The end of sexual ambiguity

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at:, or follow me on Twitter.

The era of trying to define one’s sexuality in exact terms is surely a temporary outcome of contemporary political struggles? Interesting:

All five of Edward and Minnie Benson’s adult offspring distinguished themselves in public life. Arthur Benson served as the master of Magdalene College at Cambridge University, wrote the lyrics to Edward Elgar’s hymn “Land of Hope and Glory,” and was entrusted with the delicate task of co-editing Queen Victoria’s letters for publication. His brother Fred was a best-selling writer, well known today for the series of satirical Lucia novels (televised for the second time in 2014, on the BBC), which poked good-natured fun at the pomposities of English provincial life. Their sister Margaret became a pioneering Egyptologist, the first woman to lead an archaeological dig in the country and to publish her findings. Even the family’s apostate, the youngest brother, Hugh, a convert to Roman Catholicism, was considered a magnetic preacher and, like his brothers, was an irrepressible author of briskly selling books. All told, the family published more than 200 volumes.

An exemplary Victorian family, or so it seems. But let us borrow one of Charles Dickens’s favorite literary devices and pull the roof off the Benson home to take a peek inside. It is 1853. Edward is 23 years old, handsome, determined, and already embarked on a promising career. Perched on his knee is his cousin Minnie, a pleasingly childish 12-year-old. Edward has just kissed Minnie to seal their engagement. Wait 40-odd years, lift the roof again, and we find grown-up Minnie tucked in her marital bed with Lucy Tait, the daughter of the previous archbishop, who has been living with the Bensons at Edward’s invitation. At the Sussex home where Minnie and Lucy moved three years after Edward’s death, they were joined by Minnie’s daughter Margaret, the Egyptologist, cohabiting with her intimate lady friend. As for the Benson boys, well, none of the three married, and contemporaries in the know had a pretty good understanding of their romantic feelings for men, in all likelihood never acted upon. The Bensons were, as Simon Goldhill writes in his subtle, smart book, a very queer family indeed.

…“Anyone might think they could get a good picture of my life from these pages, but it is not so,” Arthur mused in his diaries, noting (without naming) the subjects he kept in his “carefully locked and guarded strong room.” Although he dilated on the pleasures of sentimental friendships with the boys in his care, he studiously policed their platonic boundaries, rejoicing in the bronzed bodies at the swimming bath but skirting anything that smacked of lust. Was it possible, Arthur wondered, that he had “the soul of a woman in the body of a man”? Even though the term homosexual was coming into currency, he did not use it until 1924, the year before he died. And when he did use it, after a theoretical conversation on the subject with Fred, he wrote the word out—“the homo sexual question”—in a way that suggested unfamiliarity.

There’s another way of understanding reticence, though, which Fred, Arthur’s sunnier brother, supplies. Although Fred lived to see the new mores of the post–World War I world (he was the last of the family to go, in 1940), in a curious fashion he clung to his Victorian inheritance. He saw the virtue—and, perhaps more important, the utility—of reserve. It laid the groundwork for a person’s privacy. What wasn’t said and couldn’t be named allowed a latitude for action.

Fred’s enigmatic judgment about his mother’s marriage was characteristic: “If her marriage was a mistake, what marriage since the world began was a success?” Writing in 1930, Fred thought the much-deplored “Victorian reticences and secrecies” needed defending in an increasingly confessional era. They were “profitable as well as prudish.” The same year, Virginia Woolf (who had both a husband and a female lover) lamented the erosion of sexual ambiguity. Unlike Fred Benson, she was unsentimental about her Victorian upbringing, yet as the dichotomy between homosexual and heterosexual solidified, she could see what had been lost: “Where people mistake, as I think, is in perpetually narrowing and naming these immensely composite and wide flung passions—driving stakes through them, herding them between screens.”

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