“Their Wives and Their Wealth Have Made Them So Mute”: Reading Waugh’s biographies of Campion & Knox

“Their Wives and Their Wealth Have Made Them So Mute”: Reading Waugh’s biographies of Campion & Knox March 7, 2017

Recently finished Two Lives, which encloses in one volume Evelyn Waugh’s biographies of St Edmund Campion, a martyr of the English Reformation, and Ronald Knox, a semirandom priest. You should absolutely read the Campion biography. It’s passionate and the prose hangs in garlands, with thorns tipped in blood. It isn’t swoony or silly (like the sentence I just wrote), it isn’t sentimental or polemical although this is Waugh so he does stick a shiv in occasionally; in general it’s crisp and acrid, and inspiring.

The Knox biography has a surprising scattering of gems for the average reader but is frankly a pretty long book to read about a good man who did not in my opinion need such a long book written about him.

Some notes:

# The pacing and structure of Edmund Campion is excellent. Right up front we get that shocking scene where the more radical Protestants at Oxford think they’ll please the Queen by a blasphemous play in which a student dressed as a dog carries a mock Eucharist in his mouth. This really brought home to me that desecration of the Host–or even mockery of it, really–is contempt for Jesus in His most helpless form.

# Waugh frequently refers to the comfort of the sacraments. This is a recurring phrase in his descriptions of what the English Reformation denied the laity–all those people who flocked to Campion to make the first confession they’d been able to make in years.

# Every now and then you get just these small reminders, dropped into the text, you know, dah dah dum dee Mass and confession were outlawed, a doo dah dee, “By the Relief Act of 1791 the penalty for keeping a Catholic school was reduced from life imprisonment to one year’s and (a more valuable concession) informers were deprived of their rewards,” tra la. (The bit in quotes is from the Knox biography.)

# Man the English are weird about the monarchy. I mean I actually love it, those old books where they’re so proud to be not citizens but subjects of the Crown. And there’s a vivacity in Campion’s romantic gallantry toward the Queen who’d hunt and kill him. There’s less vivacity, but something very humble and poignant, in the other English Catholics’ constant, begging reminders that they really do love their Queen and are subject to her and could she please just kill their priests slightly less severely? All of this is the gentler version–the version more conscious of its helplessness and ridiculousness–of Edmund Spenser’s creepy Gloriana.

# The title of this post is taken from a popular ballad composed during the pitiful show-trial “debates” between captured Campion and various Protestant bigwigs. Campion’s celibacy was a sign of his willingness to give his entire life for Christ, and for truth. It was a sign against his times, as it always is. His celibacy is a part of what he meant when he said that line I have been thinking about and quoting so much, “We are not lords of our own lives.”

I also have no debts and no dependents so it is sort of awful that I behave so thoroughly as the lord of my own life. I spend my own time instead of letting God squander me. I always say I don’t believe in “singleness” but I live more like a singleton than like a celibate and I should make some changes there.

# OK, turning to Knox, we see celibacy from a different angle. Knox vowed himself to celibacy at age 17, while still an Anglican:

The uppermost thought in my mind was not that of virginity. I was not fleeing from the wickedness of the world I saw round me. …But at this time (as in common, I suppose, with many people) I was just beginning to form close and intimate friendships. I was just beginning also to realize that in many cases such friendships were likely to be dissolved through circumstances of separation after leaving school. And, conscious for the first time how much my nature craved for human sympathy and support, I thought it my obvious duty to deny myself that tenderest sympathy and support which a happy marriage would bring. I must have “power to attend upon the Lord without impediment.”

As it happens impediments and entanglements of course arose, for God sends tourists to all hermits, but I liked this concise statement of celibacy as a form of mortification and protection for hearts especially deeply drawn to human love.


Maurice Child’s application [to be an Anglican chaplain during World War i] was refused on the grounds, it was said, that in his interview with the Chaplain-General he was asked what he would do for a dying man, and answered, ‘Hear his confession and give him absolution.” The correct answer was: “Give him a cigarette and take any last message he may have for his family.”

# “[H]is main benefactions were to individuals, especially to individuals, priests for example who fell into disgrace, for whom there is little general sympathy.” Your daily reminder that morality is the idol of our age.

# Ah the English! “He undertook the work [translating The Story of a Soul] because it was the wish of the Carmel of Lisieux and because he felt confident that he could avoid the infelicities which the saint’s language sometimes invites. ‘I have a superstition,’ he wrote to Lady Acton on December 14th 1956, ‘that she [St Therese] was asked in Heaven whom she’d like as her translator, and replied ‘Ronald Knox–he’ll mind my style so terribly, and the great thing is always to do something you don’t like.'”

So true–and yet of course I’m so glad we have also in our Church the Italians and their dolce vita, and the Spanish and their bloody-minded willingness to like whatever they think they’re supposed to do. The Spanish really get their fangs stuck in. Whereas the English have a national genius for discomfort.

Which I think is enough burbling about THE ENGLISH SOUL for now, y’all. The Campion biography is short and sublime, so go get it.

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