Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Maurice Baring, RIP

As Joseph Pearce comments, it's not fair that Maurice Baring is ignored when Chesterton and Belloc are lionized. He references the portrait of Baring, Belloc and Chesterton which is among the illustrations in Supremacy and Survival: How Catholics Endured the English Reformation, and G.B. Shaw's nickname "ChesterBelloc" (which should have been ChesterBarBelloc!):

His fame and reputation have been largely eclipsed by the enduring popularity of his two brothers-in-arms. This is both unfortunate and unjust because Baring deserves recognition as a distinguished poet and novelist in his own right.

Like Chesterton, Baring converted to Catholicism partly under Belloc's influence, and it is possible, perhaps probable, that he would never have emerged as one of the foremost Catholic novelists of the century if he had never met his mercurial mentor. Writing of his first encounter with Belloc in Oxford in 1897, Baring remarked that he was "a brilliant orator and conversationalist . . . who lives by his wits." The men soon became good friends, but Baring remained unconvinced of Belloc's vociferous and vehement championing of the Catholic Church. When his friend Reggie Balfour informed him in the autumn of 1899 that he "felt a strong desire to become a Catholic," Baring was "extremely surprised and disconcerted" and sought to discourage him from taking such a drastic step.

In spite of his unbelief, Baring accompanied Balfour to a low Mass and found himself pleasantly surprised. "It impressed me greatly . . . One felt one was looking on at something extremely ancient. The behavior of the congregation, and the expression on their faces impressed me greatly too. To them it was evidently real."

There was a potent postscript to this episode, which perhaps had a great influence on Baring's eventual conversion. Soon after their attendance at Mass, Reggie Balfour sent Baring an epitaph, copied from a tombstone in Rome and translated from the Latin: "Here lies Robert Peckham, Englishman and Catholic, who, after England's break with the Church, left England not being able to live without the faith and who, coming to Rome, died not being able to live without his country."

The epitaph is to be found in the Church of San Gregorio in Rome, and its underlying tragedy produced a marked and lasting effect on Baring's whole view of the Reformation. He always possessed a melancholy nature, and such imagery provided the inspiration for many of his novels. More specifically, the epitaph itself provided the starting point for his writing of the historical novel, Robert Peckham, 30 years later.

I read Robert Peckham and enjoyed how Baring depicted the obedience of the monarch's subjects accepting the religious changes during the Tudor dynasty. I thought the psychology was about right--the divided loyalty, the desire to remain Catholic and English, faithful to their Church and their country, the hope that things would change and they would be able to go on living their faith . . . until Peckham finds that he just can't, and goes into exile.

Maurice Baring died on December 14, 1945; he suffered from Parkinson's disease the last 15 years of his life. More about his life and career here.


  1. Thanks for posting this; I love it! I took the liberty of scouring Google Books for the Latin original:


    Roberto Pechamo Anglo Equiti aurato Philippo Et Mariae Angliae et Hispan. Regibus, olim a consilijs, genere, religione, virtute, praeclaro, qui, cum patriam suam a fide catholica deficientem adspicere sine summo dolore non posset, relictis omnibus quae in hac vita carissima esse solent, in voluntarium profectus exilium post sex annos, pauperibus Christi heredibus testamento institutis, sanctissime e vita migravit Idib. Sept. ann. MDLXIX. aetatis suae LIV. Thomas Goldouellus, Episcopus Asaphensis, et Thomas Kirtonus, Angli, Testamenti procuratores pos.