Tuesday, February 21, 2012

On reading one's library and one's life

Holman Hunt's Lux Mundi
Holman Hunt is a good choice to stand for Victorian Anglican religious painting.  It is allegorical and it was highly regarded and much discussed in its time.  It is not exactly pre-Raphaelite, but Holman Hunt belongs with them.  Lux Mundi is meant to be contemplated.  I was looking for some small personal devotional books, which I know I have somewhere, but I couldn't find them, and their pictures, in pen and ink, in a vaguely retro style (pious puke, I'm afraid), are understandably not widely reproduced.  If someone has a St. Augustine's Prayer Book, for example, its frontispiece (in the original edition, before 1967) is in the style in question, making the Keble College "Light of the World" look like a true masterpiece, as indeed, in some respects, it is.  Devotionally they are equivalent.
But why was I looking for these things?
Radio listeners were invited to contribute their favorite opening sentences to novels, and one choice was:
"Take my camel, dear," said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass."
This is the first sentence of Rose Macaulay's "The Towers of Trebizond" (1956).  It is in short, concrete words, arresting only for their bizarre context.  It is her last novel.  No one can fault her writing, though not everyone likes the same kinds of good writing.  I had to hunt a long time to locate my copy of it.  I still don't feel like reading it again, after 40 years.  Coming as it did, well after "Pleasure of Ruins", a proper travel essays book (but my own pleasure in antiquities is more archaeological than hers and if I'm going to read travel books I prefer those, like Ramsay's, devoted to learning, rather than to ruins for ruins' sake), the story has a heavier admixture of her travel description than I like, and I feel uneasy about some of its religious consciousness.  Miss Macaulay handled religion better in her earlier novels.  Finally, I remember not knowing whether to laugh or cry at the last fifty pages, where an ape is taught to drive a car, and Laurie, the first person narrator, is sacrificed to the realization of unalterable ethical and moral categories.  Of course, one can't be loose and unprincipled and careless of one's effect on others without coming to pay for it, but one doesn't need theology to teach it.  Anyone with any notion of fair play and of what one's own mind and body require, who is capable of learning it, comes to acknowledge what has been called Natural Law.  One needn't spoil a perfectly good novel by making its characters' personalities collapse to serve an orthodox resolution.  Evelyn Waugh's "Brideshead Revisited" is similarly sacrificed, compromised.
Reading Rose Macaulay belongs to my years of engagement with Anglican worship.  A friend gave them to me, the retired librarian with whom I have corresponded since he left Berkeley with a Master's in Librarianship.  He often sent me de-accessioned books that he thought I might like.  He certainly was not an Anglican himself, but he knew the authors that were.  Now all the pre-WWII novels by Rose Macaulay are out of copyright and free on your Kindle or the like.  But I have the Boni Liveright edition, 1924, but not first printing, of "Told By An Idiot", which was the first Rose Macaulay that I read, my friend pj having sent it in 1968.  In the next few years I read it over and over.  It remains my favorite of her books, covering four generations of a family, most of whom go through all the English varieties of religious experience.  It is quite funny but not trivial, providing, too, an excellent sketch of literary and artistic fads and men's and women's fashions.  Its principal character has cancer on the last page but bears it much as Christopher Hitchens would expect her to.  If it resembles any other novel by an author born in the 1880s, it is Virginia Woolf's "The Waves", though Woolf is, well, a greater writer.  It puts to shame costume soap operas like "Downton Abbey", but Nancy Mitford's novels, though free of religious angles, are comparable.  ("Downton Abbey" does have very nice cars and clothes and hair styles, I admit).
As for my books and my life, however: When I returned to secular life and moved to Louisiana, where I'd never been before, I got my books sent here (USPS Book Rate no longer exists, though).  I wanted  to have and handle and read the books that I knew.  The religious ones still troubled me.  They seemed so alien by the 1980s and yet myself who had been so involved in them was not other than part of myself.  I had to have those books, and even the surviving children's books, to gradually put together continuous memory.  A religious novitiate deliberately disengages a person from the past.  
I still won't read "The Towers of Trebizond" or her late Letters all the way through, but I am delighted to have come back to "Told By An Idiot" and read it with an older person's detachment and no less pleasure than 40 years ago (c. 1972-2012).  One thing that prompted me was the online Comments by young women that revealed how much they missed.  I am so glad to have read Beerbohm and all the others that figure in it.  The young seem to take it as simply a problem novel about generational tensions!
I had had to discipline myself when I was in the convent to endure and try not to judge bad art and bad prose.  One of my problems in Religion was that it required as much dishonesty as some problems with the Bible (though no Episcopalian order asked anyone to accept Creation literally), but bad art and bad prose are just as radically unacceptable to me as bad science.  One could never ask just how much had to be accepted (in fact, I think, there was no requirement, except not to scandalize the simpler ones among us, as good old Paul enjoined to the Corinthians).  You can see, nothing that has engaged a decade of one's life is ever lost.  I think it would be dangerous to repress it, actually.