I have just received an e-mail from an Argentinian journalist writing an article to commemorate the centenary of the death of the great literary convert, R. H. Benson. He sent me some questions, the answers to which I thought would serve as a suitable tribute to Benson on the Ink Desk:
1. I have read an article written by you where you describe Benson as an unsung genius. Can you explain why do you see him like that?
I used this phrase in the light of the way that Benson has been largely neglected in the century since his death. During his own lifetime he was a hugely popular novelist, as well as being an excellent poet and a highly gifted preacher and spiritual mentor. The neglect of his legacy is unjust and has deprived posterity of his powerful and significant voice.
2. He was one of several literary converts of the beginning of the last century. How can you explain such phenomenom between those writers and specifically in Benson?
In my book Literary Converts I provide a history of the Catholic Literary Revival in England, which can be said to have had its roots in the Romanticism of Coleridge and Wordsworth and to have had its definitive birth, so to speak, with Newman’s conversion in 1845. By the time of Benson’s conversion sixty years later the Revival was in full swing. Benson’s conversion was probably the most controversial in the whole history of the Revival, except for that of Newman himself, because he was the son of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who is the leader of the worldwide Anglican communion. His conversion was seen, therefore, as portentous of the rise of Catholicism and the fall of Anglicanism.
3. Why do you consider that someone must read him today?
Several of Benson’s novels have stood the test of time and deserve to be seen as classics of Christian fiction, especially his historical novels, Come Rack! Come Rope! and Richard Reynal, Solitary, and his futuristic dystopian thriller, Lord of the World, the last of which has been proved more correct in its dark prophecy of the rise of demonic secularism than later works in a similar genre, such as Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four.
4. In which of his multiple facets -as a writer, as an apologist, as a prophet…- do you think he specially stood out?
He deserves to be remembered primarily as one of the finest novelists of the twentieth century, though his significance as an apologist, prophet and poet should not be overlooked.
5. Beside his famous novel `Lord of the World’, what other titles do you consider relevant as well?
As mentioned, his two historical novels, Come Rack! Come Rope! and Richard Reynal, Solitary, deserve a much wider readership. His own account of his conversion, Confessions of a Convert, is a powerful autobiographical account of a soul’s journey to the goodness, truth and beauty of Christ and His Church in the spirit of St. Augustine’s Confessions, which is equalled in perception and power only by Newman’s masterful Apologia. It’s a true classic of conversion literature, which will be an inspiration for anyone on the same path more than a century later.