Lord of the World (1907) by Robert Hugh Benson

Book Review by Sylvia D: It’s striking that all the reviews that have been posted so far have been of dystopian novels. I wonder if that is a reflection of the strange and troublesome times we are living through.

My first choice was Swastika Night but I couldn’t get hold of a reasonably-priced copy so I’m glad Kathryn has reviewed it. I usually end up choosing novels that were published in the interwar period which reflects my interest in the history of this period, so I decided to try one from an earlier period and by an author I’d never heard of.

R.H. Benson in 1907.

Robert Hugh Benson, the author of Lord of the World, published the year before Jack London’s The Iron Heel reviewed by Alice, was the youngest son of Edward White Benson, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1883 to 1886 and was himself ordained a priest in the Church of England in 1895. Benson already tended towards the High Church tradition and in 1903 caused a sensation in Church of England circles by not only converting to Roman Catholicism but also being ordained a Roman Catholic priest. Alongside his ministry, Benson had a prolific output as a writer of historical, horror, science fiction and children’s stories as well as theological works.

Lord of the World is set in the twenty-first century by which time the world has been divided into three blocks, Europe, America which had annexed Canada, and East Asia which includes Australasia. It is interesting that even by this time communication is still by telephone and telegraph, so global news is limited and takes a while to arrive. The thesis is that the Labour Party, still in its infancy in terms of parliamentary representation in 1907, had won the 1917 General Election and this led to the rise of worldwide Communism.

England is virtually built over, people travel by ’volors’ which sound very much like airships, high speed rail or along roads that are allocated according to one of three grades in society, the higher two grades being enfranchised. The universities and the Monarchy have been abolished, and an end made to the workhouse system, with the third grade of persons, ‘the absolutely worthless’ being treated like criminals. ‘Ministers of euthanasia’ expedite the departure of those who are dying. The controlling force behind all this is Freemasonry about which, in the Edwardian period perhaps more than today, there had been widespread suspicion of its influence in public life.

The Church of England had been disestablished in 1919 and with the rise of Modernism religious dogma had been attacked as non-rational and full of superstition with the result that, in the West, all religions have disappeared apart from a small number of Roman Catholic believers still led by the Pope who has been allowed to remain the head of a Catholic enclave in Rome.. Many Catholics have flocked there to live on the outskirts of the Vatican. The only remaining Catholic country is Ireland which has been unified. The wife of a committed secularist and senior government minister, Oliver Brand, tries to explain to her mother-in-law why Christianity has virtually disappeared.

Look how Christianity has failed – how it has divided people; think of all the cruelties – the Inquisition, the Religious Wars; the separations between husband and wife and parents and children – the disobedience to the State, the reasons. Oh! You cannot believe that these were right. What kind of God would that be! And then Hell; how could you ever have believed in that? Oh! mother, don’t believe anything so frightful. Don’t you understand that that God has gone – that He never existed at all – that it was a hideous nightmare . . .

As the story opens there is the threat of an attack on Europe by the East Asian block and rumours emerge of a man about whom very little is known except that he is a young American senator travelling in the East and acting as a peace-broker. This man’s name is Julian Felsenburgh and when he succeeds in brokering a world-wide peace, he is greeted hysterically wherever he goes as the Saviour of the World. Felsenburgh is asked to become President of Europe. He takes to wearing English judicial dress – ‘black and scarlet with sleeves of white fur and a crimson sash’. His agreement has to be sought for all subsequent decisions that are taken by European governments which he justifies on the basis that peace has been established universally for the first time in the world’s history and

There was no longer one State, however small, whose interests were not identical with those of one of the three divisions of the world of which it was a dependency . . . But the second stage – the reunion of these three divisions under a common head – and infinitely greater achievement than the former, since the conflicting interests were incalculably more vast – this had been consummated by a single Person, Who, it appeared had emerged from humanity at the very instant when such a Character was demanded. It was surely not too much to ask that those on whom these benefits had come should assent to the will and judgment of Him through whom they had come… This, then was an appeal to faith.

In addition,

The human race was now a single entity with a supreme responsibility towards itself; there were no longer any private rights at all, such as had certainly existed, in the period previous to this. Man now possessed dominion over every cell which composed His Mystical Body, and where any such cell asserted itself to the detriment of the Body, the rights of the whole were unqualified.

The symbolism of the Church is replicated when he orders that people must compulsorily celebrate the festivals of Maternity, Life, Sustenance and Paternity, personified by four massive statues. The reader can immediately spot what Felsenburg intends the role of women should be, a view that prefigures the Nazi view of womanhood, “The mission of women is to be beautiful and to bring children into the world”, (Joseph Goebbels in 1929).

The story is told through the eyes of Bland and a Roman Catholic priest, Father Percy Franklin. Franklin and Felsenburgh bear an uncanny resemblance and the plot develops into a Manichean struggle between them as the personification of good and evil depending on whose point of view you are seeing it from. When all the leading figures of the Roman Catholic world are gathered in Rome for a conclave, Felsenburgh orders its destruction by a fleet of volors, which foreshadows the mass bombing of the Second World War. However, Franklin had been working with the Pope to unite all Catholics as their persecution grew more widespread under the banner of the Order of Christ Crucified. The members of this Order swore that they would become martyrs for their cause. Franklin has escaped the bombing as he had returned to England to establish the Order there. He flees to Israel where he sets up a Roman Catholic community in Nazareth and is himself elected Pope.

Felsenburgh persuades all European governments that the last vestiges of Catholicism should be wiped out and each country contributes towards an even larger fleet of volor bombers which leaves for Nazareth led by Felsenburgh himself. The culmination of the novel is apocalyptic but also enigmatic with the final sentence being ‘Then this world passed, and the glory of it’. One interpretation sees this as Catholicism indeed being wiped out but the other is that it is the end of the World. I favour the latter view as the weather has become unbearably hot, there are earthquakes and volcanoes occurring all around the globe, the sky has taken on an angry hue with that eerie yellow light you sometimes get ahead of thunderstorms and finally passes ‘from darkness charged with light to light overlaid with darkness – from glimmering night to Wrathful Day – and that light was red.’ Surely the Day of Judgement? Who is Lord of the World – Felsenburgh or God?

This is one of the strangest books I have ever read. There is much spiritual internalizing which I found rather uninteresting and, especially towards the conclusion, considerable use of Latin text which, with my lack of knowledge of the Catholic Church liturgy, I didn’t understand although I think words are taken from the Mass. I asked a Catholic friend if he could translate it for me, but he didn’t recognize the texts. It was interesting to see how Benson foresaw developments such as the rise of the twentieth century dictators, the growing decline in importance of religion in the lives of society, the development of motorways and high-speed rail. At times I had to remind myself that it was written over a century ago. However, there has been much that he didn’t foresee: worldwide conflicts, the way Labour politics have evolved in a direction very different from the way upper and middle-class society feared in the early twentieth century, the weakening of Communism, the non-unification of Ireland, the development of modern forms of air travel and of modern communication technologies and the rise of the global corporates who appear to run our lives today.

I did find the book became rather tedious and skip read some sections. It is quite long and dense. It was interesting though how Benson used religious imagery and religious symbolism and made use of capital letters as religious writings do when describing the rise of Felsenburgh. The characterization was weak. We learn nothing about Felsenburgh’s or Franklin’s or Brand’s backgrounds. The most endearing character is Brand’s mother-in-law, Mabel, who used to be a Catholic and even now has doubts about the new Western order. She manages stealthily to ensure that she receives the Last Rites on her deathbed.

The Wikipedia article on Benson states that this novel is generally regarded as one of the first dystopian novels. It certainly depicts a dystopian world. Perhaps Benson’s own personal conversion contributed towards his depiction of the decline of the Anglican Church and other Protestant denominations and of the Catholic Church as the last defender of Christianity.

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