Sunday, April 6, 2008

Two Victorian Families by Betty Askwith

Originally published in the Times of Northwest Indiana

Thirty-six years ago, when Betty Askwith sat down to write about two prominent English families, they were perhaps fading from memory but not as obscure as they have become now. The Stracheys had produced Lytton Strachey, famous for his irreverent book Eminent Victorians; the Bensons, a family headed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, were all literary, none more so than the younger son E.F. Benson, who wrote the exquisite social comedy novels known together as Mapp and Lucia. Askwith also chose these two families to represent the Victorian age because each functioned in a major sphere of English life, either in colonial government service or in the established church. She also seems to have chosen them because one family was happy and the other unhappy.

The Stracheys were a family of ten children, boisterously active and reveling in a full social life which included the legions of eccentric aunts and uncles whom, Askwith says, modern families of one or two children no longer know. The parents had met in India, and most of the older children spent their adult lives helping administer India when it was Britain’s colony. The Bensons were a family of six, quieter, more troubled, more serious. The father, a handsome Anglican churchman, chose his bride when she was twelve years old, in the sentimental I-shall-wait-for-you-to-grow-up fashion that Victorians found touching. Deep religious faith, which the Stracheys seem not to have had, was both a lifelong comfort and a torment to the Bensons. The Archbishop wrestled with theology while facing the death of a son, and his wife did the same as she faced her recurring passions for other women.

We think of the Victorians as staid and prudish, but as Askwith points out, we can be astonished at the depth of the "extraordinary and unconventional" relationships they had. Other things make us realize if nothing else how tough and how robust they were. Illness, bad teeth, and unmedicated childbirth were the norm. So was the sudden death of the young from infectious disease. A pleasure trip to see relatives in India took months to accomplish, and its comfort levels made it the equivalent of adventure travel today. Entertainment consisted of amateur theatricals and reading Dickens aloud. And by the way, both the Strachey and the Benson daughters went to college.

And the Victorians wrote letters. Endlessly. The Stracheys chronicled growing up, marrying, travel, and politics. The Bensons chronicled each other and their moods, until the last of them died in 1940. Perhaps the Victorians did a little too much letter-writing, for it could conceivably amount to a picking at wounds. But the habit provided the source for Betty Askwith’s sympathetic and intelligent book, and for that we can be grateful.

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