I can’t remember which blogger it was who mentioned finding Come Rack Come Rope by Robert Hugh Benson for free on the Kindle (maybe Willa of Quotidian?) ; but I downloaded it and then sort of forgot about it until I decided the other day to pull it up on my trusty iPhone when I needed something to read while trapped with a nursing baby in a dark room, having finished all of the prayers I’d slated for that time. Oh what a treat it was.
The novel is set in Elizabethan England and follows the adventures of two seventeen year-old recusants (Catholics who refuse to become Protestant) in Derbyshire and is based on historical accounts though the two protagonists, Mistress Marjorie Manners and Master Robin Audrey who are secretly engaged as the novel opens, are fictional. The novel’s title comes from a letter by St Edmond Campion who also makes an appearance in the novel. Aside from the protagonists and their immediate families, almost all the characters are historical ones, so this novel does provide a wonderful peep into the world of Catholics under Elizabeth’s persecutions. It includes a dramatic account of the death of Mary Stuart and of course stories of the martyrdoms of many Catholics and especially Catholic priests.
As the novel begins Robin’s father, a staunch Catholic gentleman, has just decided to “go to Church” because he is sick of selling off land to pay for the fines of not attending Church of England services. Robin is heartsick and seeks out his beloved because he knows she will provide him with good counsel. What kind of woman has faith strong enough that she can prod the man she loves to discover that he has a vocation to the priesthood? Marjorie Manners is a woman in a million.
I wish that someone had handed me this novel when I was a young woman. It makes Catholicism—and especially the priesthood—romantic and exciting, a daring adventure, a cause worth dying for. I think most teens feel a deep need for mission, for a great romantic purpose. In short, they want to save the world. I wish that as a teen I’d had a clearer sense that Mass and prayer could be actions to that end.
When I finished the novel I immediately wanted more and so went searching for more books. Somehow I also stumbled upon more information about the author as well. A fascinating character! Robert Hugh Benson was a younger son of the Archbishop of Canterbury and was ordained as a priest in the Church of England. He later converted, becoming a Catholic priest. I can see where the father-son relationship in Come Rack Come Rope might have been influenced by a turbulent relationship with his own father. He wrote a number of books including several more historical novels about England during the Reformation. Oh goody.
I have a hard time reading straight history, so often it is so dense and dry. I confess that I almost always prefer a good historical novel to get a sense of a period. It’s always a pleasure to find a new trove of them. Even better to imagine in the future sharing them with my children when they get old enough to deal with such sensitive material. I would warn sensitive souls that although the novel isn’t extremely graphic, it does depict torture and the grisly execution that was meted out to Catholic priests at the time.