In Character: Thomas Benton


It was hard to choose who would be up second in this series of In Character posts focusing on particular individuals in my books. Thomas Benton is often in the background, but I love his steadiness, his loyalty, and his competence. 

Benton is a point of view character in Ancient Trust (a prequel novella in 1922) and his own romance, On The Bias, in 1926. The best way to find all the books with Benton somewhere in the picture are the books about the Carillon family. (You can find that list at the end of this post, for convenience.)

Copy of On The Bias lying on a bouquet of early summer flowers, with tea and honey nearby, in shades of pinks and pastel greens.

The beginning of Thomas Benton

Thomas Benton began his working life early. As is true of many people in Albion when he was young, he apprenticed around the age of 13. In Albion, that includes continuing education in the academic basics, but also a great deal of service and hard work. He began as a hallboy, one of the classic starting roles in service in the period. That involved everything from running needed materials up and down stairs for other servants to polishing the boots. 

Benton is – as becomes obvious in the books that include him – autistic. Working in a great house could have a lot of challenges (and be rather awful, depending on who was in charge). One thing it had going for it was clear expectations. For servants of the period, everything was laid out. That included work duties and how you did them. But there were also specific, enumerated, expectations about where you sat at meals. Also who you talked to among the other staff, and what appropriate activities for your days off were. 

Benton mentions he was in service with an aristocratic family in Kent. (That’s obviously not the Edgartons, but he never names who they were.) They treated him well, and he rose up the ranks to become a footman. Unlike some households, they don’t seem to have chosen their footmen primarily for height or looks. Even before his nose was broken, Benton was not particularly handsome in that way. 

Coming into Carillon’s orbit

Benton was well-established when the Great War began. He was 36, he’d settled into a stable position. Men in that kind of servant role didn’t marry, but he wasn’t much interested in that. He knew his work, he knew how to handle the estate, and nothing much was going to change. 

Except then it did. And it changed rather more when he was assigned as Geoffrey Carillon’s batman or soldier-servant. These men essentially took on the role of a valet for a serving officer, including in the trenches. A batman would convey orders from the officer to their subordinates, make sure the uniform was tended, take on various tasks to free up time for the officer to do other duties. They’d often act as a driver or bodyguard, including in combat conditions. It was quite common for them to continue in the officer’s service once the War ended. (See also Lord Peter Wimsey and Bunter in the Dorothy L. Sayers books.)

Much like Wimsey, Carillon is eventually pulled out of the trenches for Intelligence work. (In Carillon’s case, it’s thanks to his old university friend, Lap Manse.) He brings Benton with him, and (in later books) make it clear that he trained Benton up magically in the skills Carillon needed. In 1917, Carillon is badly injured (saving Benton’s life, it turns out). Benton shepherds him home and tends him at Ytene, saving his life in turn.

After the War

Once the War ended, Carillon was restless. He’s unable to stay in Albion comfortably. The two set off on a series of expeditions. They don’t outline all of these. Mentions make it clear that they’re partly about making connections for magical materia – plants, stones, and other items of use. But they’re also partly Intelligence missions. They either have a direct goal or an aim of establishing relationships in particular places. It’s while they’re on a trip across Kenya that Carillon’s older brother dies and they have to return promptly to Albion. (The tale of what happens then is in Ancient Trust.) 

At that point, Benton’s work becomes focused on tending to Lord Carillon’s needs, running his household, and adapting to the changes. It’s a rather unconventional household. Normally there would be a butler, as well as a housekeeper. But Carillon refuses to consider that and create tensions for Benton. Once Carillon and Lizzie have solid plans to marry, Carillon sets things up to have Benton move into a role as estate steward. And he finds a new valet.

Learning new skills

However, there are also hints through the books about Benton’s skills. Carillon realised fairly early that Benton might not have had much formal magical training. However, Benton was able to pick up a number of knacks quickly. Besides the ones useful in combat and domestic life, they include investigation (such as the way Benton assists in On The Bias). 

Later on, Geoffrey talks about some of that. Here’s a snippet of an extra that isn’t published yet. (Watch the newsletter!) It takes place after a particular chapter in the arena at Ytene in Upon A Summer’s Day. (This section avoids direct spoilers about what happened.)

“Two, actually.” Alexander leaned forward. “You said Benton helped you keep the place up, but you’re in better practice than I’d have thought.”

“Also Benton, who has known my secrets longer than either you or Lizzie. And while my domina is indeed many things, she is not that sort of fighter, and I am exceedingly glad she has never had to be. Though don’t get between her and a badly planned project.” Geoffrey waved a hand. “Benton and I aim for a bout at least once a week. We avoid certain classes of magic, but other than that…” He shrugged his good shoulder. “Good for both of us, honestly. He came to the art late, but on the other hand, he’s never been spoiled by bad training. I taught him enough to back me up, originally, and then he picked up more and more on the fly.”

Alexander cocked his head. “Do you think it’s a pity he didn’t have a chance at Schola, then?”

“Oh, perish the thought. Schola would have twisted all that in him. Not everyone, of course, and especially not now, with more sensible heads in place.” Geoffrey tipped his glass.

“Well, certainly ones more inclined to agree with our priorities, yes.” Alexander agreed. “But the rest of it?”

“Benton likes his structures. And Schola would have given him some of that, but they’d have made him rigid, protecting himself, making the most of things. Where instead, I got him when he was a grown man, who knew how to learn the next thing he needed for the position he wanted. And they’d given him a good solid education, both practical and in terms of history and literature. The sort of thing read out in the servant’s hall while people were doing tasks with their hands, you know.”

Extra, Alexander and Geoffrey talking after chapter 11 of Upon A Summer’s Day

Benton’s Romance

This overlaps with Benton’s own romance, which takes him by surprise. He begins On The Bias in an antagonistic relationship with Cassie. She’s the dressmaker Lord Carillon prefers for clothing for his wife-to-be. Benton has been tasked with picking up several new frocks. He is – of course – inspecting them to make sure they are as ordered. Nile green was a particularly fashionable shade that season.

Benton waited until she took a step back, to the side of the table, then he glanced at the invoice. “Day dress, Nile green, pearls, cream lace.” He peered, found the proper box, and considered. “This is not Nile green.”

Cassie blinked, momentarily uncertain. The dress was a pleasant yellow-green, a colour that not many people could wear well, but it would suit Miss Penhallow’s blonde hair and fair skin in certain settings. With a cream shift, and a matching cream shawl and hat, the colour would stand out more, vivid and bright for the summer.

“The Nile is not this colour. The Nile is never this colour. This is the colour of poor-quality overdyed jade.” He frowned for a moment. “Or possibly a muted arsenic green. We are having none of that.” His voice was firm, unyielding, but not quite on the boundary with rude.

Chapter 2, On The Bias

However, when Cassie brings some worrying gossip about Lord Carillon to him, they have to cooperate to figure out what’s going on. And sort out whether there is actually anything of concern there. By the time matters come to a head during a house party at the Carillon estate in Cumbria, he and Cassie have come to trust each other. They both feel a good bit more than friendship. 

They do not have their own children, but Cassie continues to take on and nurture apprentices. Benton both mentors a number of people attached to Ytene, and also mentors junior servants. By the time Lizzie is helping with an old and aching mystery in Three Graces, she can get quite a bit of useful information via Benton and his connections. 

Thomas Benton’s later life

In the Land Mysteries books, we see Benton comfortably settled into his maturity. In Best Foot Forward, he is a trifle put out not to be accompanying his lordship on a spot of espionage. But as Geoffrey says, Benton is not good at that sort of subterfuge in close quarters. 

When Geoffrey brings Alexander back to Ytene, however, he is looking to Benton for his evaluation. Geoffrey is not giving him a veto, exactly, but if Benton had a serious concern, that would matter. Benton, for his part, is dubious at first, but eventually comes to the conclusion that whatever else Alexander is, his presence is good for both his lordship and her ladyship. 

Later, Benton is one of the four who make up a working party in the immediate aftermath of the end of the war in Europe in the summer of 1945. Alexander, Geoffrey, Benton – and Isembard, after the end of the school year – are focused on getting some dangerous magical locations safe enough for long-term resolution. It’s tricky and dangerous work, requiring a high level of skill and trust. Benton’s presence – and his visible acceptance in that role by Alexander and Isembard – certainly indicates that they respect his abilities. 

Finally, in The Magic of Four, we get a glimpse of Benton’s mentoring. Here, he provides a little prod to Jasper during the winter holidays, as well as making sure to spell out something that Jasper needs to hear. In that chapter – Jasper’s point of view – it’s obvious how much Jasper respects Benton’s role as a foundation of the estate. 

The Carillons

As I noted above, you can find Benton all through the books dealing with the Carillon family. Here’s the complete list:

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