I realize that the Roman Catholic Church is the only genuine form of Christianity. Also that Christianity is the essential and formative constituent of western culture…
- Evelyn Waugh
These words were written by Evelyn Waugh to the Jesuit, Martin D’Arcy, on 21 August 1930, eight days before his reception into the Church. Waugh’s reception caused considerable controversy, not least because he was considered among the avant-garde of the ultra-modern novelists. How could someone who had been lauded as ultra-modern succumb to the pillar of all things ancient? Such was the consternation at the news of Waugh’s conversion that it made the national headlines. Two leaders in the Daily Express had already discussed the significance of Waugh’s conversion before his own article, “Converted to Rome: Why It Has Happened To Me?”, was published in the same paper. It was given a full-page spread, boldly headlined. On the following day, the Express published a response to Waugh by a Protestant politician, and the day after it published an article by a Jesuit priest pondering the question: “Is Britain Turning to Rome?”
Clearly Waugh’s conversion had caused shockwaves of seismic proportions. Yet he was not alone. Two years earlier, the conversion of T.S. Eliot to anglo-catholicism had caused similar controversy. Virginia Woolf had reacted to Eliot’s conversion with horror. “I have had a most shameful and distressing interview with dear Tom Eliot, who may be called dead to us all from this day forward,” she wrote to a friend. “He has become an Anglo-Catholic believer in God and immortality, and goes to church … there’s something obscene in a living person sitting by the fire and believing in God.” What was most shocking to Woolf and her ilk was that Eliot and Waugh were “modern”. They were doing innovative and exciting things with poetry and fiction. They were the heralds of the new dawn of modernity. How could the most exciting and cutting-edge literary talent find its home in the Church? The fact is that Eliot and Waugh had experienced the secular fundamentalist “future” as a wasteland of barren emptiness. In the midst of this vacuity they had sought to fill modernity’s vacuum with traditional Christianity seeing it as “the essential and formative constituent of western culture”. This might have led to their being considered “dead” to the suicidal nihilism of Woolf and her fellow Bloomsburys, but it breathed astonishing literary life into their post-conversion work. Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited is arguably the greatest novel of the twentieth century, and Eliot’s Four Quartets is indubitably the century’s finest poem.
Nor were Waugh’s and Eliot’s conversions an isolated occurrence, which could be dismissed as a mere aberration or a minor blip on the map of humanity’s “progress” towards a “post-Christian” future. On the contrary, they were following in the footsteps of a host of literary converts who had preceded them on the journey to Christian orthodoxy. Newman’s conversion, as far back as 1845, had caused the intellectual and literary landscape of England to quake even more seismically than had the conversions of Waugh and Eliot almost eighty years later. His prose praised the Church with unexcelled brilliance and his poetry is amongst the finest written in an age of great poets.
A wave of converts followed in Newman’s wake, notably Gerard Manley Hopkins, possibly the greatest of all Victorian poets, and Coventry Patmore, a lesser poet than Hopkins but a major figure in the Victorian age nonetheless. At the end of the nineteenth century, most of the leading writers of the English Decadence took the path of penance that led to Rome. Among the converts from this period were the brightest lights of the fin de siècle: Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley, Ernest Dowson, and Lionel Johnson. These English Decadents were themselves following what might be called the Decadent path to Christ, or the Magdalen path, which had been walked by the French Decadents before them. Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine and Joris Karl Huysmans had all repented of their blasphemies and had been received into the Catholic Church, the last of whom even ending his days in a monastery.
The turn of the twentieth century saw the turning of many of the finest writers to Rome. Converts during the Edwardian and Georgian period included G.K. Chesterton, Maurice Baring, R.H. Benson, Christopher Dawson, Alfred Noyes and Ronald Knox. Graham Greene was received into the Church in 1926 and Roy Campbell entered the Church nine years later. After the second world war, prominent literary converts included Siegfried Sassoon, Edith Sitwell, Muriel Spark and Malcolm Muggeridge.
As if the foregoing litany of literati is not impressive enough, J.R.R. Tolkien can be considered a cradle convert, being received into the Church as an eight-year-old following the conversion of his mother. Tolkien described his magnum opus, The Lord of the Rings, as “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work”. Although Tolkien’s great friend C.S. Lewis is not a convert to Catholicism, he converted from atheism to a substantially orthodox Christianity under the benevolent Catholic influence of Chesterton and Tolkien.
Taken together, this host of literary converts has blazed a trail of light and hope through the darkened decades of modernity, producing some of the greatest works of literature to emerge in the desert of the secular wasteland.
Nothing else need be said, not least because these great writers have said it all so much better in their works. Let’s end as we begin with the words of Waugh:
Conversion is like stepping across the chimney piece out of a Looking-Glass world, where everything is an absurd caricature, into the real world God made; and then begins the delicious process of exploring it limitlessly.