Luca Fumagalli

Troubled by the complaints of some readers who did not like the gloomy atmosphere of The Lord of the World, Mgr. Robert Hugh Benson wanted to please them and in 1911 published The Dawn of All, a sort of utopian novel.

The novel takes the reader into a hypothetical future, when Mgr. Masterman, chaplain of Cardinal Bellairs, wakes up after a long coma and discovers a profoundly changed world in which the Church has become the undisputed guide of humanity. Divorce has been declared illegal, Catholicism is the state religion in many countries, and there is no longer any conflict between science and faith. Disoriented at first, Masterman, through significant encounters and experiences, gradually discovers the profound justice that animates the new reality, no longer built on selfishness and sin but on Christian faith. In the end, after a trip to Europe in the company of Father Jarvis in search of answers to his past, the protagonist – an apt representation of modern man – returns to England, happy that the social kingdom of Christ has become a reality.

The real strength of The Dawn of All is the author’s prophetic intuition which is captured both in the description of socialism and its inevitable failure, and in the hypothesis of a future large-scale war and yet another ecumenical council.

On the other hand, the overtly apologetic intent of the text undermines the coherence of the plot which in several places gives the annoying impression of disappearing, of sinking under the weight of often exorbitant theological dissertations. In an attempt to give a systematic exposition of his critical judgement on modernity, Benson fails to capture the reader’s attention and the book appears more like an essay in disguise than a work of fiction. Even the unsettling denouement, which concludes the whole story too hastily, is a further indication of a never entirely convincing story.

Conceived as a provocative representation of all that Edwardian society professed to hate, The Dawn of All nevertheless offers an interesting socio-political analysis, especially regarding the role of monasteries in the economy or the debate on the legitimacy of the Pope’s temporal power (in the future described by Benson, a hierarchy has been created between Church and State that overcomes and goes beyond any possible conflict). The novel, like The Lord of the World, is the brilliant testimony of a passionate Catholic of the early twentieth century, certainly far removed from contemporary sensibility, but none the less fascinating.