Come Rack! Come Rope! is one of Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson's historical novels, set in the Elizabethan era, telling the story of recusant families and priests in Derbyshire. I've read it at least a couple of times, but must admit that I've read his other historical novel set in the Elizabethan period, By What Authority? more often. Even The King's Achievement, which is almost a prequel to By What Authority?, has been more favored. After re-reading Come Rack! Come Rope! I agree with Joseph Pearce that this novel deserves more attention:
In Come Rack! Come Rope!, first published in 1912, the whole period of the English Reformation is brought to blood-curdling life, the terror and tension gripping the reader as tightly as it grips the leading characters, who witness courageously to their faith in a hostile and deadly environment. According to the Jesuit, Philip Caraman, it “quickly became established as a Catholic classic” and remains “perhaps the best known” of Benson’s novels, although his futuristic tour de force Lord of the World is surely its literary equal and the lesser known Richard Reynal, Solitary remains sadly and undeservedly neglected.
The inspiration for the novel came from the account of the Fitzherbert family in Dom Bede Camm’s Forgotten Shrines, published in 1911, and from Benson’s own visit, in the same year, to the Fitzherbert house in Derbyshire, where he preached at the annual pilgrimage in honour of the Catholic priest-martyrs, Blessed Nicholas Garlick and Blessed Robert Ludlam [the Padley Martyrs], who were executed in 1588. From the blood of these martyrs came the seed of Benson’s story. The novel’s title is taken from the famous promise of St Edmund Campion that he would remain steadfast, “come rack, come rope.” Campion was executed in 1581.
St. Edmund Campion, St. Nicholas Owen, Richard Topcliffe, Elizabeth I (at a distance), Anthony Babington (of the Babington Plot), and Mary, Queen of Scots are among the historical personages who appear in the novel. It is a more compact story than the epic of By What Authority?, and as Pearce notes, Benson tells a love story in the midst of this historical novel:
It is a great romance, a great love story. It is a story that shows the romance of Rome and the true greatness of a noble and self-sacrificial love between a man and a woman. The love between Robin and Marjorie, the two principal protagonists, is a love far greater than that between Romeo and Juliet. Their love for each other has none of the possessiveness of Shakespeare’s “star-cross’d lovers” and everything of the purity and passion of Lear’s Cordelia. As a love story alone, Come Rack! Come Rope! deserves its place in the canon.
As for the novel’s climax, one must agree with Hugh Ross Williamson that “it is impossible not to be moved by the last chapter which, as far as I know, has never been bettered as an account of an Elizabethan martyr’s execution”. For potency and poignancy, the novel’s climactic moment compares in literary stature with the final, fateful moments of Lord Marchmain in Waugh’s masterpiece, Brideshead Revisited. And if Benson’s finale lacks the subtlety of Waugh’s denouement it matches it for dramatic tension.
Benson uses some excellent techniques in telling the story without changing the scene or location of the narration, which centers on the houses of recusant Catholics in Derbyshire (although there is a trip to London): Letters, reports of executions, descriptions of events by witnesses. When Robin travels to the Continent to study for the priesthood, Marjorie remains at home, waiting for news from him as he waits for news from her--and the letters take a long time, carried secretly from Douai to Derbyshire. Marjorie's home becomes the center of recusant activity in her area as she assists the missonary priests serving the Catholics of Derbyshire. By focusing on that area, and a few Catholic families, Benson is well able to depict the stresses and strains of recusancy, as it divides family and friends. The Fitzherbert family, for instance, endures fines, imprisonment, threats, and even the danger of betrayal from within.
As Benson includes Anthony Babington and his plot to assassinate Elizabeth I, free Mary of Scotland from captivity and place her on the throne of England, he is able to depict the frustration and impatience of some Catholic laity -- and the counsel of priests against such treasonous plotting.