Writer and economist Michael Greaney has posted an essay on Catholic365, a website for articles of interest to Roman Catholic readers, that claims a new source for some of Evelyn Waugh’s works. This source is said to be in the writings of Robert Hugh Benson, an Englishman who converted to Roman Catholicism in the early 20th Century. He is described on Wikipedia as “author of several novels and Roman Catholic apologetic works.” R.H. Benson is probably best known as the brother of the more famous E. F. (“Fred”) Benson, who wrote the Mapp and Lucia novels and of A.C. Benson, Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, and author of the words to the hymn Land of Hope and Glory. These three writer-scholars were the sons of Edward White Benson who was Archbishop of Canterbury.
According to Greaney, who has written a book about R.H. Benson’s novels, Roman Catholic theologians, including the Pope, have gotten it wrong about Benson’s writings being intended as dystopian prophecies. In fact, writes Greaney, he should be best remembered as a satirist who was admired by and influenced the writings of, inter alia, Evelyn Waugh:
Benson, in fact, appears to have inspired Waugh in some of Waugh’s more appalling and much blacker satires. Waugh’s gruesomely funny The Loved One: An Anglo-American Tragedy (1948) seems to have used Benson’s amusingly grim A Winnowing (1910) as something of a springboard. Waugh’s short story, “Out of Depth” shares elements and a theme with The Dawn of All — as, surprisingly, does Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s Slaughterhouse Five (1969). In Waugh’s novella Love Among the Ruins (1953 . . . with illustrations by the author), which he characterized as a light diversion to while away a few hours, we see a sprightly (if you’ve got a peculiar idea of sprightliness) alternative version of what Benson lambasted in Lord of the World.
Greaney writes that, according to Waugh, Benson was a “brilliant if somewhat low-key satirist exposing the foibles of humanity with wit and irony, as the definition of satire has it.” Greaney doesn’t cite any of Waugh’s writings on Benson, but he may have in mind the preface Waugh wrote for a 1956 U.S. reprint of Benson’s historical novel or parable Richard Raynal, Solitary (originally published in 1912 as The History of Richard Raynal, Solitary). Benson is also mentioned in Ronald Knox (1959) where Waugh describes (176) his best known work, the dystopian novel Lord of the World (mentioned in quote) as “a vision… of the universal Church reduced to a fugitive Pope bearing solitary witness to the truth which all mankind else has abandoned.” But that novel about a future dystopia was not, as Greaney explains, an example of Benson’s satire. For that he recommends A Winnowing, the novel that he claims was a “springboard” for Waugh’s The Loved One.