G.K. Chesterton’s 1920 Insights on “The Story of the Vow”

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                                   11 July 2020

Saint Pius I (d. 167)

Saint Benedict of Nursia (d. 543)

The Hicksons’ Sacramental Anniversary

Epigraphs

The civilisation of vows was broken up when Henry the Eighth broke his own vow of marriage. Or rather, it was broken up by a new cynicism in the ruling powers of Europe, of which that was the almost accidental expression in England. The monasteries, that had been built by vows, were destroyed. The guilds [of the pledged craftsmen and tradesmen], that had been regiments of volunteers, were dispersed. The sacramental nature of marriage was denied; and many of the greatest intellects of the new movement, like Milton [the poet John Milton], already indulged in a very modern idealisation of divorce.” (G.K. Chesterton, The Superstition of Divorce (London: Chatto & Windus, 1920), page 96—my emphasis added.)

***

“Such, in very vague outline, has been the historical nature of vows; and the unique part they played in that medieval civilisation out of which modern civilisation rose—or fell.” (G. K. Chesterton, The Superstition of Divorce (1920), page 93—my emphasis added.)

***

“But when this saner view of history is realised, there does remain something more mystical and difficult to define. Even heathen things are Christian when they have been preserved by Christianity. Chivalry is something recognisably different even from the virtus of Virgil. Charity is something exceedingly different from the plain pity of Homer.” (G.K. Chesterton, The Superstition of Divorce (1920), page 86—my emphasis added.)

***

In 1920, two years before he was received into the Catholic Church at forty-eight years of age, G.K. Chesterton published a book entitled The Superstition of Divorce,1 in which there is to be refreshingly found a variegated and unexpected twenty-page chapter entitled “The Story of the Vow.”

It is our intention in this brief essay to concentrate on some parts of that one chapter so that we may better understand and circulate Chesterton’s reviving insights on the meaning of a vow, and on some of the consequences of a vow, as distinct from a mere contract or an unfair “leonine contract.” For, it is so that a vow is not always a solemn act and grave promise made also as an irreversible promise to God. But sometimes it is: for example, as is the case in a sacramental marriage or in a sacred calling to the religious life, as in the pledges of a monk, or those of a knight.

Moreover, says Chesterton:

The whole of what we call chivalry was one great vow. Vows of chivalry varied infinitely from the most solid to the most fantastic; from a vow to give all the spoils of conquest to the poor to a vow to refrain from shaving until the first glimpse of Jerusalem. As I have remarked, this rule of loyalty, even in unruly exceptions which proved the rule, ran through all the romances [as with beloved Don Quixote!] and songs of the troubadours; and there were always vows even when they were very far from being marriage vows….

I mean here to emphasise the presence, and not even to settle the proportion, of this new notion [of vows] in the middle ages….When we come to workmen and small tradesmen, we find the same vague yet vivid presence of the spirit that can only be called the vow. In this sense there was a chivalry of trades as well as chivalry of orders of knighthood. (89-91—my emphasis added)

Returning to another portion of his earlier analogies with the classical pagan world, Chesterton says:

Even our patriotism [now] is something more subtle than the undivided love of the city [like Athens]; and the change is felt in the most permanent things, such as the love of landscape [in Belloc’s Sussex and the Sea!] or the love of woman.

To define the differentiation in all these things will always be hopelessly difficult. But I would here suggest one element in the change [from the Ancient World] which is perhaps too much neglected: the nature of a vow.

I might express it by saying that pagan antiquity was the age of status; that Christian mediævalism was the age of vows; and that sceptical modernity has been the age of contracts; or rather has tried to be, and has failed.

The outstanding example of status is slavery. (86-87—my emphasis added)

Later alerting us to the consequential breakup of families (and hence to the wounding of the vulnerable little children), Chesterton had also earlier warned us of something else: “The point is that every philosophy of sex must fail which does not account for its ambition of fixity, as well as for its experience of failure.” (83—my emphasis added) For, as he later also politely and quite fairly adds:

The point here, however, is that the trade and craft [guilds] had not only something like the crest [of aristocratic heraldry], but something like the vow of knighthood. There was in the guildsman the same basic notion that belonged to knights and even to the monks. It was the notion of the free choice of a fixed estate. [That is to say, with reference to the free choice of the knight or the monk: “He is not bound to be bound” (83)!] We can realise the moral atmosphere if we compare the system of Christian guilds, not only with the [unfree] status of the Greek and Roman slaves, but with such a scheme as that of the Indian castes. The oriental caste has some of the qualities of the occidental guild; especially the valuable quality of tradition and the accumulation of culture. (91-92—my emphasis added)

As Chesterton said about the slow transition from pagan antiquity to a wider Christian civilisation: “It marks at least a special stage of transition that the form of freedom was essential to the fact of service, or even of servitude. In this way it is not a coincidence that the word homage actually means manhood.” (89—my emphasis added)

Looking back at all of this evidence, Chesterton said:

But we can never judge it [the idea of the vow] fairly till we face, as I have tried to suggest, this main fact of history: that the personal pledge, feudal or civic or monastic, was the way in which the world did escape from the system of slavery in the past. For the modern break-down of mere contract leaves it still doubtful [as of 1920] if there be any other way of escaping it [i.e., an effective, even subtle, form of slavery] in the future.

The idea, or at any rate the ideal, of the thing called the vow is fairly obvious. It is to combine the fixity that goes with finality with self-respect that only goes with freedom. (94—my emphasis added)

In light of Henry the Eighth’s and John Milton’s sense of marital license, Chesterton said:

The progress of this sort of emancipation advanced step by step with the progress of that aristocratic ascendancy which has made the history of modern England [along with an inordinate dominance by the money power with “the sign of golden usury” (91)]; with all its sympathy with personal liberty, and all its utter lack of sympathy with popular life. Marriage not only became less of a sacrament but less of a sanctity. It threatened to become not only a contract, but a contract that could not be kept [as with “no-fault divorce” today]….It began with divorce of a king; and it is now ending in divorces for a whole kingdom.

The modern era that followed can be called the era of contract; but it can still be called the era of leonine contract. The nobles of the new time first robbed the people, and then offered to bargain with them. It would not be an exaggeration to say that they first robbed the people, and then offered to cheat them….The object of the whole process was to isolate the individual poor man in his dealings with the individual rich man; and then offer to buy and sell with him, though it must be himself that was bought and sold. (96-98—my emphasis added)

Moreover, says Chesterton, and in an increasingly earnest way:

Unless the tendency [as seen from the vantage point of 1920] be reversed, he [the vulnerable and isolated poorer man] will probably become admittedly a slave [also in debt-bondage and facing usurious compound interest]. That is to say, the word slave will never be used, for it is always easy to find an inoffensive word; but he will be admittedly a man legally bound to certain social service, in return for economic security. In other words, the modern experiment of mere contract has broken down….The substitute for it may be the old one of status; but is must be something having some of the stability of status. So far history has found only one way of combining that sort of stability with any sort of liberty. (98—my emphasis added)

Now Chesterton comes to his main concern in his entire book on the family and divorce:

There is only one form of freedom that they [the “captains of industry” (99) and theirs managerial elites] tolerate; and that is the sort of sexual freedom that is covered by the legal fiction of divorce.

If we ask why this liberty is alone left, when so many liberties are lost, we shall find the answer in the summary of this chapter. They are trying to break the vow of the knight as they broke the vow of the monk. They recognise the vow as the vital antithesis to servile status; the alternative and therefore the antagonist. (99-100—my emphasis added)

Now returning to the sanctity of marriage, Chesterton becomes even more specific and robustly affirmative, ending his Chapter 3 with a deft and realistic literary allusion about one of those gravely ill effects of one conspicuous historical form of slavery:

Marriage makes a small state within the state, which resists all such [inordinate and intrusive] regimentation. That [marital] bond breaks all other [lesser positive-law] bonds; that [marital] law is found stronger than all later and lesser laws.

They [the modern state] desire the democracy to be sexually fluid, because the making of small nuclei is like the making of small nations. Like small nations, they are a nuisance to the mind of imperial scope….

It is so difficult to see the world in which we live [in 1920], that I know that many will see all I have said here of [often camouflaged] slavery as a nonsensical nightmare. But if my association of divorce with slavery seems only a far-fetched and theoretical paradox, I should have no difficulty in replacing it by a concrete and familiar picture. Let them merely remember the time when they read “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” and ask themselves whether the oldest and simplest of the charges against slavery has not always been the breaking up of families. (100-101—my emphasis added)

In this context it was also significant for a just and magnanimous man like G.K. Chesterton to discover that the printed subtitle of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1851-1852 widely influential pre-war novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is Life Among the Lowly.

The novel’s subtitle also recalls G.K. Chesterton’s keenly discerning and paradoxical wit in his Orthodoxy: “Without humility you can’t enjoy anything, even pride.”

We may better now also appreciate what Chesterton’s dear friend Hilaire Belloc had published eight years earlier in his 1912 book, which was also subtly entitled The Servile State.

–FINIS–

© 2020 Robert D. Hickson

1 G.K. Chesterton, The Superstition of Divorce (London: Chatto & Windus, 1920), containing 151 pages in length overall, with five chapters and a brief conclusion. All future references to this book, especially to Chapter 3 (“The Story of the Vow”) will be placed in parentheses above in the main body of this essay and commentary.

Maurice Baring’s “Xantippe and Socrates” (1925) with Miguel Cervantes’ Teresa and Sancho Panza in Don Quixote (1615): Shedding Comic Light on Married Couples

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                           14 January 2020

Saint Hilary of Poitiers (d. 368)

Epigraphs

Turgenev,” said [the Russian teacher] Yakovlev [when addressing Christopher Trevenen, himself the restless protagonist], says that man is either a Hamlet or a Don Quixote. You are a Don Quixote, only you have none of the Spaniard’s kindness and humility. If you are a Don Quixote you should be chivalrous.”

“Don Quixote, fortunately for him, was mad.”

He was very sane too.”

“You mean that I am neither mad nor sane?”

“Neither mad nor sane enough.”

“I will try and improve,” said Christopher, and he laughed.

(Maurice Baring, The Coat Without Seam (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1929), page 225—italics in the original; my bold emphasis added)

***

“I declare,” cried Sancho, “you [wife Teresa Panza] must have some devil in that body of yours. God bless us, woman, what a power of things you have strung together, one after the other, without head or tail!….Listen, dolt and nincompoop (I’m right to call you this, seeing that you don’t grip my meaning and you go tearing away from good fortune)….why won’t you agree and fall in with what I wish?”

“Do you know why, husband?” answered Teresa….“All give the poor man a hasty glance, but they keep their eyes glued on the rich man, and if the rich man was once poor, then you will hear the sneering and the gossiping and the continued spite of the backbiters in the streets, swarming as thick as bees.”

“Look here, Teresa,” said Sancho, “and pay heed to what I’m going to tell you, for maybe you never heard it all your life. And remember that I’m not airing my own opinion, but those of the reverend father who preached it in this village last Lent and who said, if I remember correctly….” (The remarks of Sancho are another reason for the translator’s former statement that this chapter [chapter five of Part II] is apocryphal, for they are beyond the mental capacity of our honest Sancho.) “Hence it happens, ….rest assured, Teresa, that no one will remember what he was [namely, such a poor man now up from “his low estate”], and all will respect him [as a rich man now] for what he is—that is to say, all except the envious [persons], from whom no prosperous fortune is safe.”

I can’t make head or tail of you, husband,” answered Teresa. “Do what you will, and don’t break my head with your orating and speechifying. And if you have revolved [sic] to do what you say–”

Resolved you should say, woman,” said Sancho, “not revolved.”

“Don’t start argufying with me, husband, “ said Teresa. “I speak as God pleases, and I’m content to call a spade a spade….”

“Then we both agree that our daughter [Sancha, or Marisancha or just Marica and Sanchica, as affectionate variants (559, 563)] is to be a countess,” said Sancho.

“The day I see her [our daughter] as a countess,” replied Teresa, “I’ll feel that I’m burying her; but once again I say, do as you please, for such is the burden we women receive at birth, to be obedient to our husbands no matter how doltish they may be.”

And with this she [Teresa] began to weep in real earnest as though she already saw Sanchica dead and buried. Sancho consoled her by saying that since he [as Governor] would have to make her a countess, he would postpone doing it as long as he could. So ended their conversation, and Sancho went back to see Don Quixote and make arrangements for their departure [on their third sally and joint adventure!].” (Miguel Cervantes, Don Quixote of La Mancha—Walter Starkie translation (New York: A Signet Classic—New American Library, 1957 and 1964), pages 561-563—Part II, Chapter V—my bold emphasis added; italics in the original)

***

Some time ago now, but I can now reliably remember where I first saw it, Maurice Baring, the graciously cultured author and close friend of Hilaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton, had one of his educated Russian characters say—it is to be found in Baring’s profound novel The Coat Without Seam (1929)—that a man has a basic disposition toward one of two types: either toward a brooding and vacillating Hamlet or toward a spontaneous and generous and very forgiving Don Quixote.

While recently reading Don Quixote aloud to my wife and our two young and eager children—especially some comic parts about Sancho Panza and his wife Teresa Panza “orating” and “argufying” together—I thought especially of one of Maurice Baring’s own subtly nuanced 1925 Diminutive Dramas, entitled “Xantippe and Socrates.”1 Thus, I thought to present both of these short literary attainments as an enhancement for our own still desirably larger spirit of comic festivity. To counterpoint the artful Miguel Cervantes and the artful Maurice Baring might still give us sparkling delight as well as some wise instruction. (From the first and extended Epigraph above, we may already savor Cervantes’ comic tones and characters, and promised adventurous substance.)

Maurice Baring himself was “a Don Quixote” who, as is fitting, was also “chivalrous” as well as a man of recurrent and manifest “kindness and humility.” He knew many languages and literatures—to include Greek and Latin and Russian—and he could deftly convey poignancy and elegiac tones of language and wounded life in his poetry and in his varied prose, as we shall soon see in his dramatic presentation of “Xantippe and Socrates” in which Socrates himself speaks very few words, while Xantippe shows, though often somewhat shrewish, how just lonely and uncertain she is. (Moreover, in this conversation, there is no mention of their children in Baring’s domestic piece and parody, though scholars speak of their two or three children who helped Xantippe after the death of Socrates, when he took his own life instead of going into a severe exile.)

Although Baring’s “diminutive drama” presents to a reader the few scenes and settings that could—and should—be acted out on stage, even by a resourceful wedded couple, we shall now try to accent the sequence and the actual words of Xantippe herself in her swift and voluble vividness. For example, after setting the scene and entrance of Socrates into a room in his home, here is how the play commences:

(Xantippe—henceforth, for convenience, presented as “X”). You’re twenty minutes late.

(Socrates—henceforth presented as “S”). I’m sorry, I was kept–

X. Wasting your time as usual, I suppose, and bothering people with questions who have got something better to do than to listen to you. You can’t think what a mistake you make by going on like that. You can’t think how much people dislike it. If people enjoyed it, or admired it, I could understand the waste of time—but they don’t. It only makes them angry. Everybody’s saying so.

S. Who’s everybody?

X. There you are with your questions again. Please don’t try to catch me out with those kind of tricks. I’m not a philosopher. I’m not a sophist. I know I’m not clever—I’m only a woman. But I do know the difference between right and wrong and black and white, and I don’t think it’s very kind of you, or very generous either, to be always pointing out my ignorance, and perpetually making me the butt of your sarcasm.

S. But I never said a word.

X. Oh, please, don’t try to wiggle out of it. We all know you’re very good at that. I do hate that shuffling so. It’s so cowardly. I do like a man one can trust—and depend on—who when he says Yes means Yes, and when he says No means No.

S. I’m sorry I spoke.

X. I suppose that’s what’s called irony. (177-178)

Before we resume this exchange between husband and wife, it will be good to learn of Baring’s description of the Scene and its implicit atmosphere for their conversation:

A room in Socrates’ house. Xantippe is seated at a table, on which an unappetising meal, consisting of figs, parsley, and some hashed goat’s meat, is spread. (177)

After Xantippe says “I suppose that’s what’s called irony,” she resumes her diatribe:

I’ve no doubt it’s very clever, but I’m afraid it’s wasted on me. I should keep those remarks for the market-place and gymnasia and the workshops. I’ve no doubt they’d be highly appreciated there by that clique of young men who do nothing but admire each other. I’m afraid I’m old-fashioned. I was brought up to think a man should treat his wife with decent civility, and try, even if he did think her stupid, not to be always showing it.

S. Have I by a word or hint ever suggested that you were stupid?

X. Oh, of course not—never. However, we won’t discuss that. We will change the subject, if you don’t mind.

S. But really–

X. (ignoring the interruption) Please give me your plate. I will help you to the goat.

S. None for me, thank you, today.

X. Why not? I suppose it’s not good. I’m afraid I can’t provide the food you get at your grand friends’ houses, but I do think it’s rather cruel of you to sneer at my poor humble efforts. (178)

Then begins a long exchange about food, to include figs, but not meat! “I suppose that’s a new fad, not to eat meat,” Xantippe says promptly (179), and then she adds:

I assure you people talk quite enough about you as it is without your making yourself more peculiar. Only yesterday Chrysilla was talking about your clothes. She asked if you made them dirty on purpose. She said the spots on the back couldn’t have got there by accident. Every one notices it—every one says the same thing. Of course, they think it is my fault. No doubt it’s very amusing for people who don’t mind attracting attention and who like being notorious; but it is rather hard on me. And when I hear people saying “Poor Socrates! It is such a shame that his wife looks after him so badly and doesn’t even mend his sandals”—I admit I do feel rather hurt. However, that would never enter into your head. A philosopher hasn’t the time to think of other people. I suppose unselfishness doesn’t form part of a sophist’s training, does it?

[SOCRATES says nothing, but eats first one fig and then another.]

X. I think you might at least answer when you’re spoken to. I am far from expecting you to treat me with consideration or respect; but I do expect ordinary civility.

[SOCRATES goes on eating figs in silence.]

X. Oh, you’re going to sulk. First you browbeat, then you’re satirical. Then you sneer at the food, and then you sulk. (179—my bold emphasis added; italics in the original)

For the next two pages—180-181—there again the wife and husband have a lively exchange about food. The entire two pages, I believe, ought also be closely read to appreciate the nuanced modulations of tones, as well as its being a preparation for a more serious matter: Socrates’ punitive condemnation by some of the powerful Athenian oligarchs.

At the end of their exchanges about nourishing food and special garlic and roasted goat, Xantippe says: “Then it’s quite ridiculous your not eating. Let me give you some goat at once.” (182)

Socrates then replies and has another surprise: “I couldn’t really. Besides I must go in a minute.”

X. There! I knew it! You’re going out to dinner.

S. You are mistaken, Xantippe.

X. You’d far better tell me the truth at once. I’m quite certain to find it out sooner or later. You can’t think how foolish it is to tell lies and then to be found out afterwards. You can’t think how much a woman despises a man for that—you couldn’t do anything more foolish.

S. I promise you by all the gods that I’m not going to dine elsewhere.

X. I suppose you don’t expect me to fall into that trap! Swearing by all the gods, when every one in Athens knows you are a professional atheist—when you do nothing but mock the gods from morning till night—and what’s far worse, make other people mock them too; when I scarcely like to have a slave in the house because of your impiety—and your blasphemy.

S. I really think you are rather unfair, Xantippe. You will be sorry for this some day. (180—my emphasis added)

As we realize more and more how little Xantippe understood her husband’s principles and eccentricities, we are allowed to see their effectively farewell conversation, which Maurice Baring conveys to us poignantly, drop by drop—except, perhaps, for Xantippe’s trifling and bathetic final sentence about food:

X. Then may I ask where you are going?

S. I’ve got an important engagement.

X. And with whom?

S. I would rather not say, for your sake.

X. That’s very clever and ingenious to put it on me. But I’m tired of being bullied. Even a worm will turn, and I demand to be treated just for once like a human being, and with the minimum of courtesy and frankness. I don’t ask for your confidence, I know that would be useless. But I do ask to be treated with a grain of straightforwardness and honesty. I insist upon it. I have borne your sneers, your sarcasm, and your sulkiness, your irritability, your withering silence, quite long enough. I will not put up with it any longer.

Socrates. Very well, Since you will have it, I have been impeached by Lycon, Meletus, and Anytus on some ridiculous charge, the result of which, however, may be extremely serious–in fact it may be a matter of life or death—and I am obliged to appear before them at once.

Xantippe. Oh dear, oh dear! I always said so, I knew it would come to this! [THEN also cometh her final trifling and bathos:] That is what comes of not eating meat like a decent citizen!

[XANTIPPE bursts into tears.]

CURTAIN

(182-183—my bold emphasis added; italics in the original)

The further comic and elegiac counterpoint of Miguel Cervantes and Maurice Baring will indeed teach us many nourishing things of wisdom, by way of their differentiated artfulness and tones of irony.

–Finis–

© 2020 Robert D. Hickson

1Maurice Baring, Diminutive Dramas ( London: William Heinemann LTD., 1925). “Xantippe and Socrates,” the last chapter of the book, is to be found on pages 177-183 (Chapter XXIII). All future references to this text will be to the William Heinemann edition and they will be placed in parentheses in the main body of this short essay above.

Hilaire Belloc’s Belinda: A Tale of Affection in Youth and Age (1928)

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                                29 June 2019

The Feast of Saint Peter and Saint Paul

Hilaire Belloc’s Arrival Afoot in Rome (in 1901)

Epigraph

“’I have told you,’ he [Sir Robert Montgomery, Belinda’s father,] said, that ‘I know—I understand—the affections of youth….I married late: you have a father too much advanced in years for your opening life. Your mother, who is now a saint in Heaven, you never knew. But I myself, long before your age [now eighteen], had among my companions one to whom the deepest of human affections was far, far from unknown.’” (Hilaire Belloc, Belinda: A Tale of Affection in Youth and Age (Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire: Loreto Publication, 2014—a re-print of the 1928 First Edition), page 31—my emphasis added)

***

“Such, gentle reader, were the loves of Belinda and Horatio; tried as by fire, torn asunder, rejoined, they attained at last to wedded felicity under an ancestral roof, until, after the brief accidents of this our mortality, they were united forever in Paradise.” (Hilaire Belloc, Belinda: A Tale of Affection in Youth and Age, page 130)

***

Over the last few weeks, my wife and I have eagerly attempted to introduce our daughter (11) once again to some unmistakably challenging examples of excellent literature: such as Alessandro Manzoni’s 1840 historical novel of the early seventeenth century, The Betrothed (I Promessi Sposi). We are now gratefully reading that book aloud together—along with our young son (8)—especially some of the extended central passages of that eloquent and memorable novel—with my wife herself now expressively and adroitly doing the reading. We are doing this, in part, so as to prepare an excited Isabella for her own reading soon of the entire demanding 500-page novel, now from the beginning.

Moreover, I have also thought that Isabella would thereby then be ready to read another, but shorter (130-page), nineteenth-century historical novel of purity (with its frequently gracious and expressed affections, as well as with some passionate robustness and youthfulness and vividly “chivalrous daring”). That is to say, Hilaire Belloc’ own cherished 1928 novel, Belinda: A Tale of Affection in Youth and Age.1

Hilaire Belloc especially cherished this carefully constructed and nuanced romantic tale; a tale of protective and attentive affection and the fidelity of faithful memory. (He had slowly composed and refined his gradually forming novel for some five years, between 1923 and 1928, and only then did he consent to publish his completed text.)

Set in England and France, the resultant Tale of Affection now tells us, in large part, about a young man of twenty-three and a young woman of eighteen, two neighbors who, having a common boundary between their spacious properties, had once been childhood playmates. But this Horatio and Belinda have just discovered in their unexpected outdoor meeting something deeper and more enduring. Something that touches and soon profoundly affects their faithfully plighted hearts.

However, this developing bond and its likely fuller maturation unto marriage displeases several persons, some of them in Belinda’s own family (to include her father) and some of them truly vulnerable men and already in deep debt and deceitful suitors of Belinda, such as Sir Henry Portly of Molcombe Abbey (43) and his intrusively malicious litigious agent, such as sly Lawyer Fox of Bath.

Because of certain customary limitations and strict prohibitions made by Belinda’s father, Sir Robert Montgomery, which were to be applied while he is to be away from Wiltshire for two important weeks in London, Belinda and Horatio are thwarted. They are not permitted to be with each other, but they could only write letters to each other. However, and fatefully, these four actually written letters of deep affection were intentionally blocked from their delivery—because of the malicious interdiction of a complicit lonely spinster woman.

Leaving Belinda, Horatio first goes apart from home on horseback, thinking that Belinda herself has rejected him and his sincere love. He intends to go permanently abroad to the main continent of Europe (to France at first). However, as it turns out, Horatio shows, now as a wandering pauper in France, much more of his virtuous moral character. With “chivalrous daring,” he even rescues from a gang of robbers by night a distinguished noble French woman who originally had come from England many years ago. Because he had been wounded in the rescue, he was taken by the widowed Marquise to her nearby Château and it was proposed to him, quite firmly, to remain there himself until he had fully healed. (The widow’s name, we gradually discover, was Esmeralda de la Ferronnière and she had been in retirement since about 1824, the year of death of the French King, Louis XVIII, when her own husband, the Marquis, also died.)

Not long after Horatio’s nighttime escorted arrival at the Château, Sir Robert Montgomery himself, along with Belinda and their whole entourage, came to seek a rescue themselves, after one of their three carriages (especially a smaller chaise) broke down and gravely wounded their lead horse.

When Robert Montgomery heard from one of the servants the spoken name of the Marquise of the Château, he was stunned. Thus began many memories from his own youth and his germinating affections, as well. This helped him better understand Belinda’s own plighted heart and “long fidelity,” as well as her special sufferings recently (which was why her father decided to take her on a refreshing tour to continental Europe). Self-knowledge grew and was expressed—though sometimes with restraint—also to the once-beloved and still cherished Marquise de la Ferronnière herself, who had her own cherished memories of deep affection and Robert’s own “long fidelity” (116).

Most movingly, Horatio and Belinda met again and understood the belatedly revealed reasons for their earlier and painful misperceptions of each other, especially as to why their own very affectionate love-letters were not received and then reciprocated. The honorable character of Horatio grew in the eyes of Sir Robert and Esmeralda, as well as of Belinda—and that much-tested young couple was now at last permitted to marry there in France. Belinda and Horatio prepared for their wedding and soon were bound in sacred matrimony by Reverend John Atkins, their accompanying Anglican vicar and Belinda’s own tutor, especially in intimate matters of religion. Then would soon come the return to England of the whole extended company, to include Marquise Esmerelda herself, where she would dwell for long portions of the year. For, the two Wiltshire estates of Halston and Marsden would now “eventually unite in their common patronage the two livings” (129) and then invite a beloved friend and companion of long ago to dwell there, even permanently, but in a companionship of fittingly gracious, respectful purity and thus “without peril.” (125).

In an earlier passage, Belloc—or rather the Narrator—deftly reveals part of the novel’s fertile theme:

They err who pretend that the years, though they may obscure, can eliminate a primal passion. The soul is immortal. If once it suffer the imprint of that one emotion [love] which links time with eternity, the imperishable mark remains. The flood will return in full, unconquerable might, provoked by a tone, a scent, a glance, a name. This man [Sir Robert Montgomery], so far advanced in the business of living, already conscious of the grave, had suffered a resurrection from the dead. He had heard the name of Ferronnière…. He heard a voice, he rose and trembled, the great doors were ceremoniously opened, and the woman appeared. (114)

Let us also briefly try to present the comparable courtesy and purity of youth, now that we have hopefully been touched by the gracious conduct and sentiments of Sir Robert and his affectionate companion of long ago, Marquise Esmeralda. We shall introduce the unexpected meeting of Belinda and Horatio out of doors, each of them walking near or along a stream that forms part of the boundary between their own individual family estates. First, we consider Belloc’s presentation of the awakening and subsequent wandering walk afield of Belinda “close on noon” (13):

She woke, indeed, to the day and place, yet these were changed as though now infused with wonder….So, dreaming in full wakefulness, the girl…wandered under the high sun across the lawn…toward a dense wood of pines; there she proposed to rest awhile in the shade, and commune with a little brook which eddied clear under a plank thrown across its waters, and ran with a happy murmur to join the Avon near at hand. The stream formed part of the boundary…and…[she] turned her feet toward that spot….

Upon the farther bank, in the neighbouring park from which the stream divided her, a sandy slope…led up by a narrow path…to a great grove which hid the old and ruinous house of Halston beyond [i.e., Horatio’s home]. Thence, at the same hour, with high noon past, and the more powerful sun distilling every savour from grass and leaf and earth, Horatio sauntered out, bound no whither, filled with the power of summer which grew to harvest all around….The grove summoned him to its recesses; he received the influence of the great beeches and their shade as though the half darkness were alive. He came out into the further blinding light, and the sound of the stream below beckoned him insensibly down the path to the water between the wealths of fern.

She saw him as he came through the bracken, with active carriage, with uplifted face. It seemed to her that there was something there inspired; and her imagination put courage and adventure into his advance, as though he were setting out on a quest. He turned a corner of the path to cross the rustic bridge, and was aware of one [who is] scarcely known yet deeply known, whose airy figure among the solemn pines arrested all his being. When he had approached and discovered her face, it was not the familiar feature of a friend, but Radiance personate. In him, for her, [there] approached a god.

The moment was magical. It was as though some music had transformed the world….But in the heart of the high wood a Presence, shining in a shaft of light, triumphantly let fly the arrow from the bow. (13-16—my emphasis added)

To appreciate more fully the personal qualities and religious-philosophical orientation of Belloc’s chosen Narrator of this Tale of Affection, we may now consider the way he is presented to us at the outset, especially on the first two pages. We may thereby notice what is there, but also what is not there—such as the absence of the Catholic Faith and of a fair presentation of earlier Catholic History:

Within the [Anglican] parish, and adjoining the village, of Marlden, in a stately mansion known as The Towers, whose ample lawn sweeps down in smooth luxuriance to the pellucid waters of the Avon, resided a gentleman respected throughout the County of Wiltshire as Sir Robert Montgomery….

The baronet (for such was his rank) enjoyed the esteem of his equals, the respectful affection of his inferiors, and the devotion of an only daughter, an only child, upon whom her mother (long dead) had bestowed the pleasing name of Belinda.

That devotion of the widowed father repaid with a particular and careful attention, the dignity of which could hardly veil his deep, his doting fondness. No expense was spared in providing Belinda’s earliest years with a solid grounding in the rudiments of polite learning, while, as her girlhood blossomed into riper charms, a further selection of instructors drawn from both sexes perfected her in Italian, French, the art of painting in water-colours, every department of deportment, and the pianoforte.

Thus did Belinda Montgomery, as she entered her eighteenth year, unite every refinement of culture to beauty of an entrancing mould; a mind naturally apt and generous, trained to its fullest powers, informed a frame of surpassing grace, and the whole was inspired by a soul wherein had been firmly planted the precepts of our sublime religion. (1-2—my emphasis added)

We may now wonder about the meaning of the “our” in “our sublime religion.” (2) Who is it, for example, who largely conducted Belinda’s own formative religious education?

We shall fittingly now meet at least one of her teachers, “the Reverend John Atkins,” (2) who will also be the one who later marries Belinda and Horatio. But the Narrator presents now the matter of Belinda’s deeper religious formation:

To this last and awful matter the good vicar of the parish, the Reverend John Atkins, had applied himself with constant zeal. His living (of which Sir Robert was patron) did not so completely engross his time as to forbid him the hours required for the young lady’s spiritual education: nor were the emoluments of such a task ungrateful to one whose humble needs were but narrowly met by the tithe and glebe of the parish.

Under such guidance Belinda grasped in turn the nature and attributes of her Creator, the scheme of the Atonement, the promise of a blessed Heaven, the menace of a dreadful Hell, the original institution of Episcopacy; and the errors of Rome upon the one hand, of dissent upon the other. The Book of Common Prayer was her constant companion, and on the richly inlaid table of her private boudoir lay open, for daily consultation, the Holy Bible. (2—my emphasis added)

Near the end of Belloc’s presented Tale, we see not only some of the more comic elements in Reverend Atkins’ beliefs and words and professional conduct; but also some of his deeply warm affection and good-hearted sentimentalism:

In the room which had been set aside for the chapel of the [marriage] ceremony,… the household was assembled, the Reverend Mr. Atkins vested and prepared. He had required, he had demanded, he had obtained, a glass of port wine and a biscuit, which was his invariable custom to consume before a Celebration, in protest against the Romish novelties of certain [Anglican] colleagues. As, with practiced intonation, he recited the profound phrases of the Marriage Service, the Marquise, who had missed for so long the beautiful Liturgy of her youth, was deeply moved; while old Fanchette, the only French domestic not a Papist and, therefore, privileged to attend, was equally affected by the sacred scene, though, being ignorant of the English tongue (a Huguenot [Calvinist] from the Vaudois), she could do no more than reverently follow the rhythms of the sacred office.

Averse though he was to the extempore usage of the Caledonian Communion [the Scotttish, and perhaps Calvinist Rite?], Mr. Atkins did not forbear to add at the end of his ministration a short but heartfelt prayer of his own for the young people [Belinda and Horatio] who would eventually unite in their combined patronage the two livings of Halston and Marlden. Tears stood in the eyes of the good old man as he alluded with a native delicacy to the possibility of offspring. Himself a celibate,…the more pathetically did he extend both hands in benediction over the bowed heads of the kneeling couple, while his uplifted eyes sought Heaven in a prayer for their fruitful happiness. (129-130—my emphasis added)

CODA

The reader of this tale of affection and purity will also gratefully find many memorable displays of Hilaire Belloc’s capacious versatility and depictions of lapses of true and chivalrous nobility. For example: Sir Robert Montgomery’s unexpected outburst and eloquent diatribe against the perceived character of Horatio Maltravers and his lineage (25); the presentation on the debt bondage of certain gentry and the cold manipulations of the financial oligarchs (to include the looting of the monasteries, both historically and now) (41-46); Horatio’s hospitable welcome at an inn and the special gift of his horse, Crusader (66-71); the voyage by ship from Dover to France (71-72); the Marquise’s rescue (78).

In the presence of his daughter Belinda, Sir Robert Montgomery passionately rejected her own choice, demeaned her beloved, and had an astonishing outburst at last, full of Shakespearean invective:

“Horatio!” he thundered. “Horatio Maltravers? A beggar’s brat, disreputably dragged up by a hermit? A pauper? A young wastrel? An out-at-elbows fellow, a scrap and rag-bag, a rotten Oxford coxcomb all curls and debts, a miserable futility.” (25)

On high finance and debt bondage and desperate (often immoral) attempts to become unsnarled:

This lamentable situation [of progressive and often compound interest and resultant “debt bondage”] had risen from an action only too common upon the part of the gentry. Sir Henry’s father [Sir Orlando Portly] had the fatal imprudence to speculate on ‘Change [sic—the Financial Exchange]….

The rumor spread by Herr Amschel—later and better known as Baron de Rothschild—that the glory of Britain had set on the field of Waterloo [fought on Sunday, 18 June 1815], had led Sir Orlando…to sell…in the hope of reaping an immense profit when all should be acquainted with the fatal truth [the purported loss of victory]. He [Sir Orlando] had not allowed for the business acumen of the great banker. For Amschel-Rothschild had secretly procured the news of victory in advance of all, and had had the admirable foresight to spread accounts of defeat for the better preparation of the market.

It was upon these accounts that Sir Orlando [Portly] had [disastrously] speculated in London, confident in the ruin of our cause. (42-43—my bold emphasis added; italics in the original)

Horatio’s necessary stopover at an inn in Dover, en route to France, because of the rough seas:

The landlord, standing at the door to welcome a guest [Horatio] whose distinguished bearing he had justly appreciated at his approach, bowed low to receive him, and asked him what service he might render.

“Let my horse [Crusader],” answered the gentleman dismounting, “be led to his stable, whither I will accompany the groom to see that all is in order: the saddle and its bags carefully lodged aside, the creature’s coat well rubbed down, a rug provided, and an ample feed of good oats—for a man’s first duty is to his mount. Next I will ask for a simple meal with a bottle of your best, and that disposed, I will beg a word with you.”….

“I would be brief. You have seen me accompany to his stall my best friend….Take, take I pray you, this steed of mine—the final object of my domestic affections—for I depart from England, and for ever! He is worthy of your acceptance….you will give him the home I desire….With you he will be secure from the sloth, the folly, the cruelty of bad horse-masters….I leave him in good hands. I ask no more….I go abroad for long, for long indeed. If you will harbour my gallant, my faithful Crusader, it is upon me that the boon is conferred.”

He was silent.

“Sir,” replied the host, in deep tones of ill-concealed emotion. “I shall keep him not as a gift, but as a trust, until I have the honour and pleasure of seeing your face again. (69-70—my emphasis added)

Then came Horatio’s journey by ship to France in the heavy storm:

Within a few minutes [out of the protective have] the winds embraced her in full violence….The waves rose mountains high as the shore receded into the murk….The Captain (whose name was Beaver) affirmed, with rough sea-oaths, that in all his 317 crossings of the Channel he had never known so fearful a hurricane, and in the thickness of the flying scud the white sea-walls of England [of the cliffs of Dover] turned ghostly as though leagues away, (71-72—my emphasis added)

Then came Horatio’s answer to a question the Marquise Esmerelda posed to him after he had rescued her from night-robbers in France, a question as to his “destination”:

“Destination,” he answered, “I have none. I am a wanderer, self-exiled from the home of my childhood. I seek but the next hostelry [inn], thence to continue through the world my trackless and lonely way.”

“Nay,” said she decidedly, in that clear voice to which its mere hint of a French habit added a subtle charm, “then our course is plain. You must accompany me to my Château, which is near at hand, and there remain till you are healed of your wound. I will take no denial. That you are a gentleman your idiom, your gait, your accoutrement assure me. That you are the bravest of the brave [especially with your openly “Chivalric Daring” (81)] (she concluded, with an assuring glance) you have yourself proved.” (78—my emphasis added)

–Finis–

© 2019 Robert D. Hickson

1See Hilaire Belloc, Belinda: A Tale of Affection in Youth and Age (Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire: Loreto Publications, 2014—a re-print of the 1928 first edition). The first edition, as published in England in 1928, was published in London by Constable & Co. LTD. The American First Edition was published in New York and London by Harper & Brothers in 1929, and that edition additionally contains eight Illustrations. All future references, however, will be to the 2014 re-print text by Loreto Publications, and the references will placed above in parentheses in the main body of this essay.

“That Unended War…Against the Innocent”: Evelyn Waugh and Father McNabb, O.P.

Dr. Robert Hickson                            9 January 2019 (Within the Octave of Epiphany)

Saint Julian of Antioch (d. 313 AD)

Epigraph

***

“The present writer’s years of life can now be so few, at most, that the only reason for stating an opinion is that he thinks it true, and its opposite opinion not only untrue but harmful.” (Father Vincent McNabb, O.P., “The Family,” Chapter 5 of the 1934 anthology Flee to the Fields—Father McNabb, speaking himself, was to die eleven years later, during World War II, in 1943.)

***

“As if in gratitude to the Family for having given Him welcome, He raised to the dignity of the supernatural the plighted love that unites husband and wife—father and mother.” (Father Vincent McNabb, O.P., “The Family,” Chapter 5 of Flee to the Fields (1934))

***

“And He went down with them and came to Nazareth and was subject to them.” (Luke 2:51)

***

Recently re-reading after some twenty years one of Father Vincent McNabb’s own writings on the family, and thus on Nazareth, I saw for the first time the importance and timeliness of one of the principles that he so concisely and lucidly articulates.

Writing in the early 1930s about one of “The Dangers to the Family”–in one sub-section of his longer essay, entitled “The Family”—he acutely said:

The second danger arises from the sentimental as distinct from the rational and ethical view of divorce. We have reached a legal state [already in 1934] when the fate of children can be decided by the existent sentiment between their father and their mother. Our divorce laws [in England], although not considered wide enough, are sufficiently wide to be governed by the principle that “it is immoral for a man and woman to remain together when they have ceased to love each other.” This principle largely initiated here in the West has been carried out with characteristic consistency in Soviet Russia [under Lenin, N. Krupskaya, A. Kollontai, and Stalin].1

Soon after reflecting on this principle and its increasingly promiscuous implementation, which is all too often to the grave detriment and long-term harm of the innocent children, I thought of Evelyn Waugh’s 1950 historical novel, Helena, especially one passage from Chapter 11, entitled “Epiphany.”2 The conjunction and counterpoint of these two Catholic authors, with their fresh insights, will teach us still many important truths.

Shortly before Waugh’s Helen is to find the Cross in Jerusalem, she visits Bethlehem on the Feast of the Epiphany and, with deep wonder, identifies with the Three Royal Wise Men, as they were personified and presented by three Greek monks in their re-enactment of the composite scene:

Helena [herself a recent convert] knew little Greek and her thoughts were not in the words or anywhere in the immediate scene. She forgot even her quest [for the True Cross] and was dead to everything except the swaddled child long ago and those three royal sages who had come from so far to adore him.

“This is my day,” she thought, “and these [three royal sages] are my kind.”….

Like me,” she said to them, “you were late in coming. The shepherds were here long before; even the cattle. They had joined the chorus of angels before you were on your way.”….

How laboriously you came, taking sights and calculating, where the shepherds had run barefoot.”….

“You came at length to the final stage of your pilgrimage and the great star stood still above you. What did you do? You stopped to call on King Herod [i.e., “Crudelis Herodes”]. Deadly exchange of compliments [false flattery and deception] in which there began that unended war of mobs and magistrates against the innocent!” (222-223—my emphasis added)

We think at once about the impending Slaughter of the Holy Innocents and the three-decade later call for the release of criminal Barabbas and the resultant raging betrayal of innocent Jesus. Today, too, the Little Ones—the Parvuli of Christ—are indifferently, even impenitently, slaughtered. We are numbed by the magnitude of the dead and we struggle yet with the Permissive Will of God.

The wholehearted Evelyn Waugh nonetheless chooses to show us more of Empress Helena’s heart (and Waugh’s own heart, too) as he presents further and imaginative expressions to “those three royal sages” (222):

“Yet you came [to the Nativity], and were not turned away. You too found room before the manger. Your gifts were not needed, but they were accepted and put carefully by, for they were brought with love. In that new order of charity that had just come to life, there was room for you, too. You were not lower in the eyes of the holy family….

You are my especial patrons,” said Helena, “and patrons of all late-comers [to Christ], of all who have a tedious journey to make to the truth, of all who are confused with knowledge and speculation, of all who through politeness make themselves partners in guilt, of all who stand in danger by reason of their talents.

“Dear cousins [ye royal sages], pray for me,” said Helena, “and for my poor overloaded son [the still unbaptized Emperor Constantine]. May he, too, before the end, find kneeling-space in the straw….

For His sake who did not reject your [three] curious gifts, pray always for all the learned, the oblique, the delicate. Let them not be quite forgotten at the Throne of God when the simple come into their kingdom.” (223-224—my emphasis added)

In this passage, Evelyn Waugh shows us a reverent mother’s prayer for her son, hoping that he, too, would soon come to kneel humbly in adoration before the Christ Child—considering also His later, maturing youth in Nazareth. Helena herself, despite her energetic quest and mission, manifests a gracious reverence and spiritual childhood. She again and again acknowledges and submits to Divine Authority, believing that her own son must yet, and soon, be baptized—not just on his deathbed. For, she sees that he is pitifully “overloaded” by his own “Power without Grace.”

In 1934, Father McNabb likewise saw the pitiful spread of temporal “power without grace”–that is, without divine grace. After first commenting on “the fate of children” (76) and thus on the ill fruits of an increasingly-resorted-to secular principle of disorder—namely, “it is immoral for a man and woman to remain together [in marriage and thus in the full rearing of their children] when they have [purportedly] ceased to love each other” (76—my emphasis added)—he speaks of another peril to the family:

The third danger to family life springs from the modern rejection of obedience to authority [to include the authority of the father]. This rejection begins by disobedience to the authority of God [thus also to the Rights of God abiding]. But, as all lawful authority is, as such, of divine right, the rejection of divine authority tends to dissolve the claims and rights of all authority. In this welter of might without right such fundamental rights as that of the parent and the family [as a unit] tend to be set aside as belated [outmoded] or suppressed as harmful. (76—my emphasis added)

Such interrelated matters are part of “the threatened social avalanche” (76) that was seemingly accumulating, and thus “of deep concern” (76) to Father McNabb five years before the outbreak of World War II.

Five years after the end of World War II, Evelyn Waugh had another insight about that then-actual “social avalanche.” For, like Father McNabb (1868-1943), Waugh knew that Christ was being hunted even at His birth and also soon thereafter. Other Holy Innocents were likewise altogether threatened. For, in a prior and deceitful “deadly exchange” with the graceless and cruel power of Herod (“Crudelis Herodes”) “there began that unended war of mobs and magistrates against the innocent!” (223—my emphasis added)

Almost seventy years after those heartfelt words from Evelyn Waugh, that war is still “unended.” The attacks on innocence and purity have now even increased. The amount and intensity of crude and cruel “power without grace” have also seemed to have increased. Yet, for the Loyal Faithful, wherever evil abounds, indispensable Divine Grace superabounds and we are to co-operate.

In one of his 416 A.D. sermons against the Pelagians (Sermo 169, 13—PL 38, 923), Saint Augustine of Hippo effectively said that God created us without our co-operation, but He will not save us without our co-operation. That is to say, without our free consent.

–Finis–

© 2019 Robert D. Hickson

1Father Vincent McNabb, O.P., Chapter 5 of Flee to the Fields (Norfolk, Virginia: IHS Press, 2003), p. 76—my emphasis added. This is a new addition of the original 1934 book, Flee to the Fields: The Founding Papers of the Catholic Land Movement, which also preserves Hilaire Belloc’s original 4-page Preface, which is now on pages 15-18. All further references to this book will be placed above in parentheses.

2Evelyn Waugh, Helena (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1950). All further references to this book will be placed above in parentheses.