Date Published: 1930
Number of Pages: 270
Print Price: $7.98
eBook Price: $
I was rash when I should have been timid, and timid when I should have been bold. . . .I should never have left England. I should have remained and resisted, or died in the attempt.—Robert Peckham, summing up his life in Maurice Baring’s novel, Robert Peckham
Maurice Baring was a contemporary and friend of G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, but his literary contributions as novelist, poet, and essayist are less remembered today. This historical novel, Robert Peckham, is a fascinating first person narration of a life during the Tudor dynasty in England. Robert Peckham, the narrator and protagonist, lives in the shadow of his father in service and loyalty to Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I, witnessing all the religious changes of the sixteenth century and the English Reformation. Peckham sees the execution of martyrs, the dissolution of monasteries, and the destruction of Catholicism—all the while enduring an unhappy marriage and family life.
Other novelists have depicted this era, often including historical characters: Robert Hugh Benson’s trio of Tudor novels (The King’s Achievement, By What Authority?, and Come Rack! Come Rope!) are tales of adventure, as English men and women confront the crucial issues of loyalty and conscience; choosing between their Catholic faith and the established Church of England; suffering torture and execution and proving their courage and endurance. Even those who choose to conform to the state church and renounce their Catholicism suffer loss and endure trouble.
Baring offers a third way—also a way of trouble and suffering. Robert Peckham does not choose; as he admits at the end, he fails to speak and act when he should and as his conscience compels him: “I was most blameworthy . . . in my relations with my father. I never told him the truth; not the whole truth. . . . I never dared tell him that I saw full well that the consequence of his acts [supporting whatever changes in religious policy Henry VIII and his successors made] would be to bring about the contrary of what he desired and the ruin of all he held most dear” (p. 278). Fearing his father, who places loyalty to the monarch above family or Church, Peckham can never take the action he should to speak up, to protest, to resist.
Peckham’s father Edmund had determined that the best way to be a good Catholic was to be a good Englishman—and particularly to fulfill the oath of loyalty he made to Henry VIII to support each of his heirs without question. Edmund Peckham thus accepts all the religious changes, including iconoclasm, suppression of the Holy Mass, heresy trials, burnings at the stake, etc. Whatever Robert does say to his father cannot persuade him to change. Perhaps fortunately, Edmund Peckham dies at the beginning of Elizabeth I’s reign: he can still have a Catholic priest at his deathbed, but the funeral service must be according to the Book of Common Prayer.
Robert Peckham also fails in his relationships with both his wife and the woman he should have married; again because he does not speak when he should. Baring’s great achievement in this novel—which is surely aided by his choice of first person narration—is that he keeps the reader fascinated by the relationships and relative lack of action in Peckham’s life.
Robert Peckham offers us a lesson: we must choose; we must choose either life or death; either the City of God or the City of Man—and if we do not choose rightly, or if we try to avoid the choice God places before us, we will not know peace merely by avoiding conflict and confrontation. In every age, Catholic Christians have faced momentous choices. Catholics in sixteenth century England faced the great choice of loving Jesus Christ and His Church more than life itself, suffering fines, imprisonment, torture, and death. Baring structured this novel, about a fictional “Robert Peckham” who avoids that choice, around the epitaph of the real Robert Peckham in the Church of St. Gregory the Great on the Caelian Hill in Rome:
Here lies Robert Peckham, Englishman and Catholic, who after England’s break with the Church, left England because he could not live in his country without the Faith and, having come to Rome, died there because he could not live apart from his country.
Original Language: English
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