Published May 1907
Approx. 81,000 words
(First read 10/05/2014)
I was pleasantly surprised to find that I quite enjoyed The House of Defence ~ "Oh dear," I'd thought, "a novel about Christian Science ~ this is going to be hard work." In fact I needn't have worried: EFB doesn't come anywhere near proselytizing ~ well, he couldn't really when he can't make his mind up whether he believes in it or not. In the best tradition of fence-sitters always and everywhere he allows the reader to make up his mind for himself.
Lord Thurso¹ Raynham is a jolly-decent-chap type of toff who happens to be prey to crippling neuralgic headaches. He accidentally becomes addicted to the laudanum (opium) he takes to counter the effects of these. All other attempts to cure Thurso of his addiction having failed, his sister Maud, who during the course of the book becomes converted to Christian Science, partly because she's in love with the jolly-decent-chap-despite-being-American-and-a-Christian Scientist who teaches it to her, persuades Thurso to have a go with Mrs Eddy's mumbo-jumbo² ~ and lo! it works.
That's basically all there is to it, apart from the usual Bensonian diversions into beside-the-point characters and plots-that-are-never-finished-off. But it moves along at a fairly quick rate (for EFB) and the story is sufficiently different from the usual fare to hold the attention and interest.
It's far from perfect, mind you.
The whole book is available online here.
P.S. You'd think it would've been published in the United States as The House of Defense, that being their charming spelling of the word, but apparently it wasn't. Go figure, as they say.
¹ The early scenes are set on his estate in Scotland, which probably explains the unusual name.
~The Manchester Courier, 23/05/1907Mr E F Benson is remarkable for his utilisation of current interests for fictional purposes, and it is not surprising to find that The House of Defence […] concerns itself with Christian Science. It is a subject which, at the outset, appears eminently suited to a writer of Mr Benson's tastes and capabilities. Without accepting it in its entirety, the author sees no reason why Christian Science should not heal diseases when the brain is the seat of trouble, “and its disease and desire is the real cause of the damage done to bodily tissue.” [...]The picturesque conception is reminiscent of many of the author's earlier works, and contains some inimitable Bensonian descriptions. The character drawing is subtle and refined, but it is only a variation of previous efforts and not remarkable for originality. There is an undercurrent of sadness throughout the work, but it is cleverly handled and kept in check. Altogether the book is one of the most interesting and successful novels of the season.
Unlike his brother, Father Benson, in A Mirror of Shalott, Mr. E. F. Benson supplies a preface to his new novel, telling the reader which of the miracles described within are founded on fact and which are imaginary. The miracle of faith-healing is, of course, no novelty, and the Church to which Father Benson belongs claims to work as great marvels through faith as do the Christian Scientists whom Mr. E. F. Benson describes in this story. Judged purely as a work of fiction, the book, while written with a good deal of Mr. Benson's customary vivacity, is rather thin and slight, but the episode vouched for by him as literally true is of considerable psychological interest. To quote the words of the preface: "To save that drug-logged wreck who was our friend you [that is, the Healer] drank that which by all that is known of the drug should have killed you, and you drank it with complete and absolute confidence that it could not possibly hurt you.” The Healer, both in real life and in the story, is alleged to have performed this feat in order to show the opium-drinker that the effects of the drug with which he has been poisoning himself are purely imaginary, and this conviction, enacted before his eyes, is in the book, and was, it is asserted, in real life, sufficient to cure the patient. In real life, as Mr. Benson tells us, the patient is extremely fond of the Healer, while the imaginary patient has rather an aversion to the imaginary Healer; but Mr. Benson does not allow this fact to interfere with the cure. It may be said of the episode in the book that it is a little rash of the patient to cable to his wife that he is cured without making the experiment as to whether the cure will last. To the ordinary Christian belonging to any of the older Churches, the Christian Scientist, when his miracles succeed, which is by no means invariably the case, seems to do the right thing in a wrong way. The cure may be undoubted, but cures do not prove the truth of the Christian Scientist's view of the world. Cures are also made at Lourdes, and in these the healing is attributed, not to the fact that evil—which seems very like the Christian Scientist's "error"— does not exist, but that the power of faith can overcome it. With regard to Christian Science cures in general, it is difficult to forget the dictum of Mr. Dooley, which ran something like this: "If the Scientists had a little more Christianity and the Christians had a little more Science, it would not much matter which you had—always supposing that you'd a good nurse!"
|Mary Baker Eddy (1821-1910)|
~The Spectator, 06/07/1907
An interesting contribution to the literature of the Christian Science controversy. The milieu of the tale is the very best society, and admirers of Mr. Benson's novels need not be afraid that the subject of his story hinders him from giving many bright examples of the kind of irresponsible chatter of which he is master.
~Morning Post, quoted in endpapers of Sheaves
The mass of English religious novels, to be candid, owe their importance to the fact of their numbers rather than to the intrinsic value of any one story. But there is significance in the mere fact of Mr. Benson's wit and skill being submerged by a weak and painful mysticism, as in The Angel of Pain, and in The House of Defense by a pitifully flat and obvious sermon upon Christian Science.
~The Atlantic Monthly (US), 01/1907
It is so new a thing, and one so entirely unexpected, to find the claims of Christian Science exposed with any degree of intelligence in a novel, that one is inclined to be very lenient to the writer who succeeds in this achievement. Mr. Benson, therefore, deserves well of the reading public. It is also well that a live lord and his kith and kin have been chosen as subjects of the Christian Science propaganda, for of such is the kingdom of Mrs. Eddy.
"Oh very topical!"
~Westminster Gazette, quoted in endpapers to Juggernaut and Sheaves
It appeals to two sides of the reading public's heart at once. It interests people in the story, and it makes them wonder for the hundredth time “how much there really is in Christian Science.” It is a fine book, and an interesting one.
~Evening Standard, quoted in endpapers of Sheaves