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Monday, February 23, 2015

Lord of the World, VIII: Benson Was Born . . .

In C.S. Lewis’s apocalyptic novel, That Hideous Strength, one of the characters, a college professor, excuses himself from something-or-other by saying he has to go home and begin the dreary and wearying task of correcting and grading a pile of undergraduate essays on Jonathan Swift, all beginning, “Swift was born . . .”

Papally recommended reading
With that barb in mind, we’ve tried to avoid relating too obviously the fact that Benson was somehow catapulted into this world in 1871, coincidentally (in light of the renown of his own satiric future war novel, Lord of the World) the same year in which Sir George Chesney published the novella that began the future war subgenre, The Battle of Dorking.  “Dorking” is a town in England, so no comments or asides are necessary or welcome.

So, what of this fellow whose book is on Pope Francis’s recommended reading list?

R.H. Benson
Robert Hugh Benson was a son of the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury.  He converted to Catholicism and was ordained a priest in 1903.  He was a member of the famous Benson literary clan, whose members included such luminaries as horror writer Arthur Christopher Benson (1862-1925) and Edward Frederic Benson (1867-1940) of “Lucia” fame, both brothers of Robert.

E.F. Benson
Benson, however, managed to surpass all his siblings in quality of output, if not quantity in the shortest period of time. His writing career lasted just short of eleven years before his untimely death in 1914 at the start of World War I. Benson wrote twenty novels and short story collections, four plays, a volume of poetry, and countless articles and books on theology and apologetics for ordinary people.

Some of his short stories are considered horror classics, although the extremely rare collection A Mirror of Shalott is thought to be apocryphal by some authorities. It was, however, in the field of satire that Benson excelled. Evelyn Waugh greatly admired him, and credited Benson with an enormous influence on him. Waugh used some of Benson’s devices in his own, much blacker, satires. Lord of the World, for instance, may have inspired Waugh's surreal novella, Love Among the Ruins.

Arthur C. Benson
A.C. Benson, an accomplished author in his own right, and who seems to have been closest to Benson of all his family, succinctly described his youngest brother in his book, Hugh: Memoirs of a Brother (1916), by commenting, “I think of him as always larger than his books.” There have been many commentaries on Benson’s life and work since his death of complications from pneumonia resulting from overwork, but none more heartfelt or, from the perspective of a family member, more insightful than Arthur’s brief tribute.

Arthur’s personal reminiscence is all the more valuable in that, with one possible exception, it came from the individual who knew Benson best. The exception was Benson’s beloved nurse, Beth. Arthur’s memoir is a valuable resource for people who want to understand Benson. While respectful and certainly a labor of love, Hugh helps strip away the patina of false reverence that has managed to layer itself on Benson and his writings. It would have startled Benson’s family (and possibly embarrassed him terribly) to find out that some recent enthusiasts have republished a number of his works of fiction in the form of illuminated texts! Benson regarded his fiction primarily as a way to make extra money, as well as give a Catholic perspective in fictional form to counter some of the dreadful anti-Catholic stereotypes prevalent in the popular fiction of his day, but above all, as we have seen, to explore the concept of “vocation,” one’s calling in life.

Paradoxically, Benson refused to take his novels or short stories seriously, and yet took them very seriously indeed. This seems to have shocked some of his more fervent admirers as well as baffled his biographers. When he discovered that some readers were taking his satiric “future war” science fiction novel Lord of the World as prophecy, he expressed amazement, In response, he quickly turned out a novel that he felt would correct that misimpression: The Dawn of All. When some enthusiasts began taking this later “counterblast” as Benson’s blueprint for an ideal society, the author was appalled, and continued to insist that his readers were getting it all wrong. They were trying to put too much on to something he regarded almost as an idle pastime. As Arthur expressed it,

“Neither do I think that his books emanated from a high artistic ideal. I do not believe that he was really much interested in his craft. Rather he visualized a story very vividly, and then it seemed to him the finest fun in the world to spin it all as rapidly as he could out of his brain, to make it all alert with glancing life. It was all a personal confession; his books bristle with his own dreams, his own dilemmas, his own social relations; and when he had once firmly realized the Catholic attitude, it seemed to him the one thing worth writing about.”

However a reader views Benson’s fiction, Arthur’s memoir would prove an invaluable — and fascinating — guide to the man behind the writing. It presents a different perspective on an author whose merits may at times be obscured by a misguided reverence, but within limits. Fortunately those very limitations are invaluable to non-Catholics who may otherwise be “turned off” reading Benson’s novels because of the encrustations of veneration that have managed to get piled on to them.

Arthur excelled in explaining Benson as a person, but failed badly when attempting to understand his brother’s conversion to Catholicism. Arthur tended to speak in unconsciously denigrating terms that betray a deep lack of appreciation of both his brother’s motives, and the Church to which Benson converted. Paradoxically, this gives Arthur’s recollections their particular value. Non-Catholics reading some Catholic enthusiasts’ descriptions of Benson, or reviews of some of his novels from a “Catholic” point of view, will in all likelihood be repelled. Some of Benson’s fans, in fact, make some errors about their hero’s early life that, to someone who knew him as a younger brother with whom he played and (at times) fought, are laughable:

“In a friendly little memoir of him, which I have been sent, I find the following passage: ‘In his early childhood, when reason was just beginning to ponder over the meaning of things, he was so won to enthusiastic admiration of the heroes and heroines of the Catholic Church that he decided he would probe for himself the Catholic claims, and the child would say to the father, “Father, if there be such a sacrament as Penance, can I go?” And the good Archbishop, being evasive in his answers, the young boy found himself emerging more and more in a woeful Nemesis of faith.’ It would be literally impossible, I think, to construct a story less characteristic both of Hugh’s own attitude of mind as well as of the atmosphere of our family and household life than this!”

Not that Arthur himself managed to get everything right. He was, after all, a faithful member of the Church of England, and several times mentioned that he simply did not understand why or how his favorite brother converted to Catholicism. The non-Catholic would doubtless find much sympathy with Arthur when he read, “I do not wholly understand in my mind how Hugh came to make the change.”

In attempting to understand, Arthur mentioned that he studied Confessions of a Convert at some length. The book he should have read, however, is The Religion of the Plain Man. The former is intensely personal (although not to the degree to which modern readers have become accustomed), so much so that it does not adequately explain Benson’s thought processes in reaching his decision. The Religion of the Plain Man, however, is much more objective, and answers many of the questions Arthur raised in his memoir.

To gain the best perspective on Benson, then, it would be very useful to read both Arthur’s short memoir and the “official” biography by Reverend C. C. Martindale — if you can find a copy. Each one supplies what the other lacks in attempting to gain insights on Benson’s complex — that is to say, ordinary — personality. As Arthur commented,

 “It is impossible to select one of his moods, and to say that his true life lay there. His life lay in all of them. If work was tedious to him, he comforted himself with the thought that it would soon be done. He was an excellent man of affairs, never “slothful in business,” but with great practical ability. He made careful bargains for his books, and looked after his financial interests tenaciously and diligently, with a definite purpose always in his mind. He lived, I am sure, always looking forward and anticipating. I do not believe he dwelt at all upon the past. It was life in which he was interested. . . . He had a supreme power of casting things behind him, and he was far too intent on the present to have indulged in sentimental reveries of what had been.”

We are left with the impression of a man greatly loved, but seeking more to love. It is difficult to see how anyone could want a better memoir than that.

Sources for Benson’s novels and related material: