Jasmine Kuzner reviews By What Authority? by Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson, newly reprinted by Cenacle Press.
By What Authority? by Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson, is the first book in a trilogy of novels set in the time of the English Reformation. Through the fictional lives of two families, the Protestant Norris family and the Catholic Maxwell family, the novel brings to life the terror and heartbreak experienced by the English faithful during the time of the Elizabethan reign. The book is one of many novels written by Monsignor Benson, an English priest who converted from Anglicanism to Catholicism at the turn of the 20th century.
Son of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Monsignor Benson wrote everything from dystopian science fiction thrillers to charming children’s books. His unique gift for telling stories from different points of view comes to light in By What Authority?, where a reader feels as if they experience firsthand how the changes of the Reformation affected the individual hearts of its people. While the story of the Maxwells and Norrises ultimately favors a Catholic point of view, Benson (no doubt due to his education and birthright) intimately handles the arguments between the Protestant and Catholic faiths just as his main characters do: out of love for God and His Truth, and in charity for the other.
The plot of By What Authority? begins in Great Keynes, “a poor backwater of a place,” and a village just like any other in sixteenth-century England. Sir Nicholas Maxwell, a longtime Great Keynes resident, is in peril. He remains a “convinced and stubborn Catholic” despite the growing list of penalties that Catholics suffer for practicing their faith. Fines, heavy penalties and worse are given to any Catholic owning “idolatrous items,” participating in Mass, or harboring priests. Priests are outlawed and put to the “rack or rope” if they do not submit complete allegiance to the Queen and deny the tenants of their Catholic creed. Friends have turned against friends, and those who have found the new faith to be true begin to accuse their “popish” neighbors of treason and heresy.
Different amongst their Protestant neighbors are the Norris family, particularly brother and sister pair Anthony and Isabel. Puritan born and bred, Anthony and Isabel are sympathetic towards their Catholic friends and neighbors. At first, the sympathy seems a simple reaction to the disdain that other townspeople show towards the Maxwells for their Catholic faith. As the Norrises begin to spend more and more time with the Maxwells in friendship and communion, their sympathies begin to grow into something more.
Anthony, who once enjoyed sparring theological debates with Sir Nicholas and the priests they are harboring, is confounded by the realization that questions of his Puritan faith are better answered by the creed of his Catholic friends. Isabel, who keeps the romantic advances of Hubert Maxwell at bay because of the differences in their religion, becomes friends with the women of the Maxwell estate. As a result, she finds herself falling in love with the very faith that keeps her from accepting Hubert’s hand in marriage.
Unsettled by their experiences, Anthony and Isabel individually attempt to investigate their growing attraction to the old religion while maintaining their reputation in the town as loyal subjects. Their findings cause them to question their own belief in God and His Church. Each begins to wonder about the people in their lives, who can be trusted, and who can be called friends. As the Reformation continues and violence towards Catholics increases, Anthony and Isabel must choose to live out the truths of their lives, no matter the consequence.
While the specific time period and circumstance of the Reformation is what makes By What Authority? a fascinating read, the many historical events and historical figures that appear in the novel can at times feel cumbersome. This is especially true when the narrator steps away from the personal stories of the Maxwells and Norrises in order to give a timeline of events that are happening not only in England, but also in Spain and France. However, the historical details that Benson chooses to insert ultimately serve the purpose of informing his characters' choices and motivations. This is most poignantly seen in the two biggest conversions that take place in Hubert and Anthony, though a reader will be pleasantly surprised at the many and different types conversions in each of the characters throughout the course of the novel.
The conversions of hearts in By What Authority? called to mind my own conversion story, and the answers I give when people ask me why I had a change of heart about my Anglican faith. Moreover, the novel makes me wonder by what authority I would follow or flee if I ever had to answer for why I am a Catholic. More than words, I hope my answer could be seen as they are seen in the fictional lives of Anthony and Isabel—in the way I aim to love and live with others and share in the sacramental life.
Copyright 2022 Jasmine Kuzner
About the Author
Jasmine Kuzner is a wife and mother to two beautiful, quick-witted children, and is the Director of Religious Education at Saint Bernadette Church in Silver Spring, MD. She is also a consultant for the Saint John Paul II National Shrine. She holds an M.F.A. from the University of Maryland, College Park, and has been published in Humanum Review, Busted Halo, and Catholic Mom.