Maurice Baring, In the Shadow of the Chesterbelloc
Imagine one body with two heads. The twin giants of the Catholic literary revival of the early 20th century, G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, were so much associated in the eyes of the reading public that they together became the butt of the caricaturist's humor and the satirist's wit. Most famously, George Bernard Shaw, in an article titled "The Chesterbelloc: A Lampoon," likened them to two halves of "a very amusing pantomime elephant." Max Beerbohm, a friend of both men, drew a famous caricature depicting Belloc and Chesterton seated at a table, each holding a tankard of foaming beer, with the former lecturing the latter on "the errors of Geneva." The rumbustious joie de vivre captured by Beerbohm in this caricature captivated the public's imagination to such a degree that H.G. Wells complained that "Chesterton and Belloc have surrounded Catholicism with a kind of boozy halo." George Orwell, in the satirical attack on the literati in the opening chapter of his novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying, went one step further than other humorists by bestowing an honorary ordination on the Chesterbelloc, describing "Father Hilaire Chestnut's latest book of R.C. propaganda."
The literary legend surrounding the figure of the Chesterbelloc has cast such a long and enduring shadow that the lesser-known figure of Maurice Baring has been almost eclipsed by it. This is unfortunate and unjust. As a man of letters and faith, Baring deserves to emerge from the shadow of his two illustrious friends and take his place beside them as he did in Sir James Gunn's famous painting, The Conversation Piece. This large group portrait, now displayed in London's National Portrait Gallery, depicts Baring, Belloc, and Chesterton assembled round a table. The group, which Chesterton, with characteristic humor, labeled "Baring, over-bearing and past-bearing," represented more than a mere assemblage of friends. By the 1920s, when Baring had established a reputation as a Catholic novelist, he was seen in the eyes of the reading public as the third person, alongside Belloc and Chesterton, in a Catholic literary trinity. Sharing not only a common friendship but a common philosophy and faith, Baring, Belloc, and Chesterton might not have been as indivisible as the Holy Trinity, but they were certainly thought by many to be as indomitable as the Three Musketeers.
Baring was born in 1874, the same year as Chesterton and four years after Belloc. A younger son of the first Lord Revelstoke, and an heir to the Baring international banking dynasty, he enjoyed all the trappings of privilege. As a child he was looked after by a succession of nannies and governesses in the sprawling opulence of England's great country manors and the dignified splendor of London townhouses. His autobiography, The Puppet Show of Memory, evokes a world of wealth and cultured comfort, furnished with servants and characterized by a savoir vivre that would be beyond the reach of later generations. It is invaluable as both elegy and eulogy to a dying world and as a testament to a blissfully carefree childhood.
Baring's school days at Eton are also remembered in The Puppet Show of Memory and are re-created atmospherically in his novel Friday's Business. From Eton he went to Hildesheim, near Hanover, to learn German, adding to the French he had learned in the nursery and to the Latin and Greek in which he had excelled at school. Later, he would become fully conversant in Italian, Russian, and the Scandinavian languages. After a period in Florence, he went to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he first came into contact with the fashionable skepticism of the 1890s. He met Bertrand Russell, Robert Trevelyan, and other intellectuals who sought to convince him that he should not go to chapel because "Christianity was exploded, a thing of the past" and that "nobody believed in it really among the young and the advanced:
I remember thinking that although I was much younger in years than these intellectuals, and far inferior in knowledge, brains, and wits, no match for them in argument or in achievement, I was none the less older than they were in a particular kind of experience – the experience that has nothing to do either with the mind, or with knowledge, and that is independent of age, but takes place in the heart, and in which a child may be sometimes more rich than a grown-up person. I do not mean anything sentimental. I am speaking of the experience that comes from having been suddenly constrained to turn round and look at life from a different point of view. So when I heard the intellectual reason in the manner I have described, I felt for the moment an old person listening to young people. I felt young people must always have talked like that. It was not that I had then any definite religious creed. I seldom went to Chapel.
Although the "dogmatic disbelief" of these intellectuals remained "intolerable," the religious tenets of his own lukewarm Protestant faith were equally unsatisfactory. Eventually his insecurely held faith, a remnant of childhood, "just dropped away… as easily as a child loses a first tooth." By the winter of 1893, he was an avowed agnostic, ceasing all church attendance and declaring to friends that he "didn't believe in a Christian faith." This was his state of heart and mind when, in 1897, he first made the acquaintance of Belloc.
Having witnessed one of Belloc's pyrotechnic displays at the Oxford Union, Baring described him as "a brilliant orator and conversationalist… who lives by his wits." At their first meeting, Belloc confronted Baring's agnostic arguments with the uncompromising riposte that he would "most certainly go to hell." Evidently finding Belloc's dogmatic belief more tolerable than the dogmatic disbelief of Bertrand Russell's intellectual coterie in Cambridge, Baring concluded from "the first moment I saw him" that Belloc was "a remarkable man."
In spite of their differences, Belloc's and Baring's friendship was cemented by mutual respect. "I like him immensely and think him full of brilliances and delightful to be with," Baring wrote of Belloc three years later. At this stage, however, Baring did not feel tempted to succumb to the allure of Belloc's faith. When his friend Reggie Balfour informed him in the autumn of 1899 that he "felt a strong desire to become a Catholic," Baring was "extremely surprised and disconcerted." Until that moment, he had only known two converts – his sister Elizabeth, who had married the Catholic earl of Kenmare, and an undergraduate who had explained his motive merely as a need to have all or nothing. He was "amazed" that his friend should consider such a step and sought to discourage him, arguing that the Christian religion "was not so very old, and so small a strip in the illimitable series of the creeds of mankind." Out of loyalty to his friend, simple curiosity, or both, Baring accompanied Balfour to a Low Mass. He was pleasantly surprised: "It impressed me greatly… One felt one was looking on at something extremely ancient. The behaviour of the congregation, and the expression on their faces impressed me too. To them it was evidently real."
Soon after their attendance at Low Mass, Balfour sent Baring an epitaph that he had come across in the church of San Gregorio in Rome: "Here lies Robert Peckham, Englishman and Catholic, who, after England's break with the Church, left England not being able to live without the Faith and who, coming to Rome, died not being able to live without his country." This epitaph and its underlying tragedy produced a marked and lasting effect on Baring's whole view of the Reformation and probably had as much to do with his eventual conversion as anything he discussed with Belloc. The epitaph itself would haunt him to such a degree that, 30 years later, it would reemerge as the inspiration for his novel, Robert Peckham, which, alongside R.H. Benson's classic, Come Rack! Come Rope!, is perhaps the finest historical novel ever written about the bloody legacy of the English Reformation.
Baring entered the diplomatic service and was posted, between 1899 and 1904, to Paris, Copenhagen, and Rome. Becoming disillusioned with life as a diplomat, and simultaneously becoming enamored with Russia, its language, and its people, he resigned from the diplomatic service and arrived in St. Petersburg shortly after Christmas 1904. It was from here, in January 1906, that he had written excitedly to a friend about the books of Chesterton, particularly Chesterton's first novel, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, and his controversial book of essays entitled Heretics, stating simply and emphatically, "I like his ideas."
Considering that Baring and Chesterton had both been good friends of Belloc since the turn of the century, it is perhaps surprising that they did not become acquainted with each other until as late as 1907. Indeed, as late as March 1908, Baring was writing to Chesterton from Moscow requesting a greater intimacy in their relationship, asking whether he might "call you by your Christian name," and adding his hope that "you and I and Hilaire may meet." The slow development of their friendship was probably due principally to Baring's long absences from England, but once formed, their affection for each other grew stronger as the years passed. Frances Chesterton was to say many years later that of all her husband's friends there were none he loved more than Maurice Baring.
Welcoming the King
It is not clear whether Chesterton's Orthodoxy, published on September 25, 1908, had any direct influence on Baring's conversion, but considering Baring's admiration for Chesterton's earlier works and his growing fondness for the author, it would be surprising if he had not read Chesterton's hugely influential volume in the months immediately preceding his reception into the Church on February 1, 1909.
Describing his reception as "the only action in my life which I am quite certain I have never regretted," Baring sought to elucidate the forces at work in his conversion in the admirable sonnet sequence "Vita Nuova." The first sonnet deals with the initial approach to conversion: "I found the clue I sought not, in the night, While wandering in a pathless maze of gloom." The second sonnet describes the act of conversion itself, the desire to linger no longer "in a separated porch" and the sudden realization that the fire was "ablaze beyond the gate." He knocks "and swiftly came the answering word," inviting him to enter into his own estate where "my broken soul began to mend":
I knelt, I knew – it was too bright to see – The welcome of a King who was my friend. The final sonnet centers on the hope for eternity beyond the grave where the "tranquil harbour shines and waits."
Explaining his reasons for conversion more prosaically, he wrote that "directly I came to the conclusion inside that life was for me divine, and that I had inside me an immortal thing in touch with an Eternal Spirit, there was no other course open to me than to become a Catholic." He told the composer Ethel Smyth, who was a close friend and confidante, that his faith was a fusion of want and need: "I feel that human life which is almost intolerable as it is, would be to me quite intolerable without this which is to me no narcotic but food, air, drink." These words, so candidly self-perceptive, offer a key not only to Baring's conversion but to the motivation and force behind many of his novels' stoically self-sacrificial heroes and heroines who cope with the exile of life, and its trials and sufferings, with the consolation offered by faith. "One has to accept sorrow for it to have any healing power, and that is the most difficult thing in the world," says one of the characters in his final novel, Darby and Joan. "When you understand what accepted sorrow means, you will understand everything. It is the secret of life."
In her memoirs, Ethel Smyth described Baring's conversion as "the crucial action of his life." When she was informed of the event, she "had the feeling that the missing piece of a complicated puzzle, or rather the only key wherewith a given iron safe could be unlocked, had at last been found."
A similar view was held by the French writer Raymond Las Vergnas in his critical study of Chesterton, Belloc, and Baring, translated into English by Jesuit C.C. Martindale. Baring's Christian faith was, Las Vergnas wrote, the "powerful unifying force" responsible for "harmonising the complex tendencies" in his artistic temperament.
Belloc, who had observed his friend's slow but steady spiritual progress for more than a decade, greeted his conversion with jubilation. "It is an immense thing," he wrote to Charlotte Balfour, who had been received into the Church herself in 1904. "They are coming in like a gathering army from all manner of directions, all manner of men each bringing some new force: that of Maurice is his amazing accuracy of mind which proceeds from his great virtue of truth. I am profoundly grateful!"
Baring also brought a depth of culture that few of his generation could equal. Although still only 34 years old, he had traveled widely throughout Europe as a diplomat, journalist, and man of leisure. He knew Latin, Greek, French, German, Italian, Russian, and Danish, and he was widely read in the literature of all these languages. He was the quintessential European. Belloc's words in An Open Letter on the Decay of Faith, published in 1906, would have struck Baring with a particular resonance and poignancy as he made his final approach to the Church:
I desire you to remember that we are Europe; we are a great people. The faith is not an accident among us, nor an imposition, nor a garment; it is bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh: it is a philosophy made by and making ourselves. We have adorned, explained, enlarged it; we have given it visible form. This is the service we Europeans have done to God. In return He has made us Christians.
At the time of his reception into the Church, Baring had only scratched the surface of his own literary potential. He had written several books, most notably on his experiences in Russia, and also a translation of Leonardo da Vinci's Thoughts on Art and Life. He had also published in 1906 a volume of poetry, Sonnets and Short Poems, which did not receive the critical acclaim it deserved. Sadly, today as in his own day, the merits of Baring's poetry continue to go largely unnoticed. Several sonnets inspired by his experience as a war correspondent during the Russo-Japanese war in 1904, particularly "The Dead Samurai to Death" and "The Dying Reservist," warrant a place in any anthology of war poetry. That place is seldom granted. Similarly, several sublimely beautiful sonnets inspired by his love for Russia, most notably "Harvest in Russia," and by his love for the arts, particularly his trilogy of sonnets on "Beethoven," "Mozart," and "Wagner," remain unread and completely unknown to modern readers. His poem, "Candlemas," written alongside the sonnet sequence "Vita Nuova" as a commemoration and celebration of his reception into the Church, is one of the finest religious sonnets of the 20th century.
Further books on Russia followed in the wake of his reception into the Church, along with a number of genre-defying humorous volumes, Diminutive Dramas, Dead Letters, and Lost Diaries, in which subtle pastiche, mischievous satire, and sheer farce are combined in equal measure. It was, however, as a novelist that he would finally receive the literary recognition commensurate with his superlative gifts.
Baring's career as a novelist was relatively short, commencing with the publication of Passing By in 1921 and ending prematurely 15 years later with the onset of the debilitating effects of Parkinson's disease. In between, he left his claim to posterity in the form of several novels of outstanding grace. C, published in 1924, was highly praised by the French novelist André Maurois, who wrote that no book had given him such pleasure since his reading of Tolstoy, Proust, and certain novels by E.M. Forster. If anything, Baring was to enjoy greater success in France than in England. Ten of his books were translated into French, with one – Daphne Adeane – going through 23 printings in the edition of the Librairie Stock. Others were translated into Czech, Dutch, German, Hungarian, Italian, Spanish, and Swedish.
Not surprisingly, Baring's greatest literary champions in England were Belloc and Chesterton. Belloc considered Cat's Cradle, published in 1925, "a great masterpiece… the best story of a woman's life that I know." He also greatly admired Robert Peckham. "The style," Belloc wrote, "which is characteristically yours, is even better in Robert Peckham than in any of the other books… Where you triumph unusually is in the exact valuation of characters which do not differ in black and white, but in every shade. You do it better in this book, I think, than in any other, even than in Cat's Cradle… It seems to me to have a more permanent quality than any other… All those who count will unite in its praise, except those who do not feel a subtle thing at the first shock."
In 1929, shortly after Baring's novel The Coat Without Seam had been published, Chesterton wrote that he had been "much uplifted" by his friend's latest book:
It is, as you say, extraordinary how the outer world can see everything about it except the point. It is curiously so with much of the very good Catholic work now being done in literature, especially in France. The Protestant English, who prided themselves on their common sense, seem now to be dodging about and snatching at anything except the obvious… I am only a vulgar controversial journalist, and never pretended to be a novelist; my writing cannot in any case be so subtle or delicate as yours. But even I find that if I make the point of a story stick out like a spike, they carefully go and impale themselves on something else. But there are plenty of people who will appreciate anything as good as The Coat Without Seam.
It is utterly futile to write about the Christian faith from the outside. A good example of this is the extremely conscientious novel by Mrs. Humphry Ward called Helbeck of Bannisdale. It is a study of Catholicism from the outside, and the author has taken scrupulous pains to make it accurate, detailed and exhaustive. The only drawback is that, not being able to see the matter from the inside, she misses the whole point.
Baring's final book was Have You Anything to Declare? Described by Robert Speaight as "the best bedside book in the English language," this anthology was gleaned from the literatures of many of the languages in which Baring was conversant. It was a fitting swan song from a man who appeared to be the very incarnation of the various cultures that comprised "the Europe of the Faith."
"Everything about him," says a character in one of Baring's novels, "gave one the impression of centuries and hidden stores of pent-up civilisation." In our uncivilized age, it is perhaps inevitable that Baring's star should have been overlooked. For as long as the light of civilization dwindles, so will the reputation of this most civilized of writers. Ultimately, however, his future position in the ranks of the great novelists of the 20th century is assured. As the permanent things reassert themselves, and as civilization rises from the ashes of burned-out nihilism, so the works of Maurice Baring will enjoy their own resurrection. The facile and the fashionable will fade, and the peripheral will pass away; but Baring, or at least the best of Baring, will remain.
by Joseph Pearce - July 24, 2010