Mgr Robert Hugh Benson

Mgr Robert Hugh Benson on ‘The Modern Novel’

From the Whitefriars Chronicle,vol. IV, no. 1, June 1913, pp. 18-19.

On April 18th, ‘The Modern Novel’ was discussed in a debate led off by the Very Rev. Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson, M.A., author of The Light Invisible, A Mirror of Shalott, The Sentimentalists, and other remarkable books, to whose imaginative genius a generous tribute was paid by the Prior of the evening, Friar Sir William Robertson Nicoll.

In a speech of sustained eloquence and marked individuality, our guest held up the works of Robert Louis Stevenson and Henry Kingsley as exemplars in fiction, and found the weakness of the modern novel in the emphasis it placed on psychology at the expense of interesting narrative. He began by eliminating from his survey the novels of other countries than our own as well as those of the early Victorian school. Whilst admitting the greatness of Dickens and Thackeray, he confessed to an inability to read Scott. He had not been taught when young to appreciate Scott. He was also unable to read Jane Austen, though he would welcome a good selection from her books, admiring as he did certain sentences and parts of them.

Henry Kingsley, the speaker continued, in his view, had not yet come to his own. He would give to him a much higher place than his better-known brother Charles. There were two great elements in human life with which the novelist had to deal: ‘the I and the Not I – oneself and what was outside oneself’; and seeing that unless psychology and philosophy worked hand in hand the result must be falsehood, it fell to the novelist to deal with both elements and with their relation to each other. In Stevenson and Henry Kingsley were to be found the power of characterisation combined with the power of telling a good story; both showed how circumstances could alter character and how character reacted upon circumstances. The novel of today was characteristically psychological.

The speaker briefly referred to the works of George Meredith, Henry James, W. B. Maxwell, Mary Cholmondeley, Arnold Bennett, John Galsworthy, Mrs. Humphry Ward, Lucas Malet, and John Oliver Hobbes, and arrived at the conclusion that our hope of the future where the novel was concerned rested in H. G. Wells. Mr. Wells, he said, made us interested in people and things in whom we thought interest was impossible. Whilst his own theory of the universe was utterly removed from the theory of H. G. Wells, he had read and re-read Kipps and Love and Mr. Lewisham, and kept these books by his bedside. There was the type of mind which was interested in Bradshaw, and the type that was interested in the engine-driver. Mr. Wells had the power to compel your interest in both. The fact was that we all specialised too much. Sanity came not with absorption in ourselves, or in the world outside ourselves, but in interest in both and in the relations between the inner and the outer world. We had to lose our life if we were truly to find it.