THE KING'S ACHIEVEMENT
by Robert Hugh Benson
(Neumann Press, 2001, hardback, reprinted from 1905 edition, 377pp, $33.95. Available from Freedom Publishing)
Reviewed by Michael Daniel
A century ago, one of the most celebrated English Catholic novelists was Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson. The clergyman son of the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, his conversion to Catholicism and subsequent ordination as a Catholic priest sparked a controversy.
In recent years, there has been a renewed interest in his novels, reflected in the fact that most of them have been reprinted. Although he wrote a book detailing his conversion, Confessions of a Convert, most of his writings were historical novels which explored key events of the Protestant Reformation in England from a Catholic perspective.
There is a certain irony in the title of the present book for The King's Achievement is set in the 1530s, the decade which witnessed England's break with Rome, and focuses on the destruction of the monasteries.
The narrative centres on the brothers Christopher and Ralph Torridon. Christopher becomes a monk and priest at Lewes Priory, whereas Ralph enters the service of Henry VIII's unscrupulous agent Thomas Cromwell and gains power and wealth in his role as a visitor of the monasteries.
After his break with Rome and in urgent need of cash, Henry VIII sees the monasteries as easy sources of assets and revenue. Through his narrative Benson challenges Tudor propaganda used to justify the despoliation; namely that the monasteries had acquired great amounts of wealth, were no longer serving any real social function and a significant proportion of the inhabitants were trapped in a form of life they no longer wanted to lead.
Instead, the two communities on which the text focuses, namely Lewes Priory and a convent of nuns at Rusper - to which Christopher's and Ralph's sister Margaret belongs - are both functional communities in which the majority of the members are content.
The King's Achievement also hints at the fate of those cast out into the world after monasteries were dissolved. Essentially, the king and his agents rather than the religious themselves were the beneficiaries. While many of the male religious were ordained priests and could find positions elsewhere, by contrast, the nuns of Rusper are given civilian dress and a small amount of money.
It is not surprising The King's Achievement refers to the numbers of vagrants increasing at this time, not only because the dispossessed monks and nuns added to their numbers, but the loss of the monasteries suddenly removed from society the support networks to which the poor and marginalised turned for help.
One interesting facet of this novel is the study of human corruption embodied within the character of Ralph. He begins the novel as a decent young man, but, spurred on by ambition, gradually suppresses his conscience.
Beginning in small ways, such as using his friendship with Thomas More as a means of passing on information about More to Cromwell, he is ultimately directly involved in and profits from the despoliation of the religious houses in which his siblings reside. His fiancée Beatrice, whom he met at the house of Thomas More, rejects marriage with him because of his personality.
Written at the start of a century that was to witness the rise of Nazi and Communist regimes which gradually corrupted their eager accomplices to the extent that they were ultimately prepared to commit atrocious crimes, Benson's portrait of Ralph is eerily prophetic.
However, The King's Achievement is also a novel about moral heroism, embodied in characters such as Christopher, who refused to renounce their monastic vows, even in the face of a real threat of serious consequences from the King.
Benson carefully maintains the reader's suspense to the end. The climax of this novel is when Ralph is arrested and sent to the Tower of London in the wake of Cromwell's fall. However, the ending is sudden and unexpected.
The King's Achievement is not grand literature in the same league as the novels of Charles Dickens or Victor Hugo but it is still a highly entertaining read that is accessible to teenagers and adults and a book this reviewer found hard to put down.
Michael E. Daniel is a Melbourne secondary school teacher.