Off I went to study at Oxford filled with the love of England and English literature only to find that the English had little love of their own most popular exports. I expected Oxford to be full of the cult of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, as Hannibal, Missouri brags about being the home of Mark Twain. It was not to be. There were no Narnia souvenir shops or Middle Earth-themed experiences.
Instead I found a remarkable diffidence and ignorance about English literature not only among hoi polloi but also among the highbrow. In Oxford it was as if Jack Lewis and Professor Tolkien had never existed. For me they should have been the city’s favorite sons. It turned out they were the prodigals. It seemed the snobbery they experienced during their lives, for being so common as to write books that people wanted to read, continued into the present day. Nobody talked about Tolkien or enthused about Lewis. There was a strange silence.
It took an American consortium of scholars and benefactors to have the foresight to purchase Lewis’ home The Kilns and turn it into a study center, and only recently have they put one of the famous blue plaques on the exterior of Tolkien’s family home at 20 Northmoor Road. You have to know how to hunt it down to find Hilaire Belloc’s house down a country lane in Sussex, and if you want to go on a Four Quartets pilgrimage to Burnt Norton, Little Gidding, and East Coker, you had better be good at reading local maps and navigating rural byways.
On the other hand, Rudyard Kipling’s house, Bateman’s, is restored and open to the public. Charleston Farmhouse, where Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant hung out with the Bloomsbury Group, is a well-funded public museum. After you visit, you can wander down to see the river where Virginia Woolf drowned herself, and you can drive to Rodmell in Sussex to visit her country retreat, Monk’s House. The Brontes’ home in Haworth is a literary museum as is Jane Austen’s house in Hampshire. Charles Dickens’ home is a museum and Farringford House, Tennyson’s Isle of Wight home is a retreat and study center.
So why the silence and absence of enthusiasm for the heritage and homes of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Dorothy Sayers, Evelyn Waugh, or T.S. Eliot? It is not because they are unpopular. Could it be that the English establishment ignores them because they are Christian? That does not explain the most incredible episode of English dismissal of their own heritage. When Frances Chesterton died she bequeathed their home Top Meadow, to the Catholic Diocese who sold it to a Catholic charity in 1945.
In the 1980s, the charity put the house up for sale. Not only was Top Meadow Chesterton’s home, but he had designed the unique building, and it was still full of his books, furniture and belongings. When I quizzed one of the directors of the charity some years later about this act of cultural shortsightedness, he shrugged and said, “We needed the money.”
Happily there is one Englishman who values his own Catholic literary heritage, and has developed a corpus of work that weaves together the various characters and works of the English Christian literary revival of the late nineteenth and twentieth century. Since his debut biography of Chesterton in 1996, Joseph Pearce has worked non-stop to revive and renew interest in modern English Catholic writers. Two of his books in particular weave together the strands that connect seemingly disparate writers.
Literary Converts begins with Oscar Wilde and wanders onward to discuss Belloc, Maurice Baring, and Chesterton, the Bensons, Ronnie Knox, Eliot, Waugh, Lewis, Tolkien, the poets Roy Campbell, Alfred Noyes, Edith Sitwell, and Siegfried Sassoon, ending with Schumacher, Muggeridge, and Graham Greene. Along the way Mr. Pearce includes the novelist Muriel Spark, the actor Alec Guinness, and other minor figures. Mr. Pearce’s chronicle of the English literary scene of the twentieth century is a masterful work which weaves together not only the Christian writers, but the brilliant non believers who engaged them in debate. The whole book is a sharply-observed and thoroughly-researched overview of English letters revealing the importance of Christianity and conversion not only to those who came to believe, but also to those who remained outside the fold.
Mr. Pearce’s more recent book, Catholic Literary Giants is a collection of essays published in various periodicals over the years. Subtitled A Field Guide to the Catholic Literary Landscape, it serves as a good companion to Literary Converts. With more than sixty essays from the prolific Joseph Pearce, the book is a cornucopia for lovers of Chesterton, the Inklings, and all the Catholic writers Mr. Pearce knows so well. As in Literary Converts he continues to connect the dots, reveal fascinating connections among the different writers and trace the roots of their ideas and the unity of their thought. In doing so he has produced a unique body of work, showing how the entire canon of twentieth-century English literature is dominated by and imbued with a vivid and vibrant Christian faith.
Joseph Pearce’s work is important for England, for English scholarship, and for Catholicism in England. He is, however, as ignored by his homeland as the writers he celebrates. Well known as an expert in his field, Mr. Pearce is invited to lecture in every corner of the globe except England. Living now in the United States he is rightly lauded as a brilliant analyst, critic, and man of letters.
Why is Mr. Pearce persona non grata in Great Britain? Probably because, like his heroes he is an outsider. He grew up in the East side of London, left school at fifteen, got involved in some rough stuff, went to jail twice, came out, dusted himself off, educated himself, and got his first book published by a major publisher, and moved on from there with a mixture of chutzpah, brains, hard work, cheerful bonhomie, and serious faith.
Joseph Pearce is the perfect person to catalogue and chronicle the great literary figures of the twentieth century because, like Lewis, Tolkien, Roy Campbell, Belloc, and Eliot he is not only an outsider, but a believer, and if that excludes him from the academic and social inner ring of England….he is in good company.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.