In this interview with Jan Franczak for the Polish Journal, PCh24, biographer and literary critic Joseph Pearce discusses the importance of the convert writer, Robert Hugh Benson (1871-1914), as well as other great literary converts. Pearce also discusses how some of Benson’s ideas influenced his own conversion to Catholicism. This is the interview’s first publication in English.
PCh24: Robert Hugh Benson is the author of Lord of the World, the novel recommended by Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis. But before we talk about his most famous book I would like to start with a different topic.
Robert Hugh Benson is one of those Anglican priests who have converted to Catholicism. Of course St. John Henry Newman is the most prominent of them and one whose conversion in 1845 you consider to mark the beginning of the Catholic Cultural Revival in Great Britain. What is the significance of Benson’s conversion in 1903 for the Church and for literature, if there is any? Why is it important when we talk about Catholicism in the UK?
Joseph Pearce: Benson’s conversion was the most seismic of all the conversions of the Catholic Cultural Revival, with the sole exception of Newman’s. The fact that he was the son of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Anglican “pope” (so to speak), sent shockwaves throughout the Establishment in general and the Established Church in particular. It represented further proof that Catholicism was emerging as a potent religious and cultural force in contemporary England and that the Faith could no longer be dismissed or marginalized. It was confirmation that the Church had “arrived” – or, more correctly, that She had returned!
In his Confessions of a Convert, he wrote about converts to Catholicism that “it’s a more heroic act to break with the past than to be loyal to it.” Surely his decision to enter the Catholic Church was not an easy one. His Confessions are an important testimony of the struggle he had to go through. He also mentioned reactions of Anglicans who “regarded me either as a deliberate traitor (but of these there were very few) or an infatuated fool, or as an impatient, headstrong, ungrateful bigot.” Some must have apparently expected his return to Anglicanism sooner or later as he mentions this attitude toward converts in general but as he said, “to return from the Catholic Church to the Anglican would be the exchange of certitude for doubt, of faith for agnosticism, of substance for shadow, of brilliant light for somber gloom, of historical, worldwide fact for unhistorical, provincial theory.” Strong words if we consider the modern attitude to converting people to Catholicism! Was he followed by other Anglican priests? He mentions one who entered “the City of Peace” eight years later after his own conversion.
Confessions of a Convert is a real classic of conversion literature. Apart from Augustine’s incomparable Confessions and Newman’s Apologia, there are few more powerful testimonies of a soul’s journey to Rome than Benson’s own Confessions. His views with respect to the implausibility of returning to the shallows and shadows of Anglicanism, once one has experienced the Real Presence of Christ in the Catholic Church, echo Newman’s own way of expressing it.
I’m not sure of the identity of the Anglican priest whom Benson mentions as having been received eight years after his own conversion but the most prominent Anglican priest to enter in Benson’s wake was Ronald Knox, who was received into the Church in 1917, a few years after Benson’s tragic and untimely death. Like Benson, Knox was the son of an Anglican bishop. Benson was the son of the Archbishop of Canterbury; Knox was the son of the Bishop of Manchester. This made both of their conversions especially controversial.
Knox was hugely influenced by Benson. In the last few days before his reception into the Church, Knox read several Catholic novels but enjoyed Benson’s Come Rack! Come Rope! more than all the others. Knox wrote that “Hugh Benson, who had set my feet on the way towards the Church, watched over my footsteps to the last.” Knox would go on to be known in his own right as a major Catholic writer, of satire, detective stories, and apologetics. His own published conversion testimony, A Spiritual Aeneid, is also very powerful and worth reading.
PCh24: Reading Confessions of a Convert I kept asking myself, “Why didn’t it have any impact on C.S. Lewis who sometimes is mistaken for a Catholic by some people?” Or maybe it had some? And since you mentioned Cardinal Newman, Benson wrote in his Confessions significant words: “Cardinal Newman compares, somewhere, the sensations of a convert from Anglicanism to those of a man in a fairy story, who, after wandering all night in a city of enchantment, turns after sunrise to look back upon it, and finds to his astonishment that the buildings are no longer there; they have gone up like wraiths and mists under the light of the risen day.” And continuing he adds about Catholicism and Anglicanism: “He cannot however with justice, compare the two systems at all; one cannot, adequately, compare a dream with a reality.”
Pearce: Your reference to C. S. Lewis in relation to Benson set me thinking. I’ve done a great deal of research on Lewis over the years, especially with respect to those who influenced him. I was even asked by HarperCollins to write a book entitled “Influences on C. S. Lewis” at one point, which came to nothing. In any event, I couldn’t recall Lewis ever referring to Benson. Checking the three volumes of Lewis’s letters, I discovered only one solitary reference to Benson, made in a letter written in 1944, in which he confesses that Benson’s science fiction novel, The Dawn of All, is the only book of Benson’s he could remember ever having read. He also adds that “R. H. Benson is wrong”, though he doesn’t say in which respect, and that The Dawn of All “never meant much to me”. We can safely presume, therefore, that Benson was not an influence on Lewis.
With respect to your quoting Benson on Newman, it is ironic that Benson’s quip that comparing Anglicanism with Catholicism is to “compare a dream with a reality” resonates with Lewis’s assertion in The Last Battle that comparing our world with heaven is like comparing a dream with reality. “The dream is ended, this is the morning” says Aslan, speaking of the new life in heaven after death. There is, I think, a delightfully ironic connection between the two quotes. A convert to the Faith, such as Benson or Newman, understands the Church to be the Mystical Body of Christ. The Church on earth (the Church Militant) is in communion with Christ and with the members of the Church in heaven (the Church Triumphant). In our communion in the Real Presence of Christ with His saints, we are already, so to speak, experiencing the “reality” of which Benson speaks, compared with which all that Anglicanism offers is nothing but “a dream”. The Church partakes of heaven, which is “the morning” of which Lewis speaks, even in this world.
PCh24: I can’t resist the temptation to quote one more fragment of Benson’s Confessions, “Thus, in truth, a sojourn in Rome means an expansion of view that is beyond words. Whereas up to that time I had been accustomed to image Christianity to myself as a delicate flower, divine because of its supernatural fragility, now I saw that it was a tree in whose branches the fowls of the air, once the enemies of its tender growth, can lodge in security — divine since the wideness of its reach and the strength of its mighty roots can be accounted for by nothing else.” I would like to ask you a personal question if I may. Was this “expansion of view” also your experience as a convert to Catholicism?
Pearce: Absolutely. Once one crosses the threshold into the majesty of Christ’s Mystical Body all else seems provincial in comparison. As for the analogy of the tree, it reminds me of something that Tolkien once said about the Church. During the madness caused by the so-called “spirit” of Vatican II, it was common to speak of getting back to the “purity” of the Early Church. Tolkien responded that he could not see why a sapling is considered superior to the full-grown tree. Furthermore, he added, if you chop down the tree looking for the sapling, you don’t find the sapling but you do kill the tree. The Tree of Life, which is the Church, is rooted deep in the soil of truth and tradition and grows taller with each century that passes, spreading out its branches in all cultures and times with the same life-giving fruit.
PCh24: Apart from his very important Confessions, Robert Hugh Benson is also an author of a few novels. One of them is particularly interesting as an example of a fine dystopia which seems to be disturbingly prophetic.
In your book Literature: What Every Catholic Should Know you said about Lord of the World that it “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 patently 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.”
Don’t you think that shortly after your book was published time verified your words a little bit? Unfortunately, Orwell’s famous novel turns out to be no less topical and relevant to us than Lord of the World. To these three dystopian novels I would also add Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.
Pearce: I agree that Orwell’s novel remains timely in terms of its cautionary reminder of how things could become once again but there’s no Stalinist or Hitlerite regime à la Big Brother in power at the moment – though that could change. Huxley’s dystopian prophecy remains relevant in terms of the way that the soporific desire for panem et cirenses continues to be a means by which those in power rule over the comfort-addicted hedonistic masses. Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is particularly pertinent at the moment in the light of present-day efforts to burn books and bury the knowledge and lessons of the past. I would still state, however, that Benson’s Lord of the World is superior as a work of prophecy because it shows how the prince of lies can preach “peace and understanding” as a pretext for the diabolical imposition of a globalist agenda. This is made manifest in the persona and Machiavellian machinations of Felsenburgh, the liberal secularist demagogue par excellence. Felsenburgh is what George Soros and Bill Gates would like to be.
PCh24: Yes. However, looking at the situation in the USA at the moment, which reminds me of pre-Bolshevik Russia, one could have the impression that we are disturbingly close to Orwell’s vision again. Let’s also not forget about countries like China or North Korea. And the role of Big Brother is willingly being taken up by big international corporations. Thanks to them we’ve already experienced censorship in Poland which we haven’t seen since the end of communism.
Agreeing about the importance of Lord of the World, we have to mention that Benson’s novel bears striking similarities (but also differences) with “A Short Story of the Anti-Christ” from Three Conversations by Vladimir Soloviev. Soloviev’s work, written in 1989-1900, was published in 1901, Benson’s in 1907. Do you think Benson knew Soloviev’s story? Or maybe it was just something that was in the air?
Pearce: I didn’t mean to suggest that Big Brother was dead and buried, and you are correct to remind us of the lingering totalitarianism of China and North Korea. I was suggesting that Big Brother has learned to smile and look “nice”, which was the approach of Felsenburgh in Lord of the World. The real Big Brother is more subtle, more seductive and more elusive than Orwell’s brutish portrait of him. This is why I’m suggesting that Benson’s depiction of tyranny is better and more accurate than Orwell’s.
As for the connection between the relative visions of Benson and Soloviev, I suspect that it’s a case of great minds thinking alike, rather than Soloviev being a direct influence on Benson, which I find unlikely. I am reminded in this respect of my interview with Solzhenitsyn at his home near Moscow in 1998, when I asked him if he had been aware of E. F. Schumacher’s book, Small is Beautiful, which bore a remarkable similarity with Solzhenitsyn’s own political and economic perspective. Solzhenitsyn responded that the similarity was “a coincidental affinity”. I suspect that this would be the case with Benson and Soloviev.
PCh24: Would it be correct to say that Lord of the World is one part of a kind of diptych? The Dawn of All published a few years later, which C.S. Lewis mentioned was the only Benson’s book he’d read, would be the other part. It presents a completely different vision of the future: dear to the heart of every traditionalist, a world in which liberals and leftists are sent to a kind of reservation and Ireland is one huge sanatorium and mental hospital. It seems to express certain doubts, too. I’d say that it is also a novel about the power of the Rosary. If Lord of the World is dystopian and apocalyptic, The Dawn of All is definitely utopian.
Pearce: Since The Dawn of All is one of my numerous sins of omission, which is to say that it is one of the multitude of good and worthy books that I have thus far neglected to read, I’m not able to comment on any meaningful level. I would simply say that, in this case, the word utopia would be applicable in both of its senses. As I’m sure you know, utopia can either mean “no place” (ou-topia), which is the sense it’s been used traditionally by Thomas More and others, or it can mean “good place” (eu-topia). The problem is that the “good place” is also usually the “no place”, in the sense that efforts to paint pictures of the perfect society, i.e. a sort of heaven on earth, always seem unbelievable, for the simple reason that heaven can never be found on earth. My understanding of The Dawn of All is that it is not so much a eu-topia, i.e. a heaven on earth, but is much more nuanced, examining the imperfections of a world in which good ideas are in the ascendant. As Benson says in his preface to the novel, every age is an age in crisis in which good and evil are at war. This is so, regardless of which side is in the temporary ascendant.
PCh24: It looks like today bad ideas are in the ascendant. Some even think that the Church is in the biggest crisis ever. Lord of the World with its apocalyptic climax seems to describe both the modern world and modern mood among many Catholics – a novel which was written over a century ago! I guess we could also say that while Lord of the World shows the Church Militant, The Dawn of All shows the Church Triumphant already on earth.
Pearce: I’m currently writing a history of Catholic England so I would hesitate to agree that the Church is in the biggest crisis ever. I’m currently in the reign of Henry VIII with its destruction of the monasteries and the killing of Catholics, commencing a period of 300 years of state persecution of the Church, the first 150 years of which included the execution of Catholic priests and those who fraternized with them. And beyond England, we’ve had anti-popes, the threat and conquests of Islam, the French Revolution, communism, et cetera. The Church Militant is always in crisis! That’s why it’s militant, i.e. at war! All that we need to do as Catholics in every generation of crisis is keep our eyes on heaven knowing that the gates of hell will not prevail.
I’d also disagree that The Dawn of All shows the Church Triumphant already on earth. Although I haven’t read it, as confessed above, Benson claimed that the novel was intended to show what the world might look like were the ideas of Christendom to be in the ascendant, with Catholicism triumphant politically in the world. This would not be the Church Triumphant because the Church Triumphant is in heaven, not on earth. The Dawn of All shows suffering and the persecution of heretics, none of which is part of the Church Triumphant. There is no suffering in heaven, nor are there any heretics.
PCh24: Well … maybe I wasn’t precise. I should have said, “a kind of Church Triumphant.” This is why I also added “already on earth” to stress the difference. Yes, his novel tests “what the world might look like were the ideas of Christendom to be in the ascendant”. Hence certain doubts of the main character of the novel which I’ve already mentioned and a bit different literary convention – but I normally don’t like to reveal too much to the potential reader.
Robert Hugh Benson, although he died in a relatively young age, expressed himself through a wide range of literary genres. He even published books for children. Which other works by Benson would you recommend in particular?
Pearce: As for Benson’s other works, I’d recommend his historical fiction, especially Come Rack! Come Rope! which is about the heroism and martyrdom of Catholics in Elizabethan England. My favorite of all his novels is, however, Richard Raynal, Solitary, which is set in late medieval England. It’s so edifying, showing the life of a holy hermit in a profoundly Catholic England.
PCh24: Does Benson have any impact on modern literature and thinking about the Church or does he remain an author to be rediscovered?
Pearce: I think that Benson’s star is very much in the ascendant amongst Catholics, though he remains relatively unknown to the secular culture. His books are back in print and attracting a new generation of readers. As I have endeavored to show in my own works, such as Literary Converts and Catholic Literary Giants, as well as in my literary biographies, it is very important for Catholics to discover or rediscover the great works of the Catholic Literary Revival, especially because they expose so powerfully the wickedness of the secular cultureless wasteland. Since this is so, we should all rejoice that the works of Robert Hugh Benson are once more on many people’s reading lists.
Related at CWR: “The Fiction of Robert Hugh Benson” (June 10, 2015) by Ann Applegarth.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!