Robert Hugh Benson was born in 1871, the youngest son of E.W. Benson, a distinguished Anglican clergyman who counted the Prime Minister, William Ewart Gladstone, amongst his friends. In 1882, when Benson was eleven-years-old, his father became Archbishop of Canterbury. Having taken Anglican orders himself, it was Benson who read the litany at his father’s funeral in Canterbury Cathedral in 1896. The son, however, was not destined to follow in his father’s footsteps. In 1903, after a period of conscientious self-examination, the details of which were elucidated masterfully in his autobiographical apologia, Confessions of a Convert, Benson was received into the Catholic Church. Thereafter, for the next eleven years until his untimely death in 1914, he was a tireless defender of the Catholic Church and a prolific novelist and man of letters.
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, 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.
As for its historical accuracy, opinions appear to be divided. Father Caraman wrote that Benson had “remained most faithful to his sources” and Hugh Ross Williamson remarked that Benson’s “invented personages” were created “within the orbit of known truth, leaving us to feel, correctly, that they could have lived and acted as Benson makes them.” Williamson continues:
The whole epoch leaps to life and if any reader should object that this picture of Catholic England under the Elizabethan Terror savours a little of melodrama, there is the author’s own unchallengeable answer: “If the book is too sensational, it is no more sensational than life itself was to Derbyshire folk between 1579 and 1588.”
Hilaire Belloc, on the other hand, begged to differ. Although he was, for the most part, a great admirer of Benson’s work, writing on one occasion that he believed that Benson would “be the man to write some day a book to give us some sort of idea what happened in England between 1520 and 1560”, Belloc complained that the description of daily life in Come Rack! Come Rope! was inaccurate, resembling life in the eighteenth, not the sixteenth, century.
Casting these differences aside, the novel is, in any case, much more than mere historical fiction. 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.
Why, one wonders, does Benson’s mini-masterpiece, which warrants comparison with the works of Waugh, remain largely unknown? One suspects that it has a good deal to do with the sad and sorrowful, and sinful and cynical, times in which we live. In healthier times, for which we can hope and pray, it will be regarded as the minor classic that it is.
Editor’s note: This essay is from Joseph Pearce’s forthcoming book, Beauteous Truth: Faith, Reason, Literature and Culture (St. Augustine’s Press).