Universe Column for May 28th 2006
by David Alton
With Parliament devoting so much of its time to consideration of the legalising of euthanasia, it might be a good moment re-visit the writer, R. H. Benson – some of whose writings were long ago published by this newspaper.
Benson was the son of Edward White Benson, an Archbishop of Canterbury. Ordained by his father to the Anglican priesthood, in 1901 he joined the Community of the Resurrection. In 1903, troubled by questions of doctrine and authority, he became a Catholic and in 1904 was ordained to the priesthood, being named a monsignor in 1911. His novels were well read in late Victorian and Edwardian times and his death, in 1914, at the age of 43, came far too early.
Perhaps best known for his popular history of recusancy, captured brilliantly and movingly in his wonderful novel, “Come Rack! Come Rope!”, he also penned apologetics – such as “Paradoxes of Catholicism”, plays, a life of “St. Thomas of Canterbury” and a children’s book of saints.
Among more than 30 published books is “The Necromancers” – a novel which challenges spiritualism and the occult. It carries a foreword by Dennis Wheatley who asks “Can anything possibly justify a person laying themselves open to an unknown force and so imperilling their immortal soul? Father Benson’s book may well arouse such sinister thoughts, but, as a novel, it makes excellent reading with great suspense in the final chapter.”
R. H. Benson had the great gift of attacking evil in its many manifestations but without using his writing as a soap-box. He writes with subtlety, is engaging and never appears to preach. His plots and the pace of the stories are well judged. You can also see influences in his writings on C. S. Lewis – not least on Lewis’s wonderful “Cosmic Trilogy.”
Perhaps those influences can be seen at their best in his two books of prophetic science fiction, “Lord of The World” and “The Dawn of All.”
“The Lord of The World” was written in 1907 and it looks forward to how the world might be a hundred years hence. His picture of life in what is now contemporary Britain comes remarkably close to the truth. In Benson’s 1998, for instance, Parliament had just enacted a Release Act, legalising euthanasia. Not long after the book opens we meet a priest who is trying to hurriedly give the sacrament to a victim of an accident – before the team of euthanists arrive with their lethal injections.
The fate of the same priest, Father Percy, is intimately woven into the rest of the novel and it is tied up with the fate of both the Church and of humanity. Benson foresees a world dominated by a secular religion “where man becomes God” and which replaces Christianity. World institutions comes to allow the dominance of a global dictator, and it is a world where the Church is ultimately hunted down…and, well, in case you haven’t read it I won’t spoil the ending. Let’s just say it’s set in Armageddon.
The companion book, “The Dawn of All” was written four year later and looks forward sixty years (and among other things foresees the rise and extinction of German nationalism and state socialism and two world wars). Benson said he wrote it because some of his friends told him that the effect of “Lord of The World” had been “exceedingly depressing and discouraging to optimistic Christians.” Be that as it may, I fear that the outcome of the first novel may remain more plausible than the outcome of the second.
Monsignor Benson had the same ability as G. K. Chesterton, Lewis and Tolkien, to use the great gift of the pen to write movingly and challengingly.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see someone put together a first rate course on the work of Catholic writers of the twentieth century and for it to be used in our secondary schools. A new generation might be encouraged to leave us the sort of books left by Father Benson.