Maggie Benson

Life and Letters

Both my first novel, The Painted Bridge, and the one I’m working on now, Magic for the Living, are set in the 1800s. This means, among other things, much research. I was amazed to find when I embarked on the reading for the first book that so many out-of-copyright texts are available on the Internet, through and other similar sites. I made good use of that and read or skimmed through scores of texts that I couldn’t have easily accessed otherwise.

And yet. There is something about real, old books that lends another dimension to the reading experience. I’ve long been a member of the British Library, which is great for reference. Recently I joined the London Library and could hardly believe that on my first visit I was able to leave with a bag over my shoulder containing four hardback books published around 100 years ago.

One of them is the Life and Letters of Maggie Benson. My work-in-progress is set mainly in Egypt in the early 1880s and my heroine gets involved in a dig at Luxor. I’m interested in Maggie because she was one of the first women ever to work as an archaeologist. With her friend Miss Nettie Gourlay, she excavated a temple in Luxor and in another book – The Temple of Mut in Asher – published an account of it.

Maggie Benson had a rather tragic life, losing her beloved sister at a young age and suffering the constrictions affecting women of her time. She was dogged by physical and nervous illness from early middle age onwards and died young, in an asylum. Reading the Life and Letters in a real, musty-smelling book, published by John Murray in 1917, complete with black and white photographs of Maggie Benson and her family and friends, brings her to life more vividly than reading it online, as I already had.

It is partly elements missing from the scanned version – the black and white photographs and the pencil notes in the margin made long ago by someone who seems to have known her and who wanted to add their own slant to the affectionate account – or hagiography, depending on how you view it – her brother A.C. Benson produced. One note in the margin reads ‘the diary admits she was wilful and fanciful’. ‘Cold fish’, says another.

But more than that I’ve enjoyed the thickness of the spotted, foxed pages, more substantial than we are used to now. The fine, almost transparent sheet of tissue protecting the portrait of Maggie at the front of the book, opposite the title page. The smell of the past, that rises from the book every time you open it.

Some of Maggie’s letters, in whatever format, strike me as poignantly modern, especially as she struggles with her melancholy. She wrote to her friend, Nettie Gourlay, (pictured below, left, with Maggie on the right), in August 1906:

‘Well now, you see I am brought up against reality, which is always a sustaining thing. I think bitterness and fret come mostly from false ideas, false hopes and false fears – (yours came from false fears).

‘When one says these things are so, the whole case is simpler.’


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