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As Good as God, as Clever as the Devil: The Impossible Life of Mary Benson Hardcover – 1 Jun 2011

28 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Atlantic Books; 1st Edition edition (1 Jun. 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1843548615
  • ISBN-13: 978-1843548614
  • Product Dimensions: 3.8 x 16.5 x 24.1 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (28 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 258,540 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Review

'A lively and exemplary approach to research... A sort of Benson family scrapbook. Admirable.' --The Times

'Much of the joy of this effervescent biography is in its detail... At the heart is an extraordinary woman...who deserves to be written and read about.' --Independent on Sunday

`Mary Benson is lucky to have a champion in Rodney Bolt who rescues her from the sidelines of history with As Good As God, As Clever As the Devil which is sure to be one of the most riveting biographies you'll read all year... Though Mary died in 1918, she is vivid and lively in this sympathetic biography that is often screamingly funny. Bolt's characterization of the Benson children, not to mention their father, are spot on.'
--Lee Randall, Scotsman

'Utterly absorbing...devilishly good.' --Daisy Goodwin, Sunday Times Alexandra Harris, Guardian

'Sure to be one of the most riveting biographies you'll read all year.' --Lee Randall, Scotsman

'This fascinating book does a brilliant job of revealing just how permissive Victorian society actually was.' --Daisy Goodwin, Sunday Times Alexandra Harris, Guardian

`Much of the joy of this effervescent biography is in its detail... At the heart of this book is an extraordinary woman who "evoked rather than dazzled".' --Independent on Sunday Lisa Gee, Independent on Sunday

'A treat.'
--Duncan Fallowell, Daily Express

'Whoever invented the phrase "Victorian values" was presumably not thinking of [the Bensons]... This fascinating book does a brilliant job of revealing just how permissive Victorian society actually was. As Bolt shows, so long as you didn't frighten the horses or alarm the servants, you could get away with pretty much anything.' --Sunday Times

'Despite this extraordinary cast of characters, it is Mary herself who remains centre-stage, her life almost an apotheosis of all that is disturbing in the Victorian period... Bolt's tone is carefully judged throughout, both affectionately admiring of his subject and yet astringently objective. The cleverest woman in Europe and her remarkable brood are fascinating... even as one is grateful never to have met them.'
--Sunday Telegraph

About the Author

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 twice won Travel Writer of the Year awards in Germany and is the author of History Play, an invented biography of Christopher Marlowe (HarperCollins, 2004) and The Librettist of Venice, a biography of Lorenzo Da Ponte (Bloomsbury, 2006), which was shortlisted for the Los Angeles Times Book Award. He lives in Amsterdam.

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Customer Reviews

4.1 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

13 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Eleanor TOP 1000 REVIEWER on 14 Oct. 2011
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Mary Benson was the wife of Edward White Benson, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Her husband and five of her six children (who included the writers E.F. Benson and A.C. Benson) have entries in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; there, however, Mary remains in the background.

This highly entertaining, fascinating, and very moving biography changes this. We follow Mary from the eleven-year old girl with whom her much older cousin becomes obsessed and is determined to marry, to unhappy wife, to a somewhat liberated widow. Throughout Mary is a lively, sharp, tolerant, and loving figure, who is the centre around which her troubled family (and several charmed men and besotted women) revolved.

By the end of the book I felt that I knew the 'unpermissibly gifted' Benson family intimately, and to say any more would detract from the pleasure to be gained in watching this Victorian life unfold. Passages had me laughing out loud and there are several vividly drawn personalities, including the composer Ethel Smyth, Henry James, and the bonkers Baron Corvo.

Bolt marshalls his material superbly, being aware of the difficulties such a biography presents. He describes how he wanted to organize his work like a commonplace book, resulting in a narrative interspersed with extracts from contemporary novels, (very personal) diaries, letters, and the Bensons' own work. This subtly allows the reader to make connections and draw conclusions as well as helping to evoke the age in which the Bensons lived.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By KJ Charles on 4 Jun. 2013
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I bought this on a whim, knowing nothing about the subject matter, and was gripped. A fascinating look at a set of lives. As well as the deserved praise in the other reviews, I particularly liked the way the author's sympathies came through. Edward dies at prayer, 'insufferable to the end'; the clear dislike of the obviously unbearable Hugh; as well as the sympathy for poor tragic Maggie.

An excellent read, even if you have no idea why you should be interested in these people.
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44 of 47 people found the following review helpful By Canon John Twisleton on 3 Jun. 2011
Format: Hardcover
The best books take you on an enjoyable journey giving you sights and insights and landing you refreshed and wiser at the end. This chronicle gives sight of religious enthusiasm, Victorian and Edwardian England, same sex friendship, country life in Sussex and leaves you wiser about the wellsprings of creativity. It is the life of Mary Benson (1841-1918), wife then widow of Archbishop Edward Benson, her loves, trials and family.

Religious enthusiasts are notorious for their failure to sympathise. Where sympathetic gifts are allied to a force of conviction though there can be a creative dynamic. This appears to have been the case in the extraordinary marriage of Edward and Mary though the force of conviction was at Edward's end and the pastoral sympathy at Mary's. Headstrong Edward, loving yet exacting, proposes to Mary when she is only twelve. His helpmate eagerly sympathises with him, his family and many others with such humour and wisdom as to make her a great subject for Rodney Bolt's fascinating biography covering her life, loves and faith pilgrimage.

Edward's career, founded in the muscular Christianity of Rugby and Wellington College, takes him to Lincoln Cathedral, then onward to be first Bishop of Truro and, as climax, to be Archbishop of Canterbury. His pioneering at Truro earns recognition for gifts of leadership that he carries with a psychological downside so that, 12 years older though he was than her, it was Mary who was destined to carry him through many a dark mood. Her support came from a series of same sex friendships compensating for the emotional shallowness of their marriage and helping her recover from the eventual loss of both Edward and the high social standing that fell from her at his death.
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23 of 26 people found the following review helpful By unlikely_heroine VINE VOICE on 4 July 2011
Format: Hardcover
I had never heard of Mary Benson before coming across mention on the internet of this biography, but Mrs Benson and her family sounded like extremely interesting characters, so I gave this book a go and am very glad that I did. Rodney Bolt has clearly undertaken extensive research into the Benson family and it shows in a compelling and utterly fascinating portrait of a young woman who becomes a wife and mother and after being widowed, later finds happiness with a female companion.

A good-natured and sensitive child somewhat pressured into a not entirely happy marriage with a distant cousin who later becomes Archbishop of Canterbury, Mary Benson enjoys a series of romantic attachments to individuals other than her husband, most of the objects of her affection being female. This causes some conflict with Mary's Christian faith, which waxes and wanes despite her marriage to such a prominent religious leader. In the meantime, Mary lovingly and thoughtfully brings up her six children with the help of her own old nanny, Beth. I like the way Bolt gives a sense of the Beth character, a servant all her life who dotes on the children of her employers - there must have been hundreds if not thousands of women with similar stories in Victorian England, and amidst all the histories of the rich and famous we get to hear little about them.

The only (minor) criticism I have of this biography is that it does not say enough about the fascinating character of Mary herself. This work is presented as giving an insight into Mary's life following the death of her husband; in fact, for much of the book Edward White Benson remains alive and kicking and we see lots of detail about Mary's marriage to Edward, as well the lives of their offspring.
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