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Full Online Book HomeNonfictionsHugh: Memoirs Of A Brother - Chapter 10. The Change
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Hugh: Memoirs Of A Brother - Chapter 10. The Change Post by :67834 Category :Nonfictions Author :Arthur C. Benson Date :May 2012 Read :2536

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Hugh: Memoirs Of A Brother - Chapter 10. The Change


Hugh has himself traced in full detail, in his book _The Confessions of a Convert_, how he gradually became convinced that it was his duty to make his submission to the Church of Rome; and I will not repeat the story here. But I can recall very distinctly the period during which he was making up his mind. He left Mirfield in the early summer of 1903, so that when I came home for the summer holidays, he was living there. I had myself just accepted from King Edward the task of editing Queen Victoria's letters, and had resigned my Eton mastership. Hugh was then engaged in writing his book _By What Authority with inconceivable energy and the keenest possible enjoyment. His absorption in the work was extraordinary. He was reading historical books and any books bearing on the history of the period, taking notes, transcribing. I have before me a large folio sheet of paper on which he has written very minutely hundreds of picturesque words and phrases of the time, to be worked into the book. He certainly soaked himself in the atmosphere of the time, and I imagine that the details are correct, though as he had never studied history scientifically, I expect he is right in saying that the mental atmosphere which he represented as existing in Elizabethan times was really characteristic of a later date. He said of the book: "I fear it is the kind of book which anyone acquainted with the history, manners, and customs of the Elizabethan age should find no difficulty in writing." He found many faults subsequently with the volume, but he convinced himself at the time that the Anglican post-Reformation Church had no identity or even continuity with the pre-Reformation Church.

He speaks of himself as undergoing an experience of great unhappiness and unrest. Undoubtedly leaving the Mirfield Community was a painful severance. He valued a friendly and sympathetic atmosphere very much, and he was going to migrate from it into an unknown society, leaving his friends behind, with a possibility of suspicion, coldness, and misunderstanding. It was naturally made worse by the fact that all my father's best and oldest friends were Anglicans, who by position and tradition would be likely to disapprove most strongly of the step, and even feel it, if not an aspersion on my father's memory, at all events a disloyal and unfilial act--as indeed proved to be the case. But I doubt if these considerations weighed very much with Hugh. He was always extremely independent of criticism and disapproval, and though he knew many of my father's friends, through their visits to our house, he had not made friends with them on his own account--and indeed he had always been so intent on the life he was himself leading, that he had never been, so to speak, one of the Nethinims of the sanctuary; nor had the dependent and discipular attitude, the reverential attachment to venerable persons, been in the least congenial to him. He had always rather effaced himself in the presence of our ecclesiastical visitors, and had avoided the constraint of their dignity. Indeed, up to this time he had not much gone in search of personal relationships at all except with equals and contemporaries.

But the ignorance of the world he was about to enter upon was a more serious factor in his outlook. He knew that he would have to enter submissively and humbly an entirely strange domain, that he would have to join a chilly and even suspicious circle--for I suppose a convert to any new faith is apt to be regarded, until he is fully known, as possibly weak, indeterminate, and fluctuating, and to be treated with compassion rather than admiration. With every desire to be sympathetic, people in conscious possession of security and certainty are naturally inclined to regard a claimant as bent on acquisition rather than as a hero eager for self-sacrifice.

Certainly Hugh's dejection, which I think was reserved for his tired moments, was not apparent. To me, indeed, he appeared in the light of one intent on a great adventure, with all the rapture of confidence and excitement about him. As my mother said, he went to the shelter of his new belief as a lover might run to the arms of his beloved. Like the soldier in the old song, he did not linger, but "gave the bridle-reins a shake." He was not either melancholy or brooding. He looked very well, he was extremely active in mind and in body.

I find the following extract from my diary of August:

"_August 1903.--In the afternoon walked with Hugh the Paxhill round. Hugh is in very good cheerful spirits, steering in a high wind straight to Rome, writing a historical novel, full of life and jests and laughter and cheerfulness; not creeping in, under the shadow of a wall, sobbing as the old cords break; but excited, eager, jubilant, enjoying."

His room was piled with books and papers; he used to rush into meals with the glow of suspended energy, eat rapidly and with appetite--I have never seen a human being who ate so fast and with so little preference as to the nature of what he ate--then he would sit absorbed for a moment, and ask to be excused, using the old childish formula: "May I get down?" Sometimes he would come speeding out of his room, to read aloud a passage he had written to my mother, or to play a few chords on the piano. He would not as a rule join in games or walks--he went out for a short, rapid walk by himself, a little measured round, and flew back to his work. He generally, I should think, worked about eight hours a day at this time. In the evening he would play a game of cards after dinner, and would sit talking in the smoking-room, rapidly consuming cigarettes and flicking the ash off with his forefinger. He was also, I remember, very argumentative. He said once of himself that he was perpetually quarrelling with his best friends. He was a most experienced coat-trailer! My mother, my sister, my brother, Miss Lucy Tait who lives with us, and myself would find ourselves engaged in heated arguments, the disputants breathing quickly, muttering unheeded phrases, seeking in vain for a loophole or a pause. It generally ended by Hugh saying with mournful pathos that he could not understand why everyone set on him--that he never argued in any other circle, and he could only entreat to be let alone. It is true that we were accustomed to argue questions of every kind with tenacity and even with invective. But the fact that these particular arguments always dealt with the inconsistencies and difficulties of ecclesiastical institutions revealed their origin. The fact was that at this time Hugh was accustomed to assert with much emphasis some extremely provocative and controversial position. He was markedly scornful of Anglican faults and mannerisms, and behaved both then and later as if no Anglicans could have any real and vital belief in their principles, but must be secretly ashamed of them. Yet he was acutely sensitive himself, and resented similar comments; he used to remind me of the priest who said to Stevenson "Your sect--for it would be doing it too much honour to call it a religion," and was then pained to be thought discourteous or inconsiderate.

Discourteous, indeed, Hugh was not. I have known few people who could argue so fiercely without personal innuendo. But, on the other hand, he was both triumphant and sarcastic. There was an occasion at a later date when he advanced some highly contestable points as assumptions, and my aunt, Mrs. Henry Sidgwick, in an agony of rationality, said to him, "But these things are surely matters of argument, Hugh?" To which Hugh replied, "Well, you see, I have the misfortune, as you regard it, of belonging to a Church which happens to know."

Here is another extract from my diary at this time:

"_August 1903.--At dinner Hugh and I fell into a fierce argument, which became painful, mainly, I think, because of Hugh's vehemence and what I can only call violence. He reiterates his consciousness of his own stupidity in an irritating way. The point was this. He maintained that it was uncharitable to say, 'What a bad sermon So-and-so preached,' and not uncharitable to say, 'Well, it is better than the sickening stuff one generally hears'; uncharitable to say, 'What nasty soup this is!' and not uncharitable to say, 'Well, it is better than the filthy pigwash generally called soup.' I maintained that to say that, one must have particular soups in one's mind; and that it was abusing more sermons and soups, and abusing them more severely, than if one found fault with one soup or one sermon.

"But it was all no use. He was very impatient if one joined issue at any point, and said that he was interrupted. He dragged all sorts of red herrings over the course, the opinions of Roman theologians, and differences between mortal and venial sin, &c. I don't think he even tried to apprehend my point of view, but went off into a long rigmarole about distinguishing between the sin and the sinner; and said that it was the sin one ought to blame, not the sinner. I maintained that the consent of the sinner's will was of the essence of the sin, and that the consent of the will of the sinner to what was not in itself wrong was the essence of sin--_e.g. not sinful to drink a glass of wine, but, sinful if you had already had enough.

"It was rather disagreeable; but I get so used to arguing with absolute frankness with people at Eton that I forget how unpleasant it may sound to hearers--and it all subsided very quickly, like a boiling pot."

I remember, too, at a later date, that he produced some photographs of groups of, I think, Indian converts at a Roman Catholic Mission, and stated that anyone who had eyes to see could detect which of them had been baptized by the expression of their faces. It was, of course, a matter which it was impossible to bring to the test; but he would not even admit that catechumens who were just about to be baptized could share the same expression as those who actually had been baptized. This was a good instance of his provocative style. But it was always done like a game. He argued deftly, swiftly, and inconclusively, but the fault generally lay in his premisses, which were often wild assumptions; not in his subsequent argument, which was cogent, logical, and admirably quick at finding weak points in his adversary's armour. At the same time he was wholly placable. No one could so banish and obliterate from his mind the impression of the harshest and fiercest arguments. The effervescence of his mind subsided as quickly as it arose. And my whole recollection of the period is that he was in a state of great mental and spiritual excitement, and that he was experiencing to the full the joys of combat and action.

While the interest of composition lasted, he remained at home, but the book was soon done. He was still using the oratory in the house for celebrations, and I believe that he occasionally helped in the services of the parish church. The last time I actually heard him preach was at the previous Christmas, when the sermon seemed to me both tired and hard, as of one whose emotions were strained by an interior strife.

Among his diversions at this time he painted, on the casement windows of the oratory, some figures of saints in water-colour. The designs were quaint, but in execution they were the least successful things he ever did; while the medium he employed was more apt to exclude light than to tinge it.

These strange figures became known in the village as "Mrs. Benson's dolls." They were far more visible from outside than from within, and they looked like fantastic puppets leaning against the panes. What use my mother was supposed to make of them, or why she piled her dolls, tier above tier, in an upper window was never explained. Hugh was very indignant when their artistic merit was called in question, but later on he silently effaced them.

The curious intensity and limitation of Hugh's affections were never more exemplified than in his devotion to a charming collie, Roddy, belonging to my sister, the most engaging dog I have ever known. Roddy was a great truant, and went away sometimes for days and even weeks. Game is carefully preserved on the surrounding estates, and we were always afraid that Roddy, in his private hunting expeditions, might fall a victim to a conscientious keeper's gun, which, alas, was doubtless the cause of his final and deeply lamented disappearance. Hugh had a great affection for Roddy, and showed it, when he came to Tremans, by keeping Roddy constantly at his heels, having him to sleep in his room, and never allowing him out of his sight. For the first day or two Roddy enjoyed these attentions, but gradually, as the visit lasted, became more and more restive, and was for ever trying to give Hugh the slip; moreover, as soon as Hugh went away, Roddy always disappeared for a few days to recover his sense of independence and liberty. I can see Hugh now walking about in his cassock, with Roddy at his heels; then they would join a circle on the lawn, and Roddy would attach himself to some other member of the family for a little, but was always sternly whistled away by Hugh, when he went back to his room. Moreover, instead of going back to the stable to sleep snugly in the straw, which Roddy loved best, he had to come to the smoking-room, and then go back to sleep in a basket chair in Hugh's bedroom. I can remember Hugh departing at the end of his visit, and saying to me, "I know it's no use asking you--but do try to keep an eye on Roddy! It makes me miserable to think of his getting into the woods and being shot." But he did not think much about Roddy in his absence, never asked to take Roddy to Hare Street; nor did he manifest deep emotion when he finally disappeared, nor make long lamentation for him. Hugh never wasted any time in vain regrets or unavailing pathos.

He paid visits to certain friends of my mother's to consult about his position. He did this solely out of deference to her wishes, but not, I think, with any hope that his purpose would be changed. They were, I believe, John Reeve, Rector of Lambeth, a very old and dear friend of our family, Bishop Wilkinson, and Lord Halifax. The latter stated his position clearly, that the Pope was Vicar of Christ _jure ecclesiastico but not _jure divino_, and that it was better to remain an Anglican and promote unity so. Hugh had also a painful correspondence with John Wordsworth, late Bishop of Salisbury, a very old friend of my father's. The Bishop wrote affectionately at first, but eventually became somewhat indignant, and told Hugh plainly that a few months' work in a slum parish would clear his mind of doubt; the correspondence ended by his saying emphatically that he regarded conversion almost as a loss of sanity. No doubt it was difficult for one of immense patristic and theological learning, who was well versed in the historical aspect of the affair as well as profoundly conscious of the reality of his own episcopal commission, to enter the lists with a son of his old friend. But neither sympathy nor harshness could have affected Hugh at this time, any more than advice to return could alter the position of a man who had taken a leap and was actually flying through the air.

Hugh then went off on a long bicycle tour by himself, dressed as a layman. He visited the Carthusian Monastery of St Hugh, near West Grinstead, which I afterwards visited in his company. He spent a night or two at Chichester, where he received the Communion in the cathedral; but he was in an unhappy frame of mind, probably made more acute by solitude.

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CHAPTER IX. KEMSING AND MIRFIELDThe change proved very beneficial to Hugh; but it was then, with returning health and leisure for reflection, that he began to consider the whole question of Anglicanism and Catholicism. He describes some of the little experiences which turned his mind in this direction. He became aware of the isolation and what he calls the "provincialism" of the Anglican Church. He saw many kinds of churches and varieties of worship. He went on through the Holy Land, and at Jerusalem celebrated the Communion in the Chapel of Abraham; at Damascus he heard with a sort of horror