Book review by Sylvia D: Maurice Baring OBE (1874-1945) was the eighth child and fifth son, of Edward Charles Baring, first Baron Revelstoke, of the Baring banking family. His published works date from 1903 and include drama, poetry, translations, essays and novels. Robert Peckham which was first published by Heinemann in 1930 is a fictional autobiography based on the epitaph of a real Robert Peckham in the Church of St Gregory the Great on the Caelian Hill in Rome:
‘Here lies Robert Peckham, Englishman and Catholic, who after England’s break with the Church, left England because he could not live in his country without the Faith and, having come to Rome, died there because he could not live apart from his country’ – (p 279).
Peckham’s life and career are succinctly summarized on one of the front pages when it is stated that the book purports to be ‘The Sad History of Robert Peckham, of Denham Place, Buckinghamshire, sometime member of Parliament, Knight and Privy Councillor of Queen Mary, as set forth by himself, together with sundry sonnets letters and papers; and an account of his death at Rome in 1564 written by his friend Monsr. Claude Mangot, Jurisconsult.
Peckham’s story begins when he is eight years old and spans the years of Henry VIII and his children, a period after Henry’s break with Rome when the people of England were confronted with issues of loyalty and conscience, some like Sir Thomas More suffering torture, execution and burnings for their faith, others quietly blowing with the wind.
Peckham’s was a Catholic family but his father, who enjoys considerable preferment under Henry VIII, chooses to remain loyal to the king and his successors. It could be that he is based on Henry’s last Secretary of State, William Paget, who unlike Wolsey and Cromwell who had been schemers and manipulators with their own agendas, just stuck doggedly to carrying out Henry’s wishes and accepting the religious vacillations of Henry’s later years. Peckham’s father goes even as far in his loyalty to the reigning monarch as denouncing his younger son who is involved in a plot against Mary Tudor.
Robert Peckham belives his father is wrong but fails to speak and act when he should and as his conscience compels him: “I was most blameworthy . . . in my relations with my father. I never told him the truth; not the whole truth. . . . I never dared tell him that I saw full well that the consequence of his acts would be to bring about the contrary of what he desired and the ruin of all he held most dear’ – (p. 278).
Robert Peckham also fails in his relationships with women – he marries the wrong woman because he fails to tell his childhood sweetheart, Mary, that while she has been away, he has fallen in love with another woman. Unable to accept the religious settlement of Elizabeth I’s reign, not able to be reconciled after Mary’s death with woman he really loves because of their religious differences, Peckham decides to leave England and settle in Rome.
This novel is thus about choices; between loyalty and conscience, between love and duty, ultimately between life and death. Peckham himself comes to recognise this. Many years after her death, he comes across an entry in his mother’s diary, ‘But may he [Robert] ever put the things that belong to God before the business and baubles of this world; and if the twain should ever come into conflict, may he not falter nor hesitate, but choose readily and follow the narrow path to the end, albeit it lead to disaster and disgrace – even unto death’ – (p 29). Robert, though, chooses to run away wherein lays guilt and self reproach, ‘My life has been nothing but a tissue of mistakes. I was rash when I should have been timid, and timid when I should have been bold. . . .I should never have left England. I should have remained and resisted, or died in the attempt’ – (p 276).
It is very difficult to place this book. Because it reads as a first person narrative account, the characterisation is poor. The use of supposed Tudor English is irritating. There are inconsistencies too. Why does it state at the begining that Peckham died in 1564 whilst Mangot has him dying in Rome in 1569. Is this Baring’s way of showing that memory cannot be relied upon in autobiographical writing? There is a lot of theological debate between Robert and his friend, Andrew Hynd, which I found very tedious. Baring converted to Roman Catholicism in 1909; is this story by way of an account of his own personal religious struggles? Constructed as a fictional autobiography along with fictional letters, diary extracts, poems and finally the description by an acquaintance of his sojourn and death in Rome, the book just seems rather odd and cannot, to my way of thinking, be characterised as a middle-brow novel. It certainly doesn’t seem to have ever been republished.