From Waugh to Ward

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January 4, 2021 by lucieromarin

I’m watching Brideshead Revisited and reading Robert Hugh Benson’s The Conventionalists. I took refuge in them from a sudden need to escape to unspoiled landscapes and Oxford scenery, but I find, with some surprise, that they give me a mingled relief and thanksgiving for not having been born into the wealthier classes of England in the 1920s. Yes, yes, I know the rich had food and shelter and all kinds of privilege, but they still had to get from dawn to dusk every day, and I don’t think I would have enjoyed their way of getting from dawn to dusk. A person of the sanguine temperament might delight in endless rounds of motoring and bridge, but, as my choleric self likes projects and dislikes games, while my introvert self likes writing and dislikes parties, I’m glad to have been spared the relentless tedium of dining rituals and pointless entertainments, conversations loaded with ulterior meaning and conducted in a passive-aggressive monotone, my every move observed by the butler.

Obviously, being watched by the butler beats actually being the butler – or any of the servant classes or farming classes or the rural or urban poor. Like anyone, I would take boredom over sweat-shop labour. I can also see how, from a ritual perspective, my present-day dining preference for scrambled eggs and The Mandalorian might represent civilisation’s decay, rather than its apogee. I’m just saying that I have, for a change, been briefly moved to consider the constraints of other lives and the blessings of my own life, and that this prompting has come from an unexpected quarter.

I haven’t read Robert Hugh Benson’s Confessions or memoirs, but I imagine that a son of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Etonian, Trinity College graduate, (and friend of Lord Alfred Douglas!) who chucks it all in to become a Catholic priest, probably has something to say worth hearing. I can say with certitude that an authoritative take on the topic of privilege can be found in one of the most interesting autobiographies I’ve ever read in my entire life – Unfinished Business, by Maisie Ward. The author was born into this privilege, but was changed by the First World War, after which she joined the Catholic Evidence Guild, becoming a street preacher and asking herself questions about life. She married Sydneysider Frank Sheed, with whom she co-founded the publishing house Sheed and Ward. She also wrote biographies of G.K Chesterton, John Henry Newman and Caryll Houselander, ran a retreat house and shrine, travelled through America to see first-hand the work of Dorothy Day, founded a housing co-operative, and travelled to France to spend time with the worker-priest movement. (She also ran the family home and raised two children.) I’m underselling the interest of the book here – it’s also a spiritual memoir, a record of the ecclesiastical and political movements of the day, a record of changes to the roles of the laity in general and women in particular, a rigorous consideration of what apologetics is and is not, and a testament to some of the now-almost-forgotten figures of her time, including Father Vincent McNabb OP and Louisa Cozens, the charlady appointed by her bishop as principal examiner, and whose work, A Handbook of Heresies was described by a priest-friend of mine as the best work on the topic he’s ever found. Seriously, a charlady became a theology examiner in 1930s London, and she’s not even recorded in the Wikipedia!

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