Luca Fumagalli

The secularization of the twentieth century led various writers, born as raised as Catholics, to move away from the Faith, while continuing to remain tied to it in a conflicting relationship of attraction and repulsion.

This was, for example, the case of Richard Rumbold (1913-1961), a novelist whose results were actually rather meagre, as regards both production and success, and who engaged in a bitter but sincere duel with the Church until the last of his days.

Scion of a British upper-class family – a condition that allowed him to lead a comfortable existence and travel extensively – Rumbold grew up in the shadow of a stern father, a self-centred and brutally-mannered former army officer. In Rumbold’s autobiography, published under the pseudonym of Richard Lumford and entitled My Father’s Son (1949), this complicated relationship is described in detail. Although not all the passages of the book are reliable, in it Captain Rumbold appears as a pressing nightmare, resolved to forge the character of his fragile son with reproaches both spoken and written. His behaviour also had a negative effect on the already precarious physical and psychological conditions of the boy, who was already undermined by tuberculosis and paranoia (as an adult Richard became an advocate of eugenics, certain that his character limitations were a family inheritance).

If until that moment the Faith had been a consolation to him, his definitive break with the Church of Rome took place during his years at Oxford University, with the publication of his first and only novel, Little Victims (1933). The highly autobiographical and dramatic book tells the story of a teenage student who discovers his homosexuality, a condition intensified by the Catholic upbringing he had received at home and the fear caused by his mother’s mental illness.

Little Victims was a small succès de scandale, but the critics proved hostile towards the impudence of the contents and for the excessive melodramatic nature of the plot, judged to be of little value (the only ones who did not join the chorus were Richard Aldington and Ada Leverson, Oscar Wilde’s “Sphinx “). The cunning editor, R.A. Caton, owner of Fortune Press, encouraged sales by suggesting that Rumbold had been excommunicated following the publication of the novel. Of course that wasn’t true. The Catholic chaplain of Oxford, the famous Msgr. Ronald Knox, under the pressure from the diocesan bishop, had simply summoned Rumbold for a private interview for clarification before being able to readmit him to communion: Richard, as expected, did not take it well and decided to break once and for all with the Church (the eccentric reverend Montague Summers, a friend of Rumbold’s, harshly criticized Knox’s recklessness).

From that moment on, his days turned into a distressing search for meaning. Without the comfort of religion and prone to depression, Richard could only count on the support of friends – Hilda Young and Harold Nicolson above all – and on the help of psychologist Denis Carroll, on whom he relied for a long time. Unfortunately, however, his problems were never completely resolved. Except for a beneficial interlude during the Second World War – when, as an RAF pilot, he discovered the intoxicating sensation of flight, capable of giving him a sense of peace and freedom – over the years, the emotional difficulties were added to a semi-permanent creative dryness. That is why, apart from Little Victims, he published no other novels, but only an autobiography, an essay on Saint-Exupéry written with Margaret Stewart, The Winged Life (1953), and his personal diary, entitled A Message in Code. The book was edited by his distant cousin, the writer William Plomer, and published in 1964, three years after Rumbold’s death. He also signed the first English translation of Flaubert’s correspondence and wrote several articles on artistic or religious themes, but any other attempt in the field of literature ended in tragic failure.

His desire for happiness led Rumbold even to Sri Lanka and Japan where he discovered a conciliatory philosophy in Zen Buddhism, although he was never quite able to supplant that angry nostalgia for Catholicism which he felt.

The Benedictine Bede Griffiths, whom Richard met in 1946 after a visit to Prinknash Abbey and with whom he remained in contact throughout his life, tried in every way to bring the lost sheep back to the fold, but it was all in vain. Himself a profound connoisseur of oriental religions, Griffiths – who dedicated his autobiography, The Golden String, to Rumbold – was always loving and patient with him, becoming almost a sort of spiritual father over time. The young skeptic, for his part, perceived how humanitarianism, both liberal and communist, was an unsatisfactory answer to the great mystery of existence, but never found any reason for retracing his steps.

Richard died suddenly in Palermo, just forty-seven, in tragic circumstances, falling from the window of the hotel room where he was staying. Some newspapers spoke of suicide, but the cause of the accident was perhaps a cocktail of alcohol and tranquillisers that caused a fit of dizziness. However, he was granted a Catholic funeral, officiated in a church in Chelsea by Father A. de Zulueta, a priest with whom Rumbold had repeatedly had confrontations on religious matters.

His spiritual odyssey, tormented and contradictory, had thus ended, and there is no doubt that among those few who had gathered to pay him a last farewell, more than one cherished in their hearts the secret hope that Richard, like the prodigal son, could finally have returned to the Father’s house.

Source: R. RUMBOLD, A Message in Code: The Diary of Richard Rumbold 1932-60, edited by W. PLOMER, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1964.