Robert Hugh Benson was a holy and eccentric Englishman. The son of an Anglican bishop, he converted to Roman Catholicism early in life and became a priest. His prolific output as a Catholic novelist and homelist has earned him a place in the revival of English Catholic literature alongside figures such as Chesterton, Belloc, and Ronald Knox.
I first read Benson as a 16-year old, and found his historical fiction gripping and inspiring. Here I would like to highlight a few of his best works in the hopes that parents will consider gifting his swashbuckling adventures to their children, inspiring their imaginations with wholesome adventure, chaste romance, and heroic sanctity.
Perhaps Benson’s best known work is Lord of the World, a dystopian novel of the end times in which the Church has shrunk to very small proportions. It is a fascinating read, as Benson prophesies the ubiquity of airfare, and various other features of the world at that stage—some of which sound like our day, and some of which don’t.
Benson envisages a culminating attach on the Church, when even the most faithful are sorely tried: “Once, in the early ages, Satan’s attack had been made on the bodily side, with whips and fire and beasts; in the sixteenth century it had been on the intellectual side; in the twentieth century on the springs of moral and spiritual life. Now it seemed as if the assault was on all three planes at once.”
My favorite Benson novels, however, are The King’s Achievement and its loose sequel By What Authority, both set in reformation England. Incorporating historical characters such as King Henry VII, Edmund Campion, and Queen Elizabeth, the first novel documents the expulsion of the religious during the closure of the monasteries under King Henry. The second documents recusant life under Elisabeth’s reign, the joy and terror of the Jesuits ministering in secret, and the price some paid for holding on to their faith.
Both novels have beautiful threads regarding vocations to the religious life as well as romantic themes. Benson conjures up rich scenes, daring adventures, as well as addressing through his character’s conversations many of the theological issues current in 16th century England. No doubt a result of his own conversion process, both protestants and Catholics are presented as corrupt and holy, devout and conniving.
Here is an example Benson’s prose, describing the life of a religious sister: “She had walked in the tiny cloister with her Lover in her heart, and the glazed laurel-leaves that rattled in the garth had been musical with His voice; it was in her little white cell that she had learned to sleep in His arms and to wake to the brightness of His Face.”
Benson’s beautiful prose presents the religious life in a very positive light; if anything, an impressionable young reader might have to be reminded that the married vocation is also a great good. As Fr Armand de Malleray notes of these novels, they are enjoyable and edifying, helping “us third-millennium readers become more familiar with the heroic times of anti-Catholic persecution in England.”
The Cenacle Press at Silverstream Priory in Ireland has beautifully reprinted both volumes with excellent illustrations by a Polish artist: linked to above, they are also available on Amazon. Melinda Nielsen says that these new editions are “a must-have for every Catholic home (and home-schooling) library.”
A final volume of Benson’s that I’ll mention is The Light Invisible. The first novel he ever published—while still on his path from Anglicanism to Catholicism—it is really not so much a novel as a collection of short stories that follow the same character over the course of his last months of life. The protagonist is an elderly priest with a special gift for seeing the supernatural in ordinary (or not so ordinary) events. While that might sound trite, it is really a gripping and imaginative exploration of supernatural realities and mysteries, investigating such questions as “why does God permit death of innocent children?” or “are contemplative religious really useful to the world?” It is a beautiful and short read which ought to provoke thought in young and old alike.
These spiritual adventure stories authored by a Catholic priest are the result of deeply felt convictions about the faith and what it means to live a virtuous life. In an age of poor quality writing and renewed persecution of the faith, Benson’s books can provide both high-quality prose and inspiring stories of holiness for teenage Catholic readers.