Saturday, 12 March 2011

Penguin no. 169: As We Were
by E.F. Benson

"Since boyhood I had been native to that environment, and took it for granted, as part of the eternal order of things, that there should be round me this sense of stability, of well-ordered and comfortable existence, which took no thought for the morrow except to make pleasant plans. So permanent a consciousness was scarcely analyzable, for almost everything I knew was part of it...That conviction was quite outside conscious thought, even as, when sitting in a familiar room, we do not trouble ourselves about the foundations on which the house is built. Of course they can be trusted."

E.F. Benson was the well-known son of a well-known father, two members of an unusual and high-achieving family. Their circle of acquaintance was wide, and seemed to have included most of the leading figures of the Victorian and Edwardian eras. As a result, E.F. Benson was able to write a memoir of these years, and of his father's life and his own early childhood, as a series of anecdotes and personal observations about the people he had known. These stories are interwoven with descriptions of the habits and customs of the earlier times, and an analysis of how attitudes had changed and why. And all with the sense of reflection revealed in the above passage, and an ability to illustrate each point with an apposite allusion.

The book could not hold my attention consistently. There were some sections I found tedious, particularly those which discussed the Victorian institutions he refers to as "great ladies" and hostesses. But the compensation for enduring these came in the descriptions of Oscar Wilde and James McNeill Whistler, apparently adversaries. His descriptions seem almost savage, the spotlight is on their flaws, but as it is a contemporary account  it is fascinating. His thesis is that Wilde's enduring fame was the result of the trial and the unusually brutal punishment, and not because of his talent, which was evident but not remarkable.
"He did not live the life of one to whom the call of art is supreme, for he must have known that such a manner of existence as his was suicidal to an artist. He made phrases to justify it: he said that the artist should realize every mood, and gratify himself in every desire in order to render himself complete, but he knew he that he was only making the shallowest excuses for his own uncontrollable appetites...But unless ruin had thus come upon him , it may justly be doubted whether the artistic and literary world, especially of Germany and Italy, would ever have begun to take that interest in his work which has led to his now being considered a classic. It was that which woke their interest in him, and it was that which made out of an exceedingly witty trifler the poet who wrote the "Ballad of Reading Gaol."
I don't think the censorious tone is a reflection of an aversion to homosexuality, as there are passages in this book which suggest that Benson may have been similarly inclined. The criticism seems directed at his constant need for the limelight, and to dominate all conversation.

It is a criticism he also makes of Whistler. His pugnaciousness is well-known, but nonetheless the description of his personality suggests an immaturity, and an earnest and unwavering enthusiasm for being difficult that it is unforgettable.
"He worked with the untiring passion of the inspired artist, and in the intervals buzzed angrily in the limelight and bit and stung the unfortunate flowers on which he alighted. He could not stand a word of criticism, and anyone who ventured to say that any etching or painting of his was not a masterpiece was instantly pilloried or pelted...It was a game to him, and his rules were that he was allowed to kick and scrag his opponents, but they must not retaliate, and being, like most folk who thoroughly enjoy hurting other people, extremely sensitive himself, he bitterly resented any rejoinder as against the rules."
We have not just the observation but also the comment; everything is analysed, and whether Benson is right or wrong, there is much to reflect on and it is this which makes the book interesting. He also discusses Gladstone, Swinburne, Henry James, Edmund Gosse, and the Pre-Raphelite Brotherhood, amongst others.

The book is replete with passages I would love to quote. There are so many keen observances on the tricks of the mind, and reflections on the way people think. And there is his father (Edward Benson's) story, in which he successfully takes on responsibility for his siblings while still a student at University, chooses his future wife when she is a child of 11, becomes founding headmaster of Wellington school working closely with the Prince Consort, eventually becoming Archbishop of Canterbury. Benson writes this memoir towards the end of his life, and his admiration for his parents is evident; it tempers the contempt he sometimes reveals towards the Victorian public, their attitude's and their taste's, and the caustic honesty contained in the descriptions of some of his friends.


  1. I always thought EF Benson was a woman! When I first got my adult library ticket (quite a few years ago) Mapp and Lucia books were the among the first I took out. I remember them fondly. This sounds like an interesting book.

  2. This is the only book I have read by Benson, because it seems to be the only one Penguin published. I was drawn to reading it because it covered much the same time period as the Quest for Corvo, which I read last week, and because Fred Benson's brother was one of the people who went from being one of Baron Corvo's friends to one of his enemies.

    But despite not reading any of his other books, this was still fascinating because he knew so many interesting people. But sometimes his honesty seemed confronting.

  3. While enjoying As We Were, the general snobbery is rather obnoxious, as is the hatchet job on Wilde's literary talent, though EFB redeems himself by seeing Wilde as basically a good man, if flawed. It's interesting to see so much of EFB's life, as revealed here, finding its way into his Mapp & Lucia novels, while Secret Lives is, for me, his comic masterpiece.

  4. I can assure you that Benson was a committed, active and very enthusiastic homosexual. Like most of his era, he was terrified by what happened to Wilde and constantly tried to distance himself. I think this is an enchanting book.



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