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A photograph of Constance Benson as Katherine from a 1901 performance of The Taming of the Shrew.

Gertrude Constance Cockburn Benson (née Samwell; 26 February 1864 – 19 January 1946) was a British stage and film actress. Before her marriage to Frank Benson, she was known by the stage name Constance Featherstonhaugh, pronounced "Fanshaw" (/ˈfænʃɔː/).

Born in British India into a military family,[1] and christened Gertrude Constance Cockburn Samwell, she took to the stage under the name of Featherstonhaugh, which was the middle name of her father, Morshead Featherstonhaugh Samwell.[2] She married the actor Frank Benson in 1886, and they had two children, Eric William (1887-1916), killed at the battle of the Somme,[3] and Brynhild Lucy (1888–1974).[4][5]

When Benson played Cleopatra in 1898, reviewers were astonished by her "terrible rage", one commenting that she treated a struck-down messenger so violently that only the intervention of Charmian had saved his life.[6] One critic later claimed that "Benson and his companies never shook off the aura of amateurism", and that some of the parts Constance Benson had played "owed more to her husband's loyalty than to her talent".[1]

As an actress, Constance Benson worked in the theatre, but in 1911 she also appeared in leading roles in four silent films, all adaptations of William Shakespeare plays: Richard III, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, and The Taming of the Shrew.

In 1916 Constance became Lady Benson. After F. R. Benson's love affair with the young actress Genevieve Townsend (d. 1927), the couple separated but did not divorce, and in 1940 Benson attended her husband's funeral as his widow.

During the First World War, in which her son Eric was killed, Benson worked in a canteen for soldiers in France. In 1917 her daughter Brynhild married firstly Charles Chalmers,[7] in 1931 secondly Harold G. Janion,[8] and in 1951 thirdly Richard C. Kelly.[9]

In the 1920s, Benson became a writer, and her published books are her autobiography Mainly Players (1926); two novels, The Chimera (1928), about "an ice-cold, egotistical, twenty-eight-year-old artist", with a frustrated wife, and Cuckoo Oats (1929). She also wrote an acting manual[10] and in the 1920s began a drama school,[1] at which one of her students was Elvira Mullens, later Elvira Barney.[11]

Benson's autobiography Mainly Players has an introduction by Arthur Machen, who had been a member of the Benson company from 1901 to 1909.[2]


  • Lady Benson, Mainly Players: Bensonian Memories (London: Butterworth, 1926), with Introduction by Arthur Machen
  • The Chimera (London: Butterworth, 1928)
  • Cuckoo Oats (London: Butterworth, 1929)
  • Lady Benson, One Hundred Practical Hints for the Amateur (London: Samuel French, 1930)


  1. ^ a b c Mark Thornton Burnett, Edinburgh Companion to Shakespeare and the Arts 2011, p. 305
  2. ^ a b Arthur Machen, Montgomery Evans, Arthur Machen & Montgomery Evans: Letters of a Literary Friendship, 1923-1947 (Kent State University Press, 1994), p. 170
  3. ^ "Benson, Eric William : Winchester College at War". Retrieved 15 December 2018.
  4. ^ "BENSON Brynhild Lucy" in Register of Births for Brentford Registration District, vol. 3a (1888), p. 71
  5. ^ "Kelly, Brynhilde Lucy born 30 AUG 1888" in Register of Deaths for Wycombe Registration District, vol. 19 (1974), p. 1154
  6. ^ Sophie Duncan, Shakespeare's Women and the Fin de Siècle, p. 192
  7. ^ "Benson Brynhild L & Chalmers Charles H L H" in Register of Marriages for Paddington Registration District vol. 1a (1917), p. 64
  8. ^ "Chalmers Brynhild L & Janion Harold G" in Register of Marriages for Cuckfield Registration District, vol. 2b (1931), p. 391
  9. ^ "JANION Brynhild L & KELLY Richard C" in Register of Marriages for Westminster Registration District, vol. 5c (1951), p. 543
  10. ^ John Courtenay Trewin, Benson and the Bensonians (1960), p. 281
  11. ^ Cocktails With Elvira: Elvira Barney and Her Circle accessed 1 April 2019