When I was visiting my parents in Rome this past Christmas, a book in my mother’s room caught my eye: “From the Library of Pope Francis” read the heading. Below it, the title “Lord of the World”, by Robert Hugh Benson, made me immediately think that this must be a religious text on Christianity. I had a spare few minutes, so I decided to pick it up. And what do you know – the prologue told me a very different story.
To begin with, I was no longer in the world I knew. There was a different geography, new ideologies, religion had been squashed and Esperanto was now the common language. Sunlight was artificial, roads were reserved for privileged state-vehicles and people had to move quietly, silently and in an orderly manner – the government had worked for 20 years to remove noise from the streets! I lifted my nose from the pages thinking, ‘Is my 75 year old mother reading a dystopian novel?’ and ‘Who is this guy???’ (now, for those of you who already know who he is, I apologise: I’m not sure how I missed him, but I’m damn glad I found him!)
So the next step was to find out more about the author and, to my complete surprise, I found that RHB lived and wrote at the turn of the twentieth century, whilst in active duties as a Catholic bishop nonetheless! He was born in 1871, in Berkshire, and died aged 42, in 1914.
Lord of the World was written in 1908, one of many books he wrote. Apparently, he was quite famous in his day – and not just because of his conversion from Protestantism to Catholicism. I left Italy taking the book with me and read it avidly until the end. The more I got into it, the more I discovered interesting aspects of this new society: astronomers had certified the inhabitation of certain planets, the well to do had universally adopted the proper way of placing furniture, hydraulic power automated houses, zeppelins flew across the skies, giving early whiffs of SF and Steampunk to the world.
What really captured my attention were the deeper, more thought provoking layers permeating the story. The dystopic society of Lord of the World has replaced spirituality with secularism, morality with humanism. God is the developing sum of created life, and ‘impersonal unity’ is the essence of his being. God is man. Euthanasia is widely practiced, while intolerance, religious or otherwise, is now the norm and upheld as ‘tolerance’.
The enemy is represented by a mesmerising politician, Julian Felsenburgh, the ‘Lord’ of the title, who seeks blind obedience in return for peace. Against him stands Percy Franklin, a no-nonsense Catholic priest, trying to adapt to the new world order. It’s an intense journey, where sub plots are carefully placed to accentuate the impending sense of doom to come, with an explosive, apocalyptic finale that wouldn’t go amiss in one of our modern disaster movies – brace yourself!
Benson’s dystopic novel should be listed along Orwell’s ‘1984’ and Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’, and as a precursor to those classic pieces. Time has a nasty habit of ingesting the past and keeping it buried. In this case, I am glad it has allowed me to catch a glimpse into the life of such an interesting author and, in turn, compelled me to bring him into the consciousness of those of you who, like me, hadn’t heard of him before.