Atlantic, £22, 320pp. £19.50 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

As Good As God, As Clever As The Devil, By Rodney Bolt

Anthony Powell once came up with an ingenious theory of Victorian upward social mobility. Such ascents generally extended over three generations, he proposed. The first made the money and the second consolidated the social position. Come the third, decadence would set in, often accompanied by distinction in the arts, and an inability to produce heirs. Powell's template was the Firbanks: self-made railway-contractor grandfather; Tory MP son; and dandy-novelist homosexual grandson, Ronald.

With the family of Edward White Benson (1829-1896) this process was yet more concentrated. Benson was the son of a Midlands industrial chemist who died in 1843, leaving a widow, seven children, a patent for Cobalt and not much else. Iron-willed, intensely ambitious – and also temperamentally inflexible and buttoned-up – the teenage scholar embarked on a meteoric career that took him from the founding headmastership of Wellington College to the Archbishopric of Canterbury in 20 years. Queen Victoria doted on him ("the dear, kind, excellent archbishop" ran the telegram sent after his death) and commended him to her grandson, the future George V, as "such a friend of ours".

There were six Benson children, equally brilliant, volatile and neurotic. Martin and Nellie died young. Arthur (1862-1925) is remembered as a coruscating diarist and Elgar's collaborator in "Land of Hope and Glory". Fred (1867-1940) wrote successful society novels. Hugh (1871-1914) was a proselytising Roman Catholic priest.

Frequently their neuroses plunged into mania. Arthur spent long periods undergoing treatment for depression. Maggie, a pioneering Egyptologist, died insane. None of them ever married, or ever looked likely to, and their only descendants are a vast shelf of books. All this has been well-documented, in group and individual portraits, notably David Newsome's magisterial On the Edge of Paradise: AC Benson Diarist (1980). But no biographer prior to Rodney Bolt has ever got round to what, in some ways, is the most extraordinary story of all.

Mary ("Minnie") Sidgwick, the subject of Rodney Bolt's biography, was a mere 11 years old when her 23-year-old undergraduate cousin Edward Benson first took a shine to her. Within a year, despite a certain amount of maternal anxiety, there was a semi-official betrothal, whereupon Edward, whose punctiliousness in the matter of Minnie's intellectual development was painful to behold, set about moulding his intended's character.

They were married in 1859, the bride a tender 18. Looking back on her continental honeymoon from the vantage point of middle age, Mary noted: "Wedding night – Folkstone [sic] – crossing – oh my heart sank – I daren't let it... misery – knowing that I felt nothing of what people ought to feel... How I cried at Paris! Poor lonely child, having lived in the present only... The nights! I can't think how I lived."

Harrowing as all this is, it would be a mistake to mark Mrs Benson down as a sacrificial victim at the altar of the Victorian child bride. She admired and sympathised with her exacting husband ("He restrained his passionate nature for seven years, and then got me!"), pined to assist him with his great work but was frightened of his temper, as were the children. The hero of Arthur's first novel writes the words "I hate Papa" on a piece of paper and buries it in the garden. Later she embarked on a series of intense but essentially decorous female friendships, one of them with Dame Ethel Smyth, the advocate of Suffragism.

Bolt's technique in this panorama of Mary's life and times is to construct a running commentary made up not only of material from the Benson archive, Arthur's journals and Fred's autobiographical novels, but extracts from fiction and diaries. Mary's honeymoon, for example, is trailed by Amelia Sedley's wedding night from Vanity Fair and Dorothea Brooke's dusty dealings with Mr Casaubon.

Archbishop Benson dropped dead attending Gladstone's parish church at Hawarden. His relict survived a further 22 years, sustained by a relationship with Lucy Tait, herself an archbishop's daughter, who made a willing replacement in the marital bed. As Good a Good, as Clever as the Devil is an example of an accelerating trend in Victorian biography, the book that seeks to coax a hitherto neglected wife from the shadows cast by her domineering husband. But whereas Caroline Dickens – to make the most obvious comparison - is merely a representative mid-Victorian home-maker, Mary Benson is something else altogether: a woman whose personality shines off the page, and who seems at least as much an influence on her multi-talented children as croziered Cantuar. My only complaint about Rodney Bolt's consistently absorbing study is that it isn't twice as long.

DJ Taylor's new novel is 'Derby Day' (Chatto & Windus)

Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

film
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

film
Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Jess Glynne is UK number 1

music

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

film
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
    How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
    11 best bedside tables

    11 best bedside tables

    It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

    Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media