Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Son of the Archbishop of Canterbury "Popes"

Robert Hugh Benson, son of the late Archbishop of Canterbury, joined the Catholic Church on September 11, 1903. He had been ordained a minister of the Church of England by his father Edmund White Benson in 1895 and after his father's death in 1896 he began to doubt the truth of the Church of England and to consider the Catholic Church. He told the story of his conversion in Confessions of a Convert. After becoming a Catholic, he was ordained a priest in 1904 and served in Cambridge.

He wrote many novels, some children's books, devotion and apologetic works and even plays. Benson wrote novels in three different genres: science fiction, historical fiction, and general, contemporary fiction. One of his older brothers, E.F. Benson, wrote the Mapp and Lucia series of novels and the other, A. C. Benson is best known for writing the lyrics to the patriotic anthem, "Land of Hope and Glory" always performed on the last nights of the Proms at Prince Albert Hall, so his writing career is part of the pattern in his family.

It's his historical novels that I'm most interested in, although The Lord of the World is greatly acclaimed as an apocalyptic story. In The King's Achievement, By What Authority? and Come Rack! Come Rope! Benson demonstrates the impact of historical fiction on our understanding of the past. His historical novels tell a revisionist version of the English Reformation, based on the work accomplished by Gasquet and Camm. By telling domestic stories--for all three books focus on a family or two families--he dramatizes the impact of the English Reformation on their daily lives.

In The King's Achievement, for example, he recounts the conflict within the Torridon family when one brother Ralph becomes an agent for Thomas Cromwell in the suppression of the monasteries, including the convent where his sister Margaret and the house where his brother Christopher are pursuing their religious vocations. These fictional characters interact with Thomas More, Cromwell, and even Henry VIII.

My personal favorite is By What Authority? in which Benson arranges a kind of "Gift of the Magi" exchange (referring to O. Henry's story about the couple who buy each other gifts by sacrificing the treasures the gifts complement). He tells the story of two families, one Catholic (the Maxwell's) and one Puritan (the Norris's). Isabel Norris and Hubert Maxwell fall in love and intend to marry but while they are separated she, the former Puritan, becomes Catholic, while he becomes Protestant--and the marriage plans are soon off. Her brother Anthony also converts and becomes a Catholic priest! Queen Elizabeth I interrogates Father Anthony Norris. The former nun Margaret from The King's Achievement lives with her sister and brother-in-law and teaches Isabel about Catholic devotional practices but the great delight of the novel is the character of Mary Corbet, a Catholic lady-in-waiting to the queen. She is vibrant, devout, courageous, and loyal, even though she at first seems overly dramatic and even flippant.
All of Benson's books are in the public domain, so there are many on-line sources for them, and my husband has found free downloads of a few of them for his Kindle!

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