Those who have heard Hugh Benson preach will not easily forget the impression. The boyish face with the shock of untidy-looking hair, the slight figure, and the somewhat awkward poise, did not augur well; but when he had warmed to his work, he held his hearers almost spellbound, and this too in spite of defects of speech and manner; for he had not a good speaking voice, and it sounded strained at times almost to breaking point. He made use of scarcely any gestures, and such as he employed might well have been dispensed with; but as one listened to the flood of eloquence, and saw the slight form swaying hither and thither in its impassioned energy, one forgot all defects of utterance and delivery, and felt carried away by the intensity of the preacher’s conviction. This, I take it, was the secret of his success as a preacher — his overwhelming earnestness. Here was a man who, in spite of certain obvious oratorical defects, said what he had to say with such a fire of passionate conviction, and with such concentrated energy of purpose, that one could not help listening to his burning worlds. Hence it was that wherever he went his success as a preacher was remarkable, and it is said that sometimes he was engaged for as much as two years in advance. Of his powers as a spiritual guide I cannot speak, from want of matter. One book has appeared since his death on this subject, but it is not comprehensive enough to enable one to form an estimate. However, it conveys the impression that he himself was partly right when he said to his brother, “I am not the man to prop; I can kindle sometimes, but not support.” His gifts lay rather in other directions, and although no doubt he was capable as a spiritual guide, at all events to those whose natures he understood, yet his very impulsiveness, curbed as it was by grace, must have been somewhat opposed to the calmness and maturity of judgement and ripeness of experience demanded of one who is to be conspicuous as a guide to souls.
– Allan Ross, Monsignor Hugh Benson (essay)
The Reverend Bobugo Bonsen was a stuttering little Chrysostom of a priest, with the Cambridge manners of a Vaughan’s Dove, the face of the Mad Hatter out of Alice in Wonderland, and the figure of an Etonian who insanely neglects to take any pains at all with his temple of the Holy Ghost, but wears paper collars and a black straw alpine hat. As for his mind, it was vastly occupied with efforts to evade what theologians call ‘admiratio’. By sensational novel-writing (his formula was to begin so that you must go on till there is nothing left for you to do but to end with a Bang [for choice of the slammed door of a Carthusian convent] behind the hero) and by perfervid preaching, he made enough money to buy a country-place, where he had the ambition to found a private establishment (not a religious order) for the smashing of individualities, the pieces of which he intended to put together again as per his own pattern. He did not exactly aspire to actual creation, but he certainly nourished the notion that several serious mistakes had resulted from his absence during the events described in the first chapter of Genesis. […] The truth (according to Bonsen) was that, God in His Infinite Wisdom having endowed you with five admirable senses, your business was to neglect to use the same till they atrophied or ossified or dropped off you (so to speak), while you permitted yourself to see and hear and feel and taste and smell nothing at all but the psychotherapeutic whimseys of the Reverend Bobugo Bonsen. […] If you hesitated for a moment in performing acceptable kow-tows – if, gasping at his audacity, you shewed the slightest unwillingness to shame and insult and reneye your real Creator, this priest started in to coerce you with a savage cruelty only conceivable by atheistic romances of the Father Chiniquy and Alexandre Dumas and ultra-anti-Roman order. […] If, o most affable reader, you doubt this mild presentment of his view-point, kindly run away and study his novel called The Sensiblist, and form an opinion of your own – if you dare.
– Frederick Rolfe, The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole
Recently contemplating R. H. Benson‘s The Sentimentalists and its particularly churlish portrait of Frederick Rolfe, a.k.a. Baron Corvo, I opined that it made the reader briefly sympathise with a subject better known for inducing fascination (at best), or more likely exasperation.
But Rolfe – never more alive than when he had a grievance to work through – shot back with his own spirited defence, the literary equivalent of an ’80s answer record. Benson and Rolfe were, if you will, the Gwen Guthrie and Wally Jump Jr. of Edwardian letters. Rolfe’s novel The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole, written in 1909 during the Venetian exile which formed the last phase of his life, offered the perfect opportunity for satisfaction. The novel’s main character Nicholas Crabbe is manifestly Rolfe himself; among other hints, Rolfe has “Crabbe” penning a book titled Peter of England, which is clearly an echo of Rolfe’s own Hadrian the Seventh.
Let us briefly retire to a hall of mirrors, put on some Philip Glass and contemplate the looping, self-generating Moebius strip of truth and fiction represented in that one fact: Frederick Rolfe casts himself in his own roman à clef (The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole), casts another such book (The Sentimentalists) in which he himself is fictionally presented inside this book (as The Sensiblist) and has his avatar write his own work (Peter of England) which is itself a fictional stand-in for another roman à clef (Hadrian the Seventh) in which Rolfe, then in the semi-fictional persona of Baron Corvo, casts himself as George Arthur Rose, who through a vividly improbable set of circumstances becomes Pope under the name Hadrian VII.
Anyone else have a touch of the dizzies?
Benson’s stand-in is as lightly occluded as Rolfe’s. In his introduction to the posthumously published novel, Rolfe biographer A.J.A. Symons states “The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole is Rolfe’s own account of his last years, and his revenge against the friends who, in his view, should have done more to help him. The most notable, the Rev. Bobugo Bonsen, and C. H. C. Peary-Buthlaw, are obviously taken from Mgr. Benson and Mr Pirie-Gordon.”
Benson, born on this day in 1871, was – as we saw – the son of an Archbishop of Canterbury, but switched teams to become a Catholic priest and achieved considerable success as a writer. All of this could have made him an important ally of Rolfe’s, but Rolfe’s impossible temperament ensured that, after a brief yet promising period of collaboration, they fell out. For Rolfe it was never enough that his enemies merely inhabit his books in unflattering caricature; they must also offer Maoist-style self-denunciation. “Your literary reputation,” Rolfe has Bonsen say to Crabbe, “is among the exquisite elect: mine is among the profane vulgar. I know. I make pots of money with my froth: you don’t make anything like the value of your delicately carven crystals.”
And it must be added in Rolfe’s defence that there is a more robust engagement with satire in this novel, a garrulous humour missing in his other books. He has “Bonsen” writing a letter explaining why he wants to collaborate with “Crabbe” – it comes down to Bonsen needing money to decorate his house, and his plans for said project offer moments of high comedy. The faux-modest, self-satisfied prig glimpsed between the lines of Allan Ross’s encomium is magnificently inflated in The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole. “And as for the Egg of Wisdom,” Bonsen advises Crabbe at one point, “I pray you to suck it assiduously.”
Rolfe’s portrayal is one gigantic, zesty, occasionally hilarious “suck this“.