirty, and even now I never dare to look forward more than a few months." Lubbock, 40 (1898).

[88] Newsome, 198. His principal commentary on Benson's sexuality, 197-203, is masterly.

[89] Card, Eton Renewed, 120.

[90] Newsome, 73, and cf. The Schoolmaster, 83.

[91] Newsome, 79.

[92] The Schoolmaster, 84.

[93] Ryle (Ryle), 54-5.

[94] Ryle (Sturgis), 69.

[95] Ryle (Ryle), 54-5.

[96] The Schoolmaster, 86. "The golden rule for the housemaster is to have unlimited affection and no sentimentality." (The Schoolmaster, 82).

[97] Newsome, 63.

[98] Card, Eton Renewed, 106-7. The case of C.J. Vaughan, forced to resign the headmastership of Harrow in 1859 by an outraged parent, was officially a well-kept secret, but one that many members of the elite happened to know. William Johnson (later Cory) had "suddenly resigned" from Eton in 1872, for the emotional intensity of his relationships with selected pupils, notably Reginald Brett, (later Viscount Esher). Cory became a hero to Benson for his commitment to teaching.  Editing his poems in 1905, Benson wrote that "a shadow fell on him; he began to feel his strength unequal to the demands upon it; and he made a sudden resolution to retire from his Eton work." But in 1893, Brett had written that "Arthur Benson said that he knows everything about Tute [Cory's nickname among his intimates]" and "he has stood the shock." Tim Card insists that "no one can be quite sure of the exact circumstances of his resignation", but most accounts assume that Hornby, the headmaster, ordered Johnson (as he then was) to leave. W. Cory, (ed. A.C. Benson), Ionica (3rd ed., London, 1905), xxi; M.B. Kaplan, Sodom on the Thames ... (Ithaca, NY, 2012), 132; Tim Card, "Cory, William Johnson (1823-1892), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. The grounds for the dismissal of Oscar Browning in 1875 were more complex. In the post-Benson era, a housemaster was eased out (through sick leave and early retirement) in 1922 for attempting to seduce a boy. One housemaster was prone to wrestle with boys on his evening round, while two others attempted (and usually failed) to kiss them goodnight. Card, Eton Renewed, passim.

[99]  Cambridge Review, 5 December 1990, 56.

[100] Goldhill, 137.

[101] Lubbock, 95.

[102] e.g. Newsome, 205.

[103] Newsome, 149; Goldhill, 130-1.

[104] Newsome, 377.

[105] Newsome, 7, 209.

[106] Newsome, 279.

[107] Newsome, 80, 194.

[108] Newsome, 369.

[109] Newsome, 203.

[110] Lubbock, 255.

[111] Newsome, 216.

[112] Lubbock, 212.

[113] Newsome, 222.

[114] Lubbock, 194-5.

[115] In 1904, he admitted: "I can't rest in the beauty I see so easily. I seem to note it, to say 'that is beautiful,' and then it is over."  In 1913, he wrote:"I have quick perception and a love of beauty, but I can't finish or perfect anything". Lubbock, 84, 254.

[116] Lubbock, 195-6, 243.

[117] Edwardian Excursions, 91.

[118] Newsome, 248.

[119] Newsome, 42.

[120] Edwardian Excursions, 91.

[121] The shoot was on a Friday, September 12th. Unless he was playing truant, the boy would probably have been at school had he been younger than 11 or 12.

[122] Newsome, 355. A key-word search for "boyish" in the Lubbock edition of the Benson diary throws up only one example, applied  to an Eton contemporary. Similarly, the word is not applied at all to Maud Sandys, the heroine of Watersprings, perhaps Benson's most attractive female creation.

[123] Goldhill, 128. The couple had a son, whom they called Andrew "because it was a name never borne by a Pope". Benson, Ionica, xxiv.

[124] Newsome, 53.

[125] Lubbock, 239-40. The young woman was the sister of a Magdalene undergraduate. So was Maud Sandys in his 1913 novel, Watersprings.

[126] Newsome, 247.

[127] Goldhill, 151-68.

[128] Lubbock, 84.

[129] Lubbock, 40; Upton Letters, 91.

[130] Lubbock, 238.

[131] Newsome, 247.

[132] Newsome, 306, 322. At Eton, Benson had enjoyed naming houses. Benson's Cambridge house was probably named in honour of Richard Howland, who was briefly Master of Magdalene in 1576-77, before moving to St John's. Most of the land at the northern end of Grange Road belonged to St John's College. Dr Ronald Hyam, Archivist of Magdalene College Cambridge, believes it may have been 65 Grange Road, now demolished to make way for Cockcroft Close.

[133] Benson's closest engagement with the female body probably came through viewing the Rokeby Venus, the Velasquez acquired by the National Gallery in 1906. The viewer is invited to compare the soft flesh of the naked woman reclining in the foreground, seen from behind, with the texture of a velvet drape in the background. The composition is complicated by the central location of an unappealing nymph, whose function is to hold a looking glass, within which is dimly glimpsed the woman's face. It would not have taken a study of Euclid for the Cambridge Little-Go to work out that the angle is impossible. Benson called it a "stupid, vulgar picture" and refused to believe that it was a genuine Velasquez. Lubbock, 141.

[134] A.C. Benson, The Silent Isle (London, 1910), 87-9.

[135] Lubbock, 197-8. The conversation took place on 21 September 1910, too late to have influenced Benson's comments in The Silent Isle.

[136] The Silent Isle, 88. In the 1905 Upton Letters (174), he wrote of his yearning for "some children of my own".

[137] "The bright pale February sunlight lay on the little court of Beaufort College, Cambridge, on the old dull-red smoke-stained brick, the stone mullions and mouldings, the Hall oriel, the ivied buttresses and battlements, the turrets, the tiled roofs, the quaint chimneys, and the lead-topped cupola over all. Half the court was in shadow. It was incredibly picturesque, but it had somehow the look of a fortress rather than of a house. It did not exist only to be beautiful, but had a well-worn beauty of age and use. There was no domestic adornment of flower-bed or garden-border, merely four squares of grass, looking like faded carpets laid on the rather uncompromising pebbles which floored the pathways. The golden hands of the clock pointed to a quarter to ten, and the chimes uttered their sharp, peremptory voices." A.C. Benson, Watersprings  (London, 1912), 1. There were no flower-beds in Magdalene's First Court in those days. College legend claimed that one of its wilder undergraduates had once driven a four-in-hand through the gateway and around the Court.

[138] Goldhill, 152-3.

[139] Newsome, 197.

[140] Watersprings, 66.

[141] Watersprings, 131.

[142] Watersprings comes to an unsatisfactory conclusion when Maud, now Mrs Kennedy, has a terrible experience in childbirth: her baby is stillborn. The lost infant then speaks to its mother as a dream child. A similar figure had materialised a year earlier in The Child of Dawn. It seems that Benson had no idea how to round off his story, although Trollope's Barset romances would surely have provided him with possible models. He could imagine getting married, but could not contemplate parenthood. It is noteworthy that Kennedy was not only  "bewildered" by the news that his wife was pregnant, but could not cope with the thought "of what his beloved Maud might have to endure, such a frail child as she was – illness, wretchedness, suffering. Would he be equal to all that?" The narcissistic choice of pronoun ("he") is striking. Watersprings, 305.

[143] J. Lees-Milne, Enigmatic Edwardian... (London, 1988 ed.), 49 (letter from 1879).

[144] M. Pottle, ed., Champion Redoubtable ... (London, 1998), 88-9.

[145] Helen Fowler, ‘Sidgwick, Eleanor Mildred (1845–1936)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. It is unlikely that Benson knew anything of the sex life, it there was one, of his uncle and aunt.

[146] Lubbock, 215.

[147] Lubbock, 157. Linguistic purists will frown at the use of 'aggravate' to mean 'provoke'. For other examples, Newsome, 319, Essays, 170, Upton Letters, 272. Both his sister Maggie and his brother Hugh had childhood habits which he found "aggravating": Maggie, 9; Hugh, 26.

[148] FaCW ("The Criticism of Others"), 198-215. "I confess I don't see the point of shutting one's eyes to faults in people one loves." Newsome, 9.

[149] Newsome, 94; Goldhill, 112-13.

[150] Mary Cholmondeley, Prisoners... (London, 1906), 63, 65. Her second sally was not far wrong: "I want nothing but a cordial camaraderie," Benson wrote of relationships in general in his diary. Goldhill, 147.

[151] In a little-noticed anonymous epistolatory novel of 1907, he portrayed a man retreating from the prospect of marrying a willing partner. "I am not made for marriage and you are not made for marriage with me – the wear and tear of life, the daily intercourse, the anxieties, the fixed engagements, would make havoc of our love." The term "intercourse" has of course changed its meaning.  [A.C. Benson], The Letters of One: A Study in Limitations, by Charles Hare Plunkett (London 1907), 11.

[152] The Schoolmaster, 79-80.

[153] Lubbock, 84.

[154] Goldhill, 147, 156.

[155] Newsome, 61.

[156] Newsome, 60.

[157] Lubbock, 239.

[158] Goldhill, 69. 

[159] The Silent Isle, 89. A tailpiece may indicate that the jibe was no mere joke. As a popular writer, his contemporary as a popular writer, Maud Montgomery, was almost a through-the-looking-glass Benson: he wrote about a masculine and metropolitan world, her books described the life of an orphan girl in the colonial world of rural Canada. In 1911, Montgomery married a Presbyterian minister, the Reverend Ewan Macdonald. Although they had been engaged for five years, she had no idea that he was prone to depression. In 1919, he collapsed, "possessed by a horrible dread that he was eternally lost – that there was no hope for him in the next life." It was then that she discovered that he had endured previous attacks, including a two-year episode while he was a student at Dalhousie University in Halifax, "though in a much milder form than this." The parallels with Benson's mental health history are close. Montgomery's description of the impact of her husband's 1919 breakdown must stand as one of the most chilling diary entries of all time. "I was horror-stricken. I had married, all unknowingly, a man who was subject to recurrent constitutional melancholia, and I had brought children into the world who might inherit the taint. It was a hideous thought." M. Rubio and E. Waterston, eds, The Selected Journals of L.M. Montgomery, ii, 1910-1921 (Toronto, 1987), 322-3.  Perhaps it was for the best that there was never a Mrs A.C. Benson to endure a similar nightmare.

[160] The Times, 18 June 1925.

[161] Newsome, 103-4. In 1893, Benson supplied a song for the Eton College Hunt. Eton College Chronicle, 4 May 1893.

[162] Newsome, 105. This version, long ignored, was performed again at the Proms in 2012. It may be worth noting that Benson was himself an accomplished amateur organist, and may be assumed to have had some instinctive appreciation of how words and melody might meld together.

[163] The Times, 19 June 1925 (letter from Herman Klein).

[164] Benson, Poems, 47.

[165] Ryle (Macnaghten), 31-2.

[166] Newsome, 56. However, he did regard Canada's prime minister, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, in his robes as KCMG, as the star of the 1902 Coronation: "most splendid – like a cardinal – he moved and spoke so gracefully and simply – one of the finest figures there." Edwardian Excursions, 74.

[167] M&F, 210.

[168] Leaves, 122-3.

[169] Lubbock, 207.

[170] FaCW, 300-1.

[171] Along the Road, 1.

[172] Benson diary, 1917, quoted R. Hyam, "The British Empire in the Edwardian Era", J.M. Brown and W.R. Louis, eds, The Oxford History of the British Empire, iv: The Twentieth Century (Oxford, 1999), 47.

[173] Trefoil, 133.

[174] Edwardian Excursions, 43, 56, 54. In 1890, he suggested that great national crises revealed a "chemical repugnance"  between "French theatrical excitability and English sang-froid", a stereotypical English attitude, and one that did not query the origins of the term "sang-froid". Eton College Chronicle, 23 October 1890.

[175] I owe this information to Gail Wood.

[176] Newsome, 54-8.

[177] Edwardian Excursions, 146.

[178] Newsome, 154-5. He felt an instinctive dislike for Haddington, which he attributed to the fact that it was the birthplace of John Knox. Gifford was "an ugly naked little town", Lauder "a grim little town", Annan was "grim, trim, respectable, uninteresting", Ecclefechan "a bare, lean town, neat enough, but without any charm".  Notably, he "liked the look of Melrose" because it was "like a Cathedral town" – an English standard of judgement.  Edwardian Excursions, 145, Lubbock, 84, 219-20, 85.   

[179] Edwardian Excursions, 43-53.

[180] Lubbock, 68. Benson guessed that he was going to be pressured to accept the 13 year-old son of another courtier, Lord Churchill, as a pupil in his house. Such a request, at such short notice, would have caused him problems. Viscount Churchill was a distant cousin of Winston Churchill. His son was a Page of Honour to Edward VII.

[181] Lubbock, 76, 68-9. He left Eton in December 1903.

[182] A night of vivid dreams about the Prince Consort in late September 1903 suggests that he engaged in a crash-course of reading. Lubbock, 70. Sir Theodore Martin had only referred in passing to Prince Albert's involvement with Wellington College, which may mean that his massive biography had not previously been of interest to Benson.

[183] John Brooke, "Introduction" to The Prime Ministers' Papers 1801-1902 (London, 1968), 7-8.

[184] M.V. Brett, ed., Journals and Letters of Reginald Viscount Esher, i (London, 1934), 164.

[185] Y.M. Ward, Censoring Queen Victoria  (London, 2013), 13 (Davidson). Ward's book shows how Esher and Benson were determined to project an iconic view of the Queen.

[186] Newsome, 109, 215.

[187] J. Lees-Milne, The Enigmatic Edwardian... (London, 1988 ed.), 130, 177.

[188] Lubbock, 76, and Ward, Censoring Queen Victoria , passim. There is a brief tribute to Childers in the Girlhood of Queen Victoria (1912), saluting him for continuing to work on the project during his final illness. Benson had brought Childers into the project as early as April 1904. It was a typically 'Establishment' arrangement, the details of their relationship being settled at the Athenaeum. Lubbock, 81.

[189] Newsome, 233.

[190] Lubbock, 77 (8 April 1904).

[191] Newsome, 131-9. Lodging with Ainger "proved expensive". Benson also found it daunting "having to do for myself the hundred little details – buying stamps, shopping etc., which I had left for years to servants. But I soon picked it up". Newsome, 175; Lubbock, 98.

[192] Magdalene History, 221-3; Lubbock, 74, 77; Newsome, 133. Benson apparently visited Magdalene three times between 19 and 21 January 1904. The 23 January edition of the Spectator carried an attack on the anomaly of the appointment of the Master by a country peer. It is possible that the issue had actually appeared a few days before its nominal date, and had aroused his interest in the College. [Additional Note, March 2024: in 1910, Benson told a local audience that, as a "keen undergraduate", he had once asked the Magdalene porter if he could identify Charles Kingsley's undergraduate rooms. "The porter looked at me dubiously for a moment, and then replied, ‘Not up',” meaning that no person of that name was in residence. Cambridge Independent Press, 6 May 1910.]  

[193] Lubbock, 77.

[194] In 1905-6, Benson was similarly tipped, without foundation, to become President of Queens' and Provost of King's. As late as 1915, by which time he was a controversial personality, he wondered whether he would be offered the Mastership of Downing. Hyam, "A Benson Centenary", 81; Newsome, 325.

[195] Lubbock, 77.

[196] M&F, 265.

[197] Gaselee, Dictionary of National Biography, 1922-1930, 76; Newsome, 142. The 1882 Statutes had provided for a minimum of 7 Fellows. However, two Fellowships could be kept vacant to prevent the average 'dividend' (stipend) falling below £150 per year, while a third would remain unfilled to protect the financial interests of the existing Master, Latimer Neville. Thus Neville's death in 1904 required Magdalene to move from 4 to 5 Fellows. In 1904, there were 3 Official Fellows, A.G. Peskett, A.S. Ramsey and V.S. Vernon-Jones, plus Alfred Newton, Magdalene's Professorial Fellow. In September 2017, Magdalene had 39 Official and Professorial Fellows, but a large number of Emeritus and Life Fellows, Research Fellows and Bye-Fellows made for a High Table of around 100 people.

[198] Gaselee, Dictionary of National Biography, 1922-1930, 76.

[199]  Newsome, 143, 156-7.

[200] Magdalene College Archives, A.S. Ramsey, "Bygone Days at Magdalene" (1935), 24, 32. There was some awkwardness between Donaldson and his new colleagues, hardly surprising in the first new Master for half a century. Donaldson arrived to chair his first College Meeting (now called the Governing Body) to find the Fellows in full academical dress, which drew embarrassing attention to his every-day garb. He entered his second College Meeting duly robed, only to find that the Fellows had tactfully abandoned their gowns. It was then agreed to dispense with the formality, and the Fellows of Magdalene have transacted their business in mufti ever since.

[201] Newsome, 156.

[202] Turner, 21. Since Turner came to Magdalene after the First World War, this verdict reflects the opinions of his seniors.

[203] M&F, 267, repeated in his history of Magdalene, 1923. See Hyam in Magdalene History, generally.

[204] The Times, 30 October 1915.

[205] The Spectator commented on this, 1904. List compiled by Rev. Alfred Peskett, E.K. Purnell, Magdalene College (London, 1904), 209-11.

[206] Magdalene History, 306.

[207] Ramsey, "Bygone Days", 57; Magdalene History, 217-18.

[208] Tanner, Historical Register, 990.

[209] Cambridge Independent Press, 5 November 1915. Arthur Gray, in Cambridge and its Story (1912) referred to an unnamed college that had recently turned around its fortunes thanks to an energetic Master and his titled lady wife.

[210] Lubbock, 153 (31 December 1906).

[211] Quoted by Hyam, Magdalene History, 222.

[212] Leaves, 267-8.

[213] Spectator, 23 January 1904, 8. St Loe Strachey, proprietor and editor of the Spectator, was a Conservative, although independently minded. He was also an Oxford graduate.  The source of the article on Magdalene may perhaps have been Sir Charles Dilke, who had criticised the Visitor's power of appointment in the House of Commons in 1877.

[214] Turner, 21.

[215] Ramsey, "Bygone Days," 57.

[216] Information from J.R. Tanner, Historical Register of the University of Cambridge (Cambridge, 1918). The prize-winner, G.D.R. Tucker, was a product of Wellington, who became an assistant keeper of printed books in the British Museum.

[217] Cf. Magdalene History, 225-6.

[218] Newsome, 278.

[219] St J. Ervine, Parnell (London, 1928 ed.), 69.

[220] The various improvement projects are outlined in Magdalene History, 221-9, and may be traced through reports in the MCM.

[221] Magdalene History, 217-18.

[222] Lubbock, 136-7; Hyam, "A Benson Centenary", 84.

[223] Watersprings, 5.

[224] MCM, June 1910, 127-8.

[225] MCM, June 1911, 201. In this batch of gifts, he had enlarged the Chapel organ ("his gift originally") and added three new chimes to the College clock, so that it would strike the quarters.

[226] Newsome, 243, 324.

[227] MCM, March 1913, 150.

[228] MCM, December 1911, 23. The paper was probably the essay on Kingsley in The Leaves of the Tree, which he had completed a month earlier.

[229] MCM, March 1911, 178.

[230] MCM, March 1913, 150.

[231] MCM, December 1911, 18. Musicological research is urgently required here, since it may be that Magdalene can claim a niche in the prehistory of boogie-woogie.

[232] Pfaff, Montague Rhodes James, 214. Gaselee's work on Petronius seemed too radical for some Fellows of King's: at the time, Keynes seemed a safer bet. Gaselee was a colourful personality, who kept Siamese cats and insisted on having a fire lit in his rooms every day of the year. He was a noted bibliophile and bibliographer, an expert on ancient Coptic, and one of the first Fellows of Magdalene to publish extensively in his fields of research. His 1910 edition of Petronius' Satyricon was illustrated by the Australian artist, Norman Lindsay. From 1920 until his death in 1943, Gaselee was Librarian of the Foreign Office. His obituary in The Times discreetly noted that he "always dressed with some originality". A stranger who observed Gaselee in St James's Park commented that he resembled "a Lithuanian bridegroom?" The Times, 17 June 1943; Spectator (note by Harold Nicholson), 24 June 1943, 10.

[233] Newsome, 230. As already noted, their relations were not always smooth.

[234] Newsome, 267. A contemporary, James Beaumont-James, attributed his mystical practices to the influence of Benson's brother, Fr Hugh Benson.

[235] Hyam, "A Benson Centenary", 83. Magdalene's only previous History graduate, Prince Frederick Victor Duleep Singh, had managed a Third in 1890.

[236] The reminiscences of one of his students, James Beaumont-James, a Magdalene undergraduate 1906-10, were published in MCM, 1999-2000, 63. He later simplified his name, to become James James.

[237] Lubbock, 230.

[238] Turner, 23; Keable, Peradventure ... (London, 1922), 219.

[239] MCM, March 1910, 70-1; Magdalene Boat Club, 1828-1928 (Cambridge,  1930), 40-4. For 1911, letter by A.W. Tedder, November 1913, in R. Hyam, ed., "Tedder's Letters from Magdalene", MCM, 2000-2001, 104.

[240] Magdalene History, 227-8; MCM, 2000-2001, 103-4.

[241] Lubbock, 203, 246; MCM, December 1911, 17; June 1911, 203; December 1912, 118-19; letter by A.W. Tedder, November 1913, in MCM, 2000-2001, 109.

[242] Ryle (Gaselee), 99. Both Benson and Gaselee refer to the audiences as "men". This was a conventional Cambridge term for undergraduates, which simply ignored the presence of women from Girton, Newnham and the Cambridge Training College (later Hughes Hall). However, the report that men sat in the gallery suggests that no special space was reserved for women to attend Benson's lectures, confirming the general impression that Magdalene was regrettably unfriendly towards female higher education.

[243] Letter by A.W. Tedder, November 1913, MCM, 2000-2001, 109. Red shades were used for the candles in Magdalene Hall until the Second World War, when they became unavailable. Fellows initially grumbled about the glare. (Story told me by the late D.W. Babbage.)

[244] Lubbock, 148. Benson had criticised the theory that Shakepeare's plays were written by Bacon at a meeting of the Eton Literary Society in 1889. Eton College Chronicle, 17 October 1889.

[245] Ryle (Gaselee), 99.

[246] Newsome, 157.

[247] Ramsey, "Bygone Days", 76. The first Pepys Dinner was held on 23 February 1905.

[248] Newsome, 285. On a later occasion, Belloc indulged himself drinking champagne at dinner before a lecture to the boys of Winchester. The absent-minded headmaster, M.J. Rendall, took revenge by introducing him as Hilary Beelock. J.D'E. Firth, Rendall of Winchester... (Oxford, 1954), 146.

[249] MCM, March 1912, 59. The Magdalene Street frontage of Benson Hall bears the date 1912, along with the inevitable initials A.C.B.

[250] The child was Nathalie Dolmetsch, daughter of Arnold Dolmetsch, instrument-maker and early music specialist. Benson saw him as a figure of fun (he was French), and compared the child to a ventriloquist's dummy. She later became a noted player of the viola de gamba, publishing a history of the instrument in 1962. Newsome, 304.

[251] The Pepys Dinner revived after the War. In 1920, guests included Prince Albert and Prince Henry (the future George VI and Duke of Gloucester), as well as Sub-Lieutenant Lord Louis Mountbatten, the future Viceroy of India. However, in the absence of Benson, who was still recovering from his second breakdown, the College "attempted to make the gathering of guests from outside as distinguished as possible without being too large". This made it possible to include undergraduates, with priority to those in their final year.  MCM, March 1920, 38. Prince Henry's two sons would both later study at Magdalene.

[252] MCM, March 1914, 243-4. One of the minor composers present in 1914 was Arthur Somerville, a contemporary at King's with whom Benson had inexplicably quarrelled as an undergraduate. Newsome, 42.

[253] The Times, 28 July 1931.

[254] Magdalene History, 226. I am grateful to Dr Ronald Hyam for supplying me with a number of quotations from Benson's diary, which I had planned to use for a subsequent sketch of Peskett.

[255] Newsome, 157. Peskett's strategy of evasion would not work now. His house, 13 Chesterton Road, has been replaced by small apartment block which is adjoined by Magdalene's Cripps Court.

[256] Newsome, 154.

[257] Leaves, 132-62, esp. 132-3, 145, 138-9; Ramsey, "Bygone Days", 30-5. I have not traced the Cornhill article, published apparently in 1911.

[258] Lubbock, 196.

[259] Benson's account of Newton's opposition to proposals for change at Governing Body included a description of the Professor's angry reaction to the request of an unnamed Fellow to allow his daughter to marry in Magdalene Chapel. This was easily identifiable as referring to Peskett.

[260] Watersprings, 173-9.

[261] Purnell, Magdalene College, 183. Caricature reproduced in Magdalene History, and cf. 193-6.

[262] Magdalene History, 228.

[263] Newsome, 324, 360.

[264] However, it would be misleading to convey the impression of a permanent split between "old" and "new" Magdalene. What Benson termed "occasional breezes" were unavoidable among a semi-enclosed group of personalities confronting issues of change within a small society. Two serious rows caused splits within, not between, the cohorts. In 1906, there was an "embarrassing scene" when Newton denounced Peskett's wish to hold his daughter's wedding in the Magdalene Chapel. In 1914, the Master's wife, Lady Albinia Donaldson, asserted the right of her children (aged 12, 10 and 6) to use the Fellows' tennis court by impounding the reservations book.  Gaselee and Salter, both recruited to Magdalene by Benson, were furious.  M&F, 270; Leaves, 155-6; Newsome, 305.

[265] Lubbock, 230.

[266] Magdalene History, 225 (Hyam). In his memoir, Beaumont-James (at Magdalene 1906-1910) made only one brief allusion to Donaldson, and even then the Master was turning to Benson for help during an emergency. MCM, 1999-2000, 65.

[267] Benson's sketch of his friend, in M&F, 248-78, was written while Donaldson's formidable widow was still alive, but it still managed to read in places like a character assassination.

[268] M&F, 249-50.

[269] Cambridge Independent Press, 5 November 1915.

[270] M&F, 269-70.

[271] Newsome, 252.

[272]Magdalene History, 221; The Times, 30 October 1915.

[273] Sydney Morning Herald, 5 December 1854. His birthplace, Kellett House, no longer exists.

[274] A younger brother, St Clair Donaldson, Benson's lifelong friend, became Bishop (later Archbishop) of Brisbane in 1904. He had been born in London, after the family's return to England. Two other brothers were drowned, one in a boating accident at Eton, the other in the sinking of HMS Hampshire in 1916.

[275] M&F, 262-3. Donaldson's book, a study of the age of Tertullian, earned him a Doctorate in Divinity. 

[276] Cambridge Independent Press, 5 November 1915.

[277] The Times, 30 October 1915.

[278] M&F, 256; Lubbock, 77.

[279] Ramsey, "Bygone Days", 76; Magdalene History, 217; M&F, 269.

[280] M&F, 271. "Chapel is held every day, morning and evening, at 8 a.m. and 7 p.m., and everyone has to attend at least four a week including one on Sundays," A.W. Tedder reported in 1909. MCM, 2000-2001, 102. To his credit, Benson was reminded of Thirlwall's comment on the argument that the alternative to compulsory religion was no religion at all: "I do not perceive the exact difference". M&F, 271.

[281] Magdalene History, 242 (Hyam).

[282] Watersprings, 186.

[283] MCM, June 1909, 24. There was an organ in Magdalene Chapel from 1677 to c. 1693, when the College ceased to be able to afford to pay an organist. Victoria County History of the County of Cambridge ..., iii, 450-6.

[284] N. Scotland, Squires in the Slums... (London, 2007).

[285] The term "Heads of Houses" reflects the fact that not every college was headed by a Master. Cambridge appointed  its first continuing Vice-Chancellor in 1989. Mason had been one of EWB's chaplains at Truro. As a teenager, Benson had a crush on him, which he later described as "the Arthur Mason adoration". Newsome, 26; Goldhill, 136.

[286] M&F, 273.

[287] P. Linehan, ed., St John's College Cambridge: A History (Woodbridge, 2011), 417-22 (chapter by Linehan).

[288] M&F, 273-4; Newsome, 251-2.

[289] Purnell, Magdalene College, 169-70; Magdalene History, 182-4 (Eamon Duffy).

[290] MCM, June 1910, 124.

[291] The Times, 10 November 1910.

[292] The Times, 1 June 1912. The election of Scott had also leapfrogged the claims of Monty James, elected Provost of King's in 1905.

[293] The Times, 30 October 1915.

[294] Lubbock, 196-7. It is revealing that Benson still thought of advancement in the Church as promotion.

[295] Watersprings, 109-10.

[296] M&F, 272-3.

[297] MCM, December 1913, 204.

[298] MCM, December 1915, 3.

[299] M&F, 275.

[300] MCM, December 1915, 3.

[301] MCM, December 1912, 119.

[302] Ramsey, "Bygone Days", 81.

[303] The Times, 14 October 1913. M.R. James later came to regard his sudden accession to the Vice-Chancellorship in 1913 as a blessing in disguise, since it gave him a year of "normal academic life" to get used to the job before the upheaval of the War. He spoke of the Vice-Chancellorship as "one long chairmanship ... all very shattering. ... Everyone is at liberty to interview me on all subjects at all times." Pfaff, Montague Rhodes James, 239-40.

[304] Newsome, 325.

[305] MCM, March 1914, 244-5.

[306] Ryle (Gaselee), 101.

[307] Newsome, 319.

[308] M&F, 276-7.

[309] It is noteworthy that contemporary tributes to Benson do not emphasise that his succession was automatic. Lubbock perhaps comes closest with his statement that there was "little doubt in any mind" about Donaldson's successor. Lubbock, 279.

[310] The Schoolmaster, 62-3, 36-7.

[311] The Times, 3 February 1903.

[312] Lubbock, 51.

[313] Lubbock, 104.

[314] Card, Eton Renewed, 119-20; Newsome, 160. Through a failure of communication, his friend M.R. James had also been nominated, and both gave way to a neutral candidate. Among the Eton masters, A.B. Ramsay was particularly offensive in his opposition.

[315] Lubbock, 99 (31 December 1904); The Times, 23 January 1925.

[316] Newsome, 160.

[317] Hyam, "A Benson Centenary", 81-2.

[318] Card, Eton Renewed, 120-2; Newsome, 178-81. The Saturday Review (15 April 1905, 476) defended his position: "Mr Arthur Benson was not a candidate. His growing affection for his work at Cambridge was too strong for him. If this was Eton's loss, it was very much Magdalene College's gain."

[319] Lubbock, 91 (3 November 1904).

[320] The Times, 21 January 1905.

[321] Lubbock, 104-5 (8 March 1905). It is likely that the gist of Benson's memorandum to the Eton governors appeared in an article that he contributed to the National Review soon afterwards. Benson complained of an "absence of adequate intellectual stimulus" in the Eton curriculum, "a disproportionate belief in the rewards of athletics" and "the pressure of an immature code of morals". He argued for "an increase in the intellectual spirit, a larger share of generous admiration for all effort, a truer view of the end of physical prowess, and a stronger, healthier, more manly tone of morals; more simplicity, less conventionality; a bigger conception of duty, a larger view of patriotism." The tone of generality suggests an indirect job application. The emphasis upon "morals" (although undefined) is uncharacteristic of his writings, but appropriate to a headmasterly persona. The article was summarised in Saturday Review, 6 May 1905, 603-4.

[322] Lubbock, 109-10 (1 April 1905).

[323] Ryle (Macnaghten), 34.

[324] FaCW, 154-77.

[325] FaCW, 154-7.

[326] FaCW, 158-9.

[327] FaCW, 176-7. In the autumn of 1905, Benson outlined his ideal school curriculum in a magazine called the Speaker. Based on the teaching of French, it would include British history since 1700 in some detail, an outline of European history, arithmetic, the principles of "Biblical religion", geography "in careful detail" and English, aiming both at appreciation of literature and the ability to write with clarity. This was summarised by a Canadian newspaper, Daily Colonist (Victoria, BC), 20 October 1905 (available on line via britishcolonist.ca). Benson also contributed an article along similar lines to the Monthly Review late in 1905. (Quoted in Maryborough Chronicle [Queensland], 9 February 1906.) (As explained in Part 1 of this essay, on-line archives of Australian and New Zealand newspapers have been used to trace articles by Benson in miscellaneous publications. These were frequently reprinted overseas. The National Library of Australia's Trove collection, and the National Library of New Zealand's Paperspast are both excellent user-friendly websites.)

[328] Punch, 10 February 1908, 128.

[329] The Times, 11, 12, 13, 15, 18 January, 12 February 1909. The "infirmary" quotation was from Frank Stephenson, headmaster of Felsted.

[330] The Times, 20 January 1909.

[331] Cornhill Magazine, January-June 1910, 229-35. It was published in the February 1910 issue of the magazine, The Times, 1 February 1910.

[332] The Times, 10 January 1910.

[333] FaCW, 159.

[334] The Times, 14 January 1908.

[335] Based on subsequent Tripos results: MCM, December 1911, 14; December 1912, 116.

[336] The Schoolmaster was "just out", The Times, 5 June 1902.

[337] This comes from an article in a London magazine, Public Opinion, quoted in Zeehan and Dundas Herald (Tasmania), 20 November, and Western Star (Toowoomba, Queensland), 23 November 1912.

[338] The Schoolmaster, 14-15.

[339] The Schoolmaster, 19, 22.

[340] The Times, 25 October 1902.

[341] The Schoolmaster, 17-18.

[342] Ged Martin, Hughes Hall Cambridge, 1885-1910 (London, 2011), 23. Benson was recycling an argument that went back to at least 1887.

[343] Ged Martin, Hughes Hall Cambridge, 1885-1910, 28-32, 99-102.

[344] M&F, 153.

[345] Newsome, 252.

[346] Cambridge Independent Press, 20 May 1910.

[347] The Upton Letters, 158-61.

[348] Ryle (Macnaghten), 29.

[349] The Times, 14 January 1908. In November 1908, Benson had spent some weeks in a nursing home, at the outset of his depressive illness. He was discharged in the hope that he could return to his normal routine, and this letter was written during that period. On 22 January, he returned to care. No hostile letter had appeared in The Times, but negative reaction to his opinions among academic colleagues perhaps contributed to his renewed depression. Newsome, 224-7.

[350] C. Kingsley, The Heroes; or Greek Fairy Tales for My Children (Boston, 1856), p. 1: "My Dear Children, Some of you have heard already of the old Greeks; and all of you, as you grow up, will hear more and more of them. Those of you who are boys will, perhaps, spend a good deal of time in reading Greek books; and the girls, although they may not learn Greek, will be sure to come across a great many stories taken from Greek history, and to see, I may say every day, things which we should not have if it had not been for those old Greeks."

[351] The Times, 4 June 1906; 26 November 1910; 22 March 1906. In March 1906, Benson welcomed a proposal to relax the Greek requirement for "science men", although he insisted that the proposal (which failed) did not go far enough.  A Magdalene science student, Albert Bellars, had entered in 1899, graduated (with a Third) in 1902, and "continued to reside in College", specialising in Chemistry. In 1911, he was appointed to a professorship in Rangoon. The Magdalene College Magazine was sure he would learn the Burmese language with "the same mental quickness and retentiveness that once enabled him to acquire in a few weeks sufficient Greek to satisfy the examiners in the Previous!" (The Previous was an alternative name for the Little-Go, or retrospective entrance test.) In 1908, the College took the radical step of electing a Fellow in Engineering, Talbot Peel, who had come to Magdalene from Huddersfield College in 1890. Peel's grip on Greek was evidently slight, but he thought it appropriate to incorporate some basic phrases into his conversation. He was noted for his allusions to the masses as "hoi populi". MCM, March 1911, 17; 1982-83, 49.

[352] The Times, 14 January 1908.

[353] The Times, 4 June 1906.

[354] The Times, 26 November 1910.

[355] The Times, 13 January, 10 February 1913. His co-signatories were E.W. Barnes and R.V. Laurence of Trinity, and Will Spens of Corpus. Barnes later became a bishop; Laurence and Spens were formidable academic politicians.

[356] The Times, 15 February 1910.

[357] The Times, 2 March 1910.

[358] The Times, 10 March 1910, letter dated 3 March. Somewhat inexplicably for a champion of English studies, Benson also denounced a suggestion by Lyttelton that boys might be examined in their native language. Nobody had designed a satisfactory way of doing this: "Is it to be Chaucer with philological notes, or the 'Old Curiosity Shop'?" Yet at the same time, he was supporting the project to establish what would become Cambridge's King Edward VII Chair in English Literature.  His criticism of Lyttelton for saying that the time was ripe for discussing the issue also contrasted with the satirical argument in F.M. Cornford, Microcosmographia  Academica two years earlier, that arguments for change were often blocked by an appeal to "The Principle of Unripe Time".

[359] Punch, 30 May 1906, 388.

[360] Escape and Other Essays (London, 1915), 226. The best-sellers were The House of Quiet (1903), The Upton Letters (1905), The Thread of Gold (1905), and From a College Window (1906).

[361] The Times, 3 May 1906.

[362] Quoted in Beside Still Waters, facing title page.

[363] FaCW, 3.

[364] Hyam, MCM, 2004-5, 81, dates the move to 14 February 1905. This modifies the statement that he first occupied the rooms in the autumn of 1905, after the necessary changes, to unite two adjoining sets, had been  during the Lomg Vacation of that year. Ryle (Gaselee), 91.

[365] A.C. Benson, Father Payne (2nd ed., New York, 1917), iv-v.

[366] On leaving Eton in 1904, Benson hired Jesse and Eliza Hunting as his personal servants, with responsibility for running his Cambridge house, the Old Granary. Lubbock paid a generous tribute to Jesse Hunting's service to his employer. Hunting "never left him, never failed him in devoted and untiring attention, and was with him at the end. There was no firmer tie of friendship than this in Benson's life; he trusted and honoured and relied on Hunting from the first day to the last of their long association." "There is a real friend," Benson wrote of him in 1910: "he looks after me and cares for me and thinks for me as if I were his son. He never obtrudes himself, never gossips, never slanders. He is, I think, one of the very best men I have ever met". Undergraduates thought of Jesse as "the old gyp" (a traditional term for a College manservant). It was his task to convey invitations to them – with something of the air of a last-minute summons – to the Old Lodge: "Mr Benson's compliments, sir, and will you lunch with him today?" He also waited at table, while his wife probably acted as cook-housekeeper.

Jesse Hunting travelled in support of his employer, who became increasingly intolerant of exposure to unfamiliar hotel staff, or even the retainers employed at the houses he visited. The routine appears to have been for Hunting to leave about an hour in advance, presumably travelling second- or third-class with his employer's luggage, to ensure that everything was unpacked at the destination before Benson arrived. At the time of the 1911 census, for instance, Benson was staying at the Lamb Hotel at Burford in Oxfordshire, accompanied by his protégé Frank Salter and 21 year-old, Geoffrey Winterbotham, a young Magdalene student for whom Benson had conceived a sentimental affection. (Salter and Winterbotham enlivened the visit by singing Gilbert and Sullivan duets.) Completing the party was the 56 year-old Jesse Hunting, described as "butler". His undoubted discretion was obviously vital to the smooth functioning of such holiday excursions. (Newsome makes the young man "Winterbottom", but The Times report of his degree confirms Lubbock's version. His Third in Classics suggests that he might have been more usefully engaged during that final Easter vacation.) On one occasion, Hunting was summoned from Cambridge to help Benson don court dress at the Athenaeum. However, Benson was not entirely selfish: on Christmas Eve 1910, having settled his boss at the family home, Tremans in Sussex, "[t]he good Hunting went off to Cambridge", no doubt for his own family celebration.

Jesse Hunting was born about 1857, making him five years older than Benson. He appears in the 1861 census as the 4-year-old grandson of John and Fanny Hunting of Rous Lench, a village about seven miles north of Evesham in Worcestershire. The only other occupant of the house was their unmarried daughter Lucy, aged 24. The census did not define the relationship between Jesse and Lucy, so it is impossible to know whether she was his mother or his aunt. In 1864, the local squire, Sir Charles Rous Broughton, gave the village an ornate schoolhouse, and it was no doubt here that Jesse Hunting obtained what must have been a sound basic education. In 1871, Lucy and Jesse were still sharing accommodation – his grandparents were dead – and the 14-year-old was now an agricultural labourer. However, he had moved on by 1881, when he can be traced as a 24-year-old footman, working for the Reverend Philip Kempthorne, a schoolmaster at Wellington College. The Bensons had left Wellington in 1873, so it is unlikely that they had overlapped, although Kempthorne had been an EWB appointment. Nor was Hunting prepared to remain in a humble role for long. In 1891, he was resident at Cradley in Herefordshire, and described as a butler – although, it seems, living in his own home, his employer not identified. His wife, Eliza (née Chamberlain), who was three years his senior, came from Cradley. They had married in 1884, and had two sons. In 1901, the Huntings were back at Crowthorne in Berkshire, where Jesse was working as a butler – but living in his own house – apparently employed at Wellington College: they were working for a master at the school when Benson recruited them in 1904. This was probably Kempthorne again, since he moved to a country rectory in the Cotswolds in 1904.

The Huntings shouldered a broad range of responsibilities. The 1911 census shows that they resided in the Old Lodge (along with a maidservant). Benson's eccentric home has been adapted and extended through its 90 years as College accommodation, so it is not easy to work out the likely internal configuration in his time. Benson  insisted upon his privacy, which suggests that their own quarters were perhaps cramped. In 1911, the Huntings' son, 32 year-old Albert Edward, was also living there. He was a carpenter, and was perhaps engaged in the extensions that Benson was making at about that time. The Huntings must have acted as caretakers for Benson's homes during his two extended periods of mental illness. Benson talked over major plans with them, such as his decision in 1906 to move to Hinton Hall in the Fens. As country people, they no doubt welcomed this initiative. There is a glimpse of Jesse Hunting moving between Haddenham and Cambridge, bringing in "loads of garden produce, carefully packed, which he sold to a greengrocer": he was disappointed when the harvest netted just five shillings and sixpence (27.5 pence). Jesse Hunting should be regarded as an impressive person in his own right, somebody who started life either as an orphan or born out of wedlock, but showed an ability and ambition to improve his position in the world. As argued in the text, Benson's claims to be considered as an educational reformer are undermined by his total lack of interest in social mobility. It is unlikely that he ever speculated on the career Jesse Hunting might have achieved had he been able to avail of secondary schooling and university. It is still less likely that he considered the talents and potential of Eliza Hunting, but she, too, had evidently received a solid basic education. In Jesse's absence at Burford, she very efficiently compiled the 1911 census return for the Old Lodge, and signed it on her employer's behalf.

 At the time of Benson's death, Jesse Hunting was 68. Benson made bequests to several servants, but Hunting is apparently not mentioned in the Will. This suggests that separate pension arrangements had been made for him, probably in the form of an annuity. The Old Lodge housekeeper in 1925 was Ellen Spicer, who received £250: I do not know whether Eliza (who would have been 71) was still alive. It is a sign of changing times that Jesse Hunting was accorded a position among the chief mourners at Benson's funeral, although it was unfortunate that The Times reported him as "Mr Hunt". Lubbock's tribute to Jesse Hunting is perhaps awkward and patronising, but was no doubt genuine. "No one who remembers the Old Lodge can ever think of it without joining gratefully in the admiration and affection that its master felt for this man." Lubbock, 160, 190, 204, 294; Newsome, 119, 185, 205, 226, 263, 325, 350, 377; MCM, 1999-2000, 63; The Times, 19 June 1911 (Winterbotham), 20 June, 17 July 1925. Census information from Gail Wood.

[367] FaCW, 324-5.

[368] Purnell, Magdalene College, 205. College Fellows were permitted to marry in 1882. Bright wished his bequest to be used to erect a house for a married tutor.

[369] Ryle (Gaselee), 92.

[370] A.C. Benson, Where No Fear Was (London, 1914), endpapers facing  240.

[371] Westminster Gazette, quoted Wellington Evening Post, 19 July 1913 (via the National Library of New Zealand's paperspast website).

[372] The "thoughtfullest" review appeared in a major US literary magazine, The Dial (which frequently and enthusiastically welcomed his books). It was quoted in the endpapers of a 1908 American edition of The Schoolmaster. For Benson's account of meeting Roosevelt, MCM, June 1910, 99. On 1 May 1921, the leader of Canada's opposition Liberal party, W.L. Mackenzie King, read Benson's The Rod and Thy Staff after a night of mild insomnia. King's diaries are on line via Library and Archives Canada. This is Item 7689.

[373] Taranaki Herald, 19 August 1913; New Zealand Herald, 11 July 1914. He was Henry Josiah Lewis, a retired Presbyterian minister. Lewis died in February 1916, aged 69.

[374] Punch, 30 May 1906, 388.

[375] Ryle (Lyttelton), 149n. Of his decision not to pursue the headship of Eton, Benson had written: "Far better that the task should be entrusted to one who had no diffidence, no hesitation, but a sincere confidence in his power of dealing with the difficulties of the situation, and an ardent desire to grapple with them." This was an insightful allusion to Lyttelton, but perhaps on that was too revealing. FaCW, 272.

[376] Punch, 24 October 1906, 305, Lubbock, 147.

[377] New York Times, 28 September 1907, cable of 27 September. Benson was struggling with depression at the time.

[378] Punch, 4 December 1907, 413. Benson was also satirised by Punch that year: 22 May, 322; 13 November, 359; 18 December, 439.

[379] Punch, 9 September 1908, 188.

[380] Punch, 14 April 1909, 258.

[381] Punch, 2 November 1910, 208. In real life, Benson was not successful in using secretaries to take dictation.

[382] Punch, 12 March 1913, 207; 2 September 1914, 201. "Havering" was used as a Scots term for indecision, and did not denote the modern London borough, which is not well endowed with hills.

[383] Lubbock, 163, Ryle (Lubbock), 128.

[384] Aberdeen Press & Journal, 29 June 1925.

[385] R.F. Foster, W.B. Yeats: A Life, i ... (Oxford, 1998), 424.

[386] Arnold Bennett, Books and Persons...  (London, 1917), 239-41. The Beerbohm cartoon is illustrated in Magdalene History, after 142.

[387] Ryle (James), 18; The Times, 17 June 1925; Thread of Gold, 25. One of Benson's most irritating devices was his use of "sate" for "sat". He seems to have adopted "sate" after writing EWB's biography, for his father frequently used the affectation in private correspondence and occasional poetry. As an act of filial piety, it seems odd, since he rejected EWB's example in so many other ways. Shakespeare's First Folio occasionally uses "sate" for sat (e.g. twice in Hamlet, where it is also used once as a synonym for "satiate"). Milton also used it twice in Comus. These hardly suggest a widespread 16th/17th century validation. One possibility might be that Shakespeare intended this alternative spelling to indicate the transaction of formal business (the inquest into the death of Ophelia is described as "The Crowner [coroner] sate upon her"), but there are simply not enough examples to justify any such conclusion. Benson used the term equally to describe the location of his posterior in a committee meeting or in an armchair. A modern study of Shakespearean pronunciation is unable to indicate whether sate (=sat) rhymed with rate or with rat. D.F. Coye, Pronouncing Shakespeare's Words ... (London, 1998) , 49.

[388] Punch, 4 November 1908, 342; Ryle (Lyttelton), 155-7. Lyttelton's comment pre-dates talking pictures. Silent-screen cinema was necessarily melodramatic, and dependent upon simple captions.

[389] Lubbock, 200, 204-5, 231.

[390] MCM, 1999-2000, 65; Keable, Peradventure, 52. Keable was one of Benson's first History students, graduating in 1908. His use of "Tressor" for the Benson character was perhaps an allusion to the French word, trésor, meaning "treasure". It may also have been allusion to Benson's [brief] association with Cornwall.

[391] Lubbock, 200. Benson does not seem to have remained a popular writer during the interwar years: his brother Fred remained successful, but Benson's own books were not reprinted. Perhaps his loyal audience did not relish being called the "wrong people". However, there were no doubt some late converts. In 1928, a corrrespondent of the Daily Colonist in Victoria, British Columbia thanked the paper's literary columnist for introducing her to "A.C. Benson's lovely books", notably The House of Quiet and The Thread of Gold. Victoria was a notoriously bucolic backwater, characterised by a phoney English culture. It was just the place to locate the caricature Benson fan, who signed herself "An Old Lady of No Importance". Daily Colonist (Victoria, Canada), 2 November 1928.  

[392] Lubbock, 278.

[393] Newsome, 322-24.

[394] New York Times, 11 October 1906.

[395] She is "a Swiss-American admirer, Madame de Nottbeck" in Magdalene History, 218.

[396] Magdalene History, 274. Happily, Magdalene has changed much in the past 30 years. One side effect of this improvement has been the marginalisation of the entire Benson cult, and (sad to say) "Madame de Nottbeck" has probably gone with it.

[397] The Times, 17 July 1925.

[398] Turner, 15; Goldhill (114) gives her a few sympathetic lines, but she is still "a Madame de Nottbeck".

[399] In terms of UK inflation, £30,000 in 1925 would be worth about £1.7 million in 2017. Eugenie de Nottbeck died in Geneva in 1944.

[400] FaCW, 326.

[401] Goldhill, 271.His aside, "as if their absorption with sex has made them blind", is surely ironic.

[402] MCM, 2004-5, 82.

[403] Lubbock, 191-2, 195.

[404] Newsome, 55.

[405] Newsome, 358, 205.

[406] Lubbock, 51.

[407] FaCW, 216, 226-7, 313.

[408] A.C. Benson, The Thread of Gold (London, 1907 ed.), 7.

[409] Thread of Gold, 226-7.

[410] FaCW, 321 (London, 1906 ed.), but 359 in the New York ed.

[411] FaCW, 309-12.

[412] A.C. Benson, At Large (London, 1908), 28 (quotation from New York, ed., 1909).

[413] Lubbock, 51-2.

[414] Newsome, 257.

[415] Lubbock, 238.

[416] Thread of Gold, 226.

[417] Edwardian Excursions, 154.

[418] A.C. Benson, The Silent Isle (London, 1910), 70. EWB defined the traditional view of the Atonement in 1894: "sin being committed and God being angered, sin must be paid for in punishment, and that, as the guilty could not bear it, an Innocent one must be found capable of the penalty and so the wrath appeased." LEWB, ii, 578-9. Put like that, it was not a difficult doctrine to reject.

[419] Thread of Gold, 197-8.

[420] Goldhill, 278. The quotation seems to date from 1913.

[421] Lubbock, 151.

[422] Leaves, 7-8.

[423] Thy Rod and Thy Staff, 8.

[424] A.C. Benson, The Child of the Dawn (London, 1912), 328, 248-9, 393-6.

[425] Spectator, 22 June 1912, 8.

[426] What Happens After Death? (New York, 1916), 102.

[427] Lubbock, 237.

[428] The Child of the Dawn, v, ix; Edwardian Excursions, 154 (September 1904).

[429] Newsome, 274. Without mentioning Benson, the Cambridge philosopher J.M.E. McTaggart noted a "curious" absence of interest the possibility of pre-existence in the Christian intellectual tradition. "Of the many who regard our life after the death of our bodies as certain or probable, scarcely one regards our life before the birth of those bodies as a possibility that deserves discussion."   McTaggart, Human Immortality and Pre-Existence (London, 1915, 2nd imp. 1916), 71-2. Benson was unusual in accepting an argument that had been put forward by both Plato and Buddha. However, as so often, he touched upon the idea but (except in the sentimental wanderings of The Child of the Dawn), he did not follow it through in any depth.

[430] A.C. Benson, Where No Fear Was: A Book about Fear (London, 1914), 25-6.

[431] Lubbock, 272; FaCW, 326.

[432] Edwardian Excursions, 154.

[433] At Large, 293-4.

[434] FaCW, 236-7.

[435] Goldhill, 278, diary from 1905.

[436] At Large, 325-7; Newsome, 62. Benson attended service at Farnham again in 1904. "It was here that I saw the dirty old lady sing 'Join the triumph of the skies' – today she was gone." Edwardian Excursions, 158.

[437] Benson's cautious statement about the reaction of the Apostles to the Resurrection echoes Rashdall, Doctrine and Development (London, 1898), 179-80.

[438] Newsome, 299; Lubbock, 266 (1914); Ryle (Lyttelton), 155.

[439] Newsome, 125; Lubbock, 169-70.

[440] The Times, 25 November 1911.

[441] He expressed his feelings at breaking with the Church by quoting lines of Tennyson: "Yet pull not down my minster towers, that were / So gravely, gloriously wrought; / Perchance I may return with others there / When I have cleared my thought." Henry Sidgwick: A Memoir, 202, and cf. 598.

[442] Newsome, 299; Lubbock, 168.

[443] Cambridge Independent Press, 11 November 1882.

[444] It is, of course, always dangerous to assert a negative, but I rely on the generally comprehensive search commands of archive.org for this generalisation. In his 1912 essays, Along the Road, Benson did give a few words to the hymn "And now the sun's declining rays", the second verse of which begins: "Lord on the Cross Thine arms were stretched / To draw us to the sky." He called this "both unpoetical and unreal", adding: "One cannot be drawn upward by extended arms, but by hands extended downwards." The comment recalls the character Bernard Woolley in Yes Prime MinisterAlong the Road, 152.

[445] Richard Cavendish, "The Execution of Dr Crippen", History Today, 60, 11 November 2010. Doubt has been cast on the forensic pathology in recent years.

[446] The Times, 5, 7. 10 December 1910.

[447] Spectator, 10 December 1910, 9. Benson seems to have believed that "the frightful business" of the Crippen case was characterised by "dreadful prolongation" and "ghastly alternations of hope and despair". Crippen had been returned to England in August, was tried in October and hanged 4 weeks later. This schedule combined an efficient discharge of the judicial process with adequate time, by the standards of the era, for compassionate second thoughts. But there was never any chance that Crippen would be reprieved.

[448] Punch, 4 January 1911, 5.

[449] Title of address by Benson at Manchester Cathedral, 11 November 1914.

[450] Lubbock, 231.

[451] Daily News (Perth), 31 October 1912; Cairns Post (Queensland), 6 December 1912. Enrolments at Eton had  climbed for several decades until, in 1908, there were 1,045 boys at the school, but numbers then fell back slightly to 998 in 1912. Benson was not the only critic: the number of boys in 1912 who were sons of Old Etonians, 301, seems surprisingly low. Unfilled places added to financial pressures. Card, Eton Renewed, 130.

[452] Fortunately, the visitor was lavishly bearded. Organisers arranged for two fake-Hardies to mislead attackers. One feigned terror and sprinted northward from Trinity, drawing off pursuers. At Magdalene, he turned to confront them, pulling off his theatrical whiskers. In the snatches of his Guildhall speech that he was able to deliver, Hardie confirmed that he was a threat to society by demanding old-age pensions, although his arguments were logically refuted by cries of "rot" and "rats". As the correspondent of a Wellington [New Zealand] newspaper put it, "Cambridge University sustained its reputation as one of the world's great centres of learning". For Hardie, the episode was a triumph: a meeting that would otherwise have been largely ignored became a public relations success. C. Hassall, Rupert Brooke... (London, 1972 ed.), 118-19; New Zealand Times, 24 April 1907. A Press Association wire report was widely published at the time of the event, e.g. Marlborough Express [New Zealand], 19 February 1907.

[453] At Large, 176.

[454] From an article entitled "The Future of the Race" in an English periodical called The Quiver, quoted Muswellbrook Chronicle (New South Wales), 2 July 1910.

[455] Lubbock, 204. The minister, R.J. Campbell, was a socialist and a believer in reincarnation.

[456] Western Star and Roma Advertiser [Queensland], 23 November 1912, quoting article in London Public Opinion.

[457] At Large, 164.

[458] Newsome, 215; At Large, 164.

[459] Newsome, 189, 210; Lubbock, 169, 309.

[460] Along the Road, 430-8.

[461] Newsome, 309; Atlantic Monthly, July 1916, 125.

[462] The Times, 4, 9 August 1914.

[463] Dunedin Evening Star (New Zealand), 29 September 1914; Lubbock, 280.

[464] Newsome, 309-10.

[465] Daily Mail (London), undated, quoted Daily Herald (Adelaide), 26 October 1914; Punch, 23 September 1914, 253.

[466] Christchurch (New Zealand) Press, 27 October 1914. The main manifesto was the work of G.M. Trevelyan. Newsome, 312-13; The Times, 13, 14 September 1914.

[467] Newsome, 310.

[468] Manchester Guardian, 12 November 1914.

[469] Dominion (Wellington), 30 December 1914. Benson engaged in other attempts to defend the War. An anti-war correspondent of a small-town New Zealand newspaper referred to an article in the London Daily Express, apparently in September 1914, which was allegedly "calculated to give his readers an entirely false idea of the European imbroglio". Oamaru Mail, 30 October 1914. There may have been others.

[470] Wellington Evening Post, 6 January 1915 (letter of 4 January). The Church Family Newspaper article of 13 November 1915 has been reconstructed from Christchurch Star, 29 December 1915; Wellington Auckland Star, 7 January; Taranaki Herald,  11 January 1916.

[471] Church Family Newspaper, quoted Glamorgan Gazette, 1 January 1915.

[472] A.C. Benson, Escape... (London, 1915), xvii.

[473] Lubbock, 280 (15 February 1915); 277-8; Atlantic Monthly, July 1916, 126. Benson's book on the war, Meanwhile... (London, 1916) was published anonymously, and attracted no attention. Lubbock, 279.  In an untraced 1917 pamphlet on the contribution of Britain's universities to the war effort, Benson described how first "the adventurous and high-spirited men" had  joined the Army. They were followed by "the sedater sort, good comrades and sensible fellow[s], who must needs go where their friends went." The final wave consisted of "men of an altogether quieter type, who had no taste for military things". All were inspired by "a passion of citizenship and humanity which, so far from growing dim and faint in long peace and prosperity, seems to have been nurtured into a freshness and spontaneity which no imagination could have foreseen." Quoted, Evening Telegraph (Charters Towers, Queensland), 7 July 1917.

[474] Church Family Newspaper, quoted Evening Star (Dunedin, New Zealand), 16 July 1915.

[475] Christchurch Star, 26 October 1915, quoting "Church News", probably Church Family Newspaper.

[476] Church Family Newspaper, quoted Christchurch Star, 6 November 1915.

[477] The Church Family Newspaper article has been reconstructed from Christchurch Star, 29 December 1915; Auckland Star, 7 January; Taranaki Herald,  11 January 1916.

[478] Newsome, 328.

[479] Ryle (Gaselee), 101.

[480] Lubbock, 279; Cambridge Independent Press, 19 November 1915.

[481] Magdalene History, 169-70, 179-80, 231-4; Bury and Pickles, eds, Romilly's Cambridge Diary: 1848-1864 (Cambridge, 2000), 133.

[482] D.A. Winstanley, Later Victorian Cambridge (Cambridge, 1947), 356; Newsome, 328.

[483] Benson was nauseated by an unpleasant poem in Punch in March 1916, calling dons who did not fight "jolly poor fellows": "You intellectuals of Cam and Isis, / Pale phantoms in this dawn of Freedom's light, / And you that in this hour of England's crisis / Haven't the conscience (or the heart) to fight." Punch,  29 March 1916, 210; Newsome, 335.

[484] The Times, 12 February 1934; J.R. de S. Honey, Tom Brown's Universe ... (London, 1977), 242, 312; Newsome, 153, 204.

[485] Card, Eton Renewed, 123-4, 139.

[486] The Times, 27 March 1915; Card, Eton Renewed, 137-8.

[487] F.J. Romero Salvadó, Spain 1914-1918 ... (London, 1999), 19.

[488] The Times, 29-30 March 1915; Card, Eton Renewed, 137-8. New Zealand newspapers ran wire reports 29-31 March: not specifically cited as they are easily accessible on-line. Their outrage undoubtedly reflected British opinion. Headlines included "Milk-Sop Talk", "A Dangerous Sentimentalist" and "Eton's Headmaster Forgets Lesson of Louvain". Lyttelton was labelled as indiscreet by the Manawatu Standard, 29 March 1915. He left Eton in 1916, and later became chaplain at a teacher training college.

[489] Newsome, 328.

[490] Cambridge Independent Press, 30 October 1914. He presented the altar rails from Rotterdam to St Giles', the parish church of Magdalene.

[491] Ramsey, "Bygone Days", 81; Cambridge Independent Press, 19 November 1915; Lubbock, 283; MCM, December 1915,  5; Newsome, 328.

[492] Ryle (Gaselee), 113.

[493] Magdalene History, 231 (Hyam).

[494] Lubbock, 309 (31 December 1924).

[495] Ryle (Gaselee), 108.

[496] Lubbock, 282-3; Newsome, 329-30; 271.

[497] Atlantic Monthly, July 1916, 126-7, A.S. Ramsey, obituary, MCM, December 1925, 4.

[498] Age (Melbourne), 23 December 1916; Daily News (Perth, Australia), 5 January; Evening Post (Wellington), 6 January 1917; Church Family Newspaper, undated, quoted in Sun (Christchurch), 7 August; Journal (Adelaide), 25 August 1917. I have not traced the Nineteenth Century article.

[499] Punch, 10 January 1917, 31-2; Register (Adelaide), 22 July 1916.

[500] A.C.Benson, "An Impression of the War", Atlantic Monthly, July 1916, 125-30.

[501] Lubbock, 278; Newsome, 330-1; Cambridge Independent Press, 20 October 1916; 30 March 1917. Other reports suggest that Benson did not speak at formal meetings, 10 November 1916, 3 August 1917.

[502] Owen Hugh Smith, quoted in Ryle (Gaselee), 105-7; MCM, December 1925, 4; Lubbock, 291. Benson was fortunate that the governors' meeting seems to have been a luncheon engagement. 3 bombs fell on Liverpool Street station at about 11.40, causing his train to be delayed at the Lea marshes. Had he travelled earlier, he might have been more directly involved.

[503] Lubbock, 293-5; Newsome, 342-8; Ryle (Gaselee),102-3; MCM, June 1920, 89. Gaselee was in error locating the nursing home at Epsom.

[504] The Times, 19, 21 June 1918. [I leave my account of Benson's response to his mother's death as written in 2017. Allan Downend's edition of Mary Benson: a Memoir by A.C. Benson (Rye, 2010), 115, indicates that Benson travelled to Tremans escorted by his doctor, Henry Ross Todd, and that he did attend the funeral. However, the circumspect account in The Times may suggest that, although present, he was unable to undertake the role of Chief Mourner. He suffered "a very bad relapse ... a nightmare of grief and dismay." Mary Benson's death thus contributed to the extended severity of his second breakdown.]

[505] MCM, December 1917, 104; December 1919, 21, 30; March 1920, 48; June 1920, 89.  Magdalene History, 306; Newsome, 348..

[506] MCM, December 1920, 109; M&F, 292-3; Turner, 23; R. Hyam, "J.R. Ackerley...", MCM, 1996-97, 23-6, quoting P. Parker, Ackerley... (1989); MCM, March 1921, 140; March 1922, 28; Lubbock, 303 (21 February 1924). On one occasion, when Inge was guest of honour at a Pepys Dinner, he somewhat blunted his welcome by publishing his speech in that day's London Evening Standard.

[507] MCM, June 1921, 166-7; June 1922, 65-7.

[508] Cornhill Magazine, August 1922, 192-200. In November 1921, Benson supported an appeal to raise money in support of Morton Luce, a Shakespeare scholar who had fallen on hard times. The Times, 4 November 1921.

[509] Turner, 20; Lubbock, 299; The Times, 28 April 1923.

[510] Trefoil, v.

[511] Newsome, 157 (1904).

[512] Newsome, History of Wellington College, 311 (June 1915). Newsome comments that in "style and sentiment this letter might have been written by his father."

[513] Trefoil, 281.

[514] Church Family Newspaper, undated, quoted Cornishman (Penzance), 8 October 1924.

[515] Lubbock,  234; A.C. Benson and H.F.W. Tatham, Men of Might (London, 1921 ed.), 257-78; L. Strachey, Eminent Victorians (Garden City NY ed., 1918?), v, vi, 245-350.

[516] M&F, viii, 75 (from the New York, 1924 ed.)

[517] The Times, 28 April 1923.

[518] The Times, 25 February 1925.

[519] Lubbock, 111, 222, 243, 257, 269; The Times, 26 March 1923.

[520] The Times, 28-31 March 1925.

[521] The Times, 30 April 1925. Benson also used the columns of The Times to regret the decision of the Dean of Westminster to bar a memorial to Byron in the Abbey (29 July 1924), and to review the controversy over Classics (23 January 1925).

[522] Turner, 24.

[523] The letter was written in 1924, and survived a fire in which Turner died in 1982. MCM, 1981-82, 1.

[524] MCM, 1990-1, 41-2; 1986-87, 23.

[525] Lubbock, 299, 310, 314: MCM, March 1924, 55; December 1923, 18; Ryle (Gaselee), 105. Dr Ronald Hyam, Archivist of Magdalene, informs me that Benson named the building in honour of Mallory without consulting the Fellows. He suggests that Benson was a closer influence upon Mallory than has appeared, perhaps because Mallory's widow banned him from writing her husband's biography.

[526] Lubbock, 299; Turner, 24; Newsome, 324; MCM, December 1925, 6; T.E.B. Howarth, Cambridge Between Two Wars (London, 1978), 61. Bye-Fellows were young academics, members of the High Table but excluded from the running of the institution.

[527] Victoria County History of Cambridgeshire, iii (London, 1967), 293-303 (by J.P.C Roach).

[528] Howarth, Cambridge Between Two Wars, 85-6.

[529] Newsome, 376.

[530] Lubbock, 301, 313; A.C. Benson, Rambles and Reflections (London, 1926, posthumously published under the light supervision of E.F. Benson), 269-77; Owen Hugh Smith of the Fishmongers, quoted Ryle (Gaselee), 105-6; The Times, 3 June 1925; Ryle (Gaselee), 104; (James), 19.

[531] Lubbock, 297 (order of quotation altered); Newsome, ch. 12, esp. 353; MCM, December 1925, 5; Ryle (James), 19.

[532] Edwardian Excursions, 59; MCM, 1999-2000, 65; Newsome, 354-5. Newsome names the artist as Adrian Graham. I am unable to identify him. Similarity of names perhaps points to Adrian Keith Graham Hill (born 1895), but his work (mainly as a war artist) was principally landscape, and nothing suggests that he ever used a shortened nom de palette. His portrait of Benson does not seem to have survived.

[533] Lubbock, 306; The Times, 17 July 1925. There are various images of the portrait on the Internet, and see https://www.gedmartin.net/martinalia-mainmenu-3/392-a-c-benson-in-images. [Note added October 2019: In 2018, the Nicholson portrait of A.C. Benson was transferred to Magdalene on long-term loan from the Fitzwilliam Museum. "A greedy, irritable rather bloated affair," was Benson's verdict when he first saw the completed work, "but not unlike me, and beautifully painted." Later, he called his appearance "bilious & startled". In 2019, it was displayed, appropriately, in Benson Hall, the impressive but eccentric dining room that he built for his private use. R. Hyam and J.M. Munns, "Nicholson's Portrait of A.C. Benson," MCM, 2018-19, 63-66.]

[534] Cambridge Independent Press, 19 November 1915; Edwardian Excursions, 60; MCM, 2004-2005, 83; Newsome, 215; Lubbock, 243. As late as May 1924, he cycled around villages near Cambridge. Lubbock, 305-6. Percy Lubbock described Benson's meticulous exercise ritual: "the excursion must exactly fill the afternoon. If the east wind blows and it begins to rain miserably, and you happen to be near home at half past three, still you must turn away and take a further round, or you will find yourself indoors before tea-time. If it is a perfect evening of summer, and the shadows are falling cool and fragrant between the hedges after the glaring day, still you must leave them and hurry home, for at half past four he must be sitting down to write his chapter." Lubbock, 187-8.

[535] Lubbock, 127-8 (1905), 235, 17; Ryle (Gaselee), 111. Once, staying at a house where the formidable hostess banned tobacco, Benson smoked a cigarette out of his bedroom window, dropping the butt on to a path beneath. It was presented to him the following morning on a plate, with a request for an explanation. Rambles and Reflections, 187.

[536] Rambles and Reflections, 262-8.

[537] Newsome, 377-8; Ryle (Gaselee), 108-11; Turner, 24-5.

[538] Quoted by R. Anderson in D.M. Grimley and J. Rushton, eds, Cambridge Companion to Elgar (Cambridge, 2004),  28.

[539] Cambridge Review, 5 December 1975, 56 (Hyam);  MCM, 1985-6, 20. The "get over it" slogan was launched by Stonewall in 2007.

[540] Newsome, 199-200.

[541] A.C. Benson, "Biography" in Along the Road, 235-42; Goldhill, 10. Goldhill's non-biography has no problem in relying upon the authority of other examples of the ludicrous genre.

[542] Ryle (Lubbock), 137-8.

[543] Newsome, 80-1; Lubbock, 41.

[544] Lubbock, 123; H.W. Paul, "The author of Ionica", Stray Leaves (London, 1906), 251-277, and cf. A.C. Benson, ed., Ionica by William Cory (London, 1905), xi-xxxii for the biographical sketch. Paul was perhaps unduly severe, resenting the intrusion of a stranger upon personal territory.

[545] Lubbock, 76; Rambles and Reflections, 263; Newsome, 146, 122; Upton Letters, 327-8.

[546] Christopher A. Kent, "Smith, Goldwin (1823–1910)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Useful incidental information can also be found in the original Dictionary of National Biography article in the 1901-11 Supplement, by Sidney Lee. The much put-upon Arnold Haultain edited Goldwin Smith's Reminiscences (1910), plus volumes of his conversation and correspondence.  E. Wallace, Goldwin Smith: Victorian Liberal (Toronto, 1957) remains impressive.

[547] Benson's own comment, 1904. Newsome, 7.

[548] Benson alluded obliquely to its discovery in FaCW, 41, and more extensively in Magdalene College: A Little View..., 23-8. In recent years, Magdalene has also accepted deposit of the diaries of Dean Inge. There is a 200th anniversary lurking in 2025, since the first published edition of the Pepys diary (badly mangled) appeared in 1825.

[549] R.R. James, Anthony Eden (London, 1986), 24 (24 January 1913). Richard Luckett noted that "generally speaking the diaries are most vivid, least tired, when Benson is away from school, schoolmasters, dons, youths, and out in the country, or, at his edgiest best, in loathsome, fascinating London."  MCM, 1979-80, 37.

[550] FaCW, 189-90; Newsome, 87; The Times, 17 July 1925.

[551] Lubbock, 13; MCM, 1985-86, 20.

[552] Cambridge Review, 5 December 1980, 57-8.

[553] New York Times, 9 January 1927; Lubbock, 81.

[554] MCM, 1979-80, 37-8 (Luckett); Turner, 18.

[555] Upton Letters, 192.

[556] [L. Huxley, attrib.], The House of Smith Elder (London, 1923, privately printed), 201.

[557] Cambridge Review, 5 December, 1980, 58 (Hyam); Howarth, Cambridge Between Two Wars, 122. Turner, 8, thought his study of Edward Fitzgerald was the best of Benson's critical works. Richard Luckett recalled Richards, in the 1970s, speaking with delight of Benson's "intellectual passion". MCM, 1979-80, 37.

[558] Ryle (Lubbock), 129-30. Lubbock's comment explains some shortcomings (as perfectionists might see them) in Benson's style, such as his tendency to insert asides as subordinate clauses within compound verb forms. He was also sparing in the use of commas to mark off clauses, and seems to have used "which" as a relative pronoun in cases where "that" seems more appropriate. Benson was perhaps fortunate that the brothers Fowler, who published The King's English in 1906, had presumably completed their compilation before he emerged as a popular writer in 1905-6. His brother Fred was hauled before the grammatical jury by the Fowlers 14 times. Benson could sometimes be a sharp observer of language, noting for instance in 1908 that "watch" was replacing "see" in relation to sporting events. Along the Road, 178. A curious, but revealing comment, was his complaint in 1905 that the English language had "no female of the word 'man'". 'Lady' was "antique", "'woman' means something quite different; and always sounds slightly disrespectful". Presumably, he associated the word with unflattering adjectival phrases (old, mad) or socially demeaning compound term (washer-). In fact, he used it often enough as a straightforward descriptive term, but his interpretation adds an intriguing dimension to 20th-century gender issues: among the many challenges to women was the need to redeem their term of identification. Upton Letters, 131.

[559] Along the Road, 90-4. Strangely, only one New Zealand newspaper seems to have picked up this essay: Press (Christchurch), 9 August 1913.

[560] Newsome, 172-3; Upton Letters, 235.

[561] Lubbock, 23, 263.

[562] Lubbock, 280, 200, 204; Newsome, 274. P. Waller, Writers, Reader, and Reputations ... (Oxford, 2006) discusses these themes more generally, and see 386-8 for Benson.

[563] Lubbock, 275. Financial pressures on Benson at this time are not explained. They may have included the costs of Tremans and of Maggie's nursing home treatment.

[564] The Times, 8 December 1925; 2 July 1926 (Meanwhile); 12, 26 March 1926 (Rambles); 5 February 1926 (Canon).

[565] The Times, 12 November 1926; Daily Telegraph, undated, quoted Adelaide Advertiser, 1 January 1927; Observer, 12 December 1926. The Telegraph review was by Arthur Waugh, father of Evelyn Waugh; the Observer review was by J.C. Squire, one of Benson's Cambridge protégés. Disapproval of the diary can also be detected in the Auckland Star, 31 December 1926, and the Sydney Morning Herald, 5 March 1927.

[566] Western Argus (Kalgoorlie), 28 December 1909; Newsome, 89.

[567] Ryle (James), 20; Lubbock, 241.

[568] Newsome, 266; LEWB, i, 601; Trefoil, 238; At Large, 107-8; Newsome, 284-5. I recall a story in the Magdalene tradition that, on accompanying a friend to the theatre, Benson insisted upon purchasing three tickets, so they would have somewhere to put their coats. 

[569] Edwardian Excursions, 127; At Large, 172-3; FaCW, 241; Newsome, 151-2; Rambles and Reflections, 79-86.

[570] M&F, 368; Lubbock, 305; Benson, Archbishop Laud, 52-3.

[571] Lubbock, 123; Thread of Gold, 120 (Milton); FaCW, 204; Lubbock, 105-6; Newsome, 178, 346; and cf. Rambles and Reflections, 154 (Bunyan); Essays, 68-95 (Marvell).

[572] Ryle (James), 7.

[573] Essays, 119-46; Along the Road, 238.

[574] Lubbock, 211 (1911).

[575] Rambles and Reflections, 102; Lubbock, 160, 163; The Times, 29 July 1924. Byron had to wait until 1969 to gain a place in Poets' Corner.

[576] Upton Letters, 13-14; Rambles and Reflections, 131; Lubbock, 120-3.

[577] Essays, 273; Rambles and Reflections, 129-36; At Large, 91-2. Benson tried to assess John Keble as a poet independently of his religious views, concluding that he was "a clerical Wordsworth". Essays, 202.

[578] Essays, 147-79.

[579] Upton Letters, 192, 194; Rambles and Reflections, 102; A.C. Benson, Tennyson (London, 1904), vi; Lubbock, 243 (1912).

[580] Edwardian Excursions, 113, also Lubbock, 68; Waller, Writers, Readers, and Reputations, 428n .

[581] Trefoil, 14; M&F, 28-9; At Large, 103.  Ruskin addressed the boy-run Eton Literary Society on 6 November 1880. He spoke on "Amiens", arguing that the northern French city played a cultural role in the Middle Ages comparable to that of Venice. As the organiser and in control of issuing tickets, Benson found himself a person of some consequence, but the headmaster, J.J. Hornby, took charge of the event, moving the Vote of Thanks himself. Eton College Chronicle, 9 December 1880; M&F, 20-31.

[582] Upton Letters, 209; Edwardian Excursions, 60; Ryle (James), 12. Thackeray is rarely if ever mentioned in later essays.

[583] Rambles and Reflections, 283-4; Upton Letters, 22-3.

[584] M&F, 183; House of Smith Elder, 242.

[585] Upton Letters, 192-8. Eton College Chronicle, 2 November 1888.

[586] Essays, 268-91, 205-37; MCM, 2000-1, 109.

[587] MCM, December 1911, 17; Upton Letters, 271-5. "It is not difficult to love and admire Carlyle," Benson wrote enigmatically in a late essay, "but it is not easy to like him." But he praised his "unique and unmistakable style". Rambles and Reflections, 121, 123.

[588] At Large, 174-5; Essays, 273.

[589] Newsome, 137; FaCW, 259-62; Escape, 59-86; Maggie, 31.

[590] Edwardian Excursions, 59, 103, 119.

[591] Essays, 294; Upton Letters, 206-7. Both men became friends after these verdicts were pronounced.

[592] Lubbock, 300: Newsome, 282; M&F, 360-72. Although he was a student at King's, Benson's college, Forster had left Cambridge after graduating in 1901.

[593] Newsome, 10, 225.

[594] Upton Letters, 207, 98-100; Edwardian Excursions, 60.

[595] Upton Letters, 208; Lubbock, 244. Benson may have been the partial inspiration for Codger, the Cambridge don in H.G. Wells, The New Machiavelli (London, 2010 ed., first published as a serial in The English Review, 1910, and in book form, 1911), 102-4, although the satire seems mainly directed at Oscar Browning.  

[596] Howarth, Cambridge Between Two Wars, 61; Upton Letters, 204-6, 27; Newsome, 284, 285. 

[597] Upton Letters, 206; Rambles and Reflections, 137-44; Edwardian Excursions, 63.

[598] Magdalene History, 221-31 (Hyam); MCM, December 1925, 4; R.J. White, Cambridge Life (London, 1960), 30n.

[599] FaCW, 176; E.Hobsbawm and T. Ranger. eds, The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge, 1983). One contributor, David Cannadine, argues (136-7) that Land of Hope and Glory formed part of a new emphasis upon ceremonial music, presented of course as the celebration of inheritance.

[600] "By a recent mail, the Primate [of New Zealand, S.T. Nevill, Magdalene 1862] has heard that the Master and Fellows of Magdalen [sic] College, Cambridge, have given directions that the Bishop's family arms shall be emblazoned in the windows of the College Hall." Otago Daily Times (Dunedin), 3 August 1905. This points to a decision in June 1905.

[601] Leaves, 152; MCM, June 1909, 32 (letter from 'C'), 24. Problems were encountered in wiring the Chapel, which the introduction of electric light was not completed until well into 1910. EWB's Lincoln Judgement had allowed the use of candles in Anglican places of worship, but for illumination only. Once an alternative light source was available, potential liturgical issues arose in relation to their use. MCM, March 1910, 88, MCM, June 1911, 201.

[602] Hyam in Cambridge Review, 5 December 1980, 57-8.

[603] In 1924, Benson discussed male emotional friendships with his medical advisor, Dr Ross Todd, who assured him that they were "not in the least abnormal". Benson also mentioned that he had entertained 104 undergraduates to lunch during the Michaelmas Term. "This Todd said with a smile might be regarded as quite abnormal." Maggie Benson nicknamed him "Toddles". Benson left him £300, plus a piece of plate, in his Will. Newsome, 367-8; R. Bolt, As Good as God, as Clever as the Devil: The Impossible Life of Mary Benson... (London, 2011), 244. (Benson's punctuation here is an example of his slapdash attitude to commas.)

[604] Thy Rod and Thy Staff, 23-5; Manchester Guardian, 21 October 1912. There was both legal and medical prejudice against the concept of neurasthenia. The 1897 Workmen's Compensation Act had shifted the balance in the burden of proof away from complainants: they had to prove that they had suffered workplace injury, but employers became responsible for arguing that specific conditions were not caused by their injury. A judge at Maidstone in 1911 claimed that neurasthenia was "a complaint which was very little heard of before the Workmen's Compensation Act came into operation, but which now appeared to be increasing rapidly", the implication being that it was tempting to allege an affliction that was hard for doctors to measure, a trend that reflected "an absence of self-respect and manly independence on the part of the workmen". In 1908, a Welsh colliery worker whose foot had been crushed in an accident contested his employers' demand that he should return to work by pleading neurasthenia, despite the opinion of three Cardiff doctors that "he would be very much better if he pulled himself together and resumed work". The association of a Cambridge don and respected author with the condition might have indirectly helped such claimants. The death of an Auckland clergyman after a long depressive illness in 1916 led a New Zealand newspaper to publish a background article on "Neurasthenia", which quoted extensively from Thy Rod and Thy StaffThe Times, 16 January 1911; Cardiff Times, 12 September 1908; [Dunedin] Evening Star, 6 May 1916.

[605] Despite his apparent openness in Thy Rod and Thy Staff, Benson did not mention the mental breakdown of his sister Maggie as a likely cause of his own depression. In 1907 diary entries, as he confronted his own looming crisis, he wrote that "I have not had one single shock, only a long strain". The world around him was "dreadfully overshadowed for me by Maggie's suffering & my inability to do anything to avert or lighten it." Information supplied by Dr Ronald Hyam.

[606] Keyword searches in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for "mental illness" and "mental breakdown" identify 277 entries. Many of these record medical experts (who treated such problems), artists (who may have been unusually vulnerable to affliction), plus prominent personalities whose parents or spouses became ill. Hardly any major figures recovered from mental breakdowns to go on to positions of authority: Cardinal Paul Cullen, the surgeon Joseph Lister and Earl Cowper (lord-lieutenant of Ireland, 1880-2) are among the few. In the world of education, Stanley Gurner, a State-school headmaster, was a near-contemporary of Benson; while (a little later) Eric Walker, imperial historian became a Fellow of St John's College, Cambridge. In an earlier century, William Chappell had been appointed Provost of Trinity College Dublin in 1634.

[607] MCM, 1989-90, 48 (Walsh); R. Hyam, My Life in the Past (Cambridge, 2012, privately printed), 132 [cited by permission of the author]; Cambridge Review, 5 December 1980, 58 (Hyam).

[608] MCM, 1989-90, 48.

[609] College History, 233-44. Ramsay has a sympathetic notice in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Although it is unlikely that Benson would have welcomed A.B. Ramsay as his successor, he did present Ramsay with a copy of his short history of Magdalene, dated 31 October 1923. The book is now (2017) in the Eton College archives.

[610] Newsome, 324, 374.

[611] Magdalene History, 252.

[612] This is of course a counter-factual speculation, which makes assumptions about Benson's health and lifespan. An alternative might-have-been seems less credible. In 1929, William Empson was evicted from his Bye-Fellowship after used condoms were discovered in his chamber pot.  Hyam suggests that "Benson would never have over-reacted" in the manner of A.B. Ramsay, who babbled that any contact with "engines of love" destroyed a man's intellectual and moral powers. It would not have been difficult to behave with less absurdity than Ramsay, but it is not clear that the outcome would have been any different. Even Salter, a Liberal parliamentary candidate in 1924, insisted that Empson must go, while Benson himself was often out of his depth on heterosexual issues. Magdalene History, 243-5.

[613] Turner, 19; MCM, 1981-2, 1.

[614] I am grateful to Professor Nicholas Boyle for information about the Kingsley Club. It was never formally dissolved. Copies of Benson's short history of Magdalene, written in 1923, were presented to newly elected Scholars of the College until stocks ran out in 1964.

[615] Magdalene History, 243, 256-61.

[616] MCM, 1986-7, 23. Blackie had died shortly before his recollections were published. Newsome, 119; Ryle (Gaselee), 111.

[617] Ryle (Madan), 123; (James), 27.

[618] Ryle (James), 17-18; (Gaselee), 96; Turner, 24 and cf. Lubbock, 13-14. "It is impossible to reproduce the charm of it, the delicate humour, the invariable kindliness," his Eton obituary said of his conversation. Eton College Chronicle, 25 June 1925. The one attempt by M.R. James to summarise a Benson anecdote demonstrated the problem.  He related how a passenger alighted from a London Underground train at a station where the service did not stop. Carried forward by the momentum, but weighed down by his luggage, he was forced to run along the platform until he collided with a bookstall, breaking both his legs. The narration must have been exceptionally humorous, because the story is vile.