A. Benson Critical Essays

Introduction

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

A. C. Benson 1862-1925

(Born Arthur Christopher Benson) English short story writer, diarist, essayist, poet, biographer, and autobiographer.

A prolific writer in several genres, Benson is best known for his extensive diaries, containing some four million words and comprising 180 volumes after publication. One of the most comprehensive records of one man's life, Benson's diaries have been admired for their detailed portrait of both Benson and the scholarly circle in which he moved. Additionally, Benson is remembered for his literary and philosophical essays and his supernatural stories.

Biographical Information

Benson was born in Berkshire, England, in 1862 to Edward White Benson, then Archbishop of Canterbury, and Mary Sidgwick Benson. He attended the prestigious Eton academy and then went to King's College, Cambridge, where he finished first class in classical studies in 1884. Benson returned to Eton as a teacher and became headmaster in 1892, although he disliked teaching and preferred his leisure time, when he could write uninterrupted. In 1903 Benson resigned his post at Eton and went back to live at Cambridge, where he began to edit the letters of Queen Victoria. Benson accepted a fellowship at Magdalene College, Cambridge, where he remained the rest of his life. Benson quickly became known as the most influential cultural thinker at Cambridge, largely because of his many publications. But in 1907 he suffered an emotional breakdown and another ten years later. Although he never married, Benson regularly corresponded with admirers of his work, including several women in the United States. Benson spent his later years exploring the English countryside on his bicycle and attending meetings of various educational organizations. He died in 1925.

Major Works

In addition to his diaries, some of Benson's best-known works are those discussing the life of a Cambridge don and an English schoolmaster, particularly Fasti Etonenses: A Biographical History of Eton, Selected from the Lives of Celebrated Etonians (1899) and From a College Window (1906). Both works describe a world of quiet study inhabited largely by erudite bachelors. Memories and Friends (1924) and Rambles and Reflections (1926) also contain warm reminiscences of Benson's life in the serene, almost cloistered, environment of pre-World War I English prep schools and universities. The Thread of Gold (1905) contains some of Benson's best-known and admired literary and philosophical essays. Benson's supernatural stories, along with those of his brothers E. F. Benson and R. H. Benson, are still highly regarded as examples of their genre. Most of Benson's ghost stories, which he wrote as moral allegories for the benefit of his students, appear in The Hill of Trouble (1903), The Isles of Sunset (1904), and the posthumously published Basil Netherby (1927). While he failed to gain much attention with his poetry, Benson achieved some success writing lyrics. His verses set to composer Edward Elgar's “Pomp and Circumstance” march are particularly well-regarded.

Critical Reception

During his lifetime, Benson's influence in the scholarly community was unparalleled. Additionally, he had a large popular readership who appreciated his exemplary writing and conversational tone. More recently, Benson's works have failed to garner the same attention. Nevertheless, his diaries, ghost stories, and essays remain known and admired by a small but loyal group of readers.