Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Lord of the World, X: A Turning Point for Benson


We’ve been talking about why Pope Francis recommended Robert Hugh Benson’s novel, Lord of the World.  We’ve gone into the background of the novel.  We’ve even given a brief rundown of the author himself.  What else is there to say?  Well . . . maybe a little something about the novel itself might be in order, don’t you think? . . .

What's the big deal?
So, aside from the ideological colonization that Pope Francis mentioned, what is there in Lord of the World that should interest us?  Besides a good, well-crafted story, that is, and a thought-provoking commentary on how the world has managed to screw itself up even more since Benson did his writing?  (You mean, that’s not enough?)

Edwardian Snobs
Lord of the World marked a turning point in Benson’s literary career. After its publication his satire was much stronger and often the thinly veiled thrust of the work. The smugness and self-satisfied snobbery of the English upper classes were hammered flat — albeit more gently than the world has grown accustomed to since. Benson could not have written his masterpiece, An Average Man or his damning indictment of upper class ideology, The Coward, before Lord of the World.

The elements Benson used in Lord of the World to construct the world of the year 2000 were familiar to his readers before he put pen to paper. His contribution, as with all his fiction, was to add an explicitly religious theme to the work. This was, not surprisingly, Benson’s chief accomplishment as a popular writer. It appeared from the very first, in one of his earliest written (but almost last published) novels, Oddsfish!, a Restoration adventure, and was present in each of his works of fiction.

P.G. "Plum" Wodehouse
Other writers were beginning to experiment with frank discussions of human sexuality, a trend frequently ridiculed by P.G. Wodehouse.  For example, Grant Allen’s “frank” sex novel, the rather turgid The Woman Who Did (1895), managed to get itself transformed into Men Who Did and Women Who Shouldn’t Have But Took a Pop at It in Wodehouse’s inimitable musical comedy universe.  (And who can forget Offal, the product of another fictional sex novelist in the Mister Mulliner stories?  One is left with the impression that “Plum” wanted to entertain, not sicken his readers.)

"Sign and become Catholic, or. . . ."
Benson brought into the light of day (or at least the glare of popular culture) the other “forbidden” subject: the Catholic Church. His Elizabethan swashbucklers took the usual presentation of the Catholic Church (and, of course, the Jesuit Order) as the stock villain, complete with black cape and twirling mustachios, and turned it on its head. It strikes modern readers simply as giving equal time to an unpopular group, but a century ago this was considered revolutionary.

Steampunk ... from the Age of Steam
Also revolutionary was Benson’s refusal either to deify or to reject technology.  Science was not a villain for Benson, but neither was it a savior. Father Franklin in Lord of the World is startled to find a typewriter (still relatively rare in 1907) in the Vatican — but why not? Technology is simply a thing, potentially beneficial or potentially harmful, particularly when worshipped as a false god.

Benson thought highly of Americans, but (as we noted) he made the antagonist in Lord of the World an American. Most “future war” novels, although written largely by English authors, made Americans the heroes, sometimes virtual demigods. Americans, however, are not demigods, but as fallible and as subject to great evil as any other people. The Germans would prove this in the next generation with the rise of Hitler among a nation presumed to be one of the most civilized on earth.

#30#

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