A. Benson Essay - Critical Essays

Benson, A.


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.

Principal Works

Memoirs of Arthur Hamilton (autobiography) 1886

Le Cahier Jaune: Poems (poetry) 1892

Essays (essays) 1896

Fasti Etonenses: A Biographical History of Eton, Selected from the Lives of Celebrated Etonians (biography) 1899

The Hill of Trouble and Other Stories (short stories) 1903

Alfred Tennyson (biography) 1904

Beside Still Waters (fiction) 1904

The House of Quiet (autobiography) 1904

The Isles of Sunset, and Other Stories (short stories) 1904

Rossetti (biography) 1904

Walter Pater (biography) 1904

Edward Fitzgerald (biography) 1905

Peace, and Other Poems (poetry) 1905

The Thread of Gold (essays) 1905

The Upton Letters, by T. B. (fiction) 1905

From a College Window (essays) 1906

The Poems of A. C. Benson (poetry) 1909

The Leaves of the Tree: Studies in Biography (essays) 1911

Paul the Minstrel, and Other Stories (short stories) 1911

Ruskin: A Study in Personality (biography) 1911

The Child of the Dawn (fiction) 1912

Escape, and Other Essays (essays) 1915

Hugh: Memoirs of a Brother (memoirs) 1915

The Life and Letters of Maggie Benson (biography) 1917

The Trefoil: Wellington College, Lincoln, and Truro (biography) 1923

Memories and Friends (nonfiction) 1924

The Diary of Arthur Christopher Benson (diaries) 1926

Rambles and Reflections (essays) 1926

Basil Netherby (short stories) 1927


The Nation (review date 11 March 1909)

SOURCE: “The Poems of Arthur Christopher Benson.” Nation 88 (11 March 1909): 256.

[In the following review, the critic praises Benson as a minor poet whose work “just misses greatness.”]

From his six books of verse, ranging in date from 1892 to 1905, Mr. Benson has selected enough for a single comfortable volume [The Poems of Arthur Christopher Benson.] He himself, we presume, would not disdain the title of minor poet, if that phrase were spoken with a friendly smile. His work is minor in the better sense that it is unpretentious, and that it is replete with conscious reminiscences. Indeed, it might almost be sufficiently characterized by calling it a mixture of Tennyson and Matthew Arnold. This derivative quality is at times annoying, especially in the lyrical poems of nature, of which there are somewhat too many in the volume. Here and there, no doubt, a line or a passage of natural description justifies itself by its first-hand vividness, as when he speaks of

                    … thridding the trackless hill,
O'er tumbled cataracts of shapeless stones—

but for the most part he does not in this genre rise much above the level of magazine respectability. It is different in the poems of reflection. Here such echoes are an integral part of the poet's mood and an essential factor of his art.

This musing habit of one to whom all things have already been thought and felt and expressed, who sits within a magic circle of memories, too weak or too indifferent or too wise to...

(The entire section is 653 words.)

Arnold Bennett (essay date 1917)

SOURCE: Bennett, Arnold. “Mr. A. C. Benson.” In Books and Persons: Being Comments on a Past Epoch 1908-1911, pp. 239-41. New York: George H. Doran Co., 1917.

[In the following essay, Bennett discusses his reaction to The Thread of Gold.]

I am indebted to Mr. Murray for sending what is to me a new manifestation of the entirely precious activity of Mr. Arthur Christopher Benson. Mr. Benson, in The Thread of Gold, ministers to all that is highest and most sacred in the Mudie temperament. It is not a new book; only I have been getting behindhand. It was first printed in 1905, and it seems to have been on and off the printing-presses ever since, and now Mr. Murray has issued it, very neatly, at a shilling net, so that people who have never even been inside Mudie's may obtain it. I have read the book with intense joy, hugging myself, and every now and then running off to a sister-spirit with a “I say, just listen to this!” The opening sentence of one of the various introductions serves well to display Mr. A. C. Benson at his superlative: “I have for a great part of my life desired, perhaps more than I have desired anything else, to make a beautiful book; and I have tried, perhaps too hard and too often, to do this, without ever quite succeeding” [my italics]. Oh, triple modesty! The violet-like beauty of that word “quite”! Thus he tried perhaps too hard and too often to produce something beautiful! Not that for a moment I believe the excellent Mr. Benson to be so fatuous as these phrases, like scores of others in the book, would indicate. It is merely that heaven has been...

(The entire section is 681 words.)

Orlo Williams (review date 25 March 1926)

SOURCE: Williams, Orlo. “Arthur Benson's Last Essay.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 1262 (25 March 1926): 233.

[In the following review, Williams offers high praise for the essays in Rambles and Reflections.]

These essays [Rambles and Reflections] were chiefly written during the last two years of Dr. Benson's life. They touch on moods and scenes and people in his agreeable and discursive way, and once more illustrate, what some of his friends in a recent volume made clear, how irresistible was his leaning to pour out his thoughts on paper. One would say that he hardly could go for a walk without finding in his ramble a theme for several pages of talk about...

(The entire section is 1084 words.)

Patrick Braybrooke (essay date 1927)

SOURCE: Braybrooke, Patrick. “A. C. Benson and The Thread of Gold.” In Peeps at the Mighty, pp. 59-76. New York: Books for Libraries Press Inc., 1966.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1927, Braybrooke defends The Thread of Gold against critics who charge Benson with superficiality.]

Since the very lamented death of the Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, certain critics while admitting the charm of Mr. Benson's writings, have added at the same time, that they savour of superficiality. Now, I have an idea that these critics have rather confused simplicity with superficiality. Rather, I go further and say that Mr. Benson is profound....

(The entire section is 4632 words.)

Austin Warren (essay date spring 1967)

SOURCE: Warren, Austin. “The Happy, Vanished World of A. C. Benson.” Sewanee Review 75 (spring 1967): 268-81.

[In the following essay, Warren provides an overview of Benson's works.]

Arthur Benson, eldest son of Edward White Benson, successively Canon of Lincoln, Bishop of Truro, and Archbishop of Canterbury, lived in a charmed world of canons, dons, and writers—two of the writers his brothers. His earlier years were spent as Master at Eton; he ended his days as Master of Magdalen College, Cambridge; and his tongue—and, more remarkable, his pen—were never idle. He wrote and published upwards of forty books,—novels, poems, meditative essays, biographies:...

(The entire section is 4715 words.)

David Newsome (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: Newsome, David. “The Man and His Diaries.” In On the Edge of Paradise, A. C. Benson: The Diarist, pp. 1-12. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

[In the following essay, Newsome examines Benson's diaries, noting that they are the most comprehensive document available of one man's life and observations on his time.]

I want prejudice, preference, humanity, humour, malice, salinity, a hundred little spices, in my dish.

(May, 1903)

I confess to feeling the most minute and detailed interest in the smallest matters connected with other people's lives and...

(The entire section is 5410 words.)

Alan Bell (review date 28 August 1981)

SOURCE: Bell, Alan. “The Sharp Etonian Eye.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4091 (28 August 1981): 976.

[In the following review, Bell praises Benson's diaries but questions the accuracy of them as presented in David Newsome's Edwardian Excursions.]

David Newsome's On the Edge of Paradise gave a full introduction to A. C. Benson's life through his manuscript diary preserved in the library of Magdalene College, Cambridge. He now turns to its earlier volumes for a series of long extracts covering some of Benson's vacation activities during his last years as an Eton master, before he settled in Cambridge as a don and man of letters, devoting his literary...

(The entire section is 891 words.)

David Newsome (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: Newsome, David. Introduction to Edwardian Excursions from the Diaries of A. C. Benson, 1898-1904, edited by David Newsome, pp. 1-9. London: John Murray, 1981.

[In the following introduction to Edwardian Excursions, Newsome provides an overview of the major themes in Benson's diary excerpts.]

Praised be thou, O my Lord, of our brother the Bicycle,
Who holdeth his breath when he runneth,
And is very swift and cheerful and unwearied, and silent.
He beareth us hither and thither very patiently,
And when he is sick he doth not complain.

So, in the summer of 1902, Arthur Benson paid his tribute to the bicycle, by his own individual addition to...

(The entire section is 2941 words.)

Noel Annan (review date 4 March 1982)

SOURCE: Annan, Noel. “Benson's Pleasure—Noel Annan Recalls the Age of the Bachelor Don.” London Review of Books 4 (4 March 1982): 6.

[In the following review, Annan discusses Benson's place among the faculty of universities in the Edwardian period.]

Benson resembles a large tabby which stalks round the house switching its tail, delicately sniffing this, softly circling round that; every so often a paw is extended to pluck gently at a human being who has crossed its path—as if to explore what kind of a creature this intruder might be and whether he likes cats. Then suddenly the claws show, the paw strikes and the claws retract leaving beads of blood on the skin....

(The entire section is 4264 words.)

Mike Ashley (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Ashley, Mike. “Blood Brothers: The Supernatural Fiction of A. C. Benson.” In Discovering Classic Horror Fiction. Vol. 1, pp. 100-10. San Bernardino: The Borgo Press, 1992.

[In the following essay, Ashley examines the supernatural in the fiction of Benson and his brothers.]

It is not unusual for several members of a family to be writers, the Waughs being a typical example, but it is perhaps a little unusual when three brothers should find solace and even a morbid fascination in occult and supernatural fiction. It's even more unusual when those three should be the sons of an archbishop of Canterbury. But such was the case with the Bensons: Arthur Christopher...

(The entire section is 4568 words.)

Further Reading


Lubbock, Percy. “The Author of His Books.” In Arthur Christopher Benson: As Seen by Some Friends, pp. 125-40. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1926.

Provides a reminiscence and appraisal of Benson and his works.

Additional coverage of Benson's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 98; and Literature Resource Center.

(The entire section is 62 words.)