- A Very Queer Family Indeed: Sex, Religion, and the Bensons in Victorian Britain by Simon Goldhill
In his exploration of the activities and self-representations of the family of Edward White and Mary “Minnie” Sidgwick Benson, Simon Goldhill captures an important transitional moment in British history, roughly the years 1850 to 1940, when tensions between the new and the old and the modern and the traditional were highly evident. Set against the backdrop of the Bensons’ many accomplishments in the church, in literature, and in education, A Very Queer Family Indeed: Sex, Religion, and the Bensons in Victorian England functions not as a family biography, but rather as a study of “how modern society took shape in and against a nineteenth-century heritage” (298). Goldhill’s principal assertions are guided by two fundamental concepts: the notion of transgression and the idea that the Bensons were a “family that wrote itself” (11). Drawing on printed memoirs, novels, and academic studies as well as private papers at the Bodleian Library and the journals of Arthur C. Benson, Goldhill showcases the emotional landscape and complex processes of the written self-fashionings of a prominent family that was, at once, quintessentially Victorian and highly unconventional.
Referencing recent works on the history of sexuality, the history of religion, and the history of writing technologies and cultures, Goldhill situates the Bensons’ transgressive propensities by drawing, principally, on the notion of queerness. In employing this concept, Goldhill does not just focus on same-sex desire or gender nonconformity; rather, he uses it to refer to a panoply of heterodox relationships and actions, beginning with a courtship that started when Edward was twenty-three and Minnie was twelve. While relations of this sort would be pathologized in the twentieth century, they were seen as pure by many Victorians. Minnie eventually married Edward (at the age of eighteen), but their relationship retained elements of both dysfunction and queerness, most notably in the form of Minnie’s intimate relationships with other women like Lucy Tait. Goldhill also employs queerness to refer to various modes of personal religious expression in the Benson family. While the paterfamilias embraced the established church (even as he paved the way for greater ritualism in the 1870s and 1880s), his wife pursued an intensely private form of personal religiosity, and his son Hugh converted to Roman Catholicism.
Goldhill’s compelling narrative, episodic and thematic rather than chronological in nature, is organized into three distinct sections. The first of these highlights the ways in which the family used writing practices to negotiate the transition from Victorianism to modernity, express emotion, and construct public personas. Goldhill asserts that the [End Page 477] Victorians, in general, and the Bensons, in particular, were gripped by graphomania, a compulsive desire to write and rewrite personal histories, experiences, and desires. Letters between Minnie and Edward (and Minnie’s mother Mary) are mined, for instance, to reveal not only the intimacies of an age-disparate courtship, but also the ways in which Mary managed that relationship. The epistolary triangulation evident in these writings displayed, on the one hand, a desire to normalize an unorthodox relationship between a pubescent girl and a young man and, on the other, a need to temper the anxieties that it created. Other emotions were also mediated through writing. Arthur Benson, for instance, used the form of the university novel to express the fear and occasional hatred he felt for his overbearing father. He also employed the form of life-writing or biography to express his own desires for other men while still avoiding the full frankness characteristic, as Deborah Cohen has discussed in her important book Family Secrets: Shame and Privacy in Modern Britain (2013), of modern confessional culture.
The second section deals more resolutely with the history of sexuality, focusing on the various desires of Minnie and her six children, none of whom married. While desire was clearly central to the Bensons’ existence, their reflections on erotic life were often characterized...