Edward Frederick Benson (1867-1940) was born at Wellington College, where his father, Edward White Benson, later Archbishop of Canterbury, was the first headmaster. His mother, Mary Sidgwick Benson, came from a family of distinguished academics that included her brothers William Carr Sidgwick (1834-1919), a Lecturer at Merton College, Oxford, and Henry Sidgwick (1838-1900), celebrated Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge. Fred Benson was one of six children, of whom the four that survived to adulthood (Arthur, Fred, Hugh and Margaret) were all distinguished in a variety of intellectual pursuits.
Benson was associated with the British School at Athens from 1891 to 1895. He worked on excavations of the Thersilion at Megalopolis and at Aegosthena. He accompanied his sister Margaret to Egypt when she was granted a concession to excavate the Temple of the Goddess Mut, Karnak (1895-97). He assisted her in the field supervision and was responsible for the mapping of the temple. Disregarding minor errors, his published map was for decades the most accurate plan of the Mut Temple available.
As a classical archaeologist, Benson’s first love was Greece and its antiquities and it was probable a concern for his sister's fragile health rather than an interest in Egypt that led him to join her excavation in Luxor . He did not go on to pursue a career in archaeology or the classics but found his real vocation as a popular author. He became a successful novelist, well known today for the Dodo, Mapp and Lucia books. He also wrote a number of works of non-fiction including several memoirs concerning his family. He was a prolific author as were his two brothers, A. C. Benson and R. H. Benson. His honors in later life included an Honorary Fellowship of Magdalene College, Cambridge, and the Mayoralty of Rye in Sussex, where he spent his last years. His fiction has lately enjoyed a considerable revival in print and in television adaptation. The study of his life and appreciation of his work have achieved an almost cult-like status but his early career as an archaeologist is not well known, even to many of his most ardent of his fans.
E. F. Benson
E. F. Benson in Egypt
In the 1890s Luxor, Egypt, was a sleepy little town, hardly more than a village, remarkable only for the number of its imposing monuments still covered for the most part with centuries of debris and obscured by modern habitations. After agriculture, the main occupation of the locals was the steadily growing tourist industry. As one bit of evidence for the remarkable tourist boom at the end of the century, the Baedeker guide for 1898 lists only three hotels suitable for tourists, The Luxor, The Karnak and the Grand Hotel Thewfikieh, whereas the edition of 1908, ten years later, has a much larger selection to choose from (Winter Palace, Luxor, Karnak, Savoy, Grand, Hotel-Pension de la Gare, Grand Pension de Famille). The Luxor Hotel, one of the three in the 1898 guide, was the headquarters of the Benson family during the three seasons (1895 to 1897) when Fred’s sister Margaret excavated in the Precinct of the goddess Mut at Karnak. To quote Baedeker: "Luxor Hotel, with a fine large garden in which several interesting monuments are placed. Pens. per day 15s. or 19 fr. In Jan. and Feb., 13s. or 16 ½ fr. the rest of the year (bottle of Medoc 4s., bottle of beer 2s. 6d), cheaper for Egyptologists and those making a stay of some time. Pension includes morning coffee, lunch about noon, supplied also to those making excursions, and a substantial dinner about 6 p.m. The rooms are clean but not luxurious." -So much for the accommodations!
The Luxor Hotel stands to the east of Luxor Temple to this day, although it is not the same establishment as it was in the Benson days because it was gutted and completely renovated a few years ago. Thomas Cook & Son had established it to accommodate the tour groups then becoming a regular sight on the Nile, but as Baedeker says, special rates were given to Egyptologists. E. F. Benson (Fred) would have known it well and considered it a kind of home away from home. It was not only the residence for the members of his sister’s excavation; it was also the place where some of the Benson family spent their evenings at leisure playing games of cards and charades (Mrs. Benson and brother Hugh joined the others in the third season in 1897). With other temporary expatriates Maggie attended a fancy dress ball there attired as the goddess Mut, in a costume she made from material found in the local souk. The Luxor Hotel was also the place where she was treated for a near fatal case of pleurisy. Her condition was so serious that it was necessary to tap the fluid around her lungs, an operation performed by an “able physician,” there in the hotel.
Fred briefly described the establishment in the short story, “At Abdul Ali’s Grave”. He calls it “an excellent hotel containing a billiard-room” with “a garden fit for the gods to sit in”. In fact the garden did contain statues of lion-headed goddesses from the Temple of Mut, until a few years ago when they were removed for their protection to the confines of a temple preserve. Cynthia Reavell of the Tilling Society has called to my attention the novel “The Image in the Sand” where there is a good deal more said about the Luxor Hotel. I should mention that copies of this book are not easy to find in the US and I was lucky to locate one in the library of a local university. It has a publication date of 1905, less than ten years after Fred’s experiences in Egypt, so his memories were very fresh at the time.
The first four chapters of the book are set in Luxor and the hotel is described in some detail. More important for Fred’s association with Luxor locals, some of the action in the book is placed in the Temple of Mut, where Margaret was conducting her excavations. “The Image in the Sand” opens with a vivid description of sunset on the Nile at Luxor recognizable to anyone who has experienced it: “Already the Libyan hills across the river, peaks and ramparts and terraces of golden sandstone, were beginning to flush with a rose-colour incredibly soft and tender, and the shadows that lurked in their valleys and crevices were, every moment, in contrast to their ethereal pinks and madders, growing bluer and yet more blue.” This is followed by descriptions of a walk on the Nile and the garden of the hotel with “a great cat-headed statue wrought in black granite, and taken away from the neighbouring Temple of Mut in Karnak”. And later there is a description of the temple itself: “Eerie it certainly was – a scene of awful and antique desolation. The temple had been very much destroyed, and the wall of the temple building into which they had now passed were at the utmost not more than eight or ten feet in height “.
This is exactly the look of the ruins of the Temple of Mut as it is today. Benson changed some details. As an example, four statues of baboons, erect on their hind legs, he described as black granite and six feet tall. They are still on the site but actually brown sandstone and about four feet tall, artistic license used to heighten the forbidding effect of statues he call “hideous”. However, descriptions of the site in “The Temple of Mut in Asher” the report of the excavation by Margaret Benson and Janet Gourlay, closely parallel those in “The Image in the Sand”.
Fred had more than a passing acquaintance with the layout of the temple because he was responsible for the plan of the temple included in the final publication of Margaret’s three seasons. One can imagine him climbing over the ruins with tape measure in hand, plotting the location of the surviving statues and the find spots of some of the most important discoveries made by the two English ladies.
In the late 1890s there was no paved road along the edge of the Nile as there is today. Down the main thoroughfare of Luxor, aptly named “Karnak Street ” because that is the direction it took, the little party of the Bensons, with Maggie’s friend Janet Gourlay, would make their way on donkey back to the Temple of Mut. They would have progressed through the outskirts of the town until, just before turning toward the Precinct of Mut, they passed the cemetery that is the site of much of the action of “At Abdul Ali’s Grave”, a tale that drew on several aspects of Fred’s knowledge of Egypt.
Fred had two very different kinds of experiences in Egypt, both used by him for plot or local color in his later literary works. During the time he accompanied his sister on the excavations at Karnak, he became familiar with Luxor and its sites. As a part of this experience his early training as a classical archaeologist was of considerable assistance to her, but his familiarity with field work also gave him the opportunity to be acquainted with the development of Egyptian archaeology at that time in Luxor. He knew his way around the town and doubtlessly visited the excavations on both sides of the river. The knowledge he gained of the local sites is reflected in “Monkeys”, a tale of an Egyptian curse that is set in both England and Egypt. In it Fred describes the excavations carried out on the west bank at
Luxor with details based on vivid recollections of his visits to inspect the work of his contemporaries. “A reef of low sandstone cliff ran northwards from here oward the temple and terraces of Deir-el-Bahri, and it was in the face of this and on the level below it that the ancient graveyard lay. There was much accumulation of sand to be cleared away before the actual exploration of the tombs could begin, but trenches cut below the foot of the sandstone ridge showed that there was an extensive area to investigate.”
This description continues with a narrative of the discovery of a “sarcophagus of a priest of the nineteenth dynasty” with all of the tomb furnishings intact. At that time Edouard Naville was excavating at Deir el Bahri for the Egypt Exploration Fund and Fred’s description of the work being carried out certainly evokes a memory of the activity he saw there. Fred was able to meet and become acquainted with some of the leading authorities in the field of Egyptology of the day in addition to Naville, including Flinders Petrie, Percy Newberry and David Hogarth. D.G. Hogarth was a multi-talented archaeologist with many interests, so it was perhaps natural, due to their common experience in the archaeology of Greece, that Fred would be taken up by him and accompany him to Alexandria for a few weeks of exploration. The results of this work were published in a “Report on Prospects of Research in Alexandria” which originally appeared in the “Archaeological Report of the Egypt Exploration Fund”, 1894-5. The authors were listed as: D. G. Hogarth, M. A., and E. F. Benson, M. A. Hogarth was a much-respected curator at the Ashmolean Museum and an archaeologist of broad experience. In addition to his archaeological reputation he is remembered today as the organizer of the Arab Bureau in Cairo for military intelligence during the Great War. He was also the principal mentor of T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia).The bustling Mediterranean port city of Alexandria offered a complete contrast to Luxor and the Said, the rural south. As such, it provided Fred with his second major experience of Egypt. Exploring the cemeteries and catacombs of Alexandria was completely different from excavating in the rubble ruins of the Temple of Mut . He was able to use his memory of the local color and the streets of Alexandria in another short story, “The Step”, but more important, an event during the excavation in Alexandria was probably the inspiration for the plot of “At Abdul Ali’s Grave.”
Hogarth describes the following incident in “Accidents of an Antiquaries Life”: “I once explored a Greco-Roman cemetery near Alexandria with as willing a Moslem gang as heart could desire. But one of my men ate apart from his companions and had no fellowship with them. He was by far the best digger of them all; none so light of hand as he, so deft to extricate fragile objects from one grave, and to find his way into another. I foresaw a useful reis,( head man or supervisor) and said so to the overseer. He listened in silence, and at evening asked leave to speak. The rest, he said, would leave me sooner than take orders from this man. He was a good tomb-digger, but where had he learned his trade? In the modern cemeteries of the town. He stole grave clothes. I did not make him a reis, but paid him off the next day – why or with what right I hardly know.” It is probably more than a coincidence that a modern grave robber turns up a story of Fred’s, not set in
Alexandria, however, but in Luxor. Fred’s used the theme of grave robbery, vividly described, with a supernatural twist. He simply drew on his familiarity with the localities of Luxor and invented a plot inspired by his memory of having had a grave robber for a workman, embellished by the occasional word or phrase he knew in Arabic to heighten the sense of mystery and the exotic.
Fred’s interest in the macabre is well attested in the number of mystery and ghost stories he published during his career. In the introduction to “The Collected Ghost Stories of E. F. Benson” The editor, Richard Dalby, maintains that “during the last fifty years he was known mainly through his superb horror and spook ‘stories’”. This was probably true until the revival of the Mapp and Lucia novels brought him to the attention of a wider reading public. Egypt as a background or inspiration does not appear often in Fred’s many stories or novels but there were at least the four instances known to me -“At Abdul Ali’s Grave”, “Monkeys’, “The Step” and “The Image in the Sand”. In preparation for the publication of a version of this paper in the Newsletter of the Tilling Society, Jack Adrian, editor of several collections of Benson stories, was asked to read an advance draft. He kindly added references to three more stories: “The Ape” “The Dummy on a Dahabeah” and “Professor Burnaby’d Discovery”, all set in Egypt. Any acquaintance with the Egyptian scene makes it clear that Benson drew on memories from his own experience. When thoughts of a career in archaeology or academe had been supplanted by the success of a novelist and short story writer, memories of the time that he spent assisting his sister Margaret in her excavation in the temple of Mut remained to provide him with material for some remarkable tales.
The Tilling Society is run by Cynthia and Tony Reavell (formerly of the Martello Bookshop in Rye), 5 Friars Bank, Guestling, HASTINGS TN35 4EJ. There were 555 members at the last count (February 2000). Annual membership is UK £8.00, overseas £10. Credit card payments are now accepted but an extra £1.50 charge is made to cover bank charges. There is also a special initial membership package, costing £28 (or £32 overseas), which buys a year's membership and an amalgamation of the newsletters going back to 1983. Newsletters are published twice a year, in February and July. The newsletters are actually of journal-length, averaging 20 pages and more. They are full of information (research, current events, an occasional short story or speech) and are the resource for publication and availability information on Benson's books. Their fax number is 44-1424-813237.