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Novelist, Biographer, and Benefactor of Rye
Edward Frederick Benson was born July 24, 1867 at Wellington College in Berkshire, where his father was Headmaster. He was the fifth of six children born to Mary Sidgwick Benson and Edward White Benson, later Chancellor and Canon of Lincoln Cathedral, Bishop of Truro in Cornwall during the construction of the cathedral there, and finally Archbishop of Canterbury (1883-1896).
Known to his family as Fred, young Benson was educated first at Temple Grove in East Sheen, Surrey, where his developing love of music and the English language did not prevent him from finishing near the bottom of his class, probably because he was so often entertaining and mischievous. His next school was Marlborough in Wiltshire where he studied for six years and played many sports.
At the age of 20, he became an undergraduate at Kings College, Cambridge. Benson finished at Cambridge with honours in archaeology and a passion for all things Greek. His first major dig was at the walls of the city of Chester, where he made a number of important discoveries. From there he went to Athens to attend the British School of Archaeology.
His first book, Sketches from Marlborough, was privately published in 1888 and reflects lovingly on his teenage school days. His first novel, Dodo, appeared in 1893 to great acclaim and success. In it Benson introduced as the central character a woman who was to appear many times in different guises in future books - a glamorous, entertaining, humorous, heartless, amoral person who charmed many of those around her but caused great distress to others.
Benson, when he was not travelling and participating in archaeological digs, lived primarily with his parents at the various homes allotted to the Archbishop of Canterbury. Always he continued to write, producing about 100 books, along with dozens of short stories, articles, and pamphlets during his productive life.
Following the Archbishop's death, the family left Lambeth Palace, moving first to Winchester and then to a house called Tremans near Horsted Keynes in Sussex. Fred prepared for publication his father's book on the life of St. Cyprian, a project on which the Archbishop worked for 30 years. This was the first of many times that he, as the most stable and meticulous member of the family, would be called upon to straighten out the affairs, edit the literary outpourings, and administer the estates of his parents and siblings.
Then, for a brief period Fred served as administrator of a Red Cross fund for relief of Greek refugees from Thessaly, victims of the Graeco-Turkish War of 1897, a job which put him in considerable danger but provided material for future books. On his way back to England, he visited Capri and began a love affair with the island which lasted for decades and coloured much of his future writing. Tremans remained the family's base until Fred's mother died in 1918, although the children were all grown and spent much of their time elsewhere.
All of the Benson siblings were extremely intelligent and well-educated. All but the first-born, Martin, who died at 17, were published authors. Arthur ultimately became Master of Magdelene College, Cambridge, biographer of his father, author of many novels, memoirs, and theological treatises and composer of the lyrics of "Land of Hope and Glory". Maggie and Nellie both died prematurely, but each was an accomplished archaelogist and writer. Hugh was first an Anglican and then a Jesuit priest and a prolific novelist and theological writer. But Fred, who outlived all of his siblings, was the most prolific and successful author. His works included novels, comedies, memoirs, social commentary, a number of outstanding biographies, books about many aspects of sport, and dozens of supernatural and ghost tales which still attract a great following.
E. F. Benson is perhaps best known today for his delightful series of books featuring Emmeline Lucas (Lucia) and her social rival, Elizabeth Mapp. Published in the 1930's, the stories are set primarily in Rye (called Tilling) after beginning in Broadway in the Cotswolds (called Riseholme). The books portray the rivalries, plots and melodramas of small town life and are rich in descriptions of settings immediately recognisable to anyone who has walked the streets of Rye. The Mapp and Lucia stories were filmed in ten one-hour segments for television in the 1980s and have recently been made available for purchase in UK and US video formats.
Benson also wrote a series of books which are invaluable to students of the social and dynastic history that surrounded World War I. These include Queen Victoria, Queen Victoria's Daughters, King Edward VII, The Kaiser and English Relations, and The Outbreak of War.
Among his other biographies are books on Sir Francis Drake, Ferdinand Magellan, Alcibiades, and Charlotte Bronte. The latter is still regarded by many experts as the definitive work about the Yorkshire novelist.
Benson's connection with Rye began in 1900, the year of his first visit to Henry James, the novelist, who lived at Lamb House in Rye. When he was not visiting James, Fred often stayed with Lady Maud Warrender. Her house, Leasam, just outside of Rye, is a splendid landmark overlooking the countryside and was used as the setting for his novels Colin and Colin II.
Within a couple of years of Henry James's death in 1916, Fred had become a partial tenant at Lamb House, working at the Foreign Office in London but weekending in Rye. In 1920 he took over the full lease on Lamb House and lived there until his death in 1940. His brother Arthur shared the house with him from 1922 until he died in 1925.
Fred was a generous benefactor to the town of Rye. Among his gifts was the viewing platform at the east end of the High Street overlooking the Saltings, the playing fields, and the Rother River. A bronze plaque at the platform acknowledges the gift. Benson also paid for the renovation of the organ at St. Mary's Church (a generous act duplicated by his heroine Lucia in one of the Mapp and Lucia books) and he made numerous other gifts to the town. He gave a massive and beautiful stained glass west window to St. Mary's in honour of his parents and a north window memorialising his brother Arthur.
E. F. Benson served three terms as Mayor of Rye in the late 1930s, surprising himself with the delight he took in the work and administering the law fairly and with the same compassion and understanding that characterised all of his relations with the people of the town. In 1938 he was given the rare honour of the Freedom of the Borough. In the same year he was made an Honorary Fellow of Magdalene College, Cambridge, an honour earlier bestowed on Thomas Hardy and Rudyard Kipling.
Fred Benson died on February 29, 1940, ten days after delivering his last manuscript to his publisher. It was the text of Final Editions, the masterpiece of memoir writing for which his admirers had been longing. He is buried in the town cemetery just outside of Rye off the road to Playden. A plaque on a choir stall in St. Mary's Church pays tribute to his courage, kindness and generosity to the town. His grave is regularly visited by admirers and is maintained by the Tilling Society which gathers there annually to honour his life.
Benson's books are highly collectible and are available from several used book shops in Rye as well as through the Internet. The novelist Tom Holt has written two books (no longer in print) in the style of Benson, carrying the story of Mapp and Lucia into World War II.
There are two societies devoted to preserving Benson's legacy and promoting his works. They are:
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