R.H. Benson, “The Sentmentalists,” Pt 1

Robert Hugh Benson’s The Sentimentalists, was published in London by Sir Isaac Pitman and Sons Ltd., 1906. Pitman himself (1837-1897) invented Pitman shorthand, and distance education using the English postal system. Apart from his own phenomenal sales, his publishing house was a powerhouse in educational books. So, this book, The Sentimentalists was issued by a major press of the time.

To anticipate, I would contend that this is a significant novel, of great psychological insight. It was meant to instruct and edify, while entertaining, and it succeeds admirably. Its avowed protreptic purpose was to bring readers to Catholicism, and to confirm the Catholic. This is the only reason I can see for its being almost entirely forgotten today, when it stands head and shoulders (in my estimate) both in style and for its content. I suggest that is should be reissued in a modern edition with a short introduction, and with notes, so that modern readers can appreciate allusions which today are rather obscure.

[All page references are to the Burns, Oates and Washbourne edition of 1927. I refer to chapters by name, as that may assist locating the quotation in other print editions.]

The Dedication

The novel is preceded by a two-page dedication, in the form of a letter, to “My dear Max,” which gives the impression that all the characters in the novel are based on real people, some deceased, some living, but all of them somewhat disguised. It is cleverly written, as if the reader is eavesdropping on a private conversation from which something but not everything of the background can be gleaned. Perhaps the most significant line in it is:

But for you and me, my dear Max, who believe in God and the Catholic Church and one or two other things, a convinced optimism is the only reasonable philosophy … (8).

The nuance is that if one believes in God and the Catholic Church, only one or two other things need to be considered. But the chief point is that a philosophy of “convinced optimism” will naturally and logically follow.

[On p.7, he refers to seeing the original of “Lady Brasted” on “Waterloo platform.” Once “Waterloo Bridge Station,” it was and still is one of the very busiest stations in the United Kingdom, being a terminus for several lines. Benson means that he saw the woman at a very busy, sprawling railway station, with the implication that she probably did not realise she was noticed.]

Part I, Chapter I “An Old Sufferer”

The book is written in two Parts. Part I has seven chapters. The first of these is titled “An Old Sufferer.” It opens with the name “Richard Arthur Molyneux Yolland.” The surname may have been borrowed from Lieutenant Colonel William Yolland (1810-1885), it being an unusual name, not attested before 1850 [https://www.findmypast.co.uk/surname/Yolland, 4 March 2024]. However, the first name “Richard”, meant a good deal to Benson, the name of the central character in his favourite novel, The History of Richard Raynal, Solitary, published in 1906, the same year as The Sentimentalists. Like the second name, “Arthur,” Richard is the name of English kings. While Richard came to England with the Normans, Arthur seems to have been a Celtic name. “Molyneux” is a French-origin name. I may be wrong, but I think that the name is chosen to indicate that Father Yolland (for he is a priest) is a representative Englishman. Benson describes him thus:

He was not at all true in his appearance to the type of Roman cleric conceived by his fellow-country men ; he was neither blue-chinned and gross, nor spare and furtive-eyed. On the contrary he had a clean-looking freckled face, blue eyes, stiff sandy hair, a snub-nose, and an appearance of honesty. He was about thirty years old, and resembled, said his friends, an intelligent Irish terrier. (9)

So, Fr Yolland is intended to confound prejudiced views of the English Catholic priest. In the November 1898 edition of Outing: an Illustrated Monthly Magazine of Recreation, (volume 33, #2), the pseudonymous writer, “Nomad” describes the dog as:

 A clever, hardy, plucky, and exceedingly active dog … a capital companion and at the same time one of the best watchdogs for city, mansion or country villa. … In appearance he is very peculiar. His clean-cut sinewy frame suggests at a glance the strength and agility which it possesses … [His expression] is a comical mixture of bold shrewdness, determination and honour … He is affectionate and faithful … (209)

Overall, this strikes me as a good-natured ribbing, intended to make us chuckle while lauding the priest in question. Although Fr Yolland proves to be a “sentimentalist,” he is a well-intentioned man, without whose charity the critical figure of “Christopher Dell” may well not have lived to be reclaimed, as he is. Fr Yolland’s books are a good variety of old-fashioned Catholic volumes, suitable for a priest with no curiosity about modernism. His library is miscellaneous: diverse novelists like R.L. Stevenson (1850-1894) and Henry Kingsley (1830-1876), like his brother Charles Kingsley, a “muscular Christian.” Benson’s comment is pungent:

There was therefore no unity in the room, and an observant psychologist, knowing that the room reveals the occupant, would have pronounced that here was one more example of that numerous class of persons who have combined but not yet fused dissimilar elements of character. (10)

Perhaps analogous to the Irish Terrier with its strange appearance, Fr Yolland has diverse good qualities, but he is not yet a good man. He is reading the Divine Office, a duty for priests, but his mind is on some shooting for game he intends to do when he goes back home. It is a quarter to ten at night when he is interrupted by the housekeeper who reveals that there is someone to see him. The thought of how unreasonably late it is to call distracts him yet further from the Office. When he has finished, he rustles down the stairs, his zimmara, a clerical cassock with a small cape: hence, as its name suggests, it would look distinctly Italian in London. As he descends, he sees that the person waiting has struck a “somewhat dramatic” pose (12). We are about to meet Christopher Dell, and our lives will never be the same.

end Part 1 of the review

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