Robert Hugh Benson (1871-1914) was the third son of Edward Benson, archbishop of Canterbury from 1883 to 1896, to become a successful author. Arthur Christopher Benson was a popular essayist and poet, whose best-known legacy is the text of the finale of Elgar’s Coronation Ode, “Land of Hope and Glory.” Edward Frederic Benson was a prolific writer of comic novels and ghost stories; six of the former, featuring female friends Mapp and Lucia, and the bulk of the latter are frequently reprinted.
Robert Hugh’s work hasn’t fared as well. His transgressiveness, as a postmodernist might call it, lay in proceeding from the Anglican priesthood into the Catholic Church. No son of an archbishop had done that for 300 years, nor did Robert Hugh until well after the death of his father, who had ordained him. Nevertheless, it caused a sensation, duly followed by his Catholic ordination in Rome and an astonishingly prolific and popular, though short, literary career, during which he wrote the contents of 42 books, including 18 novels.
In the Preface to an earlier reprinting, reused by this one, the late Ralph McInerny calls Lord of the World (1907), one of the most famous of those novels, “futuristic fiction” rather than science fiction. While I think I first encountered the title in some science-fiction reference, McInerny was right to make the distinction. The speculative technologies characteristic of science fiction are very few in Lord of the World, consisting chiefly of what Benson calls volors, aerial-transport vehicles that seem to be dirigibles with movable wings. They cruise at an average of 800 feet of altitude and at 150 miles per hour, though they are capable of higher flights—memorably while taking some of the characters over the Alps en route to Rome—if not greater velocity. Given their name, perhaps they run on willpower.
Lord of the World is, however, hardly devoid of the social and political developments science fiction typically forecasts. Set roughly in our present (the latest year mentioned is 1989, seemingly more than a decade ago in the novel), it depicts a world divided into three parts. Europe reaches south to the Cape of Good Hope, China extends west to the Urals and south to New Zealand, and the Americas are one vast republic. (This prognostication remains plausible, I think.) Like their smaller predecessors, the three megastates always anticipate war. Humanitarianism, the religion associated with materialism and communism—adorned, by the book’s end, with rituals adapted from Freemasonry—has triumphed so completely that the Church has shrunk to only tens of millions of souls worldwide. Protestantism and nearly all the other traditional religions have collapsed, except those of the East. Of course, the Church, while under constant attack politically and, on occasion, physically, is tolerated, but not always in the public square. In this respect, the novel’s world uncomfortably prefigures our day, and it is not surprising that in it euthanasia is legal—indeed, mandatory whenever a person’s life becomes or risks becoming not worth living, according to society’s standards. Thus, when a volor crashes, emergency squads rush to the scene to speed the injured to death, not treatment. Those enduring debilitating illness or doddering age are likewise released to rejoin the world soul, as Humanitarianism preaches. It’s the humane thing to do, you see, though Benson cannot bring himself to describe the practice as bluntly or as discursively as I just have.
Another casualty of this new world order is marriage, as we learn when Benson describes the relationship of two main characters, the high-ranking politician Oliver Brand and his wife (still so-called), Mabel. They have a “terminable contract now recognized explicitly by the State” but, in their 30’s, neither children nor conjugal passion
The novel’s Prologue abstracts the 20th century and introduces Fr. Percy Franklin, the hero. The first chapter brings on the Brands and, in name and reputation, the villain, Julian Felsenburgh, who is the Antichrist. As those characterizations make clear, Lord of the World is ultimately not science fiction—not a speculative vision—at all, but an imaginative extrapolation of a spiritual certainty, the real Apocalypse. We may call it speculative nonfiction, perhaps, and class it with such works as The Pilgrim’s Progress and The Great Divorce.
Events progress from London to Rome to Jerusalem; then, after backtracking to London to resolve the Brands’ stories, to Armageddon. In the course of these, Felsenburgh pacifies the world and becomes its “president”; Father Percy is called to Rome, the red hat, and the Throne of Peter, as Pope Silvester; Mabel Brand falls away from Humanitarianism, leaves Oliver, and finally, though through mortal sin, sees and understands. Oliver, ever the liberal (“The future! It was that which engrossed him—”), misses Mabel, whose fate he never learns, but obeys the summons to Armageddon. There are several ancillary characters as interesting, but also as emblematic (as opposed to “rounded,” according to the canons of realistic fiction), as Father Percy and the Brands, and who come to as moving and consequential ends; outstanding among them is Silvester’s immediate predecessor, whom Benson uncannily names John XXIV. But except for that volor crash, there are no big bangs, except offstage, and there is no Battle of Armageddon.
Instead, there is much about the developments of the 20th century, and the characters. The former is interesting, but wildly inaccurate. Benson presumes the wildfire growth of Freemasonry at the expense of all traditional religions and, more on target, the consolidation of socialism in Europe and America. (Oddly enough, Europe makes Marxism official state doctrine in 1989.) He does not foresee the cancer of monopoly capitalism, nor any great influence of business on polity and policy, but rather the death of plutocracy in America from 1914 to 1917. In short, Benson was not much of a political prophet, but he probably didn’t mean to be one.
The exposition of the characters’ growth reflects the book’s central technical strategy, which is one of mirroring. Of the four main characters, two go forward to salvation, two to damnation. In pairs, one who will be saved and one who won’t proceed from the same point of departure, moving away from each other as if they were on opposite sides of the surface of a mirror. Percy Franklin and Julian Felsenburgh constitute one of the pairs, which Benson indicates by making them look precisely alike and extraordinary—each is a vigorous yet white-haired young man—to boot. They never meet, but if they did, would a third person be able to tell who is who? Each becomes lord of the world—one for Good, one for Evil, their linkage through the mirror finally approaching the vanishing point on either side. The other pair is the Brands, whose mirror is their marriage, from which each recedes toward the god he chooses.
Another mirroring concerns two episodes of prayer, 134 pages apart in this edition. In the first, Father Percy achieves a vision of the Body Mystical upon the cross and “the eternal patience of God.” In the other, Mabel Brand prays to Humanitarianism’s god, “that vast passionless divine being, realizing Himself up through these centuries, one yet many, Him whom men had called God, now no longer unknown, but recognized as the transcendental total of themselves,” and seeing the “Spirit of Peace.” (The New Age is perennial.) As far as it goes, Mabel’s prayer strongly resembles Father Percy’s, but she achieves no vision. The mutual reflection of the two prayers vanishes. The ultimate mirroring in the novel is, of course, that of Good and Evil, especially as contained, respectively, in the Church and the new world order under Humanitarianism and in the persons of Percy Franklin and Julian Felsenburgh. Benson’s new world order realizes world peace and universal brotherhood, which good priests in the book acknowledge to be good things (though, lacking a basis in Christian belief, as elusive perhaps as the so frequently absent Felsenburgh).
Evil looks so much like Good. But the mirror-tether ultimately breaks, not in sound and fury but in light and music as experienced by one of Benson’s happiest creations, a simple Syrian priest who attends Pope Silvester and is an exceedingly ingratiating figure when, at the end, the world “and the glory of it” pass away.
While stories of ostensible apocalypse constitute a distinctive subgenre of science fiction, I cannot think of any besides Lord of the World that carry through with the implied promise to depict the end of the world: Somebody always survives the deluge. In this respect, Benson’s literate and devout novel may be genuinely sui generis. So many of its initial readers thought it “too pessimistic,” according to Fr. C. John McCloskey’s Introduction, that Benson responded with The Dawn of All, published in 1911, in which the Church is more obviously triumphant.
[Lord of the World, by Robert Hugh Benson (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press) 312 pp., $22.00]