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In the dark days in which we find ourselves, it is helpful to be reminded of even darker days in the past. We should rejoice, therefore, that the works of Robert Hugh Benson are once more seeing the light of day because they are themselves beacons of light.

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 defective theologically. 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]

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.

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 adept at 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 and as a work of prophecy.

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 the aforementioned 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.”[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”.

Let’s conclude with a few words about The King’s Achievement, one of Benson’s finest novels, which is now available in a new edition published by Cenacle Press, an apostolate of the good monks of Silverstream Priory in Ireland. It was written in the summer and autumn of 1904, the year after Benson’s reception into the Church. A work of historical fiction set during the reign of Henry VIII, it was the second of his post-conversion novels, the first being By What Authority?, which had been set during the reign of Elizabeth I. He had finished it by All Hallows Eve, considering it “a great advance” upon the earlier book, “being so much better put together”.[5] A year later, however, he seems to have revised his opinion:

The only reason why I am entirely ill at ease about The King’s Achievement is that it doesn’t represent really any part of my being. Not one of the characters is my intimate friend. Now in my other books they are….[6]

Oddly enough, his sister, who had not liked it upon first reading, revised her opinion of it, writing to Benson that it was “a much better book than I had remembered”. It was “beautifully written” and “a pleasure to read”. She was particularly impressed by the characterization of Beatrice Atherton:

Beatrice is really very fine indeed, and really I do give you credit for understanding the way in which women can be friends. So few people do understand, and I can’t remember any man, a novelist, who does.[7]

Yet the real focus of the book is not any individual character, male or female, but the dissolution of the monasteries, one of the greatest tragedies in the history of Christendom and one of the greatest crimes carried out against the Mystical Body of Christ. This is evident in Benson’s changing of the title from The King’s Conscience, which would have placed the focus, albeit ironically, on Henry VIII, to The King’s Achievement, which focuses squarely on the destructive consequences of the king’s unconscionable actions.

In the dark days in which we find ourselves, it is helpful to be reminded of even darker days in the past. We should be thankful, therefore, that Cenacle Press has brought this wonderful and beautiful work to a new generation of readers. Indeed, we should rejoice that the works of Robert Hugh Benson are once more seeing the light of day because they are themselves beacons of light.

This essay is a modified and abbreviated version of the foreword that Joseph Pearce wrote to the newly published Cenacle Press edition of R. H. Benson’s historical novel, The King’s Achievement.

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Notes:

[1] Robert Hugh Benson, Confessions of a Convert, Sevenoaks, Kent: Fisher Press, 1991 edn., p. 52

[2] Ronald Knox, A Spiritual Aeneid, London: Burns and 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] C. C. Martindale, The Life of Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson, Vol. One, p. 372

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., pp. 372-3

The featured image is Monsignor R. H. Benson in Oct. 1912, aged 40, and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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