Magazine article The Spectator

Converting and Conversing

Magazine article The Spectator

Converting and Conversing

Article excerpt


by H. J. A. Sire

Gracewing, L17.99, pp. 223

What does the world know of Fr D'Arcy (1888-1976)? That he was a smart Jesuit, perhaps, like Fr Rothschild in Vile Bodies, or as the butt, perhaps, of this little rhyme:

Are you rich and nobly born? Is your soul with sorrow torn? Come, and we shall find a way: I'm Martin D'Arcy, sir, SJ.

In fact D'Arcy turns out to be more interesting than just a doctor of souls specialising in diseases of the rich. And Waugh cannot have based Fr Rothschild on him, because they only met after Vile Bodies had been published, and in any case D'Arcy had not in 1930 begun to move widely in fashionable society.

In his day D'Arcy was one of the best known, most intellectually convincing, sparkling, witty and English of Catholic apologists; he made the Church attractive and brought it many converts. In 1933 he became Master of Campion Hall in Oxford, the small Jesuit establishment then housed in a building leased from St John's. His first act was to build afresh. He secured the services of Lutyens, the architect of New Delhi, to design it, through a telephone call kindly made by Lady Horner (the mother of Katharine Asquith, the widow of the Prime Minister's son). Lady Horner had up to that time been chary of Catholics, but she knew Lutyens through some work he had done for her at Mells, the beautiful house in Somerset which thenceforward crops up frequently in Catholic biography (Ronald Knox, Evelyn Waugh and so on).

D'Arcy then acquired for the new Campion Hall (a successful if restrained example of Lutyens's work) an astonishing collection of ancient vestments and works of art: a Murillo, a Morales, a Giulio Romano, a 15th-century Burgundian chasuble, some 13th-century orphreys, etc. Naturally such things were nicknamed objets darcy.

D'Arcy himself would preside over afterdinner conversation in the Senior Common Room. 'I never knew anyone be a bore there,' wrote Waugh, `no one was ever intimidated by superior celebrity. Father D'Arcy has among his many gifts the supreme art of conducting a conversation.'

All this sounds very well, but seems to tend towards the rich and nobly born caricature. What business is it of a disciple of the soldier-saint Ignatius Loyola to `catch the conversational ball and pass it, swift and spinning, to another hand'?

And then, as a parenthesis in his life story, there is the strange tale of his love affair with Henry John, son of the painter. Henry John was bright, amusing, handsome and became a keen Catholic. It seems pretty clear that D'Arcy's love for him was homosexual in a way; in another way it was not sexual at all. So tender was D'Arcy's conscience that he avoided particular friendships of any sort that might distract him from his vocation of prayer and penance.

Young Henry John - a teenager when D'Arcy, aged 34, became his schoolmaster - idolised him, argued with him, tried to shock him with a smuggled copy of Ulysses. D'Arcy would not be shocked. He took John to Budapest on a school trip; whatever his feelings were, D'Arcy went to confession every day, to Fr C. C. Martindale during the jaunt. John later followed D'Arcy to Rome - `to paint the Pope (green) and the town (red)' as he wrote to his father - went to Tunisia and came back dressed as an Arab, failed at his own attempt to become a Jesuit, but went pretty well mad in the attempt, tortured by sexual frustration. …

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