Robert Hugh Benson (1871-1914), son of the Anglican archbishop of Canterbury and one of the most illustrious converts of his time, was perhaps the most important and famous Catholic writer of the early twentieth century. His books were an inspiration for brilliant later authors such as Bruce Marshall, Hilaire Belloc, Msgr. Ronald Knox, Maurice Baring and Ronald Firbank.
If Marshall, in Father Malachy’s Miracle, places him among the most illustrious converts, Belloc especially admired the monsignor’s historical novels. Baring, whose Robert Peckham saga is clearly Bensonian, fully shared his friend’s opinion. By contrast, Benson instilled in Firbank a taste for satire and the grotesque.
Knox, for his part, considered the English priest to be the guide who had led him to the Catholic Truth. Moreover, thanks to the reading of The Light Invisible, he was able to approach for the first time the ideas of the Virgin Mary as a central figure of devotion, and of the priesthood as a unique calling, the function of which was mainly sacramental.
The monsignor played a decisive role in the spiritual and intellectual development of Maisie Ward, scion of one of the most illustrious British Catholic families and biographer of G. K. Chesterton. He also fascinated Jacques and Raissa Maritain and the theologian Teilhard de Chardin (the Jesuit wrote three stories in imitation of the style of the English priest).
Benson was also read and appreciated by historian Christopher Dawson, by actor and essayist Hugh Ross Williamson, by Scott Fitzgerald – the monsignor is one of Amory’s favorite authors in the autobiographical novel This Side of Paradise – and by Evelyn Waugh, who, for example, reread the historical novels by Benson before writing his own book on the English saint and martyr Edmund Campion.
However, over the years the works of the writer who many had considered the new rising star of English literature ultimately sank into oblivion. The reason, according to Joseph Pearce, is perhaps to be found in the militant and uncompromising defense of the Faith operated by the monsignor, an attitude that became suspicious in the era of ecumenism. Even among Catholics there are those who criticized his energetic proselytism and his extraordinary zeal.
Fortunately, the criticisms could not completely erase the memory of the exceptional monsignor. Robert Hugh Benson’s novels are just waiting to be read and loved.