The Father of Dystopia: R H Benson and The Lord of the World
This year sees the 100th anniversary of the death of Robert Hugh Benson at the tragically early age of 43. This scion of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who died at the residence of the Bishop of Salford at Worsley in Greater Manchester, was in his lifetime lauded as a leading figure in English literature. Yet today the work and influence of this scholar and priest is almost completely forgotten except, that is, for his role as one of the founding fathers of dystopian science fiction.
Yes, you read that right, this high-profile, high-born, highbrow Victorian clerical scholar penned one the first great classics of dystopian sci-fi. You weren’t expecting that were you, and neither was I when some time ago I set myself the task of slowly tracking backwards to the genesis of a genre I have always found fascinating. Back I read, through Atwood and Priest, Ballard and Burgess, reacquainting myself with Orwell and Huxley and getting to grips with Zamyatin and Koestler. Then, unwittingly, I fell completely through the looking glass and stumbled upon Benson’s eerily disturbing 1907 novel The Lord of the World.
Generally I don’t subscribe to the view that it’s necessary to know where a writer has come from before you can understand or judge their work, but in this case I have to make an exception. Benson’s father, Edward White Benson, the Archbishop of Canterbury and deviser of the festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, was firmly embedded in the Upper Ten Thousand of his day. His mother Mary Benson was a rather remarkable woman in her own right, so much so that Gladstone would later describe her as “the cleverest woman in Europe”. Robert Hugh’s older brothers, Edward Frederick and Arthur Cristopher, both had remarkable literary careers of their own. The former is remembered chiefly for his Mapp and Lucia series while the latter counted devising the words to Land of Hope and Glory among his many achievements and ended his career as Master of Magdalene College. His sister, Margaret Benson, was an artist, writer and notable Egyptologist who was the first woman to be given a concession to excavate in Egypt.
After Eton and Cambridge, Benson followed in his father’s footsteps and was ordained a vicar in the Church of England in 1895. Only a year later his father died suddenly, triggering a breakdown in the young man and, in a bid to restore his health, he was sent to the Middle East to physically and spiritually recuperate. There, amid the ancient lands of the bible, he began to question not his faith but rather the status of the Church of England. Over the course of the next seven years he grew ever closer to Catholicism, transiting through the Anglican High Church until in September of 1903 he was received into the Catholic Church, which a year later ordained him a priest. And then he began to write.
Writers are habitually told to ‘think out of the box’ but there can be few who strayed so very far from their point of origin as R H Benson. Although he had been published before he left the Church of England, something about his conversion seems to have liberated him and the words simply began pour forth. And it wasn’t just apologetic and devotional works – of which there were 18 – but poems, short stories and scholarly articles on everything from ghosts to the letters of Queen Victoria; there was four plays and three children’s books, nine novels of contemporary fiction, seven of historical fiction and three of science fiction; many written and published in 14 furiously productive years. The man makes Stephen King look like a slacker in comparison.
The Lord of the World is set in 2008 in a world where organised religion is seemingly in terminal decline, so much so that the only faith that retains any systematic world presence is the Catholic Church. The west has been thoroughly secularised and a new technical and bureaucratic elite, whose smugness seems strikingly modern, has for decades held sway in this efficient and colourless world.
One by one, in a century-long process of attrition, all centres of genuine intellectual independence have either been destroyed or co-opted by this new orthodoxy. Power has been increasingly centralised, the Church of England disestablished, and the dissolution of the universities and their subsequent conversion into technical colleges has been enacted. Politically the world is divided into a handful of major power blocs, broadly arrayed into a proto-cold war east-west confrontation. Europe is especially terrified of the prospect of an imminent war for which it is completely unprepared.
In this world, where equality is used to justify state-sponsored intolerance and the tired and depressed are encouraged to visit the kindly local euthanasia clinic (eat your heart out Soylent Green), we follow the progress of two men – Father Percy Franklin and Julian Felsenburgh, a one-term American senator who bursts onto the political scene seemingly from nowhere.
This mysterious figure (who appears sparingly in the narrative) brings east and west into an understanding and such is the relief on all sides that his influence and worldwide power base grows exponentially. Felsenburgh promises world peace and all he asks for in return is the absolute power with which to deliver it. When he speaks he thrills vast crowds with profoundly fulfilling words, words which afterwards no one can quite remember. Yet his influence is quickly felt in more sinister ways and soon a rising tide of state-sponsored violence begins to ripple through society, a tide which is met with an uncompromisingly militant form of pacifist resistance (one can’t help wonder if Gandhi ever read this book) with which Father Franklin finds himself increasingly involved.
For a novel of its age, the writing is surprisingly accessible, much lighter than the dense tomes of early Wells but still splendidly Edwardian, especially in its dialogue. It’s also prefigures steampunk (that quirky modern sub-genre of science fiction) in its imagined survival of a British Empire, reliant on a mode of air transport which Benson calls the ‘volour’ (a gloriously strange cross between an airship and an ornithopter). At other times Benson’s prescience is altogether more accurate and a good deal darker, as in the case of his description of “Benninschein explosives” which are capable of “destroying entire towns with a single shell” – and this written 38 years before the destruction of Hiroshima.
On a number of occasions Benson proves truly masterful in his marshalling of words, notably in his handling of scenes of mob violence, which are all the more chilling for the absence of gore, and the portrayal of the effect of Felsenburgh’s unnatural charisma is genuinely disturbing. But it is in the description of the ubiquitous state euthanasia clinics that Benson comes truly comes into his own, and for many modern readers it will make for very uncomfortable reading. Some may find the novel’s ending unsatisfying, but nevertheless it lingers long in the mind and it will, I suspect, challenge more than a few contemporary attitudes.
This is an interesting and important book which is now legitimately available for free online. Hopefully this will garner The Lord of the World a whole new audience. It certainly deserves it.
Who: R H Benson
What: The Lord of the World
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Thought for the Day: "Bright and fierce and fickle is the South / And dark and true and tender is the North" - Tennyson