July 24, 1867 – Edward Frederic Benson:
He Deceived Me By Telling The Truth.
He was an English writer and archaeologist. Writing as E.F. Benson, he is a literary figure from a forgotten age who still retains a cult following for his charmingly sharp-eyed novels. His books are now highly collectible. His fans included W.H. Auden, Noël Coward, and Gertrude Lawrence.
Benson wrote more than 100 books, publishing his first when was still a student athlete representing Britain in skating. When he was 49 years old, he moved into Lamb House, previously owned by Henry James, and used it as the setting of his charming comic series of six Lucia novels. The books chronicle a dying breed of pretentious provincial remnants of the upper-middle class, people who had retired on pensions or were living carefully off investments by settling in cheap country villages. The series began with Queen Lucia in 1920, followed by Miss Mapp (1922), Lucia In London (1927), Mapp And Lucia (1931), Lucia’s Progress (1935) and Trouble For Lucia (1939). A television series based on the three 1930s books, ran for 10 funny episodes in 1985 and 1986. A newer three-part adaptation was broadcast on BBC One in 2014. It stars Miranda Richardson as Mapp and Anna Chancellor as Lucia.
The novels feature wry, witty incidents in the lives of upper-middle-class British characters in the 1920s and 1930s, most of whom do not work for a living, who vie for social prestige in an atmosphere of extreme cultural snobbery. Several of them are set in the small seaside town of Tilling, close to Rye, East Sussex, where Benson lived for years, and like the Lucia character, served as mayor.
The Lucia novels are Benson’s most celebrated creations, featuring the monstrous Lucia, a provincial snob, and her plump foil and sworn best enemy Miss Mapp. The other characters in the novels included a neurotic spiritualist, Daisy; a lesbian artist named Quaint Irene; Plus Georgie, Lucia’s best friend, who is perhaps the first open and comfortable queer character in English literature.
Benson bravely published a notable love story between two boys at boarding school, David Blaize (1916). Beyond his many novels, he published 32 works of nonfiction and a dozen collections of literary short stories and tales of the supernatural.
Benson was a handsome, masculine and sporting Englishman who happened to prefer the company of other gentlemen. At Cambridge he fell in love with Vincent Yorke. Benson wrote in his diary:
“I feel perfectly mad about him just now…Ah, if only he knew, and yet I think he does.“
Later, Benson lived with pianist John Ellingham Brooks who earlier had a three-month marriage to a more talented wife, the painter Romaine Brooks, a dedicated lesbian.
His talented family was distinguished by the fact that, except for their father, every single member was queer. Benson’s father was the imposing Edward White Benson, Archbishop of Canterbury. Soon after he died, his wife Mary Benson moved her girlfriend into their home and her bed. Each of the four Benson children were busy sexual mavericks. A.C. Benson, the oldest brother, was one of the Edwardian era’s bestselling writers. A Cambridge professor, he was deeply closeted and lived in constant fear of exposure. He begged his brother E.F. to use greater discretion in his lifestyle.
The youngest brother, Hugh Benson, converted to Catholicism and became a much-loved religious writer, “Monsignor R.H. Benson“. His early life was marked by a scandalous affair with the crazy Frederick William Rolfe, who wrote under the name “Baron Corvo”, perhaps the most notorious gay writer of his age.
Their lesbian sister, Maggie Benson, was an artist, writer and noted Egyptologist.
Together the Benson family produced an insane number of books, but the Lucia novels are untouchable in their comic confection perfection.
E.F. Benson died of esophageal cancer in 1940. He was 72 years old.