Once dubbed “the cleverest woman in all of Europe,” the
eccentric British hostess Mary Benson passed away on this day in 1918.
A 19-year-old Mary Benson is photographed in the early days of her marriage to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Edward White Benson (x).
Born in 1841 at Skipton, Yorkshire, her original name was
Mary Sidgwick. Her father was the Rev. William Sidgwick, who instilled a deep understanding
of the Church in her early on. In 1859, Mary married Edward White Benson who
would go on to become the widely popular Archbishop of Canterbury. Although
Mary had officially become Mrs. Benson and was married to one of the most
powerful men in the Anglican Church, she insisted on being called simply “Ben”
or “Minnie,” and although this scandalized many Brits of the Victorian Age, it
was the least of Mary’s eccentricities.
In spite of having six children with her husband Edward,
Mary hated having sex with him and wrote often of the “stain” of the sexual
attraction she felt for the women in her life. She had several one-off affairs
with women during the time she was married to Edward, but her main partner was
Lucy Tait. Lucy was the daughter of the previous Archbishop of Canterbury and
many speculate that her relationship with Mary began when the Tait family moved
in with the Bensons in 1889. Regardless, the two women would live together for
the rest of their lives from that moment on.
Mary is perhaps more famous for her litter of infamous
children rather than her time spent at the Archbishop’s wife, out of which consisted
an academic prodigy, two popular novelists, and an Egyptologist who would later
be convicted for “homicidal mania.” Historians also find it interesting that
the majority of Mary’s children took after their lesbian mother in terms of
favoring the same-gender. After her
husband Edward died in 1896, Mary set up a new household with Lucy, this time
in earnest and making no secret of the fact that they shared a bed together. Despite
the pubic scandals and emotional upheavals that her children would inflict on
the family throughout the years, Mary and Lucy remained intact at their home in
the Sussex Downs called Tremens until Mary’s death on June 15, 1918. You can read As Good as God, as Clever as the Devil: The Impossible Life of Mary Benson by Rodney Bolt for a more in-depth look at the reputation and the realities of the Benson family.