I grew up with Benson's books on my parents' bookshelves, as my paternal grandfather was an Anglophile, and we had Benson, Evelyn Waugh, P.G. Wodehouse, and many other great authors virtually staring down on me from those shelves when I was toddling around with a sippy cup.
I remember my grandfather's old legal bookcases, the ones with the glass doors and wooden knobs. He died when I was very young, but his heritage of reading, as well as that gift of culture from the real intellectuals on my mother's side, inculcated in me a love of good literature as well as the treasuring of religious books.
Benson's books in early days were all in hardbound, but when I was an adolescent, these began to appear in paperback, with gaudy, Hollywood-esque covers. How could a young person not be captivated by Come Rack! Come Rope!, The Queen's Tragedy, The King's Achievement or Oddsfish with technicolor drawings on the front, like those horrible Barbara Cartland love stories?
I was a Mary, not a Martha in those days, and my mother had to take books away from me in the long summer holidays and put them on top of the fridge, which I could not reach, in order to get me to do my chores first.
Benson's world was England, which became my world, as I sat on the white and purple pansied, cotton, ruffled coverlet draped over my bed in my girly room, (after I had finished daily chores), devouring tales which included Edmund Campion making a début, courageous women in flowing gowns hiding priests in secret, small spaces behind wainscoting, and courtly scenes of intrigue surrounding a romantic, dying king.
At that time, in the hot summer days of steamy Iowa, the windows in my room were bombarded by the stupid, giant June bugs hitting against the screens of those windows which overlooked the front garden, a view complete with tall red and silver maple trees, so still in the heat; red spiky flowers which attracted the hummingbirds; and sprinklers emitting a soft chug-chug sound, while spraying arcs of water over the lawn. But, my imagination reached far away to dark grey, treacherous, 16th century London; the Tudor-manicured green, rural English landscapes in which nestled the great Catholic recusant houses; and terrifying Tyburn.
Two books seem to me, however, to be written more for adults than for dewy-eyed twelve-year-old girls. These are Lord of the World and None Other Gods. I want to recommend these now.
Lord of the World, a science fiction novel, is simply, prophetic. The fact that it was written in 1907 astounds one, as the milieu created is absolutely contemporary to us now. I shall not drop spoilers for those who have not read it, but I read it three times in 30 months a few years ago. I may read it again soon. And, Benson's writing remains a standard for us all.
Of course, I am known for re-reading great books, having read Little Dorrit, Middlemarch, Daniel Deronda, Great Expectations, Barchester Towers, Till We Have Faces, etc. too many times to remember the exact count, and this does not include all the Austen books I have read umpteen times, or others on my favourite list. I have book binges on Benson, Austen, Eliot, Thackeray, Trollope, and Dickens regularly. The longer the books, the better, but Benson wrote comparatively short novels, so one can read these quickly.
|Mgr Robert Hugh Benson|
The tale, which does not appeal to some, as it seems too improbable, reveals a journey towards holiness which I found stunning. Again, I read it awhile ago, twice, in a twelve month period, and I am reading it again.
Benson understood men and women as flesh, blood, and spirit. His people are not anaemic. Through his characters, his stories reveal the Incarnation of Christ affecting the decisions of various men and women, and the role of the Church Militant, tales all composed in accessible sentences. He understood the hard road to holiness, to spiritual perfection, be it for Charles II or Mary Tudor, or Frank, the main character in the second book highlighted.
This summer is almost over, but if some of you still have a holiday, think of taking Benson's books to the beach or mountains or your reading corner. Search for them on Google and you'll find these two are even online.