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Benson and hedging: James Fergusson reveals a high profile dispute over the RSL Benson Medal

James Fergusson

Filed under: Non-fiction

James Fergusson reveals how a dispute over the Benson Medal split the RSL and set Siegfried Sassoon against T. Sturge Moore

Why did Siegfried Sassoon resign his Fellowship of the Royal Society of Literature in 1939? You won’t find any clue in the two most recent biographies of Sassoon by Jean Moorcroft Wilson and John Stuart Roberts. Will Max Egremont grasp the nettle?

The answer is, he was infuriated by the award of a Benson Medal to the future King of Redonda. Sixty-five years on, little controversy attaches to the Benson Medal (the latest was awarded in September 2003 to Anita Desai). But in the decade before the Second World War choosing its recipients appears to have been the most inspiriting activity the RSL had to offer. In 1939, the new RSL Secretary, C.St J. Pulley, was taken unawares by warring lobbyists. They rode over him roughshod.

John Gawsworth is remembered now not for his once prolific literary outpourings but for inheriting the fantasy ‘kingdom’ of Redonda, a huge rock in the Caribbean off Montserrat, from the writer M.P. Shiel in 1947. Thereafter ‘King Juan’ traded honours for alcohol up and down the bars of Fitzrovia. At 25 Gawsworth, né Fytton Armstrong, was the youngest Fellow of the RSL when he was elected in 1938 (Zadie Smith was an elderly 27 in 2002). He was already much published, a poet, ‘man of letters’, active bibliographer and amateur bookdealer. (In 1933, at the age of 21, he sold his ‘library’: Bertram Rota – promoted in 1947 Duke of Sancho – devoted an entire catalogue to it.) He was also adept at self-promotion. ‘He was always “popping” somewhere to “fix” something,’ wrote Lawrence Durrell (Duke of Cervantes Pequeña). ‘He was one of nature’s lobbyers – a tireless and relentless fellow. I am sure that on many occasions the Royal Society groaned as they saw him coming down the street; they probably locked the front door and got under sofas. Lobby, lobby, lobby.’

I have before me Sassoon’s own copy of his final volume of Royal Society of Literature Reports. The series of original letters inserted, all from 1939, tell a sorry story. Sassoon, a member of the RSL’s Academic Committee, the group of the great and good that had driven the Society since 1910 but was now largely devoted to making awards in memory of A.C. Benson, was approached by the poet T. Sturge (brother of G.E.) Moore, extolling the ‘remarkable abilities’ of John Gawsworth. Sir Edward Marsh, meanwhile, sometime editor of Georgian Poetry and private secretary to Winston Churchill, was promoting his own protégé (three months Gawsworth’s senior), the poet Christopher Hassall. It came to a vote, which was a shambles. The seven letters preserved from Secretary Pulley are pirouettes of apology. First the vote went to Hassall, then, following mad muddles, to Gawsworth. Should there be another election? What were the medals for? The Solomon solution, on 5 April 1939, was to award medals to both candidates.

Sassoon, who had written in despair to Max Beerbohm (Gawsworth was ‘a candidate whose claims to medaldom are, in my ’umble opinion, non-existent’), and whose elaborate pencilled calculations are evident beside the names of electors from Walter de la Mare and John Masefield to J.G. Frazer and Bernard Shaw, was livid. He handed in his resignation forthwith. ‘I am not surprised,’ wrote the unfortunate Pulley.

The Academic Committee was closed down shortly afterwards, not to meet again. Sassoon never resumed his Fellowship. Hassall died aged 51 (four years after publishing Edward Marsh’s biography and a year before publishing Rupert Brooke’s), in 1963. Gawsworth had hit the bottle and followed, aged 58, in 1970. All biographical accounts to this day, however, give pride of place to his Benson Medal.