The Fiction of Robert Hugh Benson

Pope Francis and his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI have encouraged Catholics to read Robert Hugh Benson’s Lord of the World. But Benson was not a one-novel novelist.

Both Pope Francis and Pope Benedict XVI (when he was Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger) have encouraged Catholics to read Lord of the World, Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson’s 1907 novel that eerily predicted the state of the world at the beginning of the 21st century.

Catholics have listened. Back in print and apparently selling well, Benson’s dystopian tale that, as Pope Francis said, depicts “the spirit of the world which leads to apostasy almost as if it were a prophecy,” is generating much talk and not a few articles, including Dorothy Cummings McLean’s pithy commentary in Catholic World Report (January 15, 2014).

But Benson—Hugh, as his family called him—was not a one-novel novelist. During the years from his ordination to the Catholic priesthood in 1904 until his death in 1914, a month shy of his 43rd birthday, he published 16 novels—in addition to writing several non-fiction books, hundreds of homilies, devotionals, plays, apologetics, essays, children’s books, poetry, letters, and introductions to books of other authors! 

Should we read Robert Hugh Benson’s other novels, too?

During the reign of Edward VII, la belle époque between the death of Queen Victoria (1901) and the beginning of World War I (1914), English novelists produced books that have remained in print and are still taught in literature classes today, including luminaries such as Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad, E.M. Forster, H.G. Wells, John Galsworthy, Henry James, Rudyard Kipling.

At the time, Robert Hugh Benson was, by some, considered their equal. His novels were enormously successful, and the young priest himself—even with his reedy, stuttering voice and his obvious nervousness—was in great demand as a speaker in Europe and America, where he made three speaking tours.  

Reviews at the time praised his books as “extraordinarily well written,” “intensely alive,” “brilliant,” and “masterful,” and one glowing tribute published shortly after his death even predicted that “a time will come when no gentleman’s library will be without what no Catholic can lack today.”

That comment suggests a plausible explanation for the disappearance of Robert Hugh Benson’s novels from the shelves of bookstores and libraries and of his name from lists of great English authors: these novels, essentially extensions of his powerful homilies and Catholic to the core, were popular when Catholicism was still the worldwide force it was in Benson’s lifetime and still controversial in England.

Indeed, the critics who gave the novels bad reviews brandished terms such as “too Catholic,” “too preachy,” “a polemical tract,” and “intended to proselytize.” James E. Miller wrote that the novel None Other Gods was “a vehicle for Church propaganda.” Sir Shane Leslie said of Benson’s novels that they “may be described as the Epistles of Hugh the preacher to the Anglicans, to the Conventionalists, to the Sensualists, etc.” It was also argued that they were merely advertisements for the Catholic faith among literate Anglicans.

A convert to Catholicism from the high-church Anglican faith of his father, Archbishop of Canterbury Edward Benson, Hugh was filled with the joyous zeal and gratitude of one who has found the pearl of great price and bought it. It is a blessing that Benson allowed his joy and enthusiasm to overflow into print.

Received into the Church in 1903, Benson was ordained a year later. Initially assigned to be chaplain to the Catholic students at Oxford, the young priest soon realized that he wasn’t a good pastor and that his true vocation was to write about the faith he had discovered. From then on, the thrust of his every action and his every word, spoken or written, was to proclaim that in the Roman Catholic Church—and only there—one can find that which is fixed and unchanging because it is apostolic, absolute, and true. This is the golden thread that ran through his novels and his brief life.

Many of Benson’s readers were Protestants with lifelong anti-Catholic prejudices. His stories presented the beauty and reason of the faith in such a winsome way that, at the very least, those readers would glean from them a better understanding of Catholicism. There is no way of knowing how many of the young priest’s readers were among the thousands he drew into the Church, but it is reasonable to guess that most of them had been touched by at least one or two of the books.

Benefits for Catholic readers were that the dramatic struggles of the characters in the novels might prompt an increase in faith and in closeness to the Lord, as well as the realization that what really matters—all that matters, really—is the supernatural life of grace within the human soul.

Many of the characters in Benson’s novels are cultured Anglican members of the English landed gentry (think Downton Abbey). Possibly to appeal to them—and no doubt because the author himself loved God’s Creation—the novels abound in lyrical descriptions of the countryside and the lovely light of mornings and evenings there. Benson saw the beauty of the natural world as a veil through which his readers might catch glimpses of the world beyond.

Benson’s first novel was The Light Invisible (1903), written before his conversion to Catholicism. Described by literary biographer Joseph Pearce as “a confession of faith amidst the confusion of doubt,” it is an exploration of transcendence in its many forms through a series of mystical stories told by a priest.

Benson’s trilogy about the Reformation brings the era to vibrant life: By What Authority? (1904), his first historical novel, explores the religious controversies of the time from the point of view of a lady-in-waiting in Queen Elizabeth I’s court. The King’s Achievement (1905), set in the same period of history, deals with a family’s difficulties and the ruin wrought to monasticism by Henry VIII. The Queen’s Tragedy (1907), set in the time of Mary Tudor, focuses on the devastation following the Reformation.

The Sentimentalists (1906), the satirical story of a charming egomaniac whose friends set out to cure him, is Benson’s first novel with a contemporary setting. Its sequel, The Conventionalists (1908), with its fascinating glimpse of Carthusian monasticism, explores the worldliness of upper-class English Protestantism. These books were said to have been based on actual events and on an actual person, who loved the novels.

The Necromancers (1909), a cautionary tale about the extreme danger of dabbling in spiritualism, was aimed at the wildly popular interest in the occult in Benson’s day. The story can also serve as a warning today to anyone attracted to New Age mysticism.

A Winnowing (1910) cleverly contrasts the secular dogma that only the material world is of value with the belief that death has profound meaning. Of this exploration of cultural attitudes toward death and its rituals, Benson wrote that he intended to show how people in the Edwardian society were “blown upon by the biggest forces there are—Death, Reality, God.”

In 1911, in response to protests from dismayed readers who said they found the apocalyptic book Lord of the World (1907) “gloomy,” or “too pessimistic,” Benson reluctantly published The Dawn of All, in which the Church is seen as ultimately victorious and in command of most of the world (with the other countries on deck!).

Benson had assured his disgruntled admirers that the scenario figured forth in Lord of the World was biblical and that an end-of-times novel with a happy ending would merely describe a world that could never exist. Yet, finally, and perhaps unfortunately, he agreed to try.

The author’s introduction to The Dawn of All reads, “In a former book, called Lord of the World, I attempted to sketch the kind of developments a hundred years hence which, I thought, might reasonably be expected if the present lines of what is called modern thought were only prolonged far enough; and I was informed repeatedly that the effect of the book was exceedingly depressing and discouraging to optimistic Christians. In the present book I am attempting…to follow up the other lines instead, and to sketch—again in parable—the kind of developments, about sixty years hence which, I think, may reasonably be expected should the opposite process begin, and ancient thought (which has stood the test of centuries, and is, in a very remarkable manner, being rediscovered by persons even more modern than modernists) be prolonged instead.”

Perhaps because The Dawn of All is set in 1973—the year Roe v. Wade legalized abortion in the United States, the year the IRA began planting car bombs in Britain, the year Arab terrorists shot up the Athens airport, the year the US and France and the USSR all performed nuclear tests, the year George Steinbrenner bought the Yankees for $12 million—it seems today almost ludicrous, and somehow very sad. It depicts an idealized “perfect” world with Protestantism reconciled to Rome, Ireland one big religious retreat center, and the Inquisition once again keeping the world safe from heretics. To convey the idea that readers of The Dawn of All shouldn’t expect to live in such a world, Benson presented the story as the dream of a real-world, Edwardian-era priest.

Also in 1911, Benson published None Other Gods, the mystical story of Frank Guiseley, a young man who drops out of Cambridge to become a tramp—what we might today call a street person—for the sake of Christ and His Church and whose nobleman father disowns him completely for becoming Catholic.

Reprinted this year by Scholar’s Choice, Come Rack! Come Rope! (1912) is considered by many scholars to be the finest of Benson’s historical novels. The story of a young couple who choose martyrdom over personal happiness, it is set in the period of the English Reformation, the years when priests in Elizabethan England were hunted down as traitors, then tortured slowly to death. The title of the book is taken from a letter of Saint Edmund Campion in which, after torture, he assured Catholics that he had revealed “no things of secret, nor would he, come rack, come rope.” Today’s readers will no doubt be reminded of the faithful Christians in the Middle East and other parts of the world who are being martyred every day.

The History of Richard Raynal, Solitary (1912) is so skillfully and charmingly written that it is easy to forget that it is a work of fiction and not an actual history. Purporting to be the translation of an ancient Latin manuscript discovered by Benson in a library in Rome, it is an old English priest’s account of the deeply spiritual life of a young hermit who lived somewhere near London in the 15th century before the rupture of the Reformation. One reviewer wrote, “The quaint beauty of the archaic style adopted by Father Benson in his recital is beyond praise.” Another called it “a spiritual idyll with an exquisite setting, a very delicate and subtle study of the medieval mind.”

The novel that surely must have been most shocking to the upper-class sensibilities of the Edwardians is The Coward (1912). Described by one reviewer as “a striking psychological study, full of vivid and often painful description,” it deals candidly with a young man’s soul-destroying propensity to adhere unthinkingly to social expectations.

An Average Man (1913) promotes the revolutionary concept that life is for Everyman, not merely for the elite. In a witty story of how a group of average London suburbanites are influenced in different ways by their surroundings, one is destroyed by worldly success and another, although enduring terrible circumstances, remains heroically virtuous.

The title of Oddfish (1914), Benson’s last historical novel, is derived from King Charles II’s favorite epithet, “Odd’s Fish!” (a socially acceptable version of the profane oath “God’s Face!”). The story takes place during the reign of Charles II, an era rife with political intrigue, including the Popish Plot. Roger Mallock, the fictitious narrator of the story, is sent to the king’s court by Pope Innocent XI as a diplomatic representative. He becomes a trusted confidant of King Charles and tries to influence him.

Initiation (1914), a prose version of many of the ideas in Francis Thompson’s poem “The Hound of Heaven” and thought by some to be Benson’s greatest novel, deals with the necessity of suffering and the Catholic understanding of its purpose and value. This story of Sir Nevill Fanning’s gradual conversion, also a cautionary tale for young people tempted to rush into a romantic relationship, is beautiful. Along a circuitous path to understanding, Sir Nevill avoids suffering at every turn. Yet the Lord keeps after him until, finally, his “initiation”—his submission to God’s will—is complete.

Benson’s last novel, Loneliness, published posthumously in 1915, is the story of a woman who, like Sir Nevill, finds God through suffering. The book highlights the common human tendency to judge people for what they can do for us, rather than for their value as human beings.

An impressive list. And, unlike many “Christian”—even “Catholic”—novels that may entertain yet contain no insight whatever into the human condition, Benson’s fictional fare is sustenance for mind and soul. Intended by the author to be tales of timeless truths rather than timeless literature—which he would never have had the patience to write—these stories can help guide readers to a surer footing on the road to eternity.

One value of the Benson novels is that each, like a good homily, can provoke readers to think, “That’s me!” and then to ponder the need for confessing and correcting some particular sin in their own lives. 

A second value is that, in light of the rapid spread of moral relativism that our last three popes and some other religious and civic leaders have been struggling to counter, the world needs the clear thought and moral courage of Robert Hugh Benson more than ever. His novels can function today, as they did when they were penned, to encourage Catholics to live their faith boldly in an increasingly anti-Catholic milieu, or to reveal the richness and beauty of Catholicism to those who have yet to discover it.

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About Ann Applegarth 6 Articles
Ann Applegarth lives and writes, and teaches in Roswell, New Mexico, where she served as poet-in-residence for the High Plains Writing Project at ENMU-Roswell. Her poems have been published in print and online and anthologized in Shadow and Light: Literature and the Light of Faith. Many of her poems have been collected in Layers of Beauty (2020).

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