Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Book review: As Good as God, as Clever as the Devil

The Impossible Life of Mary Benson
By Rodney Bolt
Published by Atlantic Books

'As Good as God, as Clever as the Devil' was the phrase once used by Ethel Smyth to describe Mary Benson, née Mary Sidgewick. In his extremely well-researched and beautifully presented book, Rodney Bolt introduces us to this extraordinary woman.

Despite being a work of non-fiction, As Good as God, as Clever as the Devil is so readable and engrossing that you almost forget that Mary is not a fictional heroine of a Victorian historical novel. Bolt has succeeded in portraying the wife, and then widow, of Edward Benson in a most exquisite way.

Complete with a detailed bibliography and enriched by photographs of the Benson family and their circle of friends, this chronicle of the upbringing, married years and widowhood of Mary Benson is extremely interesting. Not only do we learn about the life of a fascinating woman but – as we follow her from birth to death (1841-1918) – we also gain a valuable insight into Victorian and Edwardian England.

Edward Benson – whose last years were spent as Archbishop of Canterbury – and the couple’s five children – all writers – are often mentioned. In fact, there are sections of the book that are less about Mary and more about her family. But this is understandable as she was enormously influenced by her husband and her children and we wouldn’t have a complete picture of her if we ignored the most important people in her life.

These people also include many women who, over the years, formed emotional bonds with Mary and supported her through the difficulties of her marriage. Among them, Lucy Tait, who lived with Mrs Benson until her death, is especially recognised as playing a significant part in her life.

Enriched by quotations taken from Mary’s diaries and letters, as well as by excerpts of her children’s work that describe the Benson household in more or less direct ways, As Good as God, as Clever as the Devil is a gem and will appeal to both biography-lovers and occasional non-fiction readers alike.

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