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Book review: What the Bells Sang: Essays and reviews by Edward Short

17 November 2023

Lively writing in defence of firmly traditional faith, Michael Wheeler finds

EDWARD SHORT states in his introduction that good reviewing demands “careful, imaginative, judicious reading”, combined with “humility and self-effacement” — enough to put any reviewer of his new collection on her or his mettle. This reviewer would humbly add that a good review must be lively, honest, and, where appropriate, amusing — all features of Short’s own work. Whether we should all be as frank and dogmatic as he is is another question, but there is much to gain from a reading of What the Bells Sang, even at its most outrageous.

Alongside shots of our elegant author in Venice, or seated alongside a Roman Catholic bishop at a Newman symposium in Yonkers, NY, the main photo on his website shows him standing near bookshelves containing his books on St John Henry Newman, along with other people’s on G. K. Chesterton, P. G. Wodehouse, and Margaret Thatcher. A conservative, pro-life, Roman Catholic Anglophile, who lives in the bosom of his family in New York City, Short demands attention as a moralist who defends the truth against all foes in a decadent age.

Not being a journalist, and having no tenure to lose, he comes out of his corner spitting and snarling as he throws right jabs at the “religion of wokery”, whose votaries he describes as “bullying louts”. Catholic Modernism is dismissed as “a program of heterodoxy that seeks to conform the Church to the intellectual, moral and social aberrations of the modern world”. The “ramshackle” Pope Francis is said to share the Marxist view that “the history of the Church is, by and large, a history of colonialism, chicane and oppression.” Norman White’s critical biography of Gerard Manley Hopkins is written off as “wrongheaded”, and Peter Nockles is described as the “absolute worst” of the many “inept” commentators on Newman, on whom Frank Turner offers an inaccurate assertion that is “derisory”.

Having seized our attention with such knockabout pugilism, Short proves to be perceptive, subtle, and kind when writing about his heroes, who include Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, Newman, of course, Thomas Hardy as poet, Christopher Dawson, T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, and Evelyn Waugh. Ruskin and Trollope receive honourable mentions, as does Churchill’s biographer Andrew Roberts.

In a book divided into six sections — Poets, Moralists, Historians, Novelists, Biographers, and Saint John Henry Cardinal Newman — it is in the second that Short excels. If “moral dishonesty” is one of his many bêtes noires, his pairing of Lewis and Johnson brings out what he regards as the true meaning of morality. Parallels between the Club and the Inklings are suggestive.

And Short’s true colours are fully displayed in his essay on Burke, whose reverence for institutions, tradition, and “the gifts of Providence” contrasts so starkly with the “manifest evils of rationalism” which haunt our own “pathological” age of decadence and decline.

Infuriatingly, we are not told when and where these pieces were first published, or (some of them) delivered as talks. The editor of this volume should also have limited the number of essays and reviews that are crammed into a book that spreads to 500 pages, with the narrowest of gutters, often taking us back to the author’s heroes in a somewhat repetitive way.

On the other hand, the richness of the offering makes it perfect for dipping, and the reader who disagrees with the author will never be bored. Short’s moral crusade against abortion, his latter-day defence of what Thomas Carlyle called the “dynamical”, over against the “mechanical” ideas of Utilitarianism, and his unhesitating embrace of Mother Church combine to light up what he himself would call “cracking” writing.


Dr Michael Wheeler is a Visiting Professor at the University of Southampton and the author of The Year That Shaped the Victorian Age: Lives, loves and letters of 1845 (Books, 31 March).


What the Bells Sang: Essays and reviews
Edward Short
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