Scandal at Lambeth Palace

Imagine the rumpus that would erupt if it turned out that the Archbishop of Canterbury’s wife was a lesbian and, moreover, lived in Lambeth Palace with her girlfriend. Editorialising in news magazines would pale alongside.

However, this was precisely the domestic situation of Edward and Mary Benson at the end of the nineteenth century. ‘Lucy Tait lived with the Bensons during their years at Lambeth Palace without a breath of scandal, even though Mary was praying in her journal that she “might have the strength to resist her carnal desires.” Nor did anyone remark on the fact that all five surviving Benson children… were not “the marrying kind”.’

It’s the story told in As Good As God, As Clever As the Devil, by Rodney Bolt. (The quote comes from the Sunday Times review by Daisy Goodwin.) It was not always a happy setup, obviously, though it lasted. Perhaps the wider lack of concern has something to do with the Victorian invisibility of lesbians, though I suspect that’s something of an urban myth.

Whatever the truth of that, it suggests to me that today – what with the private lives of potential bishops being assessed by tabloids and episcopal committees alike – we live in a far more prurient age. As Foucault noted of our conservatism, we are the ‘other Victorians’.