Friday, August 22, 2014

Baring, Over-Bearing, and Past Bearing

Frank Weathers offers some notes on Maurice Baring, friend of G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc:

What? There is a third person in the Chesterbelloc? George Bernard Shaw forgot someone? Exactly, dear reader.

See the portrait above? It’s by Sir James Gunn, and it is entitled, “The Conversation Piece.” Surely you recognize the heavyset fellow on the left, and the irascible looking fellow on the right. But who is the tall guy in the center? That would be Maurice Baring, the friend G.B. Shaw forgot.

It is said that when Chesterton saw the finished painting he quipped, “Baring, over-bearing, and past-bearing.” Joseph Pearce wrote at length about this friendship in his excellent book, Literary Converts. There is also a little article written by Pearce about him at Catholic Authors.

Baring wrote a fascinating historical novel about the English Reformation, Robert Peckham. I reviewed it for In contrast to the novels by Robert Hugh Benson, Baring daringly writes about a man who chooses neither to conform to the established church or to stand boldly against it, and suffers for his lack of action:

Baring offers a third way—also a way of trouble and suffering. Robert Peckham does not choose; as he admits at the end, he fails to speak and act when he should and as his conscience compels him: “I was most blameworthy . . . in my relations with my father. I never told him the truth; not the whole truth. . . . I never dared tell him that I saw full well that the consequence of his acts [supporting whatever changes in religious policy Henry VIII and his successors made] would be to bring about the contrary of what he desired and the ruin of all he held most dear” (p. 278). Fearing his father, who places loyalty to the monarch above family or Church, Peckham can never take the action he should to speak up, to protest, to resist.

Peckham’s father Edmund had determined that the best way to be a good Catholic was to be a good Englishman—and particularly to fulfill the oath of loyalty he made to Henry VIII to support each of his heirs without question.  Edmund Peckham thus accepts all the religious changes, including iconoclasm, suppression of the Holy Mass, heresy trials, burnings at the stake, etc.  Whatever Robert does say to his father cannot persuade him to change. Perhaps fortunately, Edmund Peckham dies at the beginning of Elizabeth I’s reign: he can still have a Catholic priest at his deathbed, but the funeral service must be according to the Book of Common Prayer.

Robert Peckham also fails in his relationships with both his wife and the woman he should have married; again because he does not speak when he should. Baring’s great achievement in this novel—which is surely aided by his choice of first person narration—is that he keeps the reader fascinated by the relationships and relative lack of action in Peckham’s life.

Robert Peckham offers us a lesson: we must choose; we must choose either life or death; either the City of God or the City of Man—and if we do not choose rightly, or if we try to avoid the choice God places before us, we will not know peace merely by avoiding conflict and confrontation. In every age, Catholic Christians have faced momentous choices. Catholics in sixteenth century England faced the great choice of loving Jesus Christ and His Church more than life itself, suffering fines, imprisonment, torture, and death. Baring structured this novel, about a fictional “Robert Peckham” who avoids that choice, around the epitaph of the real Robert Peckham in the Church of St. Gregory the Great on the Caelian Hill in Rome:

Here lies Robert Peckham, Englishman and Catholic, who after England’s break with the Church, left England because he could not live in his country without the Faith and, having come to Rome, died there because he could not live apart from his country.

As Weathers notes, Maurice Baring did choose: he became a Catholic, received into the Church at the Brompton Oratory: he said of his conversion that it was "the only action in my life which I am quite certain I have never regretted.”

Robert Peckham certainly had many regrets:

I was rash when I should have been timid, and timid when I should have been bold. . . .I should never have left England. I should have remained and resisted, or died in the attempt.

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