Gurdjieff International Review

Elizabeth Bennett

George Bennett


lizabeth Mayall (later Bennett) was twenty-nine when she met Gurdjieff, the day after the car accident in August 1948 that should have killed him, and almost certainly would have killed an ordinary man. The circumstances might have appeared particularly inauspicious, but Elizabeth—and her later husband J.G. Bennett—both felt that they were privileged to have been given a rare glimpse of the man behind the ever-changing façade that Gurdjieff presented to the world. As Elizabeth put it in her memoirs, “in those first days of my meeting him he had need of all his powers to keep his body in action: he could not play a role or wear a mask.”

She described her first sight of Gurdjieff in a recorded memoir she made in 1991, the year she died of cancer at the early age of seventy-two. She was, for the first time, listening to a reading in Gurdjieff’s flat, when she heard some ‘hesitant shuffling steps’ in the corridor outside the room:

The door was opened, and he was standing there, covered with bruises, but with his brilliant eyes—as brilliant as ever—and he was looking directly at me, and I at him because I was sitting opposite the door. And people say that they were afraid of him, and that kind of thing, but I saw only the embodiment of compassion. To me his appearance was absolutely extraordinary. I had never seen anyone like that.[1]

In her memoir Elizabeth added, “From that moment, I loved him,” and this first appearance colored her attitude towards Gurdjieff during the eight months she spent in Paris up to the time of his death, and for the rest of her life. As she wrote:

I saw him gentle, abusive, mocking, compassionate, weary, sick, amused, bawdy, in pain, spiritual, using obscene language, comforting someone in trouble, but I never saw Gurdjieff ‘himself’ except, as I believe, immediately after the accident of 1948.[2]

Elizabeth herself came from a sheltered middle-class English background. Her father was an assistant master at the famous private school, Eton, and throughout her teens she spent most winters at home, afflicted with a mysterious and painful sickness that was not cured until she was eighteen. As a result, she often professed to have no education, but she must have spent all her time in her father’s extensive library, because she became one of the best-read people most of her family and friends ever knew. Elizabeth knew reams of Shakespeare and was passionate about the theater; before the Second World War upended her life, she had studied art with the aim of becoming a stage designer.

The war opened up a whole new world for Elizabeth when she volunteered for the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF). This introduced her to a wide circle of colleagues and friends of every class, and presented her with a variety of challenging work, both as an enlisted WAAF and later as an officer. She once described to her children her first night in the military, when she was sharing a Nissen (or Quonset) hut with a dozen other young women. She was fingering the rough military blankets in some dismay when she heard her northern English neighbor doing the same, but with a totally different attitude: “Eh, if me mam could only have blankets like these.” For Elizabeth, it was a moment of real awakening.

The WAAF also led her to the Work, since one of her fellow officers—the father of the late Jon Thompson, a member of the Gurdjieff Society in London—was in one of J.G. Bennett’s London groups which she later joined, and he introduced Elizabeth to Bennett on January 6, 1944. Elizabeth’s varied and often stressful wartime experience turned out to be an excellent foundation for her time as a member of the small group of people who formed the nucleus of the Work center at Coombe Springs, southwest of London, that Bennett set up in 1946. In moving to Coombe, she quite deliberately—and with much anguish—closed the door on her ambition to become a stage designer, deciding instead to devote more time to the Work. It was from Coombe that Elizabeth traveled to meet Gurdjieff in the summer of 1948 and then to stay in Paris in early 1949.

She documented her time with Gurdjieff in Paris in two detailed diaries, only one of which survived to be published, along with extracts from J.G. Bennett’s journal, as Idiots in Paris.[3] Elizabeth published her diaries exactly as she wrote them, with only one sentence removed and not a single word changed. They have an immediacy and authenticity which come from her own forthright honesty, and her viewpoint as a ‘foot-soldier’ in Gurdjieff’s circle, virtues shared by the diaries of her friend Rina Hands, published by Two Rivers Press under the title, Diary of Madam Egout Pour Sweet.[4]

Following Gurdjieff’s death, Elizabeth returned to Coombe Springs and lived there almost continuously until the experimental spiritual community was wound up in 1966. As the wife of J.G. Bennett (they were married on October 1958), Elizabeth saw her task as one of supporting her husband in his work. Although she tended to describe herself with her usual self-deprecation, as following meekly behind him, this was far from the case. She was very much ‘her own woman,’ and firmly committed to the Work; though she remained very self-critical to the end of her life—as her diaries reveal—she had an inner confidence in the Work that was established in the time she spent with Gurdjieff. In her memoirs, Elizabeth wrote:

He was quite clearly a different kind of being from any of the rest of us, and I might have been expected to be disheartened by the gulf between us. But on the contrary, when I was in his presence I felt full of hope and optimism and I simply knew that “if he can do it, I can do it.”[5]

This trust in the Work never left her. In August, 1989, two years before her death, she recorded in her journal: “Eight months with G.I.G., a happy, compatible marriage with J.G.B.—what more help could I have had?” Her first instinct was to support her husband in his latest plans and experiments, but she did not simply play second fiddle to him. Instead, she went on to ask practical questions and suggest modifications.

In the early summer of 1971, Bennett left for a brief lecture tour of colleges in the United States. He rapidly recruited so many students for the much more modest school which he had originally envisioned, that he called Elizabeth back in England and asked her to look for a large country house in which to hold the now-enlarged Academy for Continuous Education. In short order, Elizabeth found the mansion at Sherborne, sold her own house and, with long-time Bennett student Lili Hellstenius—who did the same—financed the purchase of the new site of the Academy. She never, incidentally, saw that money again and, apparently, never gave it a second thought. Bennett then established a school at Sherborne, where from 1971 to 1974 he ran a ten-month course for ninety to a hundred students at a time which was based on the principles of Gurdjieff’s own institute at Fontainebleau. He had such faith in Elizabeth’s judgment and intuition that he sometimes interrupted an interview with a student to call for her, because he knew she would be able to see what he could not.

While Bennett himself was alive, Elizabeth’s main task at Sherborne was overseeing the group responsible for the domestic running of the house, a day-long responsibility through which each of three groups rotated in turn. Several former students interviewed for this article all used the same adjective to describe her approach: ‘practical.’ One gave this blunt description: “Elizabeth was down-to-earth; no cosmic horseshit. Saying as much by saying nothing as by saying something.”

Elizabeth met each ‘house’ group at the beginning of the day and gave advice on how to approach the work, both inwardly and outwardly. As another former student noted, “This was an opportunity to practice the Work in conditions of daily life; this was what it would be like for the rest of our life, and she brought it all down to earth. She was very direct, but not in telling you what to do.” On one occasion when this student made a mistake as breakfast cook, and used twice as much bread as she should have, leaving none for the rest of the day, she reported that Elizabeth’s comments, “didn’t produce a reaction in me. The way she put it opened a door to my own understanding.”

On another occasion, this same student questioned why she had twice in quick succession been given the demanding task of ‘house supervisor’—responsible for assigning jobs to the thirty-odd people on house duty—particularly on a fast day, when people tended to be cranky. Elizabeth’s answered, “Because you can do the job, and you will get people out of bed if necessary.” The student said she “realized this wasn’t about me, but about service to the whole. Elizabeth didn’t explain, but she enabled me to see.”

Elizabeth would never have described herself as a teacher, but people certainly learned from her. “I think Elizabeth accepted that people looked on her as a teacher,” one Sherborne alumnus commented, “but she didn’t see herself as that; she just continued on.” A participant in the third Sherborne course described once seeing her working outside: “It was one of those cold rainy days, and she was outside digging thistles. She set a terrific example; she was cold with the rest of us!” Someone who knew Elizabeth during the second course at Sherborne, and later at the experimental community set up at Claymont in West Virginia, reported, “She had a way of working that was very natural. When I was reading Idiots later, I realized that she just saw what was needed, and did it. She didn’t have a lot of ‘considering.’

When J.G. Bennett died in December 1974, ten weeks into the fourth Sherborne course, Elizabeth simply continued with the program until its intended conclusion the following summer. She then began and completed the fifth course that Bennett had envisioned, working in co-operation with Pierre Elliot, Anthony Blake, Michael Sutton and other existing staff members. One of these reported: “I felt that Elizabeth was still supporting J.G.B., and doing what he intended. The will to continue came from her. That was her strength of intention; she had that sense of direction, and she put her duty first.” As another Sherborne student, and later long-time friend of Elizabeth put it, “She could have just disappeared after Mr. B. died. This wasn’t her comfort level and [continuing] was a huge sacrifice, but she simply made herself available.”

The temptation to ‘disappear’ must have been strong after the end of the final Sherborne course in 1976, but Elizabeth continued until the end of her life to support groups around the world—including the nascent community at Claymont—and to run groups in England. She actively supported Robert Fripp’s initiative in establishing Guitar Craft, which became a way of teaching Work ideas and practices through a new medium, using guitar playing as what she described as a ‘three-centered’ activity. In the early years of Guitar Craft courses, Elizabeth conducted weekly group meetings with Guitar Craft members, in which she set herself the task of speaking without using established terminology; in other words, directly from her own understanding and perception. To help her find the energy to do this work with groups and individuals around the world, Elizabeth turned to some of her old friends from Paris, and others from the early days of Coombe Springs, now prominent in the London Gurdjieff Society. With the blessing of Mme. de Salzmann, they set up a regular group meeting to support her, while leaving her free to follow her own path.

None of this should leave the impression that Elizabeth was a grimly serious person; quite the contrary. She retained her keen interest in the theater, and attended plays until the end of her life. One of her favorite authors was the humorist James Thurber, and she had her own well-developed sense of humor, sometimes so dry that those not used to the English style were apt to miss it. She viewed herself with a self-deprecating eye, apparent in the gently self-mocking way in which she drew herself in her many books of water-color pictures showing incidents in her life before, during and after the war. Her sense of humor was also evident in her reaction to those moments when Gurdjieff enabled her to see something about herself:

I looked at him full of amusement and indignation at his treatment. I wanted to say, “You wretched old man, what trick are you playing now?” but I did not dare. He knew my thoughts well enough, though; he turned towards me, twirling the ends of his mustache, with his dark mocking face and his black eyes snapping with amusement.[6]

On another occasion, when she tried to report to Gurdjieff that she had learned something from an ‘experience:’

Without altering his pace, he shot me a glance of purest dislike. “Better late than never,” he said, and stumped on down the passage. I leaned against the wall and roared with laughter. I saw myself so plainly for the idiot I was. It was typical of Gurdjieff’s methods that in four words he showed me the place of ‘experiences’ and how to treat them, a lesson which I have never forgotten.[7]

Elizabeth also knew how to have fun; she liked to share a drink or two with those she felt close to, and long after she had given up smoking, she did enjoy a rare cigarette. One student recalled the first time she saw Elizabeth smoking: “My jaw dropped, but then I saw that when she was smoking a cigarette she was really enjoying it, but that she wasn’t attached to it. She knew how to savor something without trying to cling on to it. She wasn’t stiff, but she was contained; she didn’t waste energy.”

Nor, reported the same former student and later Claymont resident, did Elizabeth criticize other people. In her annual visits to the often-fractious Claymont community, she didn’t come as a teacher: “She didn’t do any of that. She never expressed any negativity or judgement. I never heard her criticize; there was a lot to criticize, but she didn’t, and that was very important at Claymont. She just made herself available, and everyone came to talk to her. She touched a lot of people’s lives through the quality of her being.”

For the last fifteen years of her life, after the Sherborne experiment ended in 1976, Elizabeth worked closely with Mary Pearce and Lilian Massey, two friends who had been associated with Bennett since the 1950s. Together they conducted regular seminars in England, and sometimes traveled to Claymont together. One regular participant in these events observed that the three of them had an unusual sympathy, and it struck her that this was an example of how true friendship in the Work might unfold and deepen over time. She felt this was manifested in the harmonious way they guided the summer seminars, which gave them a sense of underlying order, without imposed organization, and this brought her a feeling of joy in being there, and working together.

Elizabeth’s continuing work with groups and individuals around the world involved constant correspondence; she reckoned to write six letters every morning before breakfast, maintaining long-term exchanges with many former students, and other work groups and individuals. “Over the years,” one long-time group leader reported, “I received many letters of encouragement and advice.” One former Sherborne student helped her for a while as an unofficial secretary, typing out letters while Elizabeth wrote others in her neat handwriting, with almost never a crossing-out. “Elizabeth wrote an immense number of letters,” she said. “She was very supportive, but very specific to those she was writing to. She had a real insight into people.” And, referring both to the letters and to the group meetings she attended with Elizabeth, she added: “If she was asked a question, she would go a hundred percent out of her way to answer it, but she wasn’t going to spoon-feed us. If you asked, you got an answer, but you had to ask.”

Elizabeth’s life remains an example of what it means to dedicate one’s life to the Work and to put one’s duty of service before one’s own convenience. One Sherborne student, and later member of the Gurdjieff Foundation, summed up Elizabeth thus: “I always felt I would like to be like her. She seemed to have a completely unshakeable faith in the Work, and she always had this equanimity about her. She loved the Work, and she embodied how to live a life in the Work; there was no separation.” □

George Bennett is one of two sons of Elizabeth and John Bennett, and was raised at Coombe Springs, an experimental spiritual community in England led by his father. Before gaining a master’s degree in US history, George attended one of Bennett’s ten-month courses at Sherborne, designed to establish inner-life practices that could be developed over a lifetime. After a varied career as an international truck driver, journalist, editor and publisher, George qualified as a teacher in England at age fifty, and currently teaches at The Village School, an independent elementary school in Royalston, Massachusetts, inspired by Bennett’s ideas, and aimed at the balanced education of children’s intellectual, emotional and physical natures. For many years, George has helped organize seminars and courses aimed at sharing Work ideas and practices.

[1] Bennett, Elizabeth, My Life: J.G. Bennett and G.I. Gurdjieff: The Memoirs (2015) Petersham, MA: J.G. Bennett Foundation.

[2] Ibid., p. 95.

[3] Bennett, Elizabeth and J.G., Idiots in Paris (1980) UK: Coombe Springs Press.

[4] Hands, Rina, Diary of Madame Egout Pour Sweet (1991) Aurora, OR: Two River Press.

[5] My Life, p. 87.

[6] Ibid., p. 90.

[7] Ibid., p. 95.


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Featured: Fall 2020 Issue, Vol. XIV (2)
Revision: January 1, 2021