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Maurice Baring: Faith and Culture


When Sir James Gunn exhibited his famous painting, "The Conversation Piece," depicting G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, and Maurice Baring assembled round a table, Chesterton, with characteristic humor, labeled the three figures, "Baring, over-bearing, and past-bearing." Yet Gunn's group portrait, which now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London, represented much more than a mere assemblage of friends. The three literary figures were considered by the reading public to be inseparable in many respects. They shared a common friendship, a common philosophy, and a common faith. If not as indivisible as the Holy Trinity, they were at least as indomitable as the Three Musketeers. Indeed, in the case of the Belloc-Baring-Chesterton chimera, the battle cry of "all-for-one and one-for-all" is not inappropriate.

However, if all three shared much in common, it would be true to say that Baring is the least known of the trio and that, as often as not, he is overlooked. He was certainly overlooked by Bernard Shaw when the latter compared Chesterton and Belloc to two halves of a "very amusing pantomime elephant," which he dubbed the Chesterbelloc. For Shaw, writing his lampoon of the Chesterbelloc in 1908, G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc were now seen so synonymously that they had become nothing more than mouthpieces of a monster larger than both of them. Shaw's potent and amusing image became a literary legend, and it has been the fate of Maurice Baring to live in its shadow. His fame and reputation have been largely eclipsed by the enduring popularity of his two brothers-in-arms. This is both unfortunate and unjust because Baring deserves recognition as a distinguished poet and novelist in his own right.

Like Chesterton, Baring converted to Catholicism partly under Belloc's influence, and it is possible, perhaps probable, that he would never have emerged as one of the foremost Catholic novelists of the century if he had never met his mercurial mentor. Writing of his first encounter with Belloc in Oxford in 1897, Baring remarked that he was "a brilliant orator and conversationalist . . . who lives by his wits." The men soon became good friends, but Baring remained unconvinced of Belloc's vociferous and vehement championing of the Catholic Church. 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" and sought to discourage him from taking such a drastic step.

In spite of his unbelief, Baring accompanied Balfour to a low Mass and found himself pleasantly surprised. "It impressed me greatly . . . One felt one was looking on at something extremely ancient. The behavior of the congregation, and the expression on their faces impressed me greatly too. To them it was evidently real."

There was a potent postscript to this episode, which perhaps had a great influence on Baring's eventual conversion. Soon after their attendance at Mass, Reggie Balfour sent Baring an epitaph, copied from a tombstone in Rome and translated from the Latin: "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."

The epitaph is to be found in the Church of San Gregorio in Rome, and its underlying tragedy produced a marked and lasting effect on Baring's whole view of the Reformation. He always possessed a melancholy nature, and such imagery provided the inspiration for many of his novels. More specifically, the epitaph itself provided the starting point for his writing of the historical novel, Robert Peckham, 30 years later.

Baring was received into the Church at the London Oratory on February 1, 1909, an event recorded in his autobiography, The Puppet Show of Memory, with the simple statement that it was "the only action in my life which I am quite certain I have never regretted." His feelings at the time were expressed admirably in his sonnet sequence "Vita Nuova."

Belloc, who had observed his friend's slow but steady progress over more than a decade, greeted the news of his conversion with jubilation. In a celebratory letter to Charlotte Balfour, who had been received into the Church herself in 1904, Belloc wrote: "It is an immense thing. 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 not 40 years old, he had travelled widely throughout Europe as diplomat, journalist, and man of leisure. He knew Latin, Greek, French, German, Italian, Russian, and Danish, and he was widely read in the literatures of all these languages. He was the quintessential European. With this in mind, Belloc's words in An Open Letter on the Decay of Faith, published in 1906, must have struck him with a particular resonance 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."

The extensive nature of Baring's knowledge of European literature was displayed in his last book, Have You Anything to Declare? Described by the convert actor and writer Robert Speaight as "the best bedside book in the English language," this anthology was inspired by the author's imagined arrival on the banks of the Styx and his being asked by Charon to declare his literary luggage. His selection, gleaned from the literatures of many of the languages in which he was conversant, displays an extraordinary catholicity of taste, and reminds one of the description of a character in The Coat Without Seam, one of his novels: "Everything about him . . . gave one the impression of centuries and hidden stores of pent-up civilization." Baring's selection exhibited a particular love for Homer and for Virgil, and a deep devotion for Dante:

"Scaling the circles of the Paradiso, we are conscious the whole time of an ascent not only in the quality of the substance but in that of the form. It is a long perpetual crescendo, increasing in beauty until the final consummation in the very last line. Somebody once defined an artist . . . as a man who knew how to finish things. If this definition is true - and I think it is - then Dante was the greatest artist who ever lived. His final canto is the best, and it depends on and completes the beginning."

Ironically, this book of excerpts from the works of Baring's favorite authors became better known than all his other books. Such neglect of his literary achievement does both the man and his work an injustice.

Baring's career as a novelist was relatively short, commencing with the publication of Passing By in 1921 when the author was already nearly 50 years old, and ending prematurely 15 years later as a result of the debilitating effects of Parkinson's disease. In between he wrote several novels of considerable merit. C, published in 1924, was highly praised by the French novelist Andre 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, and he was "too moved to speak" when he learned of the deep admiration that François Mauriac had for his novels. "What I admire most about Baring's work," Mauriac told Robert Speaight, "is the sense he gives you of the penetration of grace." Ten of Baring's books were translated into French, with one - Daphne Adeane - going through 23 printings in the edition of the Librairie Stock. Others were translated into Italian, Dutch, Swedish, Hungarian, Czech, Spanish, and German, a true and apposite reflection of the author's panoramic vision of European faith and culture.

Perhaps it is not altogether surprising that, in England, Baring's greatest champions 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." Meanwhile Chesterton, with disarming humility, declared in a letter to Baring that "my writing cannot in any case be so subtle or delicate as yours." Like a great literary light hidden under a bushel of neglect, Maurice Baring's work still has the power and the potential to shine forth like a beacon of faith and culture in a faithless and cultureless age.


This article is reprinted with permission from Lay Witness magazine. Lay Witness is a publication of Catholic United for the Faith, Inc., an international lay apostolate founded in 1968 to support, defend, and advance the efforts of the teaching Church.

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