Benson resembles a large tabby which stalks round the house switching its tail, delicately sniffing this, softly circling round that; every so often a paw is extended to pluck gently at a human being who has crossed its path - as if to explore what kind of a creature this intruder might be and whether he likes cats. Then suddenly the claws show, the paw strikes and the claws retract leaving beads of blood on the skin. As the years passed and the cat got even larger and more contented, the claws were bared less often. These extracts, chosen by Benson's splendid biographer, David Newsome, from among the four million words of the diaries Benson left as his memorial, are taken from a period in Benson's life when he was uncertain and hypersensitive, so the claws are out. It was at the turn of the century, and Benson, having been commissioned to edit the Queen's letters, decided to quit teaching at Eton and move to Cambridge. King's showed no desire to elect him a fellow - and still less, as he hoped when Austen-Leigh died, to elect him Provost. When his old friend Stuart Donaldson used his influence as Master of Magdalene to offer Benson a fellowship there, kind friends took as much of the pleasure out of it as they could by congratulating him on the skill with which Donaldson had done a classic job. It was a time when he slept badly, was nervous and irritable. His self-confidence was shaken.
LRB 4 March 1982 | PDF Download