Sunday 23 June 2013

Military Duffers and Clerical Boobies

Dancing Baroque-style (but without a wig) last night in Newton House

My Mum lent me and I've just finished reading Rodney Bolt's The Impossible Life of Mary Benson about the eponymous wife of the Victorian Archbishop of Canterbury Edward Benson and mother of six including E F Benson, author of the Mapp and Lucia novels.

The Archbish almost certainly suffered from bipolar disorder and most of the children had serious mental health problems, particularly Margaret who spent long periods in fairly benign (and incredibly expensive) asylums.

Mary herself was not ill but her life was made "impossible" by the fact that she was betrothed to the future Archbishop while still a child when she was in fact gay and actively so throughout her adult life, something which troubled her at first but which she reconciled with her deep Anglican faith by reasoning admirably that her physical relationships must be okay with God as they were manifestations of love and didn't do anybody any harm. And several of her children were also gay and apparently at ease with that if not with many other aspects of their lives.

The Archbishop went along with this so long as Mary's partners didn't annoy him - some did. When Edward dropped dead suddenly Mary lived with Lucy Tait, daughter of another Archbishop of Canterbury.

Mary Benson

The book is most fascinating because the author resists applying any modern labels or commentary either to the family's mental health challenges or to homosexuality. Rather their own words are simply reported, giving an entirely different slant to these matters and not in some respects an inferior one to today's - essentially they accepted how they were, saw only the consequent practicalities and had no interest in the opinion or strictures of wider society or of the law. This was the privileged perspective of a wealthy family of course. See Hafal's leaflet on Bipolar Disorder here.

For all that it was difficult to enjoy the book because all the members of this family were spectacularly self-centred, self-regarding and opinionated to the point of being intolerably irritating. I can imagine no worse experience than spending the weekend with them, rather in the way that I wouldn't have wanted to spend time with Charles Dickens in spite of his brilliance and humanity.

To understand just how annoying our 19th century forbears could be read Lytton Strachey's wicked set of potted biographies Eminent Victorians.

No, much better to set the dial on your time-machine 150 years earlier, not forgetting to pack a powdered wig in order to fit in unobtrusively...

Last night I did just that but forgot the wig - attending a Baroque soirĂ©e at Lord Dynevor's pile Newton House under the glare of portraits of the assorted military duffers and clerical boobies (no match for the formidable Rev Benson, inventor of the Christmas service of nine lessons and carols) who were the successive Barons - none of whom seems to have lived up to the glory days of their ancestor Sir Rhys ap Thomas, possibly because they didn't refresh their genes or bank account by marrying clever or rich women (the secret of the success of the British aristocracy through the ages).

The house, a fairly hideous Victorian gothic blot covering an 18th century neoclassical gem (there's my prejudice again), is now in the hands of the dreaded NT but this event was organised in support of the excellent Marie Curie Foundation and made full use of the elegant interior.

The dancing was fun but the best bit for me was our own local soprano Julia Jones singing Purcell, Monro, Arne, and best of all Handel. Also I have to admit enjoying the Ave Maria played by Gerald Jones (piano) and Abigail Hammett (violin) - actually a combination of Bach (early 18c. Baroque) and Gounod (19c. sentimentalist). So, there you are, the two eras working together.


Another recent jaunt was to see the Mousetrap in Swansea - pretty fair rubbish not up to Agatha Christie's usual mediocre standard. Search me how it's lasted 60 years in the West End - possibly by playing it much more for laughs. Of course I won't tell you the plot but I was intrigued to find that it relied on a flabby and faintly offensive take on mental illness. But I enjoyed sitting outside the Swansea Grand in the interval...

And I'm pleased with this photo from Laugharne last weekend...

And thanks to Dan and his Breton partner Claudine for playing at Mrs Blog's big birthday party...