“Constant Companions” and “Intimate Friends”: The Lives and Careers of Maggie Benson and Nettie Gourlay

“Constant Companions” and “Intimate Friends”: The Lives and Careers of Maggie Benson and Nettie Gourlay

In May of 1896, 31 year old Maggie Benson wrote to her mother, Mary, about Janet “Nettie” Gourlay:

“I like her more and more — I haven’t liked anyone so well for years. […] oh, I hope you’ll like her — you can’t help it if you know her, but she is so horribly shy. She is only 33, but she makes me feel like a little girl sometimes — and you know I don’t do that particularly easily. […] She told me she hadn’t ever talked so much to any one before. Oh, Mother, it’s so odd to me to make a friendship like this — generally there has been something in the way — mostly I’ve not been sure of the other person, and generally I’ve had a radical element of distrust. But here one can’t help trusting her absolutely, and it’s only myself I distrust. She is so much bigger, and so much finer and more delicate in mind than most women. […] There — I wanted you to know.”

From that point on, Gourlay and Benson were almost inseparable and became well-known both in Egypt and England as a devoted couple.

Benson was an Egyptologist from a prominent Victorian family headed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Edward White Benson; the immediate family, all except Edward, were well-known to prefer same-sex relationships. Gourlay was also an Egyptologist, trained by Margaret Murray and Flinders Petrie at University College, London. From the moment Benson and Gourlay met, they began a committed relationship that not only helped them to operate in the field as professionals but also proved to be a loving, long-term partnership. However, in Who Was Who in Egyptology, an important source for life details of Egyptologists, Benson and Gourlay are described as “friends” who excavated together. Gourlay is even described as dying “unmarried.” That dreaded word of the late-Victorian period — unmarried — hangs over their lives like a dark cloud they could not escape.

Benson met Gourlay in 1896, when a mutual friend, Lady Jane Lindsay, introduced them. Benson had begun excavating in Egypt the year before in January of 1895, and over the next three years, she would go on to complete three five-week seasons at the Temple of Mut, at Karnak. She had the help of her brother, Fred Benson, and Egyptologist Percy Newberry as assistants and dozens of local people as crew. At the start of the 1896 season, Benson and Gourlay started working together. Over the course of three seasons, Gourlay, Benson and most of the Benson family, and the excavation crew cleared much of the temple itself of landfill, exposing foundation deposits and finding remains and pieces of over 100 statues and countless other pieces of sculpture. They also reorganized the interior, attempting to restore columns and some statuary to their original locations.

Benson and Gourlay jointly published The Temple of Mut in Asher in 1899 as an excavation report of their work. This was not just the first book in Egyptology published by women, but it was also the first one written and published about the work women did in the field. The book had new maps, an overview of the site itself, and historical context. It was well-received, and it remains an important source for these early excavations.

From the moment Benson and Gourlay met, they began a committed relationship that not only helped them to operate in the field as professionals, but also proved to be a loving, long-term partnership

Benson was productive with Gourlay, and, she was often a happier person. Lady Jane Lindsay even remarked on the improvement in Benson’s physical and emotional health to Benson’s mother in a letter dated February 1896, just a few weeks after introducing the pair:

“How I have wished you could have stepped into my shoes when they walked about Luxor Hotel Garden in search of Maggie last Tuesday. She is looking so well — and is in highest spirits about her own health — I wish you could just see her, so full of vigour and quick movements.”

In the times they were apart, in England or elsewhere, both Benson and Gourlay wrote to each other frequently. Benson unreservedly wrote to Gourlay, whom she always addressed as “Dearest,” about their times together, either her memories of them or her hopes for future meetings.

In August of 1896, Benson wrote, “I had been dreaming of you — as usual unsatisfactorily — namely that we had gone to Egypt for a week only, and nonsense of that kind.” And later that same month, growing desperate for Gourlay, she wrote, “Oh dearest, I wish I knew the Gaelic language, for I believe you are able to say all sorts of affectionate things in it which English can’t express. I do want you in bodily presence very badly, my dearest.”

Yet, both Benson and Gourlay suffered from various mental and physical illness, and after their final season in January of 1897, Benson grew too ill to continue working in Egypt. She visited once more in 1900 as a tourist, but she was not fit to work at all. By 1907, her physical and mental health had deteriorated so rapidly that she was institutionalized. For the next 10 years, until her death, she suffered hallucinations and bouts of suicidal depression. Though their relationship had cooled, she and Gourlay continued to write to one another until Gourlay died in 1912.

Janet “Nettie” Gourlay and Maggie Benson, c. 1910. From Life and Letters, p. 376.

Much like Benson and Gourlay, many other same-sex female couples, especially from before the mid-20th century, have been identified as “constant companions” or “intimate friends” in modern biographies. Often, each woman died after technically never having been married but after having lived together for decades, and often, we do not know many details about their lives together. But as Sharon Marcus argues in Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England, “[t]he question of whether or not women in female couples actually had sex became less important than the fact that they themselves and many in their social networks perceived them as married.”

In the history of archaeology for this period, these same-sex marriage relationships were sometimes necessary for women to participate in the field: women needed to travel, but if they were not married to men, they needed a traveling companion. To work in more isolated places like Iraq and Egypt, women needed assistants and partners to help them. These partnerships were expected of educated English women who travelled abroad, and for archaeologists, these relationships often operated very much like straight marriages by giving the freedom to travel where they needed to go without judgement or hindrance, taking along the support they needed in remote locations, and the power to do their work. In Benson’s and Gourlay’s case, two educated women could work without needing a man, in a period when it was almost impossible for a woman to do so on her own.

In the usually masculine and muscular history of Egyptology, there is a distinct erasure of queer partnerships in favor of discussing the importance of straight marriages (and even affairs) as factors in professional success. However, especially for women in field sciences like Egyptology, being in a same-sex scientific and domestic partnership clearly made them more productive professionally and more secure socially than they would have been as single women. For instance, without Benson, Gourlay did not have the funds or permission to excavate in Luxor. But by working with Benson, she had the opportunity to put her training to work and publish important scholarship. Because of Gourlay, Benson had a trained Egyptologist working on site with her who would treat her as an equal, and not as an assistant or subordinate. They were a true scientific couple in the field, and their productivity together demonstrates that point.

Benson and Gourlay, as part of a same-sex partnership, were able to experience the social advantages of marriage largely without the disadvantage of being silenced by a male partner.

Personal lives affect scientific work, especially for women, and we must take that into account. In addition, women in the late 19th century could be and often were extremely productive in the sciences, sometimes due to their relationship with a male scientist. Often, both men and women did more science as part of a couple than they could have done on their own. Similarly Benson and Gourlay, as part of a same-sex partnership, were able to experience the social advantages of marriage largely without the disadvantage of being silenced by a male partner.

It may be easier to talk about straight couples as married because we can document their legal marriage status in a way that cannot be done with same-sex couples, since they were denied the right to a marriage recognized by the state. However, Marcus demonstrates in Between Women that women were indeed married to one another during the late-Victorian period. Often they exchanged rings and vows, as straight couples did; they are just harder to trace. I used correspondence between and about Benson and Gourlay, not only to trace their relationship but to understand their bond on their terms and in their own language. As Martha Vicinus argues in Intimate Friends, “For too long the gushing affection of Victorian letters between members of the same sex has been labeled wholly asexual and without the sexual meaning that we would impute to such florid language. Indeed, there seems to be a refusal to accept sexual sophistication on the part of the Victorians because modern words are not used. Rather than looking for specifically sexual language, we need to respect the[ir] self-knowledge.”

Understanding both Benson and Gourlay as women who depended on what should be defined as scientific couples for their emotional and professional well-being is the crux of understanding their work in Egyptology. As we have come to recognize more women’s integral role in shaping science, especially in archaeology, we know that this often came as part of a marriage with a man of science. While couples such as Flinders and Hilda Petrie and Mortimer and Tessa Wheeler have made their way into a growing pantheon of scientific couples, we have prioritized heterosexual marriage over queer relationships, centering heteronormativity as a framework for understanding science. Ignoring or treating as secondary the relationship that was very much central to Benson’s and Gourlay’s lives erases an important part of the story, and in continuing to portray their relationship as secondary, we are doing them a disservice.

Further Reading

Simon Goldhill, A Very Queer Family Indeed: Sex, Religion and the Bensons in Victorian Britain. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016.

Image credit: The Travelling Companions by Augustus Egg, 1862. Wikimedia Commons via Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery | Public Domain