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  • Writer's pictureAmy Milne-Smith

The Benson family: Mad geniuses?

The Benson family was filled with remarkable talent. The struggles of that family would also seem proof of the hereditary taint of madness that could exist even amongst the most respectable family. For others, it pointed to the fact the the fast pace of modern life and mental over-exertion could bring low even the brightest of stars.

The Bensons were a hardworking and talented group whose reward for their labours ranged from intermittent mental torments to outright insanity. Crippling depression plagued the family patriarch Edward Benson (1829-1896), Archbishop of Canterbury. He described his dark moods as a ‘black dog’ that not only haunted himself, but his entire family.[1] Of his six children, the majority suffered from some form of mental breakdown (or irregular sexual passions, which were increasingly pathologized). All died childless.[2]

Robert (1871-1914), a Roman Catholic priest, worked himself into an early grave by ‘the ruin of his nervous system by feverish yet systematic overwork’.[3] Daughter Margaret (1865-1916) suffered a mental breakdown after working on a monumental philosophical work for over fifteen years.[4]

Edward White Benson, Mary Benson, A.C. Benson, E.F. Benson

A.C. Benson (1862-1925), after suffering a mild nervous collapse, was told he had worked himself to distraction. He was advised to live a quieter life without stress, worry, or extremes of any sort. Benson’s immediate reaction was to imagine his future life as one of either a madman or a semi-invalid, ‘a degrading, a humiliating role.’[5] He could not picture a life where he did not work, nor could he envisage working as he did and not losing his mind. A.C. would sometimes declare that ‘the burden of his work was quite intolerable,’ but he never suffered complete madness, nor did he require institutionalization.[6]

All of this certainly weighed on the inexhaustible E.F. Benson (1867-1940), who worried about his father and, to varying degrees, his siblings. He also wondered whether that ‘dark tremendous sea of cloud’ that shadowed his family would find him and if he was fated to end his days in an asylum.[7] It was unclear to the Bensons themselves whether their lives of excellence created their mental fragility, or if their inborn fragility made them vulnerable to breakdown under hard work. Neither conclusion would be comforting to a person living under the shadow of degeneration and the emergent eugenics movement.

Read more about the Bensons and fears of madness, genius, and degeneration in my new book! Out of His Mind: Masculinity and mental illness in Victorian Britain.

[1] Simon Goldhill, A Very Queer Family Indeed: Sex, Religion and the Bensons in Victorian Britain (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), pp. 3-21. [2] One son died at school from a brain fever, and another daughter died young after exhaustive work amongst the poor. Goldhill, A Very Queer Family Indeed, p.4. [3] C.C. Martindale, ‘Benson, Robert Hugh (1871–1914),’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004. [4] Jessica Martin, ‘Benson, Margaret (1865–1916),’ ODNB. [5] A.C. Benson, The House of Quiet: An Autobiography (London, 1906), pp. 83-88. [6] E.F. Benson, Our Family Affairs, p. 318. [7] Benson, Our Family Affairs, p. 262.

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