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Robert Hugh Benson: Remembering a Forgotten Giant

  • JOSEPH PEARCE

We can hope that Robert Hugh Benson, an author so long neglected, will once more be seen among the stars of the literary firmament, his own star once more in the ascendant…


bensonrhFather Robert Hugh Benson
1871-1914

Robert Hugh Benson was one of the brightest lights in the Catholic literary firmament in the early years of the twentieth century, his star waxing in the brilliance of several bestselling novels and waning or rather being snuffed out by his untimely death.

Born in 1871, Benson was the youngest son of E.W. Benson, a distinguished Anglican clergyman who counted the Prime Minister, William Ewart Gladstone, amongst his friends.  In 1882, when Benson was eleven-years-old, his father became Archbishop of Canterbury.  Having taken Anglican orders himself, it was Benson who read the litany at his father's funeral in Canterbury Cathedral in 1896.  The son, however, was not destined to follow in his father's footsteps.  In 1903, after a period of conscientious self-examination, the details of which were elucidated masterfully in his autobiographical apologia, Confessions of a Convert, Benson was received into the Catholic Church.  No conversion since that of Newman almost sixty years earlier had caused such controversy, sending seismic shockwaves through the Anglican establishment.  Thereafter, for the next eleven years until his death in 1914, he was a tireless defender of the Catholic Church and a prolific novelist and man of letters.

There is no doubt that Benson belonged to a remarkable family.  Apart from his father's rise to prominence and preeminence within the Church of England, both of his brothers were among the illustrissimi of the Edwardian literati.  A.C. Benson, his eldest brother, was master of Magdalene College in Cambridge and established himself as a fine biographer, diarist, and literary critic, writing acclaimed biographies of Rossetti, Fitzgerald, Pater, Tennyson, and Ruskin.  The other brother, E.F. Benson, wrote prolifically and is best known to posterity for his satirical Mapp and Lucia novels, which have been successfully adapted for television.  Yet R.H. Benson was not to be outshone by his older siblings.  Before his death at the tragically young age of forty-three, he would write fifteen highly successful novels and, ordained as a Catholic priest in 1904, he would serve as a curate in Cambridge, proving almost as popular as a fiery preacher as he was as a writer of fiction.

The first of Benson's novels, and the only one written while he was still an Anglican, was The Light Invisible, published in 1903 when he was in the midst of the convulsive throes of spiritual conversion.  The book is awash with emotive mysticism — a confession of faith amidst the confusion of doubt.  Having gained the clarity of Catholic perception, Benson considered his first novel theologically defective.  In 1912, he commented that its subsequent popularity appeared to be determined by the religious denomination of those who read it.  It was "rather significant" that it was popular among Anglicans whereas Catholics appreciated it to "a very much lesser degree": "Most Catholics, and myself among them, think that Richard Raynal, Solitary is very much better written and very much more religious."[1]

Before his death at the tragically young age of forty-three, he would write fifteen highly successful novels and, ordained as a Catholic priest in 1904, he would serve as a curate in Cambridge, proving almost as popular as a fiery preacher as he was as a writer of fiction.

Richard Raynal, Solitary evokes with beguiling beauty the spiritual depth of English life prior to the rupture of the Reformation.  It is a mini-masterpiece in which Benson seamlessly weaves the modern storyteller's art with the chivalrous charm of the Middle Ages.  Resembling a modern equivalent of The Little Flowers of Saint Francis, this genial and ingenious mingling of the modern and the medieval produces a hero who combines courage and sanctity in equal measure.  Finding himself at home in the early fifteenth century in Richard Raynal's England and in the presence of the colourful character of "Master Richard" himself, the reader relishes the time spent with this holy hermit on his God-given mission.  This is Christian literature at its most beautiful, at once both edifying and efficacious.  Its power is purgatorial.  It purges.  It cleanses.  It makes whole.  Ultimately it shows that the roots of romance are in Rome.

Perhaps the clearest evidence of Benson's genius is to be found in the ease with which he crossed literary genres.  Aside from his historical romances, he was equally at home with novels with a contemporary setting, such as The Necromancers, a cautionary tale about the dangers of spiritualism, or with futuristic fantasies, such as Lord of the World.  The latter novel is truly remarkable and deserves to stand beside Huxley's Brave New World and Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four as a classic of dystopian fiction.  In fact, though Huxley's and Orwell's modern masterpieces may merit equal praise as works of literature, they are clearly inferior as works of prophecy.  The political dictatorships that gave Orwell's novel-nightmare an ominous potency have had their day.  Today, his cautionary fable serves merely as a timely reminder of what has been and what may be again if the warnings of history are not heeded.  Benson's novel-nightmare, on the other hand, is coming true before our very eyes.

The world depicted in Lord of the World is one where creeping secularism and Godless humanism have triumphed over religion and traditional morality.  It is a world where philosophical relativism has triumphed over objectivity; a world where, in the name of tolerance, religious doctrine is not tolerated.  It is a world where euthanasia is practiced widely and religion hardly practiced at all.  The lord of this nightmare world is a benign-looking politician intent on power in the name of "peace," and intent on the destruction of religion in the name of "truth."  In such a world, only a small and defiant Church stands resolutely against the demonic "Lord of the World."

If Benson's literary output encompassed multifarious fictional themes — historical, contemporary, and futuristic — he also strayed into other areas with consummate ease.  His Poems, published posthumously, display a deep and dry spirituality, expressed formally in a firmly-rooted, if sometimes desiccate, faith.  The same deep and dry spirituality was evident in Spiritual Letters to one of his Converts, also published posthumously, which offers a tantalizing insight into a profound intellect.  A series of sermons, preached in Rome at Easter 1913 and later published as The Paradoxes of Catholicism, illustrates why Benson was so popular as a public preacher, attracting large audiences wherever he spoke.  Particularly remarkable is Benson's masterly Confessions of a Convert, which stands beside John Henry Newman's Apologia pro Vita Sua and Ronald Knox's A Spiritual Aeneid as a timeless classic in the literature of conversion.

The world depicted in "Lord of the World" is one where creeping secularism and Godless humanism have triumphed over religion and traditional morality. It is a world where philosophical relativism has triumphed over objectivity; a world where, in the name of tolerance, religious doctrine is not tolerated.

In A Spiritual Aeneid, Knox confessed candidly that Benson's influence was crucial to his own conversion: "I always looked on him as the guide who had led me to Catholic truth — I did not know then that he used to pray for my conversion."[2] The other great influence on Knox's conversion was G.K. Chesterton, and it is perhaps no surprise that Benson was a great admirer of Chesterton.  Benson's biographer, the Jesuit C.C. Martindale, who was himself a convert, wrote that Benson's Papers of a Pariah were "noticeable" for their "Chestertonian quality": "Mr. G.K. Chesterton is never tired of telling us that we do not see what we look at — the one undiscovered planet is our Earth… And Benson read much of Mr. Chesterton, and liked him in a qualified way."[3]

Further evidence of Chesterton's influence on Benson is provided by Benson's admiration of Chesterton's Heretics.  "Have you read," he enquired of a correspondent in 1905, "a book by G.K. Chesterton called Heretics?  If not, do see what you think of it.  It seems to me that the spirit underneath it is splendid. He is not a Catholic, but he has the spirit. … I have not been so much moved for a long time. … He is a real mystic of an odd kind."[4] Chesterton was not a Catholic in 1905, but Heretics was the first clear evidence that, as Benson put it, he "had the spirit".

In Come Rack! Come Rope!, first published in 1912, the whole period of the English Reformation is brought to blood-curdling life.  The reader, if he allows himself to be carried thither, will find himself transported to the late sixteenth century, the terror and tension of the times gripping him 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, the novel "quickly became established as a Catholic classic" and remains "perhaps the best known" of Benson's novels.[5]

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.

As for its historical accuracy, opinions appear to be divided.  Father Caraman wrote that Benson had "remained most faithful to his sources,"[6] and Hugh Ross Williamson remarked that Benson's "invented personages" were created "within the orbit of known truth, leaving us to feel, correctly, that they could have lived and acted as Benson makes them."  Williamson continues:

The whole epoch leaps to life and if any reader should object that this picture of Catholic England under the Elizabethan Terror savours a little of melodrama, there is the author’s own unchallengeable answer: "If the book is too sensational, it is no more sensational than life itself was to Derbyshire folk between 1579 and 1588."[7]

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,"[8] 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.

The latter novel is truly remarkable and deserves to stand beside Huxley's "Brave New World" and Orwell's "Nineteen Eighty-Four" as a classic of dystopian fiction.

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."[9] 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.  In the interim, in the dark days in which we find ourselves, we should be thankful that dynamic publishers, such as Cluny Media, are bringing this significant and important work to a new generation of readers.  We can also hope that its author, so long neglected, will once more be seen among the stars of the literary firmament, his own star once more in the ascendant.

Endnotes:

[1] Robert Hugh Benson, Confessions of a Convert, Sevenoaks, Kent: Fisher Press, 1991 edn., p. 52
[2] Ronald Knox, A Spiritual Aeneid, London: Burns Oates, 1958 edn., p. 161
[3] C. C. Martindale, The Life of Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson, Vol. Two, London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1916, p. 90
[4] Ibid.
[5] Philip Caraman, S.J., Foreword to R. H. Benson, Come Rack! Come Rope!, Long Prairie, MN: Neumann Press, 1995 edn., p. v
[6] Ibid., p. vi
[7] Hugh Ross Williamson, Introduction to R. H. Benson, Come Rack! Come Rope!, London: Burns & Oates, 1959 edn., p. 6
[8] Martindale, op. cit., p. 45
[9] Williamson, op. cit., p. 5

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Acknowledgement

pearce Joeseph Pearce. "Robert Hugh Benson: Remembering a Forgotten Giant." The Imaginative Conservative (June 3, 2017).

Reprinted with permission of The Imaginative Conservative.

The Author

Pearcejoseph2pearce32 Joseph Pearce is Director of Book Publishing at the Augustine Institute, editor of the St. Austin Review and series editor of the Ignatius Critical Editions. He is also the editor of the print and online journal, Faith & Culture, senior instructor with Homeschool Connections, and senior contributor at the Imaginative Conservative. Among the books he has authored are:  Tolkien: Man and Myth, C. S. Lewis and the Catholic Church, Literary CatholicsRace With the Devil: My Journey from Racial Hatred to Rational Love,  Beauteous Truth: Faith, Reason, Literature and CultureThrough Shakespeare's Eye, J.R.R. Tolkien's Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle-EarthUnafraid of Virginia Woolf, Solzhenitsynand Old Thunder: A Life of Hilaire Belloc. 

Copyright © 2017 The Imaginative Conservative
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