A Book Of Essays, by Robert Hugh Benson
Robert Hugh Benson is not a great writer. If he was a very prolific writer, his output was very uneven, and one of the unfortunate aspects of the books I have read from him so far is that the publishers of these works seem to have little idea how to separate the generally fine or at least interesting and thought-provoking works by the author from those works which demonstrate a striking narrowness of mind and a total lack of insight that are quite embarrassing for someone who made his stock and trade in writings that sought to critique society. There are at least a few things about the author that are plain from reading his writings, and one of those things is that he was a Catholic who was somewhat bigoted in defense of his own religious beliefs in a way that was not winsome to those who did not share his religious presuppositions, and that he was a bit insecure of his lack of intellectual achievements, to the point where he sought to attack reason and intellect because he did not see himself able to compete with others on that level. Admittedly, these are heavy burdens for a book to overcome, and the book just is not able to do the trick for me, unfortunately, of being all that enjoyable to read or possible to recommend.
This book is a bit more than 200 pages long and it consists of a variety of essays by the author on subjects relating to his interest in religion and history as well as current events in the world of England. The book begins with a short biographical essay of the author which seeks to present the author as an immensely productive writer who died all too soon (in his early 40’s, rip). This particular essay is designed to make the reader feel somewhat sympathetic, and this causes tonal dissonance with the rest of the essays from the author himself which do not draw sympathy. After that comes an essay that seeks to attack the ancient biblical faith while simultaneously presenting a view of papal infallibility as well as a defense of a progressive sense of tradition. This is followed by an essay that, in a very biased manner, contrasts the deaths of Queen Mary and Elizabeth, two half-sisters of very different historical reputation. After that comes an essay on Christian Science which finds it, quite properly, worthy of intense ridicule. After that comes essays on Spiritualism, which the author deals with in a rather inconsistent manner, as well as essays on Catholicism and a terrible vision of the future of Catholicism that seriously indicate the author’s lack of insight, and a closing essay that discusses the author’s thoughts of the conversion of England to Catholicism.
If this is not a book I enjoyed reading, is it still possible to recommend any of these essays for others to read? There are ways that a book like this can be enjoyed by those who have a more malicious spirit when it comes to reading than I possess. For example, one can find the book’s closing essay on the conversion of England to be laughable for its expectation that England would find Catholicism to be appealing or find the author to be an appealing voice for Catholicism. Far from being a country that is ripe for missionary work, England (like much of Europe) has taken a disastrous turn in terms of its religious beliefs over the course of the twentieth and twenty-first century, even if some figures of English Christianity have certainly been appealing and winsome examples of faith. Similarly, the author’s comparison of the death and of the mentality of Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth similarly misses the point, as the author seeks to claim that Mary’s greater certainty in her faith made her a more appealing figure than Queen Elizabeth, which is, in light of Mary’s own notable bigotry and cruelty to Protestants seems to miss the point of why it is that Mary was not viewed very well. The author’s inability to see or deal with such points marks him out as a figure of ridicule rather than one to admire, but when I’m reading books that are a couple hundred pages long, ridicule is not a mood I prefer to keep up.