Sunday, January 16, 2011

The "Lost Novels" of Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson

Everybody knows about such classics as Lord of the World and By What Authority? but did you know that the noted Catholic writer Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson (1871-1914) wrote “mainstream” novels as well?

A member of the gifted Benson literary clan, Father Benson’s career spanned the early years of the 20th century. All of his siblings were published authors — you may be familiar with E. F. Benson’s “Lucia” novels, or the horror stories of A. C. Benson. Midway in his writing career, Father Benson switched from the historical sagas like The King’s Achievement and “sensational” stories like The Sentimentalists by which he had established his reputation, and began turning out novels about ordinary people set in contemporary (i.e., early 20th century Edwardian) England.

With its clear moral orientation, Benson’s fiction enjoyed astonishing popularity among the general public, both Catholic and Protestant. “Hugh,” as his friends and family called him, was a son of the Archbishop of Canterbury. His conversion as a priest from the Anglican Communion to Catholicism created a sensation that almost rivaled that of Blessed John Henry Newman nearly sixty years before. In great demand as a speaker in both England and the United States, Father Benson wrote from a Catholic perspective but with real understanding of and sympathy for the Protestant position.

In 1910 Benson’s writing took a different and, possibly, unexpected direction. Having established a reputation for solidly researched historical novels and gained popular acclaim as an author of “sensational” fiction (admittedly exciting, but not precisely sensational by modern standards), he suddenly turned his attention to writing “mainstream” contemporary novels, turning out half-a-dozen in rapid succession.

Overshadowed by such deservedly renowned works as By What Authority? (1904), an early entry in the “historical saga” genre, and Lord of the World (1907), a satirical “future war” science fiction epic of the type so popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Benson’s mainstream efforts exhibit an insightful understanding of human nature and of society that places these works solidly among the minor classics of English literature. Remarkably free of the saccharine often associated with religious-themed novels, Benson’s contemporary fiction combines a deceptively light style with pointed, yet oddly gentle barbs. Father Benson’s mainstream novels reflect a mature approach and a finely honed satiric sense that delighted Evelyn Waugh, the “Catholic voice” of the “Lost Generation.” Father Benson’s six mainstream novels — A Winnowing (1910), None Other Gods (1911), The Coward (1912), An Average Man (1913), Initiation (1914) and Loneliness? (1915) — show Benson at the height of his powers.

A Winnowing (ISBN 978-1-60210-005-3) examines our cultural attitudes toward death and its rituals, contrasting the belief that death has meaning, with the secular attitude that only the material world is of value. None Other Gods (ISBN 978-1-60210-006-0) takes a look at our tendency to absolve ourselves of responsibility and expectation that some higher authority, be it God or the State, will take over and run our lives for us. The Coward (ISBN 978-1-60210-007-7) takes on the soul-destroying propensity to adhere unthinkingly to social conventions. An Average Man (ISBN 978-1-60210-008-4) — possibly Father Benson’s most subtle and yet most mature work — dissects the idea that full participation in the common good is only for an elite, promoting the revolutionary concept that life is for everyone.

Initiation (ISBN 978-1-60210-009-1), a complex work, is a study of redemption through pain, especially pain inflicted on the innocent. Finally, Loneliness? (ISBN 978-1-60210-010-7), published posthumously, highlights the tendency to judge people for what they can do for us, rather than their value as human beings.

As part of an ongoing effort to present morally oriented fiction of past generations to a new audience, Once • and • Future Books, an imprint of Universal Values Media, Inc., has republished the full collection of Father Benson’s contemporary novels in newly edited and formatted unabridged editions. This is the first time that some of the novels have been widely available in nearly a century. Each volume features footnotes and a foreword specially written for the collection by Benson scholar Michael D. Greaney.

In light of the rapid spread of moral relativism noted by many civil and religious leaders, the world needs novels such as those of Robert Hugh Benson now more than ever.