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

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones