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THE LIFE OF MONSIGNOR
ROBERT HUGH BENSON



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CATHOLIC TRUTH SOCIETY




ROBERT HUGH BENSON
From a photograph in the possession of Bernard Mercfield, Esq.



THE LIFE OF MONSIGNOR
ROBERT HUGH BENSON



BY



C. C. MARTINDALE, S.J.

AUTHOR OK " THli GODDESS OK GHOSTS," ETC.




ansMiffi,



IN TWO VOLUMES
VOL. I

WITH ILLUSTRATIONS
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TO HUGH'S mOTHER

I could not even contemplate, dear Mrs. Benson, offering
these pages to anyone but you, not only for the sake of the active
good-will with which you sanctioned the suggestion that I should
write them, and of the help you have all the while so generously
given me, but because when once I had read the letters that
passed between yourself and Hugh, I simply had no choice.
In his life he had your unique affection, profound and per-
manent ; all of that life that by God's law he might, he gave
to you ; it would be robbing, so to say, the altar, if I kept back,
or offered elsezvhere, this biography {diffidently written, believe
me, and blazoning in every paragraph the consciousness of its
inadequacy).

Asking myself, then, how I ought to try to write it, I re-
membered that you oftce said to him about a more famous
biography :

" There isn't a shadow on the whole portrait. Just imagine
it. I am going to hint gently that even glaciers have shadows,
and very blue and delicious ones too — and to ask for the mention
of a few endearing faults {I don't believe his were, but I shall
ask all the same)."

And as one long a friend of yours so emphatically reminded
me, " // faut respecter le type que Dieu cherche a produire en
nous."

So, while I certainly would never have been able, I most
assuredly have never wished, to write a vie de sacristie, / have



1711846



vl ROBERT HUGH BENSON

tried hard to say what I saw, including his faults — though not
as faults {even if so they seemed), but as facts; nor indeed even
to ** endear" him, but to communicate him, to offer him to
anyone who reads this just as he was, in his tremendous effort
to realise in himself that which he believed God wanted him
to be. And to speak for one moment grandiloquently, I have
had to try to treat this " Life " as a psychological study, or not
at all. As mere annals, a list of things done, or as a mere
study of a litterateur's output, it was inconceivable.

And it is my private consolation that you have read, for
yourself, every word of this book, and that you have approved.
It was his practice to read his manuscripts to you ; I could
not do better than to imitate him at least thus far.

To be able to love and venerate one's fellow-man is perhaps
the highest human privilege; to live with the beloved and
honoured is an added grace. To you I owe, then, this great
thing, that I have spent at least this year, despite its constant
distractions, in close intimacy with your son, whom, as the
manner of this life is, I saw so little. My affection for him
was established before I began to write; now it is increased,
and the more solidly made firm. To his mother I do not
shrink from making that avowal. You were (of course) certain
that it would be so. Yet you will not despise my assurance
that you were wholly right.

Very sincerely yours,

C. C. MARTINDALE.

Tremans,

January igi6.



INTRODUCTION

When, at the very kind request of Mr. A. C. Benson,
I undertook to write his brother's Hfe, I did so with
the most sincere diffidence ; partly because I doubted
whether a " hfe " were the proper way of doing homage
to the memory of a man Uke Robert Hugh Benson, who
never did anything externally massive or officially im-
portant, nor ever held any notable public position, as his
father did, and whose influence, as far as I could judge,
flowed chiefly from his vivid but elusive personality and
magnetism. Memoirs, I felt, like or unlike those which
have appeared, or rapid pen portraits by his intimate
friends, were more suited to convey his varied and fleeting
moods than was a volume.

Further, my acquaintance with Mgr. Benson was re-
latively slight ; of late years his communications had been
reduced to the minimum necessary for intelligibility — thus,
he would forward to me letters he had received, with brief
legends, in his angular hand, black across the writing :
Can you help this man ? — he seems honest ; or. Are there any
books on this ? or. Is this nonsense ? Can you send me a
tiote? So Sony! The topics he inquired about were
mainly theosophical and the like, or dealt with quaint by-
paths of religion.

Again, it seemed to me that any book on Mgr. Benson
which failed to insist primarily on his utterly personal
and interior moods, motives, and attitudes would wholly



viii ROBERT HUGH BENSON

miss the point on every more important occasion calling
for interpretation, and there is a very natural and justified
repugnance in many readers (not to mention the v^^riter)
for curious inquisition into the sanctities of a man's soul,
be he never so "public " in his career.

Then, the only rebuff I encountered when, having
undertaken the writing of this biography, I tried to collect
material, came from one who commented on " this general
conspiracy to present [Mr. R. H. Benson] as a miracle
of genius and of virtue." It was presumed that I would
continue this "elaborate hymn of unmeasured eulogy."
The writer, being " an enemy to wax-busts with pink
cheeks and china blue eyes," declined all assistance. I
was thus reminded that a hymn of hero-worship was un-
doubtedly being asked for by many of Mgr. Benson's
admirers, and I was conscious that I could not supply
even one stanza of what in any case he would so whole-
heartedly have hated. Yet, on the other hand, I observe
that a man of undoubted education is seriously maintaining
that the Jesuits hated Benson and hastened his death
by poison. This notion, entertaining in itself, though
emanating, one would think, from another age, or race, or
planet, none the less suggested that eccentric motives
might be imputed for any less laudatory paragraph I might
feel it my duty to write.

Yet, for the sake of the warm affection and admiration
I have felt for Hugh Benson, the privilege of speaking of
him appeared too great to be refused, nor was it indeed
easy to disregard the offer of Mr. A. C. Benson, to which
the sanction of the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster
had been so cordially added.

It has therefore been my effort, after this so egotistic
introduction, to exclude my personal judgments, prefer-



INTRODUCTION ix

ences, and surmises from these pages, and by making an
almost pedantic use of the great quantity of " documents "
I have been able to use, to state nothing which is not
fully supported by the evidence. In writing the history
of a mind, not just of actions or events, this has not
always been quite easy. Yet, striving to work inwards
from outside, I have not hesitated to accumulate a number
of small details, quite trivial and exterior in themselves,
convinced that in the superficial phenomenon was to be
detected an expression of, or key to, the real man. Nothing
has been asked for out of mere curiosity, nor related from
sheer love of gossip. And indeed, to those who at any rate
knew and loved him, even these trivialities may be dear ;
while to others, again, the echoes of his voice — speaking
things not necessarily important, even, or original — may
bring some portion of the help and consolation it brought,
already long ago. What I have said, I have checked
constantly by submitting it to the opinion of all (I think)
of Monsignor Benson's close associates, and, whenever this
has been possible, by sending it in proof to those who so
kindly had supplied the data for it.

It will be understood that I have believed that no true
homage is paid to a life like Hugh Benson's, by treating it
as if it had been one of achieved perfection from the
outset ; that he never changed, never increased, was a
Saint in his cradle, or grew, even, towards sanctity, without
many a growing pain, much inequality of development,
much momentary loss of interior equilibrium. A man's
very faults are not so discreditable as the good use he may
make of them is honourable ; and self-development always
implies self-conquest.

Finally, while I have most earnestly hoped not to
wound the feelings of anyone, Catholic or non-Catholic,



X ROBERT HUGH BENSON

of \vh;it avail is it to forget that he was, on the one side,
a Catholic priest, passionately eager to spread Roman
Catholicism and fiercely antagonistic to alien creeds, even
when tenderly devoted to many who might hold them ;
on the other, that he was unlike, and knew himself to
be unlike, and wanted to be unlike, a type of Catholic
priest which is by many held to be so general, so delibe-
rately produced, as alone to be satisfactory ? In all cases
I have hoped to be purely objective : it has been my
business not to preach, nor to edify, but to relate ; and
even when the subject of the narration is a mood, an
emotion, a spiritual phase, not adequately expressible
in any written document, I have honestly hoped that I
might not first put into him what I afterwards dis-
cover in him, but that I might quite simply tell as much
of the truth as I saw. May so much of apologia be par-
doned me.

I would first thank most sincerely the unselfish kind-
ness of Mrs. Benson, without whose unique help anything
written on her son must be relatively unavailing ; Mr.
A. C. Benson, for the vivid illumination which not alone
his memoir of Hugh, but his many letters and his con-
versations have continuously shed upon dark places ;
Mr. E. F. Benson, and Miss Tait. Particularly, too, I am
grateful for the genial and communicative hospitality of the
Mirfield Fathers, especially of FF. G. W. Hart and Frere,
to whom also I am indebted for the original of the photo-
graph of Mirfield, facing p. 234.

To these I would add the names of Adeline Duchess
of Bedford ; Mrs. Warre Cornish ; His Grace the Arch-
bishop of Canterbury ; Fr. H. M. M. Evans, of St. Joseph's,
Brighton ; Prior MacNabb, O.P. ; Mgr. A. S. Barnes of
l^landaff House ; Viscount Halifax, in whose affection



INTRODUCTION xi

Hugh Benson found so constant a support ; and very
many others whose correspondence or hospitality has
been of so much help to me, especially as regards the
earlier part of his life.

The Abbot of Caldey, the Rev. A. Morgan, the Rev. J.
MacMahon, of New York ; the Rev. R. Watt, Mrs. F. Ker-
shaw, Miss E. K. Martin, Miss M. Armstrong, Miss Kyle,
Miss Lyall, Mr. Richard Howden, Mr. G. J. Pippet,i Mr.
B. Merefield, Mr. E. W. Hornung, and the many friends
whose memories are fastened about Hare Street and his
later years, have also been of the most patient and generous
kindness. Especially I wish to thank the many who have
trusted me with his letters, or written to me of the spiritual
direction he gave them. Often their names will appear
here but rarely, or not at all ; perhaps because they have
explicitly wished to remain anonymous, or because their
contributions, which they may recognise, appear in a
continuous context, not actually quoted ; or simply because
I felt, in many cases, that names were best omitted.
Perhaps the most valuable help of any has come from
these.

Certainly to no one of them can these pages appear
anything but jejune and even false, at times. They will
remember how hard a task it is to compress into any book
everything they can know of so many-sided and many-
mooded a man as was Hugh Benson : that much should
not be said in any book ; and that something there is of
incommunicable which they each of them have received,
and neither wish to nor can hand over to the eyes and
criticism of another. Should any of these, then, feel that

^ The two drawings of Hare Street Chapel are by Mr. Pippet ; also the
vignette of the Vernacle, or Volto Santo, upon the title-page. Its robust pathos
and almost harsh simplicity are thoroughly in tone with the emotional preferences
of Hugh Benson.



xii ROBERT HUGH BENSON

this presentment of Hugh, which has striven to be first
objective and then interpretative, has suffered the perhaps
uncapturable spirit to ehide it, so that it becomes a parody
rather than a portrait, I trust they will forgive me. In
any case, they will accept my repeated thanks for their
generosity and confidence.

C. C. M.



CONTENTS



DEDICATION .
INTRODUCTION



rAGK
V



PART I

I87I-I903



I. CHILDHOOD



II. AT CLEVEDON AND ETON .

III. AT WREN'S

IV. CAMBRIDGE .....
V. ORDINATION: THE ETON IvHSSION

VI. AT KEMSING

VII. MIRFIELD, 1898-1903— I



II



VIII. CONVERSION— I .
II .



3
31
60

78
102
126
146
i6g
199
234



PART 11

1903-1908

I. IN ROME— I ....

„ „ 11 • .

II. AT LLANDAFF HOUSE .



271

308

350



ILLUSTRATIONS

ROBERT HUGH BENSON .... Frontispiece

From a photograph in the possession of Bernard Meretield, Esq.

TREMANS To face page 124

HOUSE OF THE RESURRECTION,

MIRFIELD „ „ 234



PART I



NOVEMBER 18, 1871— SEPTEMBER 11, 1903

Nondum amabam, et amare amabam, quaerebam quid amarem,
amans amare.

St. Augustine, Confessions.



ROBERT HUGH BENSON

CHAPTER I
CHILDHOOD, 1871-1882

The river, on from mill to mill,

Flows past our childhood's garden still

Below the yew — it still is there —

Our phantom voices haunt the air

As we were still at play,

And I can hear them call and say

*' How far is it to Babylon ? "

Ah, far enough, my dear,

Far, far enough from here —

Yet you have farther gone.

R. L. Stevenson.

Robert Hugh Benson was the son of a father "for
whom " (his eldest son has written) " the day was never long
enough," while " even at night he lived in fiery and fantastic
dreams": his mother belonged to that brilhant Sidgwick
clan in which Sir Francis Galton found " the most re-
markable case of kindred aptitude that had ever come
under his notice." Moreover, the Archbishop and his wife
had in Christopher Benson a common ancestor, and were
in fact second cousins. Thus, through this marriage,
qualities remarkable enough in themselves were reinforced
or duplicated, and issued, in the children of such parents,
into that confraternity of talent which is known.^

^ Or rather, not fully known perhaps to those who have not heard of the
extraordinary and precocious intelligence and spirituality of Martin, the Arch-
bishop's eldest son, who died while still at Winchester ; or who have not read
the subtle and fascinating studies of Miss Margaret Benson, his second daughter.
Dare I say that she has seen even farther into " the soul of a cat " than did
the author of T/ie Necromancers?

3



4 ROBERT HUGH BENSON

The Bensons descend from a sound stock of Yorkshire
yeomanry into which a strain of inventiveness and shrewd
business qualities had of recent generations been infused.
The Sidgwicks were rich mill-owners of Skipton ; and
Stonegappe, in the moors, and Skipton Castle, where they
lived in the winter, gave Edward White Benson, who was
born in 1829, visions of a social life wider than that which
his own home afforded. Yet, strangely, that temperament
of artist and aristocrat, which was to reveal itself as his,
seems wholly uninherited. From the outset the boy was
ardent, assimilative, and creative. He was given lesson-
books ; but the multitude of other books distracted him ; he
read them all and talked incessantly, being in restless need
to expand and communicate himself. "Just let me read
you this," he would exclaim; "it is only a little bit of
Southey. I shall get it off my mind and really be able to
work then." Then followed his views on literature in
general. At this time he was about ten years old. He led,
too, a mystical life of his own, and had an oratory with
cross and prie-dieu and decorative brass-rubbings. Here
he recited the Canonical Hours, alone or with boy friends,
and devised traps for audacious sisters who might invade
his privacy. At eleven he went to King Edward's Grammar
School at Birmingham, and prospered intellectually, and
felt the first stirrings of ambition, and made romantic
friendships diversified by explosive quarrels, though certain
notable affections survived for life — for Westcott and
Lightfoot, for example; and here too he met Edward I.
Purbrick,^ a future Provincial of the Jesuits. At fourteen

^ He visited Fr. Purbrick in 1872 at Stonyhurst. Each had prayed daily for
the other, they discovered. Benson has left a sympathetic but inaccurate account
of Fr. Purbrick's Mass, and dwells tenderly upon his friend's " wonderfully
delicate, self-governed look " and his " quiet dignity of self-possession." Fr.
Purbrick was indeed one of the world's few men who may be called imperial ;



CHILDHOOD, 1 87 1-1882 5

he is devouring the "Tracts for the Times," justifying
himself by the thought that his father (who died in 1843)
would have wished him to know " what was going on in
the Church." Already indicated, by a judge of character,
as "a born courtier," though too eager in manner, per-
haps, to make that a really good description, he is none
the less definitely touched by grace ; he loves liturgy and
church architecture, and has for ideal " to be a Canon and
recite the Daily Offices in my Cathedral ; " and he forms
a small and secret '' Society for Holy Living." Best of all,
he is fired by his head-master, Mr. Prince Lee, afterwards
Bishop of Manchester, with a passionate and personal
devotion to our Lord.^

In 1848 he passes to Trinity College, Cambridge, where
he practises rigid economy, eschews all recreation except
bathing, forms gradually his always rather complex style,
and allows his mind to pursue its favourite processes of
curious observation and collection of detail. He founds
a " Ghost Society," a forerunner of the " Psychical Society,"
and notes, sometimes at great length, those wild but most

his width of view was vast, his mastery of detail miraculous, and neither quality
injured the other. He retained to the end his firesh youthfulness of soul, and
his inner life was profoundly spiritual. Fr. Purbrick later on visited his old
friend, then Archbishop, at Lambeth Palace.

^ He reverenced Lee profoundly ; and undoubtedly this saintly scholar did
much to stimulate yet further Edward Benson's alert imagination in classical
and ecclesiastical departments alike. His memory was vivid and compre-
hensive, but (for his artistic temperament betrayed him) inaccurate, and his
historical knowledge was constructive, but subject to abrupt collapses. It is
interesting to find that as a boy he met Catholicism in the person of Newman,
preaching in his Oratory. The boy is spell-bound by his " Angel eloquence " ;
shudders at the " terrible lines" and " craft " seated on Newman's countenance —
" Oh, Lightfoot, never you turn Romanist if you are to have a face like that ! " —
watches him singing the Litany of Loretto, and marks his relative apathy during
the invocation of "most of the saints" (none of which exist in that Litany), and
his impassioned fervour as he utters certain titles of our Lady, a number of which
the young critic quotes, but no single one of them accurately, though proffering
them as arguments against Madonna worship.



6 ROBI^Rl^ HUGH BENSON

coherent dreams wliich were always to illuminate his
nights. During this time his mother and a favourite
sister died, and much responsibility descended on his
shoulders. He went, in 1852, as assistant master to
Rugby, where the Sidgwicks were installed, among them
being the child on whom his tenacious affections had
already fastened. His relations with his pupils, though
he refused a House, were intimate : with bathing, his
exercise now is to ride, and he will transmit, in part, his
keen love of horses, and wholly his passion for the water,
to his youngest son. He travels, and is presented to Pio
Nono, The mystery of St. Peter's, for a moment, holds
him spellbound. The Pope passed by, towards the
Tomb : round the dome above it thundered the " awful
legend " Tu es Petrus : '' one felt for a moment as
if they really must be the historical chain that bound
the earth to the shore of the Sea of Galilee, as if this
were the mountain of the Lord's House exalted on the
top of the hills." The impression passed. Elected Fellow
of Trinity and ordained priest, he received from the
Prince Consort, in 1858, the offer of the headmastership
at the newly-created Wellington College. He accepted
it, and entered upon his arduous task in 1859, having
married Miss Mary Sidgwick the year before. She ac-
companied him to Wellington, a " sedate matron of
eighteen," and all his life remained a strength and re-
freshment to her husband.

At Wellington he first revealed that astounding power
of organisation, which survives in the mind of many,
who knew him best in his work, as his predominant
characteristic. Physically he was cast in an impressive
mould : largeness and power marked all his action. The
representatives of the Iron Duke's family felt disgust when



CHILDHOOD, 187 1- 1 882 7

the moneys, subscribed in memoriam, which they had hoped
to see spent upon " fine monuments " set up in " every
considerable town " of England, were "lumped together"
for the building of a " charity school for scrubby little
orphans " ; Dr. Benson made it, single-handed, into one
of the first Public Schools of England. His masterfulness
first expressed itself in the tremendous discipline he ex-
acted : awe, not love, was what he at first provoked. He
had no idea as yet of his " extreme personal ascendancy,"
or of how his displeasure or gloom could depress his
entire environment. His anger still was terrible ; his
exactions at all times severe ; he was an exhausting travel-
ling companion, so would he tear the heart out of all
he saw — and he saw everything — and expect an attention
and appreciation no less vigorous from his tired family.
One result of this high tension at which he lived and
kept others, was a recurrent melancholy better described
as " black fierce misery," a mood bound to alternate with
his enthusiasm. " We laughed," writes the late Dr. A. W.
Verrall, in a memoir of characteristic subtlety and insight,
" at his rosy ideals, and his astounding power of believing
and asserting that they were on the point of realisation,
nay, actually were and had been realised. . . , He could
not, I believe, give an uncololired picture of any society
in which he was vitally interested — that is to say, of any
society whatever 1 " This passionate interest in life, this
enthusiasm with its alternating mood, this constructive
and reconstructive imagination, with its necessary diver-
gences from the accurate, he was to transmit almost
undiluted to his son Hugh. So too his unique appreciation
and management of the spectacular, and his ingenious
love of an art so recondite in detail as to border upon
mystification. Every minutest point in the decoration of



8 ROBERT HUGH BENSON

Wellington College Chapel, in sculpture and glass, was
planned by him and charged with " conceits " and subtle-
ties which ail but defy deciphering.

He planned the Master's Lodge, however, and its
garden in 1865, at a moment when mid- Victorian
scholastic architecture was uttering its loudest, if not its
last, word in hideousness. We read of pitch-pine fittings
and of light lilac washes ; and we see walls of patterned
brick, and stone-faced Gothic windows, and lakes of
gravel, and chill evergreens.

Here Hugh was born on i8th November 1871, in the
big room facing, on the one side, the south front of the
College, on the other, looking over rolling heather, to
Ambarrow with its ancient crowning firs.^



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