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The Impossible Life Of Mary Benson by Rodney Bolt (Atlantic Books, £8.99)
WILLIAM Gladstone called Mary Benson ‘the cleverest woman in Europe’ and her friend the composer Ethel Smyth said of her “as good as God and as clever as the Devil”.
High accolades indeed, but who was Mary Benson? Brought up by a Yorkshire nanny who later helped her with her own children, she was the daughter of a domineering mother whom she always wished to please. Her second cousin visited the family and proposed to the 12-year-old Minnie, as she was known then, to be his wife. He was 23.
They married when she was 18 but Edward soon became a controlling husband with fits of temper and a lack of understanding. Edward had ambition and soon became headmaster of Wellington College, and later Bishop of Truro which led him to be appointed as Archbishop of Canterbury.
Mary followed him throughout his career, bearing him six children (two of them dying at an early age), and became a charming, witty and clever hostess who entertained high ranking officials, including the Prime Minister and Queen Victoria herself.
When Edward died suddenly in church, all this stopped and whereas some women would have been devastated, Mary, for the first time in her life realised she could do exactly as she liked.
Throughout her past, women had been important to her and now she could pursue friendships without the controlling hand of her husband. Her children were all clever and in their own way made a mark on the world but later troubled their mother greatly, though she bore this with the wit and energy she showed throughout her extraordinary life.
This well-written biography is worth a read. Informative and entertaining it soon draws you into this remarkable life study and interesting historical times.
Through Mary Benson, we realise that the rigid structure of Victorian society kept women back from their real calling and we wonder how many other gifted women of that age have become hidden to history.
We are a lesser people for not knowing their stories but at least Rodney Bolt has drawn our attention to one bright individual and he is to be congratulated for that.