C in a Nutshell

"C" by Maurice Baring is little known, but received the highest of praise from the French novelist André Maurois, who wrote that no book had given him such pleasure since his reading of Tolstoy, Proust, and certain novels by E.M. Forster.

C is one of the longest works featured in this series, weighing in at over 700 pages, as well as the one with the shortest title. It is also neglected and little known, as is its author, Maurice Baring. It would be well, therefore, to say a little about the author and his importance before we proceed to what is arguably his finest work.

Maurice Baring was born in 1874, the same year as his good friend G.K. Chesterton. A convert to the Faith, he was received into the Church in 1909. Although he is a very fine poet, he is better known as a novelist. Between the two World Wars, he wrote several popular and highly regarded novels. 

These include Robert Peckham, a historical novel set during the Tudor terror of the sixteenth century, and several novels set in contemporary England and Europe. Hilaire Belloc considered one of Baring’s novels, Cat’s Cradle, to be “a great masterpiece…the best story of a woman’s life that I know.” G.K. Chesterton wrote that he had been “much uplifted” by Baring’s novel The Coat Without Seam, comparing it “with much of the very good Catholic work now being done, especially in France.”

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François Mauriac, one of the finest novelists of the Catholic literary revival in France to which Chesterton was referring, was a great admirer of Baring’s novels. “What I most admire about Baring’s work,” Mauriac said, “is the sense he gives you of the penetration of grace.” Baring was “too moved to speak” when he learned of Mauriac’s praise. 

Baring was inadvertently describing himself in the description of a character in The Coat Without Seam: “Everything about him…gave one the impression of centuries and hidden stores of pent-up civilization.” He knew Latin, Greek, French, German, Italian, Russian, and Danish, and he was widely read in the literature of all these languages. Reading his work is like stepping into the presence of someone who walks on a crystal floor of culture above our heads.

As the aforementioned quote by Mauriac might suggest, Baring enjoyed great success in France. Ten of his books were translated into French, with one—Daphne Adeana—going through twenty-three reprintings. His novels were also translated into Czech, Dutch, German, Hungarian, Italian, Spanish, and Swedish. 

C, published in 1924, received the highest of praise from the French novelist André Maurois, who wrote that no book had given him such pleasure since his reading of Tolstoy, Proust, and certain novels by E.M. Forster.

As we begin to discuss the novel, it might be good to start with an explanation of its title. “C” is the nickname given to the novel’s protagonist, the Honorable Caryl Bramsley, by his family and friends. The second son and fourth child of Lord and Lady Hengrave, C moves in an aristocratic world of opulence, high culture, and low morals. 

A precocious child who struggles to adapt to adulthood, he is torn between the two types of “love” which are ever at war in the human heart. The first is the call to caritas, the sacrificing of the self for the beloved; the other is the pursuit of eros, the sacrificing of the beloved on the altar erected to the self. It is this war which wages itself relentlessly in C’s own selfish heart.

The higher calling of caritas is epitomized by C’s thwarted relationship with the aptly and symbolically named Beatrice. Meanwhile, his lower appetites hunger after the seductive and flirtatious Leila, the beautiful wife of a successful diplomat. 

On the surface, the religious element is present in the presence of Beatrice, a devout and virtuous Catholic. But the deepest spiritual dimension is subsumed within the very depths of cultural sensibility and the breathtaking breadth of intertextual interplay with which Baring breathes ethical and aesthetic life into the weavings and wanderings of the plot. 

We see how C’s early infatuation with Romantic poetry in general, and the poetry of Shelley in particular, impacts his philosophy of life and love. We see how his dabbling with the diabolism of the French Decadents intoxicates his aesthetic sensibility, poisoning his innocence with the suggestive promises of pride. We see how his reading weakens and finally destroys his already weak and faltering Christian faith. We see how his descent into atheism is seen as a liberation of the spirit from the constraints of Christian morality. 

Throughout the novel, the music of Wagner provides a hauntingly recurring soundtrack, a leitmotif of doom-laden desire and gloom-laden desolation. The Wagnerian influence on C’s character is reflected in a sonnet that Baring wrote, entitled “Wagner”: 

O strange awakening to a world of gloom,
And baffled moonbeams and delirious stars,
Of souls that moan behind forbidden bars,
And waving forests swept by wings of doom….

This evokes the “strange awakening to a world of gloom” that the discovery of Wagner has on C, a discovery that dooms him to the pursuit of dark and delirious delights, the fruit of which is frustration. Again, Baring’s sonnet speaks for the novel’s protagonist:

O restless soul, for ever seeking bliss,
Athirst for ever and unsatisfied….

There is, however, a powerful antidote to this recurring Wagnerian siren-call in the perennial metaphorical presence of Dante throughout the novel. Seeing this sublime and subliminal presence enables us to perceive the intertextual counterpoint that Dante’s presence represents. With the beatific Beatrice providing the clue, we can see how C is a Dante figure who has allowed himself to wander into the dark wood of sin, a slave to his sinful appetites. 

And of course, insofar as C is a Dante figure, in the context of Dante’s character in The Divine Comedy, he is also an everyman figure and therefore a cautionary figure. C shows us ourselves or the selves we might become if we choose to pursue certain “loves” at the expense of others. The question that the novel asks and finally answers is whether C will respond to the higher call to which Beatrice beckons him or whether he will remain, like Paolo in the Inferno, a restless soul, forever seeking bliss, athirst forever and forever unsatisfied.          

In our uncivilized age, it is perhaps inevitable that the civilized brilliance of Maurice Baring should have been eclipsed by the polluting smog of uncultured mediocrity. For as long as the light of civilization dwindles, so will the reputation of this most civilized of writers. One might hope that the inevitable demise of burned-out nihilism will lead to a resurrection of all that is good, true, and beautiful in literature. If such a resurrection happens, Maurice Baring’s work will once again be as widely read and enjoyed as it once was.  

Editor’s Note: This is the forty-second in an ongoing series of articles explaining the great works of literature “in a nutshell.”

[Image: Conversation piece (G.K. Chesterton; Maurice Baring; Hilaire Belloc) by Sir James Gunn]

  • Joseph Pearce

    Joseph Pearce a senior contributor to Crisis. He is director of book publishing at the Augustine Institute, editor of the St. Austin Review, and series editor of the Ignatius Critical Editions. An acclaimed biographer and literary scholar, his latest book, Benedict XVI: Defender of the Faith, is newly published by TAN Books. His website is jpearce.co.

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