Dining at Hatchett’s restaurant in September 1903, Arthur Benson observed his image reflected endlessly and from a variety of angles in mirrors around the room. He was to fill 180 volumes with almost five million words in an attempt to scrutinise and sharpen that blurred mirror image. Diaries can, of course, appear an ambiguous genre: they aim at a natural flow of unself-consciousness, but the diarist cannot remain entirely unaware of the prospective reader peering over his shoulder. Aiming ostensibly at truth, they often succeed only in playing labyrinthine games. ‘Anyone,’ Benson says, ‘might think that they could get a good picture of my life from these pages; but it is not so.’ David Newsome, invited and challenged, has entered the labyrinth, drawing the rest of us with him into an implacable game initiated by the diarist. The mirrors and images multiply, with Newsome, the reviewer and the reader locked together in observation, and the self-gratification of the diarist continues posthumously. The obsessive voyeur is now, in turn, the object of the voyeuristic reader, though the diarist continues to set the rules and limits of the game. He can choose, if he so wishes, to stop at the brink of some suggestive enormity: ‘Saw a strange thing happen – a door opened – of which I must not say more.’ Or, just as a terrifyingly deformed portrait can be consigned to the attic, so can the diarist exert all his powers of literary subterfuge to hide the truth from his reader and from himself.
The chronicle begins in 1897 when Arthur Benson was 35 and a housemaster at Eton, and continues to his death as Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge in 1925, at the age of 63. He left instructions that the diaries were to be deposited in specially-constructed boxes and not opened for 50 years. A heavily inhibited edition was brought out by Percy Lubbock in 1927, but Newsome is the first to have carte blanche to sift through this vast storehouse. While intimate diaries don’t necessarily yield intimate revelations of the true self, On the Edge of Paradise does disclose a novel side to Benson, till now known only to his closest friends, and a sharply split personality. But the division is not, as David Newsome would sometimes have us believe, that between the public author of vaporous gush and the private don who suffered and recorded predictable and repeated pangs of unfulfilled love for romantic youths. Such pangs could be only too easily inferred from such novels as The House of Quiet, The Isles of Sunset and The Thread of Gold. It is a division between the writer beloved by a vast middle-class female readership for his spiritually edifying nonsense and the acidulous buzzard who tore at the respectable garb of his pretentious contemporaries. The awful truth is that all that is most interesting in the diaries stems from Benson’s flawed, worldly side: his contrary ambition, his querulousness, vanity, pomposity, boredom and envy. A gentlemanly goodness does emerge from the self-portrait: a refusal to bully or be jingoistic, deify the dead or concede infallibility to the living. But Benson demanded ‘prejudice, preference, humanity, humour, malice, salinity, and a hundred little spices in my dish’. So, frankly, do we, and his delight in the specific and quirky, his ability to plant bombs under ample chairs, spare him from the accusation of being called Mr Chadband the pharisee. While David Newsome chooses to lay greater emphasis on Benson’s ‘heart-hunger’ and the strain of emotional non-commitment, it is difficult to agree that, as Benson hoped, the books are more ‘real’ than the bitchy talker, or that he never faced up to life – life being harsh and strong. What strikes me more forcibly is how Benson engaged in a lifelong strategy of survival by means of nicely-calculated selfishness. ‘Outward sensitiveness and inner hardness’ was how he put it to himself, and maybe the old buffer proved himself right.
The many pages crammed with the congenial sentiment of wistful regret and unexacting emotional indulgence now strike our sexually rougher age as cloying and tiresome. Not only are we satiated with the vast contemporary uncovering of the maimed Victorian sexual life – the disclosed private writings of Munby, Housman, John Addington Symonds and others – but we are strangely put off by the unseemly nakedness of their personal outpourings. The imagery they chose – their two ladybirds, each on the other side of the window, close, but unable to touch, the spectator consigned to the green verge of life – strikes us as too blatant, too uncomplicated. We have all become knowing connoisseurs of repression and sublimation. Benson longed starkly for the land of lost content and objected to the brittle new mores of Bloomsbury: ‘They seem to live with each other promiscuously, expecting to have love affairs and yet not to be sentimental. It gave me a feeling of very pedantic wit and bird-like morals.’
Benson was content to be a sexless Ariel, separating platonism from passion, love from taint, hoping at best to frolic, an aging walrus with a playful kitten, and sadly recording in 1913 that he had never kissed. Occasionally he vaguely questioned a God who set reason against feeling and convention against homosexual impulse, but unlike the youthful Hugh Walpole (one of the earliest kittens to fluster Benson with his friskiness) or Eton masters like William Johnson Cory and Oscar Browning, his fear of sex was so great that he could keep his footing in the ‘precarious trade’ of schoolmastering and avoid that common exile for the too attentive Etonian pederast, a fellowship at King’s. Having chosen to lock himself out of paradise, he could regret – lucratively, from afar – in his writings. The rarefied, low-pressured novels reveal the soul of Ariel: they are scarcely-veiled autobiographies, often diaries and journals written by sickly invalids contemplating an afterlife of self-improvement and self-resolution. The books provided thin but wholesome gruel for those who were entranced by weak feelings displayed against discreetly privileged backgrounds.
All of it ‘sauce without meat’, John Morley adjudged. The same might be said of his brother Fred’s dazzling ‘Tilling’ comedies, and has, further, been said of the later writings of Henry James. But Benson couldn’t understand the latter, didn’t like them, and strongly disapproved of the treacherous cult of young acolytes like Hugh Walpole and Percy Lubbock who lit incense at the feet of the master. ‘Life’s nothing – unless heroic and sacrificial. I pay the penalty of my magnificent imagination,’ James wrote to Benson. And again: ‘If there be a wisdom in not feeling, to the last throb, the great things that happen to us, it is a wisdom that I shall never either know or esteem. Let your soul live – it’s the only life that isn’t on the whole a sell.’ But the Jamesian conception of life making art was beyond Benson. Hence the diaries; hence, too, the absence of the heroic or the sacrificial in his works, which served safely to tap the perilous stuff about his heart. Fred, perhaps the more genial of the brothers, also inhabits at his best a recognisable fictional world. Disliked by the stuffier Arthur for pursuing the sleek fashionable circles of London society, he is the shadowiest figure in the family tapestry, having escaped more thoroughly from the episcopal palaces. It’s impossible now to read A. C. Benson except at one remove through Beerbohm’s parody, so accurate that irritation overcomes you before finishing it. Beerbohm’s Christmas Garland, by the way, is quoted in the bibliography, but not in the text: Benson’s response would be interesting.
Having decided to spare himself in the partial persona of a gushing female artist, he could join the hard strong world peopled by appallingly healthy machines like Asquith and Haldane by donning male drag. His susceptibility to soft male youthfulness made him equally sensitive to physical repulsiveness. The imagery he employs is compulsively and deliberately obscene: the Duke of Cambridge ‘with his face like a damaged double strawberry’; Professor Gwatkin swallowing food as if it were a worm or a grub: ‘He flung things at his mouth, often missed it. But it would catch in the hair on his face, and he would pull it in and swallow it somehow.’ Oscar Browning ‘rolled up to me; he rolled round me; he struck and butted me with his stomach’ and ‘seemed to take out his very heart and liver, and hand it round for inspection’. No one except Horace Walpole has so exposed the sham and quackery, the sheer silliness, pettiness and pomposity of our betters at close quarters, by joining them in their ceremonies, processions, parades and avid pursuit of place. These venomous revelations hark back to the discreditable court of George II, but also, in their hysterical or dreamlike quality, to that of Wonderland, with Arthur as Alice and his big-wig literary friends – Thomas Hardy and Henry James at the Athenaeum – as mad Queens.
It seems now that no one could live Benson’s supremely cushioned existence. Apart from occasional guarded forays into London literary society and royal circles, his life was passed from behind college windows. He moved against a high ecclesiastical background to Eton and King’s before coming to rest in cosy and self-indulgent Magdalene College, crammed, it would appear, with gay dons and gilded youth. Minor but gaudy public posts came to him with absurd ease, his writings and Letters of Queen Victoria (edited along with Reginald Brett, Lord Esher) brought him a small fortune supplemented towards the end of his life by a Mme de Nottbeck, who showered him with as much money as he was pleased to spend, which meant large benefactions to his college and paying off the debts of undergraduate favourites. At the end he owned £120,000 and weighed 20 stone. His life was so unruffled – afternoon walks timed to get him back (with chauffeur and rugs) for tea at five, the warning gong at 7.30 for dinner at eight – that the least inconvenience (a local station master lacking in deference, a ticking-off from Edmund Gosse for taking more than his fair share of cream) could rankle for days. But none of this outward security could protect him from a sense of sexual shame, from grisly nightmares and nervous breakdown. The old game of unhappy families sets his father, the archbishop, stalking his dreams in a cassock, touching the son with his rough cheek and haunting him with his failure to love and to respond frankly to proffered affection. In these guilt-ridden dreams he is arrested and stands trial for unspecified crimes, or is forced – to everyone’s embarrassment – to undress in the presence of Ruskin. Harrowing and extended periods of nervous collapse from 1907 to 1910, and again from 1917 to 1923, had to be endured, and could not be cured by rest, veronal, hypnotism, or the waters at Harrogate (‘like drinking the fluid from bad eggs’). The dream fantasies grew in grossness and malignancy: offal is stuffed into the decapitated head of a Pomeranian dog; bedclothes are drawn aside to reveal a hideous mass of huge flies; a parrot perched on his shoulder starts viciously biting his ear. Over four hundred graphic dreams are recorded in the diaries, few of them exuding the soft, serene light of his novels.
Fuller extracts from the diary are to come, but meanwhile we have David Newsome’s graceful selection and guidance. Arthur Benson was born at Wellington College, where his father was master, and Newsome, who has previously written on the delicate relationship between the Archbishop and Martin, his mourned eldest son, in Godliness and Good Learning, has just taken up the post of headmaster at that public school. It is hard to imagine anyone better fitted to edit and present the diaries. Occasionally, the writing is slack and verbose. ‘What, after all, is true vocation if it is not the yearning to arouse, to enkindle, to elevate, to improve, to open up new horizons, to share excitement with others, above all – to give? These are all functions which lie athwart the tenuous dividing line between the intellect and the affections’ – this, alas, is vintage Newsome and not vintage Benson. But it can safely be put down to the occupational hazard of rummaging through that compulsive stream of words – the immortal remains of Arthur Benson’s inner life.