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Apocalypse and Alternate History: the novels of Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson

Now that so many people are reading books on electronic devices, more and more books are being made available in digital format. Since I became a Kindle owner a couple of years ago, I have really enjoyed dipping into the many old, out-of-copyright books that available to be downloaded at no cost. Project Gutenberg, which claims to be “the first producer of free electronic books (ebooks),” has for some years provided digitized versions of books in many formats, including those used on the Kindle and the Nook and other devices. Even more convenient for Kindle owners like myself is the fact that every time Project Gutenberg releases a “new” old (public domain) book, Amazon immediately publishes it for the Kindle at no cost. This provides an extra convenience for Kindle owners, since we can have it downloaded to our device automatically (cutting out a step, compared to acquiring it directly from Project Gutenberg) and we can keep the title in our library “cloud” when we don’t need or want to have it taking up space on our Kindles.

Robert Hugh Benson
Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson,
former Anglican, bestselling Catholic author

One of my favorite out-of-copyright authors whose books are available from Project Gutenberg is Robert Hugh Benson. On the PG site, you’ll find a number of his Catholic novels, written in the early years of the twentieth century. Google Books also has free downloads of his novels and short stories, as well as a fair number of his catechetical, apologetic, and homiletic works; both Project Gutenberg and Google Books also offer biographies of Benson (the Google one is in two volumes).

Perhaps you’ve never heard of Msgr. Benson, who was almost as popular in the early 1900s as Fulton Sheen would be fifty years later. Benson was the son of an (Anglican) Archbishop of Canterbury, and himself was ordained as an Anglican priest in 1895. Within a few years, however, he became a Catholic priest and a very popular writer for both Catholic and Anglican audiences, producing many works of Catholic apologetics as well as novels in various genres — historical, speculative, and contemporary fiction, all with religious themes.

http://www.booksshouldbefree.com/book/Lord-of-the-World-Robert-Hugh-Benson

Benson has been enjoying a sort of literary comeback in recent years, with a number of small publishers bringing some of his better known works back to print, and a number of web sites are devoted to Benson & his works. I have read a few of his novels, having begun with his most famous one, Lord of the World (one of his few works still available in print editions). This novel has been described variously as being “dystopic,” “science fiction,” “speculative fiction,” “prophetic,” and “apocalyptic.” The latter is probably the most apt, because Benson presents a vision of the world as it may when the end times arrive, as described in the final book of the Bible (“The Revelation to St. John,” known traditionally to Catholics as “The Book of the Apocalypse”). Benson, writing in the early years of the twentieth century (Lord of the World was first published in 1907), was alarmed at the social trajectory of the modern, Western world, and wrote this novel, at least in part, as a warning of where things seemed to be headed. Projecting his story forward in time less than a century, he foresaw a world that had become radically secularized, a culture of death in which euthanasia has become so common that euthanasia squads, not ambulances, are sent to accident sites and euthanasia parlors have replaced nursing homes. Marriages are sterile, churches are empty, and a demagogue rules over an all-encompassing socialist world government. Most churches have become Masonic temples, and the few churches that remain are all Catholic. I won’t give away the ending, but if you’ve read the Book of Revelation, you probably know where it’s headed.

Strangely enough, Benson’s loyal readers were dismayed by this novel, complaining that it was too gloomy. Despite his insistence that it described the way the Bible assures us the world really will end, his fans urged him to write another end-of-times novel, with a happy ending and, very reluctantly, he did. The result was a novel called Dawn of All. In its introduction, Benson writes:

In a former book,
called “Lord of the World,” I attempted to sketch the kind of
developments a hundred years hence which, I thought, might reasonably be
expected if the present lines of what is called “modern thought” were
only prolonged far enough; and I was informed repeatedly that the effect
of the book was exceedingly depressing and discouraging to optimistic
Christians. In the present book I am attempting — also in parable form
— not in the least to withdraw anything that I said in the former, but
to follow up the other lines instead, and to sketch — again in parable
— the kind of developments, about sixty years hence which, I think, may
reasonably be expected should the opposite process begin, and ancient
thought (which has stood the test of centuries, and is, in a very
remarkable manner, being “rediscovered” by persons even more modern than
modernists) be prolonged instead. We are told occasionally by moralists
that we live in very critical times, by which they mean that they are
not sure whether their own side will win or not. In that sense no times
can ever be critical to Catholics, since Catholics are never in any kind
of doubt as to whether or no their side will win. But from another
point of view every period is a critical period, since every period has
within itself the conflict of two irreconcilable forces. It has been for
the sake of tracing out the kind of effects that, it seemed to me, each
side would experience in turn, should the other, at any rate for a
while, become dominant, that I have written these two books.

Benson also says that he found Dawn of All very tedious to write, because he knew it described a world that would never exist. To convey the idea that we shouldn’t ever expect to live in the world described, he has a priest from our real world find himself transported in a dream to an alternate reality, a world which, having found that socialism doesn’t work and the promises of modern philosophy are empty, has gradually been won back to the Catholic faith and public life has been put back under the influence of the Church. Protestantism has been reconciled to Rome, Ireland is one big religious retreat center (all the laity having been evacuated to America or somewhere), and the Inquisition once again keeps the world safe from heretics. In fact, the novel basically presents an idealized version of medieval Christendom, a world in which trade guilds (not labor unions) are prominent, and people are required in public to wear attire legally prescribed for their state in life and occupation. It’s an odd work of speculative fiction, and best read after Lord of the World.

NuEvan Press, Dawn of All, Robert Hugh Benson

Speaking of odd, NuEvanPress.com offers ebook versions of both these novels that, the publishers say, have been “gently edited” to make the books more palatable to modern readers. A cursory look at the samples available on Amazon doesn’t reveal any obvious updates, so I’m guessing the “gentle editing” was intended to help the edition conform to the Amazon rule that anyone desiring to publish a title in the public domain must provide “added value,” in order to make their edition distinct from the free ebooks that Amazon publishes. In addition to the “gentle editing,”  NuEvan Press also includes helpful subtitles (“A Catholic Novel of the End Times” and “A Visionary Novel of the Catholic Church Victorious”), as well as an appendix in each book, relevant to the content of the novel. The appendix to Lord of the World contains a selection of readings from the Church Fathers on the Antichrist; in Dawn of All, it’s the Fathers on “the preeminence of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.”

I recommend any of Benson’s books, particularly the two mentioned here. Lord of the World provides the “Catholic answer” to the Left Behind novels, and Dawn of All presents a nice little fantasy that may provide a tonic in these days of the culture wars and the marginalization of religion. One caveat: the language will sound a bit formal or even old-fashioned, perhaps irritatingly so for some readers, so if that might be you, go ahead and plunk down $2.99 for the NuEvan Press e-editions; otherwise, just go for the freebies.

If you’ve already read these or other books by Robert Hugh Benson, please click the comment link, and let me know what you think!

Hidden in Plain Sight: Biblical (il)literacy and the modern reader

The Gospel readings that the Church’s lectionary provides at this green time of the year are full of parables, which may be one reason that I’ve had parables on the brain late. Mark Shea’s recent feature article in Crisis Magazine, “The Parable of the Dishonest Steward,” is a good exploration of why Christ so often taught in parables and, also, why he had to explain them, even though on the face of it they are quite simple. As Shea points out, what’s obvious to a Christian may not be obvious to others, who have not “eyes to see nor ears to hear”; these only faith can provide. This brings me to another reason I’ve been thinking about the uses of parables as teaching tools.

A short story informed by faith

U. S. postage stamp commemorating Katherine Anne Porter

Short-story writer Porter was a convert to the Catholic faith.

In the literature class I’m currently teaching  (an introductory course that teaches the basics of literary interpretation), we’ve been studying short stories and how they work, reading selections that provide good illustrations of the various techniques we’re discussing (plot, setting, point of view, character, etc.). Most recently, we’ve been examining Katherine Anne Porter’s frequently-anthologized story, “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall,” a real literary gem.

I don’t know much about Porter, other than the fact that she was a native Texan (at one time writing for a Fort Worth journal) and a convert to Catholicism (although during a long period of her life she was apparently disaffected from religion in general), nor have I read a lot of her work, but “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” makes me want to read more.

The Jilting of Granny Weatherall

The story is simple on the face of it, yet has hidden depths. It is told in a third person, limited omniscient voice, which means that the voice telling the story does not belong to any of the characters in the story, and it allows us to know things that an ordinary objective observer could not know — in this case, the reader hears the rambling thoughts of elderly, dying Granny Weatherall during the last hours of her life. This is an interesting and tricky choice. Since as events come to us filtered through the old woman’s groggy, feeble, and wandering consciousness, the reader has a bit of a job to figure out what, objectively, is happening in Granny’s sick room. This is what I mean by its being tricky: Granny’s idea of what is happening to, and around, her is not always accurate, but an incautious reader is liable to overlook this fact. Porter’s authorial intention goes beyond the objective level of physical reality and the subjective level of Granny’s mental meanderings, to the moral level of Granny’s spiritual state, something which even Granny herself seems determined to ignore, and which many readers will miss altogether.

Kruseman's The Wise and Foolish Virgins

The parable of the wise & foolish virgins refers to the Day of Judgment.

This is really one of the things that interests me about the story. In fact, this moral level of significance, in which the author is explores and comments on Granny’s spiritual condition, is the real focus of the story, but many readers will fail to realize this. This is because Porter hints at her real purpose by use of Biblical motifs taken from Christ’s parables about death and judgment. At first, these allusions seem simply details of Granny’s wandering memories — lights and lanterns, for example —  but the cumulative effect is to make a savvy reader gradually aware that the omniscient narrator is trying to make a point, which the reader should get, even if Granny does not. The insistence of these parabolic images grows in intensity until their presence finally bursts into plain view in the final paragraph or two of the story. In the end, they are hard to overlook, at least for anyone equipped to recognize them at all. But to miss them is to miss the meaning of the story, whose central theme is Granny’s spiritual unreadiness to meet her death.

The Biblical illiteracy of modern readers

It’s a great pity that many modern readers these days are utterly incapable of recognizing these Scriptural allusions at all. When the story was published in 1930, Porter had a reasonable expectation that many, if not most, of her readers would be familiar with the stories of the Bible, particularly the parables of Christ in the Gospels.

For centuries, literary authors had been able to make allusion to the Bible to illuminate their own works of fiction. (I wrote my doctoral dissertation on one such writer, twelfth-century Chrétien de Troyes, who first popularized stories about the knights of King Arthur.) But, alas, the great stories of the Bible are no longer part of the warp and woof of Western culture, and otherwise literate Americans who read this story today may easily miss the point Porter is trying to make. In other words, Katherine Anne Porter’s short story, like Biblical parables, can be understood only by those who have “eyes to see, ears to hear.”

It’s distressing to realize that even those who teach students to read literature are unable to see what Porter is getting at in this story. For instance, a casual cruise of the internet on the subject of “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” will discover not only the predictably awful essays and summaries written by and for students, but also offerings by “professionals” which entirely deliberately ignore or unwittingly miss the ample allusions that point to the real heart of the matter in “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall.” (I even found this academic essay by a certain Barbara Laman of the University of Miami, which misses the point rather spectacularly, thanks to the peculiar kind of mental astigmatism created by a “feminist” perspective).

Without knowledge of the Bible, we remain culturally illiterate

Here’s why the sad effects of Biblical illiteracy in the general culture should concern anyone with an ounce of cultural sensibility: many of our great works of literature are now largely incomprehensible even to “sophisticated” and highly-educated readers, simply because these works rely on allusions to a thesaurus of meaning that has now been banished to the cultural outhouse. The Bible has been banned in the public sphere, and its cultural influence is ignored or denied.

In the case of “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall,” failure to recognize Biblical allusions or their significance will force an otherwise-astute reader to arrive at exactly the wrong idea of what this story is about. How many other, even greater, cultural treasures are, in effect, being distorted and defaced by this cultural blind spot? Loss of familiarity with the great stories of the Bible produces a great loss not only for those who are at least nominally Christian, but for our culture as a whole. This is an argument that has been made with greater force and eloquence by others than I have done here, but it is one that was borne in upon me with renewed force this week as my students and I have been analyzing this widely-read work by one of America’s great short story writers.

©2010 Lisa A. Nicholas, updated 2017

Reading and the Moral Imagination: Aristotle and C. S. Lewis

girl reading a book
Doing this in public could earn you funny looks.

If you are a reader of books (not just blogs), these days you are apparently in the minority. Some alarming statistics I’ve run into on various web sites claim that:

  • 1/3 of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives.
  • 42 percent of college graduates never read another book after college.
  • 80 percent of U.S. families did not buy or read a book last year.
  • 70 percent of U.S. adults have not been in a bookstore in the last five years.

    Today’s column by Fr. James Schall on The Catholic Thing suggests that one reason young people don’t read much any more is that they are tethered to their cell phones, which constantly demand their attention, making it impossible (unlikely, at least) for them to devote themselves to reading or sustain reflection — these days, college students hit the beach with their “smart phones,” not paperback novels. Fr. Schall goes on to comment that he is not encouraged by the current fad for “electronic books” that can be read off of computer and smartphone screens, a view that I share. I’ll let you read for yourself his reasoning. (What do you mean, you don’t read The Catholic Thing? Why on earth not? They publish a new and thought-provoking essay each day, by an impressive variety of excellent Catholic thinkers.)

    Fiction matters

    Schall mentions all this as a lead-up to his consideration of a question that I think is an important one: Does it matter if we read fiction? (Notice, he does not insist that it be “important literature” or “timeless classics,” just “fiction,” including poetry.) I think the answer is, “Absolutely, yes!” I know plenty of people who think of themselves as “readers,” but proudly proclaim, “Oh, I only read non-fiction,” as if that were a virtue. On the contrary, I can’t help but think of it as a character defect, revealing an undeveloped moral imagination. Why? Well, Aristotle gave an answer that I think is as valid today as it was nearly 2,400 years ago, in his Poetics. Aristotle, of course, was a philosopher, not a poet, but he believed in the ethical value of poetry (by which he meant what we mean by “literature” — in his day, all “fiction” was written in poetic verse). Comparing poetry (“fiction”) to history (“nonfiction”), he says:

    It is not the function of the poet to relate what has happened, but what may happen — what is possible according to the law of probability or necessity. The poet and the historian differ not by writing in verse or in prose. The work of Herodotus might be put into verse, and it would still be a species of history, with meter no less than without it. The true difference is that one relates what has happened, the other what may happen. Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular. By the universal I mean how a person of a certain type on occasion speak or act, according to the law of probability or necessity; and it is this universality at which poetry aims … (Poetics IX)

    So it looks like Aristotle would not have been too impressed by those people who proudly proclaim that they read only “nonfiction.” 

    C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism, Canto edition

    But, one might ask, was Aristotle right in claiming that “poetry” is a “high and philosophical thing”? And if so, why? I would say yes, if we recognize that, while his use of the term “poetry” would include literary fiction generally, it probably would not extend to pulp fiction (the sort of mass-produced schlock that keeps many booksellers in business, for which there was no analogue in Aristotle’s day). I think that Aristotle had in mind something more like what C. S. Lewis, in his An Experiment in Criticism, classified as “good books.” Lewis proposed that we define “good books” not by something inherent in the book but by what sort of reading it provokes and rewards. A “good” book is the one that allows the reader to find something new with each reading and re-reading, to which the reader returns time and again, a story that provokes reflection, and rewards reflection with discovery, which in turn causes delight. Good books provoke good reading, taking us out of ourselves while we read and returning us to ourselves, at the end of our reading, somehow enlarged:

    One of the things we feel after reading a great work is “I have got out.” Or from another point of view, “I have got in”; pierced the shell of some other monad and discovered what it is like inside. … We therefore delight to enter into other men’s beliefs (those, say, of Lucretius or Lawrence) even though we think them untrue.  And into their passions, though we think them depraved, like those, sometimes, of Marlowe or Carlyle. And also into their imaginations, though they lack all realism of content.

    This is not to say that to say, of course, that a good book cannot be read badly; rather, the important distinction is that good books “permit” a reading that enlarges the reader, whereas bad books make such reading impossible. The good book meets Aristotle’s criterion of being “philosophical”because it allows us to gain new insight into some truth about the human condition, the way of the world, etc.

    People who don’t read suffer from anorexia of the imagination

    Matthias Stom,  Young Man Reading by Candlelight
    With free books and free reading apps for every gadget,
    there’s no excuse not to read.

    None of this is to say, however, that every work of fiction we read should be “good” (using Lewis’s terminology) or “philosophical” (using Aristotle’s), any more than every bite we eat has to be “healthy” or “nutritious.” If we want to carry this food analogy a little further, however, we would have to acknowledge that, much as a complete lack of appetite for food indicates some underlying illness, and prolonged fasting will, in the end, prove deadly, in a similar way, it is not healthy for an otherwise civilized person never to read a book, or to regard reading (as too many students do!) as simply a necessary evil that must be performed to survive, a bitter medicine that must be swallowed. Avid readers are baffled by people who never read, in much the same was as people who delight in healthy, delicious, well-prepared food are baffled by anorexics, or those who never eat anything but tasteless processed junk.

    The fact that even college-educated adults quit reading books as soon as they are able suggests that our schools and colleges do a very poor job of teaching the delight of reading tales well told, and that many parents set a bad example by never reading books themselves. What can or should be done about that is a separate question, and outside the scope of this blog. The delight and benefits of reading, however is a topic that I’d like to pursue further, so I’ll undoubtedly return to the question of why reading fiction is good for you.

    ©2015 Lisa A. Nicholas

    Please leave your thoughts or comments below!

    If books were snow-cones: Martha Grimes & Clive Cussler

    novelist Martha Grimes
    Martha Grimes

    I have recently gone through a spate of what, for me, constitutes the equivalent of “beach reads” — books that you read just for the fun of it, knowing that they provide more amusement than edification or cause for reflection. Such books are the mental equivalent of buttered popcorn or snow cones, tasty but probably not good for you if taken in quantity. I find that, as with such junk food, after a couple of servings I lose my taste for such stuff and the thought of going back for another helping any time soon makes me feel a bit nauseous.

    novelist Clive Cussler
    Clive Cussler

    My recent “junk reads” of choice have been novels by Martha Grimes and Clive Cussler. Grimes writes British-style murder mysteries (although an American herself) that have come to occupy a prominent place in the subgenre of “cozies” (i.e., atmosphere and quirky characters predominate over plot and characterization), while Cussler‘s brand of story-telling almost defies description — I suppose I would say his novels are action-adventure stories that rely heavily on maritime escapades and odd bits of ancient history. Cussler himself says:

    I have never considered myself as much a writer as an entertainer. I’ve sincerely felt that my job was to entertain you the reader in such a manner that when you reached the end of the book you felt that you had got your money’s worth.[I] believe you will find the novels a great summer reading escape and an everyday, anyday adventure.

    I would say he has a keen understanding of both his audience and his literary product. Both Cussler and Grimes have produced long series that repeat the core cast of characters, making their books always familiar and cozy to return to, a pleasant intermezzo to a steady diet of more substantial reading fare. Too much of either at one time, however, would probably cause mental indigestion and rotting of the intellectual incisors.

    More recent reading: Madeleine L’Engle’s “Dragons in the Waters”

     When posting my list of recent and current reading last week, I had a feeling I was leaving something out, and I was right. I neglected to include Madeleine L’Engle’s Dragons in the Waters, a story of Poly O’Keefe, daughter of Meg Murry O’Keefe and her husband Calvin, who were children in L’Engle’s Time Quartet (A Wrinkle in Time, etc.).

    Dragons in the Waters, cover, Madeleine L'EngleL’Engle’s stories of the Murrys, O’Keefes, and Austins (families at the center of several of her novel series) are among those I like to re-read from time to time. Most people who read L’Engle start with A Wrinkle in Time as children, but I believe I am an exception to this generalization. Memory is a tricky thing, but I seem to recall that the first L’Engle novel I read was The Young Unicorns, a story of the Austin family that involves a chilling mystery connected to the great neo-Gothic (Episcopal) cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan. I remember being completely gripped by the sense of metaphysical suspense hovering at the edges of this story and in the other stories involving the Austins, the O’Keefes, and the Murrys (and their various friends).

    I’ve read most of the entries in these series, and I’ve always liked (but sometimes been confused by) the way the casts of characters and action interweave among them. When I first read them as a teenager, I was really struck by the way Madeleine L’Engle uses the apparently chance meetings of characters who “belong”to different series to create a sense that we are all part of one great, complex plan, unbound by time or space, in the struggle of good against evil. I don’t believe the Austins ever meet the Murrys or the O’Keefes, but two characters introduced in The Young Unicorns (Mr. Theo and Canon Tallis) play a minor roles in Dragons in the Waters.

    The Young Unicorns, cover, Madeleine L'EngleDragons in the Waters, like the other novels in these three series, are usually classified as “young adult” mystery or suspense novels, but I dislike such pigeon-holing. I agree with C. S. Lewis that there are simply bad novels and good ones — the good ones invite, and repay, multiple readings, and the bad ones are utterly forgettable. Madeleine L’Engle’s are among the good ones. Anyway, just because a story is about adolescents does not mean the only audience it will appeal to is adolescent. Here’s one no-longer-young adult who still enjoys reading and re-reading these “young adult” stories.

    Current reading: mystery novels, history, literary criticism et cetera

    I’ve been doing a lot of reading, not much writing lately. Here are some of the things I have read, am reading, or will shortly begin, some of which I will shortly be discussing in subsequent posts.

    Mysteries

    Thanks to a new Half Price Books nearby, I’ve been able to entertain myself reading inexpensive murder mysteries.

    The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, Alexander McCall Smith
    • Careless in Red, Elizabeth George. One of her Inspector Lynley mysteries which has not yet been turned into an episode of the television series by that name. [finished reading]
    • Last Act in Palmyra, Lindsey Davis. A Marcus Didius Falco mystery that takes place in the Decapolis during the reign of Roman emperor Vespasian (see earlier discussion of this Roman mystery series). [finished reading]
    • The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Alexander McCall Smith. The first in this charming series, whose detective-protagonist is Botswanan Precious Ramotswe and which has been turned into a movie and TV series on HBO. All of the plots for the first series of TV episodes were taken from this episodic novel, and the series largely captures the charm of the novel. [finished reading]
    • Mrs. Pollifax and the Whirling Dervish, Dorothy Gilman. The second or third in the series, which finds Mrs. Pollifax evading a pre-9/11 Muslim terrorist ring in Morroco. [finished reading]
    • Picture Miss Seeton, Heron Carvic. The first in the Miss Seeton series, about an elderly English art instructor with a penchant for tangling with criminals and then providing clues to crimes through her intuitively/psychically-inspired drawings. The series was begun by Heron Carvic, who wrote 5 Miss Seeton mysteries before his death. The series was later continued by other writers using pseudonyms with the initials H and C (Hampton Charles, Hamilton Crane). I read 8 or ten of the beginning of the series many years ago, and am glad to re-discover Miss Seeton. [finished reading]

    Other literature

    • Dandelion Wine, Ray Bradbury. I fell in love with Ray Bradbury as a kid when I read a story of his in a reader at school, about the magic of a new pair of sneakers — a story, I found out later, that was taken from Dandelion Wine. This book really captures, for me, the beauty of Bradbury’s writing and his talent at capturing the richness and beauty of life. [Currently reading]
    • Portuguese Irregular Verbs, by Alexander McCall Smith. I’ve not yet started this, so I’m not sure if it should go in the “mystery” category, along with Smith’s No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. [Planning to read]
    • Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare. An Oxford school edition. I wanted to re-read this after reading John Carroll’s analysis of it in the first chapter of The Wreck of Western Culture. [Planning to re-read]
    • Hamlet, William Shakespeare. Oxford edition, with extensive material and discussion of the three extant versions of the play. Another one I wanted to re-read after reading the first chapter of Carroll’s The Wreck of Western Culture. [Planning to read]

    Literary Criticism

    • An Experiment in Criticism, C. S. Lewis. While reading Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia, I realized that I had never read this (although I’m pretty sure I’ve owned it), so I bought a new copy and got cracking. [finished reading]

    History

    • Dynamics of World History, Christopher Dawson. A compilation of Dawson’s essays,  edited by John J. Mulloy. Organized to give a good overview of Dawson’s work as an historian. I’m reading it one essay at a time. [Currently reading]

    Other non-fiction

    • Things That Count: Essays Moral and Theological, Gilbert Meilaender. A collection of essays in which Meilaender, an ethicist and theologian (Lutheran, I believe) “[mines] the great works of philosophy, literature, and political theory” for “insights into the human condition.” Until now, I know Meilaender only from his contributions to First Things, but I’m looking forward to reading these essays, and will probably comment on them one by one, as I read them. This is one of two books I chose as my free selections when I renewed my membership in the Intercollegiate Studies Institute‘s Reader’s Club (huge discounts on subsequent purchases during the next twelve months). [Currently reading]
    • The Wreck of Western Culture: Humanism Revisited, John Carroll. My other free selection from ISI. To counter the prevalent view that the humanism that came in through the Renaissance is to be credited for all the wonders of modern life — individual liberty, modern democracy, prosperity, etc. — Carroll presents an alternative view, namely that  “the West’s five-hundred-year experiment with humanism has failed” and has destroyed culture in the western(ized) world. [Currently reading]
    • The Apocalypse–Letter by Letter: A Literary Analysis of the Book of Revelation, Steven Paul. This was lent me by a friend, who thought I would appreciate the linguistic precision with which the author analyzes the original Greek of the last book of the Bible (Apocalypse, a.k.a. Revelation). The author, dying of cancer, wrote this as a series of letters to his brother-in-law, who later compiled the letters into a book for publication. [Planning to read]

    I have a feeling I’m leaving out one or two things, but that’s the gist of it. So many books, so little time!

    Mysteries of Ancient Rome, Part 3 (Marcus Didius Falco mysteries)

    The Silver Pigs (Marcus Didius Falco Mysteries)The third series of murder mysteries set in ancient Rome with which I am most familiar are those of Lindsey Davis, the investigations of fictional detective Marcus Didius Falco, who lives and snoops during the reign of Emperor Vespasian (father of succeeding Emperors Titus and Domitian, who all together constitute the Flavian Dynasty). Unlike the Roberts and Saylor novels, this series gives insight into the popular culture of the early Imperial Rome, rather than the historical events that contributed to the collapse of the Republic. Falco’s escapades are also considerably more lighthearted and deliberately comedic than those of the other two fictional detectives, which may be why they are so popular.

    • Period: The first in the series, The Silver Pigs, takes place in A.D. 70, at the beginning of the reign of Emperor Vespasian (also the year of the razing of Jerusalem), but the central events transpire in Roman Britain. The most recent (20th) addition to the series, Nemesis (only recently released in hard cover) takes place in A. D. 77., toward the end of Vespasian’s reign. The intervening novels take the protagonist to the far corners of the Roman Empire, which in this period was at its greatest expanse.
    • Detective/Protagonist: Marcus Didius Falco, a plebeian with a checkered family background, is a freelance “informer” who works on commission for the emperor, reporting to the emperor’s Chief Spy. Falco is also a free-wheeling scamp who is not afraid to be politically-incorrect: for instance, early in the series, he sets up housekeeping with Helena Justina, a Senator’s daughter who becomes the mother of his first child. The colorful commoners in Falco’s family and the more conventional and proper aristocrats in Helena’s provide a good overview of the social spectrum of Roman citizenry of the period, and serve to suggest that the early Empire’s pretense of preserving the social and civic mores that had given strength and resiliency to the Roman republic was just that — pretense. Davis seems to suggest that the real vitality of Rome, at this point, lies in the huge plebeian swathe of the population, whose interests, unlike those of the stiff, old Senatorial class, are varied, earthy, and definitely not stuffy. Think of Falco as the Roman equivalent of a modern East-Ender and Helena as the equivalent of the younger generation of the British aristocracy, who want to break out of the quaint anachronism of the social class into which they’ve been born.
    • What I Like: First, these stories are just plain laugh-out-loud funny. You just can’t not like that scamp, Falco, and you can’t help but sympathize with the women (well-bred girlfriend Helena Justina and his common but practical mother) who try to rein him in and keep him on the straight and narrow. To my mind, Davis does a better job than Saylor of showing the contrasting values and habits of the common and the aristocratic classes. Another attractive feature of these novels is the wide range of locales covered, with at least as much time spent in the provinces as in Rome itself.
    • What I Don’t Like: As with Steven Saylor’s Gordianus the Finder stories, my chief quibble is the projection of modern social mores and political attitudes onto citizens of ancient Rome. It is highly unlikely, for instance, that a woman like Helena Justina would choose (or be allowed) to take up the role of common-law wife to a low-life like Falco (if he were a member of the Roman nouveau riche, this might be a bit more plausible). Davis admits on her official website that she wanted to create characters and situations that suited her own feminist sensibilities. However, I am more inclined to make allowances for the charming and irrepressible Falco than I am for the dully self-righteous Gordianus. I frankly admit my personal bias in this matter, but would defend it by pointing out that, in the case of Saylor, modern sensibilities may distort our understanding of important historical events, whereas in Davis’s novels they simply provide for a lively cast of characters, none of whom is closely involved with events of historical moment.
    There are many other novels, or even novel series, that use Republican or Imperial Rome as their background, but these three series are the ones I know best. Each has its strengths and weaknesses, both as mystery novels and as windows into ancient culture. I’ll summarize my assessments of the three:
    • John Maddox Roberts’ SPQR mysteries: Best overall, because it ably balances historic and cultural accuracy with entertainment. Although not as much of a scamp as Davis’s Falco, Decius Caecilius Metellus manages to give us an insider’s view of the ruling class without being stuffily pious about it; he has plenty of youthful adventures, including a long and spirited rivalry with Clodius Pulcher and an on-going friendship with ex-galley slave Milo, who becomes a gang leader in the Roman underworld and chief (eventually deadly) rival of Clodius.
    • Steven Saylor’s Roma Sub Rosa mysteries: Gives an interesting contrasting view of many of the same events covered in the SPQR novels. While I believe Gordianus’s viewpoint reflects that of some modern historical revisionists more than it does one typical of any Roman of Gordianus’s day, these novels are well-crafted mysteries that can provide many hours of satisfying entertainment. They also, if read in tandem with Robert’s SPQR stories, can provide a glimpse of the spectrum of modern evaluations of important milestones in Roman history.
    • Lindsey Davis’s Marcus Didius Falco mysteries: Probably the most lighthearted of the three, the Falco novels give a glimpse of ancient popular culture that pleasingly complements the more seriously historical focus of the other two series. These novels, set a couple of generations later than the other series, show how the concerns of the Empire differed from those of the waning Republic.
    If you have read any of these novels and would like to throw in your own two cents, please do so using the Comments function. Or if you are familiar with other novels that take place in this general period, please leave a comment and say why you would or would not recommend them.