She was born in Skipton, Yorkshire, the sister of the philosopher Henry Sidgwick. She was proposed to, aged 12, by her second cousin Edward Benson. They were married in 1859, and lived initially at Wellington College, Berkshire, of which Edward was the first headmaster. By this time she had already had the first of her lesbian affairs, which she referred to as "swarmings". She and Edward had six children, including the writers E F Benson, A C Benson, R H Benson, and the amateur Egyptologist Margaret Benson. Their youngest daughter Nellie Benson had an affair with the composer Ethel Smyth, who had been Mary's lover.
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- Martha Vicinus, Intimate Friends: Women Who Loved Women, 1778-1928 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004) page 134.