A brilliant novel helps make sense of the dissolution of the monasteries

Rievaulx Abbey in North Yorkshire (PA)

Pope Francis’s meeting with Lutheran leaders raises many questions for Catholics: How do we view the Reformation? What should we think of Luther? Lucy Beckett’s fine historical novel The Time Before You Die, which I have just been re-reading, offers an exceptionally useful way to understand these questions.

Beckett’s novel, first published in the 90s and now being reissued by Ignatius Press to mark the Reformation’s 500th anniversary next year, is a fictional re-imagining of the life of Robert Fletcher, a former Carthusian monk of Mount Grace Charterhouse near York. Fletcher really existed, but only his name and age are known to historians – and that he was turned out of the Charterhouse during Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries.

In a narrative stretching from 1518 to Fletcher’s death in 1559, Beckett brilliantly interweaves the hotly disputed theological questions of the period and the personal tragedy of one man, caught up in events beyond his control.

I asked Beckett what inspired her to write on such a fascinating but complex subject. She tells me that her interest in the period began when she was a Cambridge undergraduate writing essays on the Reformation. In fact, she became a Catholic largely through being taught by Catholic historians such as Dom David Knowles.

She adds that the ruins of Mount Grace – “The only one of nine English Charterhouses to survive in recognisable form” – are only 10 miles from her home in Rievaulx. “And because of being surrounded all my life by monastic ruins, I thought it would be interesting to imagine what it must have been like to be thrown out of a monastery for no reason except the King’s greed.”

Are there historical records of what happened to the many hundreds of expelled monks and nuns? Lucy explains that “in most cases they simply disappeared into lay life and vanished from history. Some of the priests became chaplains to Catholic households or Oxbridge colleges, or became Protestant ministers. A few of the grand figures got themselves equally grand jobs in the Protestant church.”

Given Pope Francis’s rapprochement with the Lutheran Church, what is her view of Martin Luther, the man who started the Reformation in 1517? She tells me he was “a terrible man in many ways, intolerant, furious, keen on power and disastrously anti-Semitic, but theologically extraordinarily perceptive and bracing. About many of the abuses in the Church he was entirely right.”

Beckett’s sensitive and nuanced portrayal in her novel of the figure of Cardinal Reginald Pole, last Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, is one of the most memorable features of the book. How does she view him? She reminds me that when she wrote the novel, the view of Catholic life during this period was “negative and less informed than it is now, so I was making the case for Pole, whom I found and still find an attractive and sympathetic figure.” She refers to his “courage and resolve, living and suffering in pitiless times, a man who braved the bullying of Henry VIII and Pope Paul IV to do the very best he could for England and for the whole Catholic Church.”