Sunday, May 27, 2012

E F Benson's Daily Training

This is an absolute treasure. It is one of the things I came back from the Olympia Book Fair with and I believe it is quite a scarce thing dating from 1902. On one level it falls into the fairly common genre of books which present exercises for health and fitness and which begin in the late Victorian period possibly with people like Eugene Sandow. It is the author that makes this title stand out from the crowd: E. F. Benson. He is given as the co-author with Eustace H. Miles, a champion tennis player and sport-writer. As with most of this genre, it is illustrated with a series of photos of a nude man, suitably anonymised, although I think we may assume it isn't Benson himself, lunging, twisting arching and bending in a decorous manner.

It is quite clear from the introduction that this book is as much about mental health as it is about physical fitness. And, as was pointed out to me this is another element that makes this book interesting in particular. Benson's brother, Robert Hugh Benson, would nowadays almost certainly have been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder (aka Manic Depression) and it it clear now, and must also have been then even without a label to give to the problem, that exercise can be extremely helpful in the maintenance of a healthy mood: this is now accepted biochemistry. Is it possible that E. F. Benson's experience of watching his brother's travails is what brought him to be involved with a book that strives to provide a fit and healthy body explicitly to house a mind! We shall never know, but the speculation is fascinating.


Anonymous said...

Fascinating book. I Googled it and the entire book was scanned and can be seen online at


Self-effacing ghost said...

What you say here makes a good deal of sense. And Robert Hugh Benson wasn't the half of it - mental instability was widespread in the family. Their father Edward White Benson had a tendency to melancholia, their brother Arthur suffered at least two serious depressive illnesses (spending the period 1917-19 in a nursing home) and their sister Maggie had to be kept under restraint from 1907 until her death in 1916. So even though this book dates from 1902, when the worst was yet to come, E F Benson must have had a lively sense of what it meant to be psychologically precarious.

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