Maurice Baring’s C.
If C. doesn’t grow up soon, I shall have to scream. Let me explain.
C. is the title of a novel by Maurice Baring, who was a minor member of the English nobility in the early twentieth-century, when such distinctions were rapidly passing away. Initially bound for the diplomatic corps, in accordance with his class and intelligence, Baring shifted rapidly into writing, becoming a successful dramatist and novelist. He converted to Catholicism in 1909, when he was roughly 35. He died in 1945 after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. Because of his high Catholic and literary profiles, he was often grouped with Chesterton and Belloc, though he is today less well-known.
C. is a novel of some 741 pages in the 1986 edition from Oxford University Press which I have just read, though they are reasonably short pages, and not at all dense. The title refers to a young man named Caryl Hengrave, a son of minor and fairly irresponsible and improvident nobility, who has always been called simply by his first initial. C.’s parents are conventionally Anglican—this is clearly primarily a matter of the dominant culture—and C. himself seems to stumble from one thing to another, both intellectually and in his early attempts to forge a career. But he loves literature and hopes to become a writer.
Given C.’s upbringing, which was minimal, and the lack of parental affection shown him, which was in many ways normal for the class and the period, this lack of drive is understandable. Clearly there is much of Maurice Baring in C., and key traits of many other characters are thought largely to have been borrowed from Baring’s friends. Baring himself insisted that he took personality traits from a great many people, and combined them differently in his characters.
Five hundred pages in, C. is still very young (at that point, the reader has known him from his teen years and barely into his twenties). He is a strange combination of reticence (to protect himself) and romantic flightiness, which is probably not untypical of his relative immaturity (assuming a much older reader remembers back far enough to be sure). Of course, C.’s ups and downs play out in the author’s own era, a considerably different world from our own in terms of manners, if not necessarily of fundamental moral commitments. In any case, the reader encounters the same lack of significant interior purpose as we see today, even if it is manifested far more brazenly and politically now.
Though I continued to read until the end—and very much enjoyed the journey—this reader’s sympathy for the hapless C., and his hopeless infatuation with a too-willing older and manipulative married woman, had grown strained by page 500. I presumed that conversion was in the offing, the story having been published about fifteen years after Baring’s own discovery of the lodestone. But would an entirely predictable fictional conversion be any better? Meanwhile, there was no reason whatsoever that C. should have any greater good sense or personal depth, given his upbringing, youth, and lack of a spiritual life. It is a credit to Baring that his fictional character is true.
In that sense, I suppose the novel is faithful also to the human nature Baring wishes to portray, and portrays delightfully well. I agree with those critics who respect Baring’s ability to evoke time, place, personality and what we might call insight-as-far-as-the-character-permits. But the shallowness is deliberately built into the situation—and one inescapably wishes that C. would hurry up and get a life. Fortunately for Baring (as a novelist), he does not ruin the story either by a complete absence of growth or by a deliriously happy ending. The frustrating tension of C.’s immaturity holds up, but as J. B. Priestley said in his review, “the book is packed with good things”.
Perhaps the novel would be neither so fascinating nor so frustrating if it were not the story of our own time as well, the story of society adrift without the least awareness of the importance, let alone the existence, of a destination. The great mystery of our time is not that people do not know the destination, but that they pretend they have no need of one. We inhabit a world made up of “upper classes” who think of endless drifting as unstoppable progress; they neither know where the port is nor how to handle the oars they’ve been given.
C. is among them. The idea of using his mind as an oar, for both rowing and steering to a destination, has already been suppressed by a failed tradition. And words I so often muttered from page to page might be muttered also concerning a great many of our contemporaries: “If C. doesn’t grow up soon, I shall have to scream.” It is hard not to, for we are surrounded by millions just like C. today. It is very hard to be sympathetic to the same old human stupidity—except that Baring does not let the reader off quite so easily, since anyone can see how sheltered C. has been (along with most of our contemporaries) from any ultimate reality, from any contact with the permanent.
Bonds of sin
We are all, of course, held back by both culture and sin, and all the powerful attachments sin creates. When we don’t know enough to turn away immediately, the attachments become far more difficult to break. If even the well-instructed can struggle for years and decades against predominant faults, the only thing to be said for the uninstructed is that their guilt is reduced. The world is made up of more-or-less decent people trapped in patterns of behavior they find very difficult to jettison.
This is what makes C.’s fundamental dilemma so relevant. We may not be trapped by C.’s particular weakness and foolishness, but that is only because we are preoccupied with our own. If this becomes any less true as we age, it is only because spiritual progress has been made at last.
But C. does not get much older. Progress comes late and death soon, and Baring steadfastly refuses to gild the lily. (For those unfamiliar with this phrase, it means that there is indeed a lily but Baring doesn’t artificially enhance it by final contrivances which soar beyond the story as it has already been told.) But the weight of 700 frustratingly fascinating pages is lightened. The whole story grows brighter, too, the more the reader thinks through the implications of the ending—and that is enough.
The book is very neatly staged. An old friend of C.’s is sick and dying. He had collected C.’s papers after his death and combined them with what he knew of him. He thought it important that C.’s life story should be told, and he no longer had the health to do it. He called upon another old friend, Walter Wright, and laid upon him the duty of sifting through everything and writing a biography of C. Hence, the “biography” is introduced and “written” by Walter Wright. Thus does Maurice Baring present his novel.
One final note: Do not fail to read the poem, written by C. and found among his papers, which “Wright” places in an appendix at the end of the “biography”. Baring exceeded all expectations when he wrote this closing poem.
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