Saturday, August 07, 2004

Literary Puzzles and Newmanalia

Some of the more interesting volumes I’ve had the opportunity of reading recently are a series of books by John Sutherland, the Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature at University College London. In addition to more academic works, Sutherland is somewhat of a literary detective and has managed to compile 5 books of literary teasers. Three deal with classic (mainly 19th century) fiction, (‘Is Heathcliff a Murderer?’, ‘Who Betrays Elizabeth Bennet?’ & ‘Can Jane Eyre be Happy?’) one looks at more modern fiction (‘Where was Rebecca Shot?’) and one (co-written with Professor Cedric Watts) tackles Shakespearean conundrums (‘Henry V, War Criminal? & Other Shakespeare Puzzles’). Sutherland has a keen eye for anachronisms, plot holes, temporal inconsistencies and absurdities. Investigating these, Sutherland draws in aspects of literary criticism and social history, sometimes concluding that the author had merely blundered, sometimes that the author was making a subtle point or was exercising a literary sleight-of-hand to make an objectively unsavoury type into a more sympathetic character. The books therefore are an engaging mix of literary criticism and trivia. In the same volume we find discussion of what Mansfield Park has to say about slavery, the use of mesmerism as a plot device in 19th century fiction and the practicalities of being ‘The Invisible Man’. In their look at Shakespeare, Sutherland and Watts take an equally eclectic approach. There’s the oft-discussed question of whether Lady Macbeth’s faint is genuine (to my surprise, Sutherland decides that it’s not feigned), the practicalities of an octogenarian Lear carrying the corpse of Cordelia (is Lear really ‘fourscore and upward’?), whether Elizabethan audiences have been as perturbed as we are at Juliet’s tender age of just 13 years (and as an aside notes that the text suggest that her nurse, normally played by a ‘mature’ actress, should actually be about 26 years old) and the temporal inconsistencies which dog so many of Shakespeare’s plays.
In addition to the trivia (I know more than I ever dreamt I would about signalling on Victorian railways), I find the insight provided into the author’s craft particularly interesting. Particularly in the works of Dickens and his contemporaries who wrote their novels as serials we see evidence of plot changes and vestigial traces of plot changes.

On a slightly related matter, whilst reading ‘Is Heathcliff a Murderer?’ I came across the following quotation (in the mouth of Arthur Pendennis) from Thackeray’s ‘Pendennis’:

I see it (truth) … in that man, who, driven by the remorseless logic of his
creed, gives up everything, friends, fame, dearest ties, closest vanities, the
respect of an army of Churchmen, the recognised position of a leader, and passes
over, truth-impelled, to the enemy, in whose ranks he is ready to serve
henceforth as a nameless private soldier: - I see the truth in that man, as I do
I his brother, whose logic drives him to quite a different conclusion, and who,
after having passed a life in vain endeavours to reconcile an irreconcilable
book, flings it at last down in despair and declares, with tearful eyes, and
hands up to heaven, his revolt and recantation.
The reference is of course to John Henry Newman and his brother Frank. It is one of those ironies, which caused Venerable Newman so much pain, that his assertion that logically one must chose either atheism or the Catholic faith and that any intermediate positions are ultimately inconsistent was played out in the life of these brothers. John Henry moved from the shadows of evangelical Protestantism to Catholicism, whilst Francis William’s religious opinions moved in the opposite direction, through a variety of Christian sects, to find their ultimate home in unbelief.

I am also working my way through the Gracewing/University of Notre Dame published ‘Birmingham Oratory Millennium’ edition of Newman’s ‘The Church of the Fathers’ which has a preface by Marist Francis McGrath FMS. In it he notes that when Newman re-issued the work as a Catholic in 1857 he added a dedication to the recently deceased Robert Isaac Wilberforce (1802-57), one of the most significant converts who crossed the Tiber under Newman’s influence. He was the son of prominent Evangelical social reformer William Wilberforce. (It’s worth noting that three of his sons converted to Catholicism, whilst one became an Anglican bishop.) Having converted in 1854, Wilberforce moved to Rome to study for the priesthood as a Dominican, but died a few weeks before ordination. His funerary stone can be found set into the pavement of S.Maria Sopra Minerva, about three-quarters of the way up the right hand side of the church. Newman’s dedication reads:
TO A FRIEND,/WHO IS AS DEAR TO ME NOW,/AS WHEN HIS NAME STOOD HERE,/AND THREW LIGHT OVER THESE PAGES;/WHOSE HEART IS IN GOD’S HAND,/TO BRING INTO THAT SACRED HERITAGE,/WHICH IS BOTH THE CHURCH OF THE FATHERS,/AND THE HOME OF THE CHILDREN. Newman’s ‘Church of the Fathers’ was an attempt to introduce the Fathers of the Church to an Anglican audience and was later revised for a Catholic readership. Central to Newman’s argument is the assertion that whatever else the Early Church was, it was not Protestant. Consequently, in addition to character sketches of some of the Fathers, we also have Newman at his satirical best – (I have a decided weakness for Newman’s more polemical passages):
When we ask, ‘Where was your Church before Luther?’ Protestants answer, ‘Where
were you this morning before you washed your face?’ But, if Protestants
can clean themselves into the likeness of Cyprian and Iranaeus, they must scrub
very hard, and have well-nigh learned the art of washing the blackamoor white.
(p 403)

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