Robert Hugh Benson's Come Rack! Come Rope!JOSEPH PEARCE
Robert Hugh Benson was born in 1871, the youngest son of E.W. Benson, a distinguished Anglican clergyman who counted the Prime Minister, William Ewart Gladstone, amongst his friends.
In Come Rack! Come Rope!, first published in 1912, the whole period of the English Reformation is brought to blood-curdling life, the terror and tension gripping the reader as tightly as it grips the leading characters, who witness courageously to their faith in a hostile and deadly environment. According to the Jesuit, Philip Caraman, it "quickly became established as a Catholic classic" and remains "perhaps the best known" of Benson's novels, although his futuristic tour de force Lord of the World is surely its literary equal and the lesser known Richard Reynal, Solitary remains sadly and undeservedly neglected.
The inspiration for the novel came from the account of the Fitzherbert family in Dom Bede Camm's Forgotten Shrines, published in 1911, and from Benson's own visit, in the same year, to the Fitzherbert house in Derbyshire, where he preached at the annual pilgrimage in honour of the Catholic priest-martyrs, Blessed Nicholas Garlick and Blessed Robert Ludlam, who were executed in 1588. From the blood of these martyrs came the seed of Benson's story. The novel's title is taken from the famous promise of St Edmund Campion that he would remain steadfast, "come rack, come rope." Campion was executed in 1581.
Hilaire Belloc, on the other hand, begged to differ. Although he was, for the most part, a great admirer of Benson's work, writing on one occasion that he believed that Benson would "be the man to write some day a book to give us some sort of idea what happened in England between 1520 and 1560", Belloc complained that the description of daily life in Come Rack! Come Rope! was inaccurate, resembling life in the eighteenth, not the sixteenth, century.
Casting these differences aside, the novel is, in any case, much more than mere historical fiction. It is a great romance, a great love story. It is a story that shows the romance of Rome and the true greatness of a noble and self-sacrificial love between a man and a woman. The love between Robin and Marjorie, the two principal protagonists, is a love far greater than that between Romeo and Juliet. Their love for each other has none of the possessiveness of Shakespeare's "star-cross'd lovers" and everything of the purity and passion of Lear's Cordelia. As a love story alone, Come Rack! Come Rope! deserves its place in the canon.
As for the novel's climax, one must agree with Hugh Ross Williamson that "it is impossible not to be moved by the last chapter which, as far as I know, has never been bettered as an account of an Elizabethan martyr's execution". For potency and poignancy, the novel's climactic moment compares in literary stature with the final, fateful moments of Lord Marchmain in Waugh's masterpiece, Brideshead Revisited. And if Benson's finale lacks the subtlety of Waugh's denouement it matches it for dramatic tension.
Why, one wonders, does Benson's mini-masterpiece, which warrants comparison with the works of Waugh, remain largely unknown? One suspects that it has a good deal to do with the sad and sorrowful, and sinful and cynical, times in which we live. In healthier times, for which we can hope and pray, it will be regarded as the minor classic that it is.
This essay is from Joseph Pearce's book, Beauteous Truth: Faith, Reason, Literature and Culture and is reprinted with permission from the author.
Copyright © 2013 Joseph Pearce
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