An infrequent feature on classic books forgotten to the mists of time.
E.F. Benson (1867—1940) was the eccentric child of the Archbishop of Canterbury. A prolific writer, he’s most well known for the Mapp and Lucia series. In the literary constellation of British wit, he stands beside the likes of Evelyn Waugh and P.G. Wodehouse. (And, to a lesser degree, Saki and Jerome K. Jerome.) Full disclosure: I’ve read Waugh and Wodehouse, but not Saki or Jerome.
Waugh and Wodehouse satirized the Jazz Age, although both created works well into the Sixties, by that time producing novels and stories fossilized in nostalgia. Benson, meanwhile, creates an Edwardian menagerie of folly in The Freaks of Mayfair. Published in 1916 as the Great War raged in a mustard gas-choked abattoir, Freaks has a decidedly Edwardian ambiance. It celebrates an era that will soon be buried in the Somme and the trenches of Verdun.
Comedy can sometimes age poorly. But make no mistake, this isn’t some Anglo-Catholic glaucous idolatry like Brideshead Revisited. Freaks pokes fun at the eccentrics, oddballs, faddists, and climbers (both vertical and horizontal) of the Edwardian Era with a sharp eye and refined pen. The Hogarth Press edition I read has charming illustrations by George Plank. On the cover is Aunt Georgie engaged in his embroidery.
Aunt Georgie’s tale begins thus: “He was in fact an infant of the male sex according to physical equipment, but it became perfectly obvious even when he was quite a little boy that he was quite a little girl.” As a boy “he hated roughness and cold weather and mud, and his infant piety developed into a sort of sentimental rapture with stained-glass windows and ecclesiastical rites and church music.” Benson paints a portrait of a gender non-conformity and religious faith.
Aunt Georgie’s story still has relevance today, since “Occasionally, for no reason, he roused violent antagonism in the breasts of rude brainless men, and after he had left the smoking-room in the evening, one would sometimes say to another ‘Good God! What is it?’” More than one hundred years later, the world is still populated by rude brainless men hellbent of meddling in the lives of others with their sanctimonious hypocrisy and weak-ass frail masculinity. So often the butt of jokes and turned into the “sissy” caricature, Benson turns the tables and makes the effeminate, delicate, effete aesthete the subject of adulation.
Other eccentrics and oddballs populate Freaks, including a faddish curate. He showers his parishioners, the well-heeled types of Curzon Street and Park Lane, with such topics as “Buddhism, Mohammedanism, Fire Worship, Christian Science, and has even been known to find something totemistic, if not positively sacramental, in the practice of cannibalism.” Like the portrait of Aunt Georgie, the faddish preacher’s comic foibles are all in good fun, but this is par for the course for the son of an eccentric ecclesiarch.
Amid the picture gallery of weirdos, the normal can stand out. In the story, “The Sea-Green Incorruptible,” traces the biography of one Constance Lady Whittlemere. Her story is one of mundane ordinariness that sticks out like a sore thumb amid tales of effeminate aesthetes doing embroidery and preachers sermonizing about cannibalism and Christian Science. Every comedy needs a Ralph Bellamy character and Lady Whittlemere epitomizes a kind of idealized absolute of human dullness. Benson presents many colorful characters and Lady Whittlemere is the color beige. She’s the elevator music version of a Matchbox Twenty song. If variety is the spice of life, Lady Whittlemere is a rice cake.
The Freaks of Mayfair is a forgotten classic, not only because it is less well-known among E.F. Benson’s voluminous output, but also because his minor star has been sidelined by the likes of Evelyn Waugh and P.G. Wodehouse. Yet it is worth the time to read and enjoy. Amid the flaming shitshow that is modern living, a comic confection like The Freaks of Mayfair offers pleasant distraction and humane portraits of freaks, faddists, climbers, and fakers.