In spring, when the hearts of young and old turn to thoughts of collapse, disaster, and the end times, lucky are they who take up Lord of the World again, but luckier still are they who read the book for the first time.
Not many futuristic novels published in 1907 can interest readers in this last decade of the century, but Robert Hugh Benson’s fictional presentation of the Apocalypse retains its power. Unlike Wells or Verne, Benson gives us a technologically advanced society without drooling over it. Volors (i.e., airplanes) make regular flights between major cities of the world, the news is flashed up on electric placards, the telephone and telegraph make communication all but instantaneous, air- and sound-conditioning and underground dwellings—all these are there, but only lightly touched upon. For Benson, the early years of the twenty- first century are interesting because he imagines them as providing the scene for the culminating act in the drama of mankind.
Robert Hugh Benson (1871-1914) was one of three sons of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Unlike his brothers, he followed his father into the Church where, from the outset, he identified himself with the Anglo-Catholic party. In a phenomenon that since Newman seems to repeat itself generation after generation, an Anglican comes to see that his church does not share his view of it as simply the Catholic Church in England. Add, in Benson’s case, an attraction for community life at a time when whole communities of Anglican monks were going over to Rome, and the end can seem, in retrospect, inevitable. When, after less than a year of study in Rome, Robert Hugh Benson was ordained, he had scarcely more than a decade to live. His priestly life consisted of retreats, weekend work, and writing. From 1903 until his death in 1914 at age 43, he published 33 books, more than half of them fiction, of which his novels of the recusancy brightened the boyhood of many. By What Authority?, The King’s Achievement, The Queen’s Tragedy, and above all, Come Rack, Come Rope were hot items in the Nazareth Hall library when I was a student there in my early teens. But it is Lord of the World that continues to be reprinted and, one hopes, read.
In his historical novels, Benson put before his readers the events of England’s descent into Protestantism. In Lord of the World, he projected the tendencies of his own time into a future where the conflict between God and the world reaches its awful culmination. The novel opens at a time of great crisis when it seems that East and West must engage in a terrible battle. A hitherto unknown figure arises, an American named Julian Felsenburgh, who pours oil on the troubled waters, reconciles all mankind, and in the sigh of gratitude that follows is elected head of state of the major powers and soon, effectively, dictator of the world—a dictator who, needless to say, works his will through the devices of democracy.
It was Benson’s genius merely to suggest the Anti-Christ, to give Felsenburgh to us indirectly through the thoughts and reactions of others. We read of his speeches in indirect discourse—they are delivered in Esperanto—we follow his plausible divinization through admiring and apprehensive Catholic eyes. The band of Catholics has dwindled to a pathetic few, but among them is a young English priest, Percy Franklin, who writes lengthy letters to the Cardinal Protector in Rome to inform him of events. When Felsenburgh appears triumphantly in London, gliding over the silent crowds in his volor, accepting their homage, Franklin himself wavers and all but loses his faith, so over-whelmed is he by this magnificent personage.
Franklin and Felsenburgh might be twins, lean, prematurely gray; the likeness serves its purpose. Percy Franklin, after the bombing of Rome in which most remaining Catholics are wiped out, becomes Pope Sylvester HI and takes up residence in the Holy Land. The book ends with the end of the world, Armageddon, and it is a masterful scene because of its obliquity, indirection, and the humble Syrian priest through whose eyes we see it all.
The theme of Lord of the World is Augustine’s two cities. What enthralls in Benson’s novel is the attractiveness of the alternative to Catholicism. Reason, humanitarianism, peace, and brotherhood—far from seeming sinister, the slogans of the City of Man evoke an easy response. So, too, the efforts to free people from the bondage of belief are benevolent. The sense of being part of a whole, an element in some greater entity that transcends the birth and death of individual men, quite naturally gives rise to a new ritual, lovingly worked out by defected priests. We see this vision of life through the enraptured gaze of Mabel, wife of Oliver Brand, a man high in the British government. We see it too through the increasingly concerned eyes of Catholics, notably Percy Franklin. At stake is the most fundamental question of all: What is the meaning of human life? What is the destiny of each of us, taken one by one? It is Benson’s genius to have Catholicism crisply described by a former priest, speaking to Mabel when her faith in Felsenburgh falters. If Christianity is true, the new humanitarianism, which dissolves the individual into the mass and only thus provides significance beyond death, must be false.
Ever since A.J.A. Symons’ The Quest for Corvo appeared in 1934, Robert Hugh Benson has been linked with the author of Hadrian the Seventh, Frederick Rolfe, who styled himself Baron Corvo. Rolfe was a real fruitcake and books about him proliferate, tracing his descent into the decadent life of a gondolier, fascination with boys, writer of pornographic epistles to jaded British nobles, but above all stressing Rolfe’s lifelong lust to be a priest. It was Benson’s fate to befriend Rolfe, and Baron Corvo was not one to forgive a favor. He pilloried his sometime patron and put him thinly disguised into his fiction (a fate which awaited Rolfe himself, sometimes in the inspired hands of a Pamela Hansford Johnson). But the two men did know a period of friendship, begun when Benson wrote congratulating Rolfe on Hadrian the Seventh. It would be interesting to compare these two novels, each of which features an English pope. Hadrian VII fascinates the secular mind—the novel has been turned into a play—which on stage and television, to say nothing of novels, requires priests and nuns to be presented as thwarted hedonists. Rolfe’s Hadrian is himself fictive revenge on his ecclesiastical enemies, but Benson’s Sylvester III conveys with rare authority what it means to be a Christian.
The contemporary reader will be struck by Benson’s prescience—the defection of the clergy, priests, and bishops, the confusion of the faithful and their seduction by a rival that uses the language of religion. But the New Man is a bloody beast. There is persecution, Catholics torn apart by hysterical crowds, the leveling of Rome by a fleet of volors. And there is euthanasia, which functions both as the merciful snuffing of victims of accidents as well as the recourse always available for one who wearies of life. Mabel’s death by euthanasia provides a memorable scene. As a clerical novelist in the Newman and Wiseman mold, Benson does not dwell on the sexual implications of this new humanitarianism, but enough hints are there. The time of the prurient priest still lay ahead, though not as far in the future as Benson’s apocalypse.
In our time a previously respectable publisher brings out such scurrilous parodies of scholarship as Uta Ranke-Heinemann’s Eunuchs, a wholesale attack on Catholic morality. Of course the author identifies herself as a Catholic theologian. Nuns and priests feverishly embrace the new sensuality, bishops dwell on sex education, sexual perversity is seen merely as a problem of charity for those not yet sufficiently enlightened to practice it. The end times indeed. Catholic institutions rival one another in their anti-papal attitude. There are days when it is easy to feel apocalyptic. By and large, this is an unhealthy feeling, a kind of apres moi, le deluge, an unsavory eagerness for the separation of the sheep from the goats, a weakening of faith. But that this sentiment can be sublimated and put to good use in a rattling good novel that edifies unobtrusively is clear from The Lord of the World.