Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Edmund Campion: Scholar, Priest, Hero, Martyr

The novel is the genre of our age, so much so that other forms of writing are often quietly ignored. However, it was not all that long ago that literature meant so much more than fiction. So, for example, I wonder how often Waugh's wonderful biography of Edmund Campion appears on reading lists alongside Brideshead Revisited and The Sword of Honour trilogy (which, incidentally, is BBC Radio 4's current classic serial).

In his preface, Waugh writes: "There is great need for a complete, scholar's work on the subject. This is not it. All I have done is select the incidents which strike a novelist as important, and relate them in a single narrative." For Waugh himself, there seemed to be little difference between his work as a novelist and his work as a biographer.

But what of the book itself?

There are some wonderful passages, as you might imagine. Take this one on Pope Pius V's excommunication of Queen Elizabeth: "It is possible that one of his more worldly predecessors might have acted differently, or at another season, but it was the pride and slight embarrassment of the Church that, as has happened from time to time in her history, the See of Peter was at this moment occupied by a saint."

Or this one describing Campion's prayers in the moments before his execution: "They called to him to pray in English, but he replied with great mildness that 'he would pray God in a language which they both well understood.'" The glory of that put-down is Campion's rather than Waugh's but it could so easily have been a phrase used in a Waugh novel.

In the edition of the book which I have, the subtitle is "Scholar, Priest, Hero, Martyr". I see that's been changed to "Jesuit and Martyr" in the Penguin Classics edition. The former follows the pattern of Waugh's chapter headings. I wonder which subtitle is the one Waugh would have wanted.

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