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Books: Those who become lions in their own lifetimes

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Literary Converts: Spiritual Inspiration in an Age of Unbelief

by Joseph Pearce

HarperCollins pounds 25

During the recent wave of conversions to Rome, following the Church of England's decision to ordain women as priests, lavish reference was made back to a similar mass movement in the 1920s and 1930s to illustrate that the tide between the churches has ebbed and flowed over the century. Sadly for those determined to talk up a trickle of disgruntled misogynists into a wider movement for the "reconversion" of England, there are significant differences between these two periods. Ann Widdecombe may have just netted a pounds 100,000 two-novel deal, John Gummer is doubtless hard at work on his memoirs and Charles Moore appears convinced that he has a way with words, but I'm sure that not even this self-regarding trinity would put their literary efforts on a par with their distinguished forerunners who took the Pope's shilling 50 years ago - G K Chesterton, Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh.

Joseph Pearce certainly believes this earlier generation to have been superior people in more senses than their penchant for prose. There is an awe-struck reverence to his accounts of their individual decisions to come over to Rome, though in fairness, while he majors on the well- known names, he also weaves into his chronological account others whose reputations have not lived on in any great measure beyond their deaths - the historian Christopher Dawson, the poet Alfred Noyes and the novelist Arnold Lunn. The biographical sketches he provides of each are a welcome reminder of the unpredictable posthumous games that history plays with the literary reputations of those judged lions in their lifetime.

Pearce makes a particularly strong case for the significance of the now much neglected fiction of Robert Hugh Benson, son of an Archbishop of Canterbury, brother of the creator of Mapp and Lucia, and himself a convert to Catholicism who became a priest. As well as having an often less than subtle subtext of evangelisation - Come Rack! Come Rope! was his account of the Catholic martyrs of the Reformation - Benson's books also managed to touch on a spiritual dimension that persuaded some eminent names amongst his readers to follow him in coming over to Rome. His The Light Invisible, for instance, published in 1903 before his own conversion, was acknowledged by Ronald Knox, son of the Anglican Bishop of Manchester, as the starting point on a journey to Rome that was to make him one of English Catholicism's greatest orators.

Literary Converts has a complex structure - running together the lives of a large number of disparate and disconnected individuals over the 20th century - and an ambitious purpose. Pearce wants to demonstrate some common ground for all the writers he features in their individually momentous decision to change churches. This ambitious study starts well with the author on what might be regarded as his home turf. He has already written a biography of G K Chesterton and here lovingly recreates in miniature the era sometimes called Chesterbelloc, with the creator of Father Brown, the priest detective, linking up with Hilaire Belloc and Maurice Baring - another now underrated figure - to counter in a series of public setpieces the humanism of George Bernard Shaw and H G Wells.

By the time Chesterton has died in the mid-1930s, however, Pearce's plot has overwhelmed him. The cast of characters has grown so vast that the links between them have become tenuous. Evelyn Waugh, for instance, with his portrait in Brideshead Revisited of the recusant Catholic landed families who had kept faith with Rome since the Reformation, had little in common with the likes of Eric Gill with his utopian commune at Ditchling. Gill, indeed, hardly counts as a writer, yet Pearce insists on trying to mould them together into a whole.

Moreover, given that his subject requires in part at least an ability to read his chosen authors' minds and souls via their texts, it is simply not sufficient to rely on giving potted biographies of events in their lives without any substantial reference to their published works. If I'd wanted a brief resume of Graham Greene's life with general references to guilt-ridden characters and moral relativism, I could have looked him up in a dictionary of biography. All that Pearce brings to the feast is the impression of having gone through the index of full-length biographies of the names he mentions looking under "C" for Catholicism and conversion and then quoting them.

The terrible muddled thinking of too much of this book is best summed up by the front cover. Pearce's anointed task is to write about literary converts, yet of the four faces featured two are not converts at all - Hilaire Belloc was a cradle Catholic and George Bernard Shaw impervious to the charms of organised religion. Even Oscar Wilde, who with Evelyn Waugh represents those who turned to Rome, only came over on his deathbed. The clear distinction to be made between such last-minute, belt-and-braces- as-you-depart- this-world conversions and those made in early or mid-life is nowhere explored by Pearce.

Most disappointing is Pearce's failure to draw together his themes. There must be some deductions about the nature and inspiration for religious conversion that can be drawn from such a large group of people, all engaged in the same or similar professions, coming over to Rome in a relatively short time in the same place. Yet this book is a dark night when it comes to seeing into their souls. Perhaps if he had reduced the number of featured writers and stuck to one or two defined periods - Chesterbelloc and the Waugh/Greene era of the 1930s for instance - Pearce might have moved beyond producing an interesting if frustrating book and turned out a gem instead.