Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.
Start by marking “The Impossible Life of Mary Benson” as Want to Read:
The Impossible Life of Mary Benson
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating
Open Preview

The Impossible Life of Mary Benson

3.67  ·  Rating details ·  168 ratings  ·  33 reviews
As Good as God, As Clever as the Devil brings the late-Victorian and early-Edwardian period to vivid life through the telling of the remarkable true story of the life of Mary Benson.

'She is as good as God, and as clever as the Devil.' Dame Ethel Smyth, English composer and leader of the women's suffrage movement

Young Minnie Sidgwick was just twelve years old when her cousi
Kindle Edition, 320 pages
Published 2011 by Atlantic
More Details... edit details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

Reader Q&A

To ask other readers questions about The Impossible Life of Mary Benson, please sign up.

Be the first to ask a question about The Impossible Life of Mary Benson

Community Reviews

Showing 1-30
3.67  · 
Rating details
 ·  168 ratings  ·  33 reviews

More filters
Sort order
Jan 07, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-2012, biography
I do love a good book about eccentric people from the past. Mary Benson was married to the man who became Archbishop of Canterbury. He proposed to her when she was 11 and he was 23, convinced that she was perfect for him. No great looker but very intelligent, Mary did her duty as a wife reasonably well. Mary had many infatuations with other women while married and after her husband died she shared a bed for the rest of her life with Lucy Tait. Unusual for Victorian times maybe, though it sounds ...more
May 08, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
If you think Elvis was out of line proposing to Priscilla at age fourteen, what do you make of Edward Benson, future Archbishop of Canterbury and intimate of Queen Victoria, proposing to his bride when she was eleven? Poor Minnie Benson, married off to a terrifying older man who made
George Eliot's Mr. Casaubon look like a sunny soul - what a life she led! And yet she managed, in spite of his selfishness and deep depressions, to not only raise a family and be his helpmeet, but to have numerous pa
Nov 12, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The Benson family - you could not make them up, really. Future archbishop who picks out a future wife when she's only 13. Future wife turns out, over the course of being a clergy wife, to be much more into other women and even before his death her dear friend, daughter of another archbishop, moves into the palace. Their children kept up the wackiness quotient - the most normal/successful was EF Benson of Mapp and Lucia fame. There's actually a lot of sadness about this story, but also a deep sen ...more
May 18, 2017 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography
Mary Sidgwick was betrothed to Edward Benson, her cousin, at the age of 11, and it's obvious that he was looking for an "unformed" person who he could mold into the form he wished for. From sometimes penurious circumstances to Lambeth Palace when he becomes Archbishop of Canterbury, Mary managed to forge a life for herself and her children, in spite of her long absences after "nervous breakdowns." Even before Edward's death Mary forms close relationships with women, which continue and intensify ...more
While Mary Benson had an interesting life, it's unfortunate that the author was unable to cite more instances of why she was considered to be a wit and to demonstrate her intelligence. This is a book about yet another woman (and her daughters as well)who was held back by the restrictions of her time period.
Apr 08, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Fascinating and readable. Interesting passages about religious doubt too, especially as Mary was the wife of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Bensons moved in high (Royal) society and were unconventional and highly intelligent. Some amusing as well as sad moments.
Nov 21, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The Bensons - what a family! Imagine meeting an eight year old girl and deciding yep, that's the girl for me! So begins their stories, and each of them weirder than the others. I loved this book, great characters all the more fascinating because they were real people.
Larry-bob Roberts
E.F. Benson's mother was a lesbian and his father was an archbishop!?
Jody Nicholson
Aug 08, 2015 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: kindle
Really enjoyed the first half but then got a bit bored unfortunately.
Julie Hudson
Apr 29, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
She was the wife of the Archibishop of Canterbury. Very interesting, lots of lesbianism.
Mar 18, 2019 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
A remarkable life indeed. Although a somewhat dull book. I felt compelled to finish it but it was an effort.

Which is surprising for a life spanning a fascinating period in British history and sexually controversial for the time. Not really recommended, though Mary Benson's life was undeniably fascinating.
Jaime Starr
May 05, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition

A fascinating insight into the life of Mary Benson and her prolific family. The narrative was wonderfully interspersed with clippings from works that were contemporary to the events being talked about, and it really made the whole book a unique thing in the realm of historical biographies.
Antonia Malvino
Mar 25, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Beautiful, disturbing, arousing a variety of feeling including much admiration. The author captured not just Mary Benson’s personality but also that of her children. So much I liked here from the letters and interludes selected to the warmth and language the author used. The book ended suddenly and sadly. Such a brilliant woman and family.
Catherine Jeffrey
Oct 09, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2018
A very interesting account of the life of Mary Benson and her family. The author draws on snippets of novels and poetry alongside the usual letters and diaries. Well illustrated a very good read.
May 25, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Perhaps somewhat shamefully, given my love for the Victorians, I'd never heard of any of the Bensons. Then again, I'm not particularly well-versed in either religious history or minor Edwardian literature, so I suppose there's no reason why I should have known about them. Nonetheless, I was intrigued by the book's title when I spotted it on a library shelf, and especially by the book's promise of a scandalous lesbian affair. The book was actually more mundane than this, but enjoyable regardless. ...more
Nov 24, 2016 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: memoir
This biography of Mary Benson, wife of a famous Archbishop of Canterbury, mother of several gifted authors and sometime correspondent of Queen Victoria, suffers from a major flaw : there is nothing much interesting to say about the subject. As a wife and mother, anchored firmly in the Victorian belief of "The Angel in the Home", she spent much of her life in the shadow of her charismatic, overbearing, demanding husband and her gifted but troubled children (among whom was E.F. Benson, author of t ...more
Jo-anne Atkinson
I'd seen some positive reviews of this book and so picked it up on my kindle. The difficulty with that was that I have the text quite large on the device and I read landscape. This book contains lots of additional quotes and extracts which meant that I found it hard to skip through to the narrative (sorry, I loathe overwrought victorian poetry).

Mary Benson's story is interesting, born into an early Victorian middle class plus family she was identified as a potential spouse by her cousin at an ea
May 09, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I had only previously been aware of E.F. Benson, Mary's son, whose 'Mapp and Lucia' novels I love. This biography brought to my attention the rest of the family, who were, perhaps, equally well known in their day, but have not stood the test of time quite so well. It is easy to feel sympathy with Mary, whose path through life seems to have been decided for her by her mother and her future husband, long before she was of an age to make decisions for herself, a little less easy to understand quite ...more
At first I wasn't sure about the breezy style, particularly after reading the more formal The Pinecone by Jenny Uglow, but after a while I came to really enjoy this vivid biography of an unusual Victorian woman.

About half way through it starts to feel more like a potted biography of the Benson family - Mary gets a little bit lost in the muddle - so it feels quite jarring when the book suddenly comes to a stop after her death. I would have liked a bit more on what happened to the remaining Benso
Oct 20, 2016 rated it really liked it
This book was so Victorian I feel in danger of developing consumption! The perfect case against cousins marrying: and such a weird courtship in Mary's childhood was bound to end badly. The book was about the whole Benson family as well as Mary. It did make me laugh a few times but was rather sad, especially towards the end. I am a fan of E. F. Benson's Mapp & Lucia novels so was interested to find out about his background. He was probably the happiest of the six children. Bolt leaves us to d ...more
Bee Halton
By accident I came across this book at my local library. I have no idea why I chose to read it it just appealed to me.

The book shows the life of Mary Benson wife of one of the Archbishops of Canterbury. He fell in love with her when she was twelve and hence formed her mind and life until his death.

It is not a story of a happy union but definitely a successful one. The book gives a good insight into Victorian life but also shows the incredibly individualistic members of the Benson family.

If you l
Polly Clarke
I love to read of people who go against the age of conformity, especially in the Victorian era. Any one of a lesser class may well have ended in an asylum but because of her wit and intelligence, Mary was an asset to her husband and his vocation. At times, the Victorian sexual repression thrusts itself at you which is, in its way sad but humorous in its righteous and religious zeal. At other times, I was surprised at the liberties Mary enjoyed. A vivacious woman in her youth and an interesting i ...more
I lost interest with this about three quarters of the way through. There was just too much focus on Arthur and Fred et el and not enough about 'Ben'. The pieces there were seemed repetitive and I wondered if the book shouldn't have ended sooner. I did finish reading the book but with at least a month where it sat unopened.
Aug 29, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Fascinating biography of an amazing family. Every single one of the kids was a published author, some very well known. The book is very well written, and includes quotations from various sources which help to illustrate different relationship and cultural ideas, and are really very pertinent. Recommended if you're interested in biographies, the Victorian era, or any one of the Benson children.
Apr 04, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This was a light read but very informative about what was in many ways a traditional Victorian family, but one in which behind the social conventions all the members were highly individual. A fascinating book.
Interesting - didn't know when I picked this up that it was about E.F. Benson's mother.
Jul 23, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
An amazing woman, with tremendous strength of character, at a time when most women didn't admit to such a virtue. Worth a read; I thoroughly enjoyed it!
Feb 02, 2013 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Interesting book about a fascinating family.

(NB Last third of the book is notes and an index.)
A fascinating account of a Victorian family in which undercurrents of homosexuality and depression emerge from the veneer of middle class respectability and religious fervor.
« previous 1 3 4 5 6 next »
There are no discussion topics on this book yet. Be the first to start one »

Readers also enjoyed

  • Fanny and Stella: The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian England
  • The Rainborowes: One Family's Quest to Build a New England
  • Mrs. Jordan's Profession: The Actress and the Prince
  • Consuming Passions: Leisure and Pleasure in Victorian Britain
  • In These Times: Living in Britain Through Napoleon's Wars, 1793–1815
  • Outlaw Marriages: The Hidden Histories of Fifteen Extraordinary Same-Sex Couples
  • America's First Dynasty: The Adamses, 1735-1918
  • Tales From The Tower of London
  • Desperate Romantics: The Private Lives Of The Pre Raphaelites
  • Bluestockings: The Remarkable Story of the First Women to Fight for an Education
  • Georgette Heyer
  • The Blackest Streets: The Life and Death of a Victorian Slum
  • London in the Nineteenth Century: A Human Awful Wonder of God
  • Queen Victoria
  • What People Wore When: A Complete Illustrated History of Costume from Ancient Times to the Nineteenth Century for Every Level of Society
  • Madame de Stäel
  • Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist
  • Mrs. Adams in Winter: A Journey in the Last Days of Napoleon
See similar books…
1 follower
Rodney Bolt was born in South Africa. He studied at Rhodes University and wrote the play Gandhi: Act Too, which won the 1980 Durban Critic's Circle Play of the Year award. That same year he won a scholarship to Cambridge and read English at Corpus Christi. He has twice won Travel Writer of the Year awards in Germany and is the author of History Play, an invented biography of Christopher Marlowe (H ...more