Remembering Maurice Baring, literary convert and beloved friend of Chesterton

Joseph Pearce talks with Jan Franczak about the influence and work of Baring (1874-1945), whose novels are not well-known today but “deserve a place in the canon of great twentieth century literature…”

Maurice Baring in a 1932 painting by Sir James Gunn.

December 14 marks the 75th anniversary of the death of Maurice Baring, literary convert, bestselling novelist and beloved friend of G. K. Chesterton. To commemorate the anniversary and to celebrate the legacy of this great but neglected Catholic writer, Joseph Pearce was interviewed by Jan Franczak for the Polish journal, This is the interview’s first publication in English.

Jan Franczak: In our conversation about Hilaire Belloc we mentioned briefly Maurice Baring (1874-1945), a friend of Chesterton and Belloc. Baring, who died exactly 75 years ago, was as prolific as his two friends: a poet, a playwright, a novelist and in addition a diplomat and a polyglot. However, it seems that not only in Poland but also in the English-speaking world most people rather remember the “Chesterbelloc”, as Bernard Shaw called Baring’s two friends.

In one of your essays you wrote, “The literary legend surrounding the figure of the Chesterbelloc has cast such a long and enduring shadow that the lesser-known figure of Maurice Baring has been almost eclipsed by it. This is unfortunate and unjust. As a man of letters and faith, Baring deserves to emerge from the shadow of his two illustrious friends and take his place beside them as he did in Sir James Gunn’s famous painting, The Conversation Piece”. What is the significance of Baring and why does his work deserve to be read?

Pearce: I’m pleased that you mentioned Sir James Gunn’s wonderful group portrait of the three great friends and writers, Baring, Belloc and Chesterton. For those who don’t know this painting, one of my all time favourites by an artist who also deserves to be rediscovered, it shows Chesterton sitting at a table, pen in hand and poised over a piece of paper, with Belloc sitting beside him, and Baring standing behind. It was painted in 1932, when all three writers were at the height of their fame. The composition exhibits the contemporary perception that they represented a triumvirate of literary allies who were at the very hub of the Catholic cultural revival, which was also at its height at the time. At this time, Maurice Baring’s novels were very popular, in France as much as in England, illustrating that he was seen by Gunn and his contemporaries as being of equal stature to Belloc and Chesterton. It is, therefore, somewhat sad that Baring’s star has waned, even as Chesterton’s and Belloc’s have waxed. It is indeed not merely sad but unjust because the best of Baring’s novels deserve a place in the canon of great twentieth century literature, as do the best of his poems. It’s time for this neglected genius to emerge from the shadow of his better-known friends to claim his own place in the literary canon.

Franczak: Unfortunately in Poland Baring is practically unknown. As far as I know before the second world war only two of Baring’s novels were translated into Polish: Daphne Adeane and The Coat Without Seam. The first one is practically unavailable, the latter one had another translation in 1995. I think nothing else has been rendered into Polish. Which of his works deserve to be read and translated? And why?

Pearce: Baring’s work is difficult for the modern reader because Baring was himself much more civilized and much more widely read than the modern reader. This is why I feel in awe in his presence when I read his books. Since Baring is much better read than I, and since he was a polyglot, conversant in several languages and cognizant of many others, ancient and modern, I feel in his presence what Chesterton felt in the presence of the Dominican, Father Vincent McNabb, that he walks on a crystal floor above my head.

In novels, such as C, he leads us on a guided tour of the greatest works of literature and the masterpieces of classical music, illustrating how culture moulds the mind and heart. It shows how the protagonist’s choices are influenced by the culture in which he has immersed himself. Another great favourite of mine is Cat’s Cradle, set mostly in Rome, which shows the mystical presence of providence in the life of the heroine. The work of Baring’s which is most accessible to modern readers and which perhaps is the most in need of translation is Robert Peckham, an historical novel about an Englishman forced into exile during the penal times for his adherence to the Catholic faith. I would also recommend Have You Anything to Declare?, a rarely read gem, which offers a selection of what Baring calls the “literary baggage” he had travelled with during his life and which he would declare as luggage he would like to take with him after death. Why would we not want such a highly cultured man to guide us through the great works of western civilization?

Franczak: Władysław Tarnawski, a Polish professor of English literature who is the author of the study Shakespeare a Roman Catholic published in 1938, wrote in one of his articles in 1936 that Baring was an ingenious writer but his novels were never gripping and rarely interesting. He added that his subtlety very often meant wanness and that he would never gain too many readers despite his ingeniousness and experiments with the form. However he praised his sophisticated style. My personal experience is different. For example, Tinker’s Leave and C were so gripping that actually I couldn’t put them down. I also liked his Diminutive Dramas. How would you respond to Prof. Tarnawski’s criticism?

Pearce: Needless to say, I concur with your view rather than Professor Tarnawski’s. I agree that Baring’s subtlety makes him an acquired taste. His plots develop in an unhurried way, requiring patience and perseverance on the part of the reader, not least because the presence of grace in his stories, so difficult to capture, is made manifest with a featherlight finesse which is easily missed. Without patience and perseverance, the reader will not receive the blessing that the emergence of the supernatural element bestows. It could be said that the virtue of patience is rewarded with the revelation of God’s presence in human affairs. The great French novelist François Mauriac understood this. “What I admire most about Baring’s work,” Mauriac wrote, “is the sense he gives you of the penetration of grace.”

Franczak: Reading Tinker’s Leave, which was my first book by Baring, I kept wondering where the author was leading me. By the end I understood that the journey taken by young Miles Consterdine was to show “the operation of grace”, the theme which is well-known to all the readers of the famous Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. The same is in C. You mentioned that Cat’s Cradle “shows the mystical presence of providence in the life of the heroine”. You also said that Mauriac noticed this theme, too. Was it Baring’s main motif? And what is the difference between his way of presenting “the operation of grace” and Evelyn Waugh’s? Was there any interinfluence between the two writers? I think that to a certain extent the end of Brideshead Revisited (1945) resembles the end of Tinker’s Leave (1927).

Pearce: The comparison with the work of Waugh, especially with respect to Brideshead Revisited, is both apposite and perceptive. I make the same connection between Baring’s novels and Brideshead in my book, Literary Converts. There is no doubt that Baring’s novels exerted considerable formative influence on Waugh throughout his life. As early as 1928, shortly after Waugh’s first novel Decline and Fall was published, Waugh described Baring as “an idol of mine”. Thirty-five years later, in November 1963, Waugh remarked to Sir Maurice Bowra how much he “loved Maurice Baring”. Since Waugh is arguably the greatest twentieth century English novelist, it says much for the quality of Baring’s own writing that his novels should have had such an enduring influence on Waugh. This, combined with Mauriac’s praise, should induce all lovers of literature to check out Baring’s work. It is difficult to weave the hidden hand of Providence into a fictional narrative, making God the invisible protagonist, without stooping to the level of didacticism or preachiness. Only the finest novelists can do so convincingly. Baring is indubitably, along with Waugh, a true master of this all too rare art.

Franczak: This is why I don’t understand how it was possible that Prof. Tarnawski, both a Shakespearean scholar and translator, who wrote a pioneering study on the Bard’s Catholicism, didn’t see that. Nota bene, Shakespeare’s plays are an important reference point in Tinker’s Leave. Anyway, Baring’s novels seem to draw on his own experience. I guess that we could even say we can follow “the hidden hand of Providence” in Baring’s own life. Brought up in an Anglican family he became lukewarm in his faith, finally becoming an agnostic who declared that he “didn’t believe in a Christian faith”. And then he met Belloc and Chesterton. What influence did his two friends have on his conversion to Catholicism in 1909?

Pearce: There is no doubt that his friendship with both men was an important influence on his conversion. Baring had known Belloc for twelve years before his reception into the Church, their correspondence being animated by the subject of the Catholic Faith. Although Baring had not known Chesterton for very long at the time of his conversion, he had known Chesterton’s books prior to their first meeting, which appears to have not been until 1907.

Baring had expressed his admiration for Chesterton’s “ideas” and was especially impressed with two of Chesterton’s books, The Napoleon of Notting Hill and Heretics. There’s no documentary evidence that Baring had read Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, which was published in 1908, a year before Baring’s conversion, but it’s easy to surmise that, had he read it, which is likely, its influence would have been considerable as he made his final approach to Rome. Chesterton’s wife said that “of all her husband’s friends” there was none he loved more than Maurice Baring.

Franczak: In your essay on Baring you quote him saying about his conversion to Catholicism, that it was “the only action in my life which I am quite certain I have never regretted”. You also mention that his experience was reflected in a sonnet sequence “Vita Nuova”. But even earlier, before his conversion, when he had already departed from his Anglican faith, he didn’t buy into “the fashionable skepticism of the 1890s”. It’s quite interesting. I guess it was not easy to oppose such intellectuals as Bertrand Russell but also peer pressure must have been as strong as it is now, especially in academic circles?

Pearce: Secularism, agnosticism and relativism had been part of the intellectual atmosphere of England for 150 years by the end of the nineteenth century, as had scientism and the cult of “progress”. Baring was, therefore, merely succumbing to the prejudices of the Zeitgeist when he lapsed into agnosticism. What is more important and more significant is that he became part of that Catholic intellectual and cultural revival which challenged the spirit of the age and which brought forth so many great works of literature. His place in that revival is not insignificant.

Franczak: You mentioned Baring’s impact on two important Catholic writers: Evelyn Waugh and François Mauriac. Does he still have any influence both on writers and intellectuals now despite his hiding in the shadow of his two friends?

Pearce: The sad but sorry fact is that his influence is only felt indirectly, in the sense that he influenced others, far better known than he is, such as Waugh and Mauriac. This unseen but not insignificant influence on other writers, whose cultural impact has exceeded his own, is his enduring legacy. Such an influence, though important, does not do him justice. What is needed is a rediscovery of his works by a new generation of readers. We few, we happy few, who are aficionados of Baring and his work should be doing what we can to make him more widely known. I hope and pray that this very interview will help in this regard.

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