Edward Frederic Benson was born on the 24th of July 1867 at Wellington College in Berkshire. His father, Edward White Benson, was then headmaster of the college. His mother, Mary Sidgwick Benson (nicknamed Minnie) was a hostess once described by the Prime Minister, William Ewart Gladstone, as the “cleverest woman in Europe”. They married when Mary was just eighteen and had six children together, of whom Edward Frederic Benson was the fifth. Amongst Benson’s siblings were Arthur Christopher, who wrote the words to the famous hymn “Land of Hope and Glory”, Robert Hugh Benson, who was variously a minister in the Church of England, a Roman Catholic and a popular novelist. Benson had a sister, Margaret, who was a renowned artist, author and an amateur Egyptologist. Two of those six children died very young.
Benson’s father took great trouble to ensure that he spent every possible moment with his children, instilling in them all an intellectualism which manifested itself in their prolific collective output. As such, Benson’s education began from the moment he was born, though formally it began at Marlborough College where he started writing as a hobby. Despite their father’s close attention to their intellectual development, his attitude to his wife was severe and he subdued her formidable intelligence to such an extent that, following his death, she changed her name and began living with a female companion, Laura Tait, who was the daughter of Archibald Tait, who her husband succeeded as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1883. None of the Benson siblings would ever have children, conceivably as a result of this stressful childhood. In David Blaize, an autobiographical account of his schooldays, he writes that “the whole matter [of sex] was vague and repugnant to [him], and [he] did not want to hear or know more.”
His first novel, Dodo: A Detail of the Day (1893) brought such success and fame that he was able to immediately pursue a literary career, immediately finding himself in a comfortable enough financial position that other employment was unnecessary. It was a fashionably controversial novel examining society and its frivolities, and as a member of such mannered society Benson was in a fortuitous position to dissect and satirise it. However, though he displayed a great talent as a satirist he found himself drawn more to the seductive aspects of supernatural writing. While at King’s College, Cambridge, Benson became a member of the exclusive Chitchat club, at which the famous ghost story writer Montague Rhodes James would read his stories by candlelight to a select few fellow students. James went on to be regarded as arguably the greatest writer in the genre, and it was this frequent and atmospheric exposure to his writing which helped foster Benson’s own talent and fascination with horror. Indeed, on the 28th of October 1893 James read to the group two stories, Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook and Lost Hearts which would be published shortly thereafter, and Benson was present at this meeting. Benson later wrote that -
“ghost stories are a branch of literature at which I have often tried my hand. By a selection of disturbing details, it is not very difficult to induce in the reader an uneasy frame of mind which, carefully worked up, paves the way for terror. The narrator, I think, must succeed in frightening himself before he can think of frightening his readers”.
While Benson was at Cambridge he became a member of the famous Pitt Club, named in honour of William Pitt the Younger and initially established as a political society though now simply an elite social organisation, “[electing] members to its social advantages without any regards whatever to considerations of political party”. Later in his life he was awarded an honourary fellowship at Magdalene College. Not only did Benson express his disgust with the notion of heterosexual sexual intercourse, it is likely that Benson was in fact homosexual. Not only are there implicit themes of homoeroticism in David Blaize and other early work, but in his social life he was usually surrounded by handsome young men, keeping close friendships with writers and artists who were openly gay such as John Ellingham Brooks. Brooks and Benson once shared a villa on the island of Capri which had a reputation as a popular destination or residence for wealthy, gay men.
Aside from his literary endeavours Benson was an accomplished athlete, playing various sports through school and University and then representing England as a figure skater. He wrote prolifically, and though the majority of his writing was in the horror genre, he is arguably now most well-known for the Mapp and Lucia series which features Emmeline “Lucia” Lucas and Elizabeth Mapp. These novels are primarily set in a fictionalised version of the coastal town Rye, East Sussex, called Tilling. It takes its name from the River Tillingham, which flows through Rye. Benson himself had lived in Rye, moving there in 1918 when he stayed in Lamb House where Henry James, the famous American author and writer of The Turn of the Screw, had lived briefly. Benson’s father had met James and told him, somewhat inexpertly, a version of a classic horror story which was based on the idea of evil ghosts of former servants luring children to their deaths which James recorded and later used as inspiration for James’s story. In the series Benson based Mallards, the name of the house in which Mapp and Lucia live, on Lamb House.
The first of the series was Queen Lucia and was published in 1920 and marks a return to the satire of the upper and middle classes with which he had started his career. They were a tremendous success thanks to Benson’s ability to write controversy and social criticism from a fashionable angle. The popularity of the novels was enough that other writers have continued the series, as late as 2014 with the publication of Guy Fraser-Sampson’s Au Resevoir. Benson served as the mayor of Rye from 1934-7, and was elected as Speaker of the Cinque Ports in 1936. Benson also lived in London at 395 Oxford Street, at 25 Brompton Square and at 102 Oakley Street. A large amount of the action of 1927’s Lucia in London, the third in the series, takes place at Brompton Square. There are English Heritage Blue Plaques here and at Lamb House in Rye, in honour of Benson’s residence at the addresses.
By the end of his service as the mayor of Rye his health was beginning to deteriorate. It took doctors a while to establish the nature of his condition, but it was eventually diagnosed as throat cancer. He died on the 29th February 1940 in University College Hospital, London. In the dedication to a collection of his horror stories, he wrote -
“These stories have been written in the hopes of giving some pleasant qualms to their reader, so that, if by chance, anyone may be occupying in their perusal a leisure half-hour before he goes to bed when the night and house are still, he may perhaps cast an occasional glance into the corners and dark places of the room where he sits, to make sure that nothing unusual lurks in the shadow. For this is the avowed object of ghost-stories and such tales as deal with the dim unseen forces which occasionally and perturbingly make themselves manifest. The author therefore fervently wishes his readers a few uncomfortable moments.”
Clearly he hoped to conjure for his readers the same sense of excitement which he experienced as a guest of M. R. James during his university years, and as his stories have withstood the test of shifting taste in and expectations of horror it can be said without question that he succeeded.