R.H. Benson: Unsung GeniusJOSEPH PEARCE
Robert Hugh Benson was lauded in his own day as one of the leading figures in English literature, yet today he is almost completely forgotten outside Catholic circles and is sadly neglected even among Catholics.
It was not always so.
Benson was the youngest son of E. W. Benson, Archbishop of Canterbury, who, as head of the Anglican Church, was the upholder of the Protestant establishment in England. As such, his son's conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1903, and his subsequent ordination, caused a sensation. Not since Newman's conversion almost 60 years earlier had the reception of a convert into the Church caused such a commotion. Shudders of shock shook the Anglican establishment, whereas many Catholics rejoiced at the news of such a high-profile coup with unrestrained triumphalism.
There is no doubt that the new convert belonged to a remarkable family. Apart from his father's rise to ecclesiastical prominence as head of the Church of England, both of Benson's brothers became leading members of the Edwardian literati. A.C. Benson, his eldest brother, was master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, and built a reputation as a fine biographer, diarist, and literary critic, writing acclaimed studies 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 untimely death in 1914 at the age of 43, he would write 15 highly successful novels.
The first of Benson's novels, and the only one written while he was still an Anglican, was The Light Invisible, published in 1903 and written when he was in the midst of the convulsive throes of spiritual conversion. The book is awash with a veritable confusion of emotive mysticism - a confession of faith amidst the confusion of doubt. Once he had gained the clarity of Catholic perception, Benson looked upon his first novel with a degree of scepticism. 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."
Richard Raynal, Solitary evokes with beguiling beauty the spiritual depth of English life prior to the rupture of the Reformation, as 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.
Hilaire Belloc was so impressed by Benson's historical novels that he wrote enthusiastically of him to A.C. Benson in 1907 that it was "quite on the cards that he will be the man to write some day a book to give us some sort of idea what happened in England between 1520 and 1560." In fact, prompted by his anger and frustration at the Protestant bias of the Whig historians, Belloc would write several books of his own on this subject, including studies of key 16th and 17th century figures such as Wolsey, Cromwell, James I, Charles II, and Cranmer. Belloc's How the Reformation Happened, published in 1928, was an endeavour to put the whole period into context.
Benson, however, achieved in his fiction what Belloc was striving to achieve in his non-fiction. In Come Rack! Come Rope!, possibly the finest of Benson's historical novels, the whole period of the Reformation is brought to blood-curdling life. With a meticulous approach to period detail, Come Rack! Come Rope! leaps from the page with historical realism. The reader is transported to the time of persecution in England when priests were put to a slow and tortuous death. The terror and tension of the tale grips the reader as tightly as it grips the leading characters who courageously witness to their faith in a hostile and deadly environment. Few novels have so successfully brought the past so potently to life.
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 shrinking 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.
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." 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."
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." Chesterton was not a Catholic in 1905 but Heretics was the first evidence that, as Benson put it, he "had the spirit." Chesterton's "spirit," every bit as influential as Benson's during the early days of the Catholic Literary Revival, is the subject of the next article in this column. Chesterton, however, is enjoying a great revival of interest, whereas Benson is still sadly neglected. It is high time that Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson, the unsung genius of the Catholic Literary Revival, experiences a revival of his own.
Pearce, Joseph. "R.H. Benson: Unsung Genius." Lay Witness (January/February 2001).
This article is reprinted with permission from Lay Witness magazine. Lay Witness is a publication of Catholic United for the Faith, Inc., an international lay apostolate founded in 1968 to support, defend, and advance the efforts of the teaching Church.
Copyright © 2001 LayWitness
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