Monday, August 31, 2015
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
“THE HOUSE OF QUIET” by A. C. Benson (first published in 1904)
Once upon a time there was an Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, Edward White Benson, who had six children. None of his children ever married or had children of their own, which may have been just as well. A strain of melancholy-madness, or what might now be called severe bipolar disorder, ran through the family.
On the other hand, as Kay Redfield Jamison has argued in Touched With Fire, manic-depression is often related to enhanced creativity, and four of the archbishop’s children were very creative.
Two of the children died young. A daughter, Margaret Benson, became an Egyptologist. The fifth child was E.F. (Edward Frederic) Benson, best known now for his farcical Mapp and Lucia novels, written in the 1920s and 1930s and inhabiting the cheerful territory somewhere between P.G. Wodehouse and high camp. The sixth child, widely regarded as the most brilliant of the bunch, was Robert Hugh Benson, who converted to Catholicism, became a priest and wrote a series of historical novels, as well as the admired dystopian novel Lord of the World.
Older than them, however, was A.C. (Arthur Christopher) Benson (1862-1925), a rather more dour and plodding chap than his younger brothers, but just as prolific in the production of books. His career was first as a schoolmaster at Eton and later as master of Magdalene College at Cambridge. Anglican and patriotic, he wrote the words to Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance march Land of Hope and Glory.
A.C. Benson’s bibliography runs to over 50 books – novels, poetry, belles-lettres and collections of essays. Because he was a single, celibate male, there has in recent decades been the predictable suggestion that he, like his single, celibate brothers, was homosexual by inclination. While this may be true, nobody has ever shown that the Benson brothers did anything other than live and die virgins – not even E.F. Benson, the most overtly camp of the siblings. (In my notice on A.J.A. Symons’ The Quest for Corvo, you will find comment on the possible, but unconsummated, relationship between Robert Hugh Benson and Frederick William Rolfe).
Now why, you ask with mounting impatience, am I giving you all this biographical detail? Because I am once again about to follow my maddening habit of delivering you, in this “Something Old” section, comments on a book you have probably never heard of and will probably never read.
Two of A.C. Benson’s books sit on my shelves. One is The Silent Isle, a large and rambling collection of observations, editorials and literary reviews. The other is The House of Quiet, first published in 1904 (not 1907, as Wikipedia erroneously claims, perhaps because Benson added a Preface in 1907 replying to critics). Immensely popular in its day, The House of Quiet went through seventeen printings between 1904 and the very battered 1912 copy I own. It kept selling well into the 1930s. Thereafter it fell out of favour and, like so many bestsellers, is now virtually forgotten. So for me, it is yet another excuse to comment on the ideas it had, which once appealed to a mass audience.
Subtitled “An Autobiography”, The House of Quiet purports to be a diary, written in the 1890s by somebody who died in 1900.
The question it claims to pose is whether somebody of no great public note, who makes no particular mark on the world, nevertheless contributes to life. The narrator (diarist) had a private tutor, then went to a public school, and was studying at Cambridge when he was told that he had a debilitating disease for which there was no cure.
So he retires to the country to ponder on Life’s Great Mysteries.
This, somewhat inevitably, is all premise, for Benson’s real purpose is a series of loosely-connected essays and observations. The narrator gives us tender memories of his mother’s untutored natural goodness; examples of his own “sense of beauty”; and accounts of the joy he got in childhood fishing expeditions on a millstream. He lectures on the folly of teaching schoolboys classical grammar instead of more robustly introducing them to the classics. He expresses a growing religious sense, but he has crises of what appears to be melancholia (deep depression – part of the Benson family curse).
In the country, he devotes himself to philanthropy. He gets on well with the benevolent Anglican parson, but not so well with the Anglo-Catholic parson who succeeds him, who is too concerned with ritual and who is satirised by Benson. (Obviously A.C. Benson had ecclesiastical views quite different from those of his younger brothers.)
There is much detailed description of the natural world, often charming but equally often tipping over into purple prose, with Benson showing off words like “purpureal” and “ranunculus”.
And then there is a totally unconvincing conclusion. The narrator at last finds true love (in the last ten pages!), but resigns himself to death anyway, and duly dies. This is so pat. We have a big tug at the heartstrings before the emotional finale and the book’s closing sermon. In the final words of his diary, the narrator faces his death thus:
“I lie now in my own room – it is evening; through the open window I can see the dark-stemmed trees, the pigeon-cotes, the shadowy shoulder of the barn, the soft ridges beyond, the little wood-end that I saw once in the early dawn and thought so beautiful. When I saw it before it seemed to me like the gate of the unknown country; will my hovering spirit pass that way? I have lived my little life – and my heart goes out to all of every tribe and nation under the sun who are still in the body. I would tell them with my last breath that there is comfort to the end – that there is nothing worth fretting over or being heavy-hearted about; that the Father’s arm is strong, and that His heart is very wide.”
So, appropriately on a serene evening, the Englishman passes away through English countryside and into the arms of a loving God.
Dimly I perceive a good idea here. A good life is not necessarily a life of great public achievement. It can be a quiet life of friendship, goodwill and real help to other people, simple pleasures and work. We don’t all have to win the first prize, build the great building, write the great book or score the winning try to general applause. Fair enough. Other people have expressed this philosophy convincingly.
Alas, however, over this book hang the dreadful hands of complacency and wish-fulfilment. It is really escapism. Note that the diarist’s circumstances assume a large and settled income and the easy acquisition of a nice country home. Note that love arrives comfortably and without fuss (and is dealt with so briefly that it hardly ruffles the diarist’s feathers). Note there is no real commitment to another human being, and no anguish or real grief in the approach of death. And – goodness – it is all so English – not that there’s anything wrong with being English, except that in this context it takes for granted a huge cultural superiority.
I give credit to A.C. Benson for a couple of sallies of wit. I like his description of a rambling path:
“A little vague lane led to it: a lane that came from nowhere in particular and took you nowhere; rambling humbly among that pastures wherever it was convenient to them to permit it, like a faint-hearted Christian”. (Chapter 5)
Then there is the following polished truism, which occurs when the narrator is saying how difficult it is to talk about philanthropy:
“The difficulty in writing about it is to abstain from platitudes; I can only say that it has revealed to me how much more emotion and experience go to make up a platitude than I ever expected before in my ambitious days.” (Chapter 16)
But such moments are few. The House of Quiet would have comforted or tickled some generations of well-bred English readers, who took going to church as both inevitable and worthy. With its rambling sequence of thoughts in a country setting it is in some respects, then, the Anglican and churchy counterpart to the agnostic George Gissing’s The Private Papers of HenryRyecroft. But it does not have Gissing’s pungency and variety of interest, and its views are even more dated.
I cannot see it ever being “rediscovered” and regaining its bestseller status.