Arthur Christopher Benson.

Life and letters of Maggie Benson online

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so nicely now instead of Beth leaving him to push
about a chair alone she leaves him to walk about
alone is not that nice. You will only have one
more Sunday after this and then you will come
home again. I am quite tired of your going away
so often it is so tiresome is not it. I and Nelly have
not gone to Lincoln to see papa made Chancellor
because we had colds so Martin and Arthur will
have to tell us all about it. Papa has sent Nelly
a photograph of our house at Lincoln. I like the
look of it very much but I don't like going away

17 c


very much — papa has told us such a great deal
about our house (at Lincoln) and the garden and
papa says that there are two old ruined towers and
a piece of the old city wall in the garden is not that
nice. I wish you a happy new year. We have not
got that box which you sent us. Is not it a pity that
we are not all together this last Christmas and New
Year. The boys are gone to Lincoln though we
did not for they had not colds. I send my love to
you. Your loving daughter





All this time Maggie's closest companion was
Nelly, my elder sister, who was born in 1863. They
were very different in temperament. Nelly was a
quick, active, resourceful and adventurous girl, fond
of games, sociable, naturally inclined to take the
lead, and indeed to carry the war into the enemy's
country if necessary. She was indeed inclined to
rush in impulsively where fools feared to tread.

We settled in at the Chancery in 1873. It was
a picturesque rambling house of great extent, and
of very various dates, with endless corridors, lobbies,
staircases, odd attics and deserted outbuildings.
The nursery was a big room at the top of the house ;
my sisters occupied a bedroom which was approached
on one side by a spiral stone staircase from the '
hall, which passed by a little oratory over the
entrance-porch, and came up into a little row of
quaint rooms looking out on Minster Yard. These
could also be approached by a wonderful passage
from the nursery, contrived by my father across
some leads. The schoolroom was the ancient
chapel, with a bit of the fifteenth-century screen
embodied in the wall. There was also a large
walled -garden, with a mound covered with elders,



two towers of the ancient city wall in the corners,
a hit of lawn, many fruit-trees and vegetable-beds.

There never was so delicious a house for children,
and the games we played in the deserted stables
and lofts, as well as in the garden-towers were
endlessly exciting and romantic.

When we went to Lincoln, Maggie was eight ;
she and my sister attended a school in an old panelled
house in Minster Yard. Maggie was in those days
a tall slim child, who kept her thoughts much to
herself, but was always ready to have plans and
secrets. She was, I think, rather my special ally.
We began a magazine there, and I remember that
Maggie's stories, written in a large straggling hand,
in which catastrophe followed catastrophe, all most
concisely told, and ending almost as soon as they
began, were not considered quite up to the family
standard, and the same applied to her early sketches.
She always insisted on signing her stories " Mr.
Pooley " — the name of a venerable Prebendary,
which seemed to us for some reason the height of
absurdity. " Don't you think it is rather silly,
always to sign your stories ' Mr. Pooley,' Maggie ? "
" I think I shall go on doing it," said Maggie, and
she did.

At Lincoln there occurred a curious instance of
Maggie's sensitive and almost morbid sense of
responsibility. She was walking with my sister
in the streets near the Minster, and saw a child
put a half-penny with which it was playing into
its mouth. In the nursery all copper coins were
supposed to be dangerous to life if placed for an
instant in the mouth. This was part of the care
which our dear old nurse took of us. Beth, as she



was called, always removed the little purple beans
from French beans, leaving only the green pod,
for some obscure reason of health ; she hunted out
of ginger-beer the tiniest fragments of cork — they
were supposed to " swell up inside you." She never
allowed us to pick up things on our walks for fear
we should " catch something." Copper coins were
supposed to produce " verdigris," which was sure
to be instantly fatal.

Maggie saw the child put the half-penny in its
mouth and was too shy to interfere, or to tell any-
one, but agonised over it in secret. A little later
a man was condemned to death at the Assizes for
the murder of a child in Lincoln. Maggie became
sure that it was the child she had seen, who had
died of verdigris, and that the criminal had been
falsely suspected of the murder. At last the strain
became too great, and she told the whole story to
my mother, who was able to comfort her. But the
incident shows what a childish imagination is capable
of ; and Maggie's power of multiplying the signifi-
cance of life by her imagination, and suffering deep
distress from a sense that she ought to have acted,
was characteristic of her all her life long.

There are a few of her Lincoln recollections
written down during her illness, in which her extra-
ordinary memory comes out. All the children of
the different Canons living in the Close are duly
recorded by their Christian names. It was a happy
time, full of little sociabilities, games and picnics.
Maggie records our visits to the central tower of
the Minster to hear and see " Great Tom " strike
the hour, and the awful pause after the clashing
of the small chimes when the wires attached to the



hammer of the great bell began to strain and quiver ;
and she remembered too how from some airy gallery
she looked down and saw the Dean in his garden
admiring his geranirmis.

She describes how she and my sister went to
spend the afternoon with an old lady in the Close,
and played cards for counters, which at the end
were exchanged for money. They came away with
sixpence in coppers between them, horrified at the
wickedness of having won money at cards, but far
too shy to refuse to take it. They finally decided
that they would put it all into the offertory, and so
purge their guilt.

I have two tiny recollections of her at this time.
One was when I went with her and my elder sister
to an evening children's party. We were late, and
were shown into a room where a kindly governess
was dispensing tea ; but all the other guests had
finished, and departed to games. We were given
tea and cake, and then the awful solemnity and
politeness of the whole thing dawned upon us ; I
saw my elder sister crimson suddenly, and then
begin to laugh ; I joined in, to the consternation
and discomfiture of the governess ; when we had
at last conquered our hysterics, which had been
accompanied all the time, quite sincerely, by a
deep sense of rudeness and shame, Maggie took her
turn, and laughed longer and louder and more
helplessly than either of us. We got away somehow,
and had a very earnest conversation on our return
about our own discourtesy. " If only I could have

explained to Miss D ," I remember Nelly saying,

" that I wasn't laughing at her ! "

Again I remember how Maggie and I walked over


Pholo by R. Slingsby, Lincoln.]

Nellie. Maggie.

Aged 13. Aged 11.

1876. At Lincoln. [To face page 22.


to Riseholme, the Bishop's palace, where there was
a big lake, on a summer's day, to fish. We were
allowed to use the boat, and we floated about all
day in the blazing sun, over the clear shallow lake,
looking down into translucent spaces of sun-warmed
water, where big pike lay basking and asleep, and
wide tracts of matted weed. We landed on the
island for our lunch, secured an abandoned and very
malodorous swan's egg from a deserted nest, and
fished at intervals in vain. About five o'clock we
gave it up, and were going off with our empty basket,
when the old gardener came down to feed the ducks,
and condoled with us on our ill-success. He threw
a quantity of food into the shallow water by the
edge of the bank, and the ducks churned it all into
mud and foam. He then departed, when Maggie
pointed out to me curious swirls and eddies in the
muddy water, and said she thought they were fish.
We hastily put our rods together, and in ten minutes
we caught half-a-dozen really big roach, the greater
number falling to her rod. Oh, the delicious triumph
of that moment ! We walked home in the dusk,
tired and hot, but in the seventh heaven of delight
at our good fortune ; and I can still remember my
father's gallant attempt the next morning to swallow
some fragments of the very muddy-flavoured fish,
while Maggie and I worked through our shares, and
as the old books say " pronounced them excellent."

She was then, as always, a good comrade, good-
natured, ungrumbling, willing to fall in enthusi-
astically with any plan.

My elder brother and myself got scholarships at
Winchester and Eton respectively in 1874. I was
the first to arrive at home, and wc arranged a



pageant to welcome my brother on his arrival, in
which I remember that Nelly and Maggie, arrayed
in College caps and old gowns of my father's, repre-
sented the respective Headmasters of Eton and
Winchester. We met my brother at our front door,
and conducted him, bewildered but gratified, in
procession to the drawing-room.

I can find no letters of hers at this time ; we were
all together, well and happy ; strangely enough, in
the last year of her life she reminded me that in one
of my school-terms, I did not answer her letters,
and she consulted my mother as to what she should
do. " If he won't write to you," said my mother
cheerfully' " don't write to him ! " — and she told
me then that though this had happened forty years
before, she was always remorseful that she had
taken the advice.

She was then at this time a silent shy girl, afraid
of publicity, often feeling awkward, easily abashed,
lacking in initiative, with little hopes and fancies
and ambitions, which she could not express either
in deed or word, and though interested in her school
work, glad to be at home again among familiar and
trusted surroundings ; modest and quiet, but with
her own way of doing things, and her own quiet
opinion about all matters in which she was concerned.




At the end of 1876, Maggie being then eleven,
my father was offered the newly-formed See of
Truro. An income was provided, but no house.
Eventually the Vicarage of the extensive and
formerly wealthy parish of Kenwyn adjacent to
Truro was obtained for the See, It was really more
like a small country house than a Vicarage. Its
glebe of some fifteen acres was planted like a little
park, and the house stood in a stately way, a com-
pact stone Georgian mansion, with pleasant gardens
behind. It was a very lovely place ; it looked down
upon the town of Truro, with the smoke going up
above the clustered roofs, spanned by the two
extremely picturesque timber viaducts of the Great
Western Railway. Beyond the town the estuary
lay, a shining water among low green wooded heights.
To the East the quiet valley of Idless ran far into
the hills, with its clear rippling streams, little stony
tracks coming down from upland farms, bits of
waste and wild woodland.

We settled there in 1877, and the home life was
vivid and happy. My father used to go off on
Confirmation tours, but he kept the holidays free
both from engagements and also from visitors, and



we mainly depended upon ourselves for com-

The settling in was a time of delicious excite-
ment for us all. My father had hitherto taken very
little part in public affairs, and the sense of grandeur
that he should be made a Bishop sent an agreeable
ripple through the family life. I find a letter written
by my sister Nelly to her godmother, Miss Wicken-
den, on the subject, which gives a lively picture of
our feelings.

The Chancery, Lincolo,

We have had such fun reading the reports of
papa in the newspaper, one says he is " a stout and
hearty-looking man of the medium height," another
" that he has a thin intellectual looking face, and is
above the middle height by a good deal " — another
that " he is the very model of a handsome English-
man ! " Another that " his desire for the good of
the masses and his mixing among the working-
classes were qualities equally shared by Mrs. Ben-
son ! " Good-bye now.

Yours affectionately,

M. E. Benson.

A High School for Girls was one of the first things
my father established at Truro ; he was always a
strong supporter of all movements for the education
of women. Nelly and Maggie began to attend the
High School at once, under the careful and sym-
pathetic supervision of Miss Key, the first head-
mistress. Here is a letter of Maggie's about the
new interests.



{To her Mother.)

Kenwyn, Truro.

We went a walk with Papa yesterday and went
down and saw the cathedral. We met Mr. Hardy
in the town and he came and brought the great
brown dog of Mrs. Gardiner's, and consequently
Watch * growled most of the way and they had one
or two quarrels over a stick.

Mummy f has laid three more eggs, I think
I shall change her name to Buttercup. Thersis f
still sits all day long on nothing and pecks my
fingers if I stroke her.

Nellie has got a perfect mania on for literature.
Miss Key talked to her about Johnstone J on Wed-
nesday after Algebra till she was perfectly wild
about him.

Maggie was always devoted to animals, and the
various pets became a matter of deep concern.
There was a friendly goat, who used to accompany
us on our walks, under the vigilant charge of Watch,
who shepherded her, and kept her from loitering. A
great dynasty of guinea-pigs was established, with
the strangest names, Atahualpa, Mr. and Mrs.
Fenwick, Edith Mitchinson (a Lincoln school-friend)
and many others. The one advantage of the guinea-
pig as a pet is that it forms and conciliates no

* The family collie. f Canaries. J Dr. Johnson.



personal attachments, so that its loss or death can
evoke no deep emotion. Here is a letter of Maggie's
on the guinea-pig question.

{To her Mother.)

Kenwyn, Truro.

Edith Mitchinson has had 3 more.

I shall call these guinea-pigs Lady Victoria,
Lady Blanche, and Lady Edith. If any of them
turn out to be males I shall call them Lord Victoria,

But from this time Maggie's friendships with her
school friends became a serious concern in her life.
Miss Maud Furniss, who was with her at school in
Truro, says that if you were a friend of hers, you
were bound to be intimate. " Her friends were a
part of herself ; she cared as much about their
interests as about her own." She adds, " I got into
the habit, when I was walking alone, of talking to
her and telling her things, as if she were there, and
pointing out beautiful things to her " ; and she
sends me an interesting little story of the school-
days, which shows that Maggie, for all her shyness
and sensitiveness, was capable of taking a line of
her own.

" There is one incident that I have always
remembered from the Truro days. It is character-
istic of Maggie. I had been given a bad-conduct
mark for flicking my pen at another girl — and her



pinafore got inked in consequence. I was very
angry — and so were my friends, and a petition was
handed to Miss Key asking her to take oft" the mark.
I believe every girl in the school— except Maggie —
signed it — everyone of any age, that is. I forget
now her reasons, but I know I didn't feel any resent-
ment, for it seemed somehow natural. She thought
the mark was justified — and I think the rest of us
didn't consider it on its own merits at all."

My mother writes —

" Maggie's relation to younger girls was very
delightful, it was not so much motherly as elder-
sisterly — and the little girls adored her. One day
at Kenwyn, I heard Maggie playing on the piano in
the School Room. This being unusual, I looked
in. A little girl was lying on the sofa in wild weeping.
Maggie told me afterwards that the tears were in
consequence of a sudden fear the little girl had had
that Maggie would go to College, that she should
never see her again, and that Maggie would forget
all about her — quite a * Clever Alice ! ' — and
Maggie thought the piano might be useful to tran-
quillise the child."

Mrs. Shirley {nee Tweedy) writes —

" Maggie did everything for me in my early days
and was my ideal for all my early girlhood. She
helped me out of all my scrapes, and with infinite
tact and understanding made me see the beauty
of goodness and religion, when before it had all
seemed to me a dreary duty. I think it was her



keen and delightful sense of humour which made
her attractive to so many. When I think of her
now, as I often do, I always see that wonderful
smile that began in her eyes and ended in that
characteristic turn of the mouth."

Another school friend of hers, Angela Symons,
now Mrs. Shuttleworth, writes —

" My recollections of your sister are mostly con-
nected with the old Truro days ; it was a very
happy time, and Maggie had much to do with that
happiness. Indeed, as I look back, I see how her
figure stands out in an atmosphere almost entirely
connected with laughter and gladness, and the
general fun of things that belong to youth.

" But personal sayings and reminiscences in
which she played a principal part are not many,
and in saying that I give the strongest evidence of
what I feel most about her character — its simplicity
and its reserve.

" I think, considering how clever she was, and
how surrounded she was by an atmosphere of
educated brains, it is the more astonishing that she
never by word or deed made one feel the least bit
small, or even at a disadvantage. On the contrary,
I can recall one little incident, when she made one's
very foolishness seem cleverness ! That was largely
due to her delicious and never-failing sense of

" It was in class at Strangways Terrace. We
had been given a new and, as I thought, very objec-
tionable kind of exercise in arithmetic to do at home.
I never had any gift for ' sums,' but considered
myself rather clever at having worked out a very



long one which ran into millions in the answer.
I was the first to read out the result, and did so
triumphantly. Miss Key, without turning a hair,
then asked Maggie, who was next to me, for her
solution. It was i, and it was right ! There was
much merriment, of course, and I was saved any
distress by Maggie's delight at the fun of it. Her
desire to know how I arrived at such vast figures,
where she had merely achieved i — partook of the
nature of a compliment, and made me ultimately
feel that I had been more successful than she !
I can see her now quite plainly as she was on that
day, wearing a speckly bluey-green cotton frock,
without much waist-line (she always said I had
too much), her hair tightly brushed back, and
shining, a silver cross and chain around her neck,
and I can hear her laughter coming in little gurgles
of delight, and her quiet gentle voice, with its
suspicion of breathlessness, and the rs that would
not roll ! She was so incapable of anything mean,
even in her thoughts, that she drew out quite
unconsciously the better side of the girls. The
light was so strong that there could be no dark

" I can remember only one thing she actually
said. We were arguing about Browning and Long-
fellow ! She made great fun of Longfellow, and
asked me to explain what sense there was in speaking
of ' Footprints on the sands of time,' since the
next tide would wash them out ?

My mother adds —

" In the Truro days, Maggie was already a great
lover of Browning — so was I, but I often had to



go to her on difficult passages — her mind was so
subtle, and she never failed to convince me."

Miss Maud Furniss writes —

" Maggie was always very keen on people doing
things together. She believed in the virtue of
' Societies.' I remember in the early days at
school she formed an ' Anti- Slang ' Society. We
wore badges with the motto ' Manners Maketh
Man.' I don't think the Society lived very long —
and I don't remember that it achieved much.
Perhaps that was because, at the same time, Nelly
formed a ' Slang ' Society, the members of which
had to say ' awfully ' or some other slang word so
many times a day. But this social sense of masses
entered into more serious questions later — I remember
once, a great many years after, in London, that
I was just going down to some friends at Bisham for
a week-end, and I had fixed to go by a train that
would get me there in time for luncheon. I had
at that time given up going to Church — we had
been talking, and I remember I said I could not see
that ' worship ' implied going to Church ; Maggie
insisted on the good of doing things with other
people, and said ' You see, Maud, you are going
down to be in time to have luncheon with the

" Maggie always wanted to know her friend's
friends — she also wanted all her friends to know
one another. She always wrote of them by their
Christian names and often sent on their letters —
this wasn't any breach of confidence — and she said
once I remember, that what mattered was knowing
that other people knew about oneself, not the mere



fact of their knowing. That might be a dangerous
principle unless the person who held it was wise
and careful — and Maggie never told me anything
her friends would have wished not known, but only
what made me realise them more and better."
Here are bits of letters about her doings : —

{To her Mother.)

Kenwyn, Truro,

(1880 or 1S81.)

Agnes and I went to Miss Key's At Home on
Monday. On our way back we got into heroics
again, viz., the ideal of a hero. Her ideal is someone
with a manly stride and a flash in his eye, and a
quick temper, etc. I think it is going to rain.
Hurrah ! they won't have cricket at school.

The next is a little satire on one of her friends
who was fond of using inverted commas and of
underlining quite unemphatic words : —

[To her Mother.)

Lis Escop, Truro.

Dearest " Mother,"

Everything is " allright " here. I hope this
is the right thing to do about your " letters " but I
" know " I'm " bound " as Maclean* says to do
something " wrong."

Isn't this " like Alice W " I don't know how

to " spell " that.

Your most loving " daughter,"

M. " Benson."

* The coachman.

33 D


It was now that she formed a close companion-
ship with my brother Fred, which lasted to the end.
They often travelled together in later days, and
though very different in temperament had a mutual
understanding which no divergence of view could
disturb. My brother Fred writes—

" When we were quite small we used to tell each
other endless stories of exciting adventure which
was to happen to us. She and I and Watch were
the actors in these. There were great explorations,
deadly perils at the claws of wild beasts and always
discoveries of treasures, large diamonds and so

In a little book, " Six Common Things," my
brother wrote in full detail the account of one of
their adventures. The story reproduces so closely'
and vividly the atmosphere of the Truro days that
I quote it here —

" The next great joy was the aquarium. Measured
by the limitations of actual space and cubic contents,
the capacities of the aquarium were not large, for
it was only a brown earthenware bowl with a
diameter of about eighteen inches ; but its poten-
tialities were infinite. We had even dim ideas of
rearing a salmon parr in it.

" The happy hunting-ground, from which the
treasures of the aquarium were drawn, was a little
stream that ran swiftly over gravelly soil about
half-a-mile from our house. On each side of it
stretched low-lying water meadows, rich with rag-
wort and meadow-sweet, among which one day we
found a lark's nest. Every now and then the stream



spread out into shallow tranquil pools, overhung by
thick angular hawthorns. Sticklebacks made their
nests under the banks ; small trout flashed through
the clear shallows, and the caddis-worms collected
the small twigs which fell from the trees, and made
of them the rafters of their houses.

"It was by such pools as these that we spent
hours dabbling in the stream and filling small tin

Online LibraryArthur Christopher BensonLife and letters of Maggie Benson → online text (page 2 of 26)