Saturday, 3 November 2007

The virtue of simplicity

I feel bound in charity to warn any of the young into whose hands this book may fall that they should on no account incorporate my conclusions in their examination answers. To do so would be to ensure very low marks, if not actual failure. It is not that what I have written is not, to the best of my knowledge, research and belief, as near the truth as it is possible to get. It is that, if it is true, it reduces most of the vested interest textbooks to absurdity; and this ... could never be allowed.

Hugh Ross Williamson, Preface to Historical Enigmas

I was delighted to read about Hugh Ross Williamson on Fr Schofield's urbane blog (Fr Schofield has written the introduction to a new edition of Ross Williamson's historical novel James by the Grace of God... (1955). See his blog for details of how to get the book.

I recently acquired a copy of his jaunty series of essays Historical Enigmas (1974, in print as Who Was the Man in the Iron Mask) which is an easy introduction to this notable Catholic historian (who was a former Anglican clergyman).

I was especially taken by the quote above, which I take to mean first that if his style of historical writing is capable of capturing the truth then the pseudo-scientific approach of modern historical writers is ridiculous; second, that if his hypotheses are correct - for example, that Elizabeth was not Henry's daughter, that the Gunpowder Plot was orchestrated by Cecil - then our history books are flawed at in their most basic assumptions.

Ross Williamson begins Historical Enigmas with these lines from Harold Temperley:

There is a famous interview between Napoleon and Balasov on the eve of the Russian campaign which is more correctly described by Tolstoy, an avowed romancer working on a few fragments of historical knowledge, than by historians working on the amplest records.

This reminds me of G. K. Chesterton's curious study of St Thomas Aquinas, which he wrote with apparently little textual familiarity with St Thomas. The great Thomist Etienne Gilson admitted that he found Chesterton infuriating: Gilson himself had devoted his life to studying Thomas, and here was a Catholic journalist producing with apparent ease the finest book ever written on Aquinas.

As a teacher I find this is all rather interesting. See the post below on the source of Christ's wisdom. Think of the damage done by qualified liturgists. Simplicity is a virtue. Ross Williamson gives this great quote from Chesterton (taken from Orthodoxy):

If you say "The social utility of the indeterminate sentence is recognized by all criminologists as a part of our sociological evolution towards a more humane and scientific view of punishment," you can go on talking like that for hours with hardly a movement of the gray matter inside your skull. But if you begin "I wish Jones to go to gaol and Brown to say when Jones shall come out," you will discover, with a thrill of horror, that you are obliged to think.


Fr Nicholas said...

Let me add a much needed comment to your splendid blog, to which I have now linked...

Mac McLernon said...

Oh wow. Great blog. I wondered how you escaped notice... and then I saw you've only been blogging a little while (and I've been busy!)

Welcome to the blogosphere!

Paulinus said...

Welcome to the Catholic blogosphere

The Holy Office said...

Many thanks!

la mamma said...

Welcome. I look forward to readin your blog properly when I have a moment. Found you via Fr. Tim.

Anonymous said...

What a great blog..i got my Degree in Divinity & taught RE for about a dozen years..ending up Head of RE..then i gave it up & had my own school!

Andrew Cusack said...

I just became a member of a splendid private library here in Manhattan, and I am happy to see in the catalog that it has a dozen books by Mr. Ross Williamson. Fireside reading for months!

Julia Ashenden said...

I've just been introduced to your blog. As the daughter of Hugh Ross Williamson, I am delighted to find that he has some young fans, as he has largely been forgotten although I have been working away to change this. I have managed to have his "Challenge of Bernadette" reprinted last year (Gracewing) and now "James by the Grace of God" with the help of Antony Tyler at Fisher Press. I enjoyed all the quotations that you and other bloggers have chosen from HRW.
Julia Ashenden

The Holy Office said...

Mrs Ashendon

What a wonderful thing to have these kind comments from you. I've just got another HRW novel from the school library. You might also be interested to read today's post at

All best wishes


PS Do forward me any more details

Julia Ashenden said...

I am intrigued, but not altogether surprised, by the strength of feeling displayed in the comments on Andrew Cusack's blog-site re James II. Those against JII have been thoroughly misled by centuries of "history" and therefore trot out the usual canards of the anti-Stuart, anti-Catholic it's refreshing to see that there are others who have done some independent research and have discovered another story; of a good King who was treacherously betrayed.
Julia Ashenden