Friday, August 22, 2008

Dickens and a Digression

I love library book sales. You never know what you'll find. When our kids were young, we all looked forward to the annual book sale at the Santa Monica public library. To a certain extent, I always felt bad when I discovered great finds among the children's books which the library had discarded. I didn't hesitate to snap them up, but I was sorry that future borrowers would miss out on them. Ah, well! The library's loss was our gain. And of course, books donated to the library booksale by the community were guilt-free.

One year we found a complete set of an old edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia. We didn't need it ourselves, since my husband had bought a new set in the 1970s when he was still a bachelor with discretionary income to fling about. (He was also working at a bookstore in those days and was allowed an employee discount even on special orders. Hence, nearly all of our gorgeous art books were bought during that period.) But we bought this older set on the grounds that it needed a good home. And as it turned out, we were scheduled to attend a Catholic homeschooling event shortly afterwards where we found a family that was happy to adopt it. (The fact that it was an older edition was a plus in their eyes.)

At that same sale we found this copy of The Life of Our Lord by Charles Dickens. I'd been a Dickens fan ever since the sixth grade when I first read A Christmas Carol, but I'd never heard of this work before. That was not, perhaps, surprising. Dickens wrote this little book for his own children and refused to allow it to be published while he lived. The introduction to this edition quotes a letter written by Georgina Hogarth, his sister-in-law:

I am sorry to say it is never to be published . . . He wrote it years ago, when his elder children were quite little. It is about sixteen short chapters, chiefly adapted from St. Luke's Gospel, most beautiful, most touching, most simple as such a narrative should be. He never would have it printed, and I used to read it to the little boys in MS. before they were old enough to read writing themselves . . . I asked Charles if he did not think it would be well for him to have it printed, at all events for private circulation . . . . He said he would look over the MS. and take a week or two to consider. At the end of the time he gave it back to me and said he had decided never to publish it, or even to have it privately printed. He said I might make a copy of it for ... any one of his children, but for no one else, and he also begged that we would never even hand the MS., or a copy of it, to any one to take out of the house, so there is no doubt about his strong feeling on the subject, and we must obey it. . . .
The book remained a family secret for 85 years until the last of Dickens' children, Sir Henry Fielding Dickens, bequeathed permission for its publication should his family so desire. It was published, first serially and then in book form, in the mid 1930s. My copy has illustrations by Rachel Taft-Dixon.

There are plenty of copies to be found online these days including editions that have been published since I bought my used copy so many years ago. You can also read it online or download it as a PDF.

So how is it as a book? Believe it or not, I hadn't sat down and read all the way through it until quite recently. My kids were not the right age for it when I bought it, so I shelved it with the rest of Dickens, and it sat there until just the other day when I was between novels and needed something to read with my lunch.

Well, it was interesting to read such a private work. It has a familial charm which is endearing. "You never saw a locust," Dickens writes as an aside to his description of John the Baptist, "because they belong to that country near Jerusalem, which is a great way off. So do camels, but I think you have seen a camel. At all events, they are brought over here, sometimes; and if you would like to see one, I will show you one." (I like to imagine Dickens and his children watching camels together.)

Dickens' interest in social issues relating to the poor are apparent here in his reminders to his young readers that heaven was made for the poor as well for the rich, and that "God makes no difference between those who wear good clothes and those who go barefoot and in rags. . . Never be proud or unkind, my dears to any poor man, woman, or child."

The homeschoolers to whom we'd given the encyclopedia rather envied us our possession of The Life of Our Lord. They belonged to that class of homeschoolers who assume that an old book, published before the current moral rot had set in, is automatically a safer choice for their children's instruction. But every age has pockets of rot.

Personally, I would not have read this book to my children as part of their religious formation. It's not the Victorian language. Rather, it's Dickens' de-emphasis of the divinity of Christ.

Although he based his retelling mostly on the Gospel of Luke, Dickens skipped the Annunciation, and therefore the whole Son of God bit, along with the Virgin Birth and Joseph's position as foster father of Christ. Perhaps he simply felt a Victorian reticence towards bringing up birth and paternity with very young children. If so, I'll forgive him the omission. Sorta.

But in his account, when the angels appear to the shepherds, they say, "There is a child born to-day in the city of Bethlehem near here, who will grow up to be so good that God will love Him as His own Son; [Emphasis mine.] and He will teach men to love one another, and not to quarrel and hurt one another; and His name will be Jesus Christ; and people will put that name in their prayers, because they will know God loves it, and will know that they should love it too."

Eeek! Isn't this Adoptionism, the heresy teaching that Jesus was born a mere human being and only became divine later in life after being adopted as God's son as a sort of reward for his goodness and niceness? Beep! Beep! Danger, Will Robinson!

I was also a bit concerned that when the wise men show up, they are not seeking "a newborn king of the Jews," as in Matthew's gospel, but "a child . . . who will live to be a man whom all people will love." Eeeuuuw! This is a Jesus who sounds too much like a Hallmark greeting card to me. And I think a sure way to kill any young child's interest in the story of Christ is to wimpify it -- pulling out all of the mythic elements or the hard, weird, and edgy bits. (Oddly enough, Dickens does retain the slaughter of the Innocents, though it is unclear why Herod would have perceived this sort of Jesus as a threat.)

However, the book becomes less iffy as it gos on, and I will give Dickens points for including the Crucifixion -- unlike the DRE* at one of our former parishes who chose "The Metamorphosis of Caterpillars into Butterflies" as the Palm Sunday lesson for the children who were attending her religious ed class while their parents were at the 9:00 Mass.

Why, butterflies, you might ask? Her theory was that someday, somewhere, these children would hear the story of Christ's Crucifixion and Resurrection.** And then, a light bulb would go off in their heads, and they'd remember the story of the butterfly! And it would be such a meaningful experience. (This was also the woman who, in a staff meeting, spoke glowingly about the profound religious experience to be had while peeling the paper off crayons. Where do parishes find these people?)

All I could say was, "Not with my kid, lady! They're attending the Palm Sunday liturgy with me, and assimilating the story of Christ's Passion up close and personal."
*Director of Religious Education

**On the History Channel perhaps?

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Bless me, Father...

I laughed out loud when I read D.G. Davidson's post, Making a Good Confession (Sci Fi Catholic Style). Selecting a Sci Fi priest as your regular confessor can make confessing your Sci Fi sins so much simpler.

Monday, August 11, 2008

On a Tear With Charlotte, or One Book Leads To Another

I've been reading a lot of Charlotte Bronte lately.

It all started in April when I had to drive my mother to the emergency room. The previous day she had attended a birthday picnic, hosted by one of my cousins, where most of the attendees contracted food poisoning. My mother, who is 78 years old, was so ill she had to go to the hospital. I drove her there, and since one never knows how long a visit to the emergency room will take, I made sure to bring a book.

I wanted something dependable and small, so I grabbed my Oxford World's Classics edition of Jane Eyre. At 3.5" x 6", it's smaller than most paperbacks and fits nicely in my skirt pocket. I've read Jane Eyre many times before, but it never fails to engross me. Judy Abbot, the protagonist of Daddy-Long-Legs, summed it up for me when she described her first reading of this novel, ". . . as for the mad woman who laughs like a hyena and sets fire to bed curtains and tears up wedding veils and bites -- it's melodrama of the purest, but just the same, you read and read and read." And so I did.

My mother was in the hospital for several days, so I spent a good deal of time there too. And whenever she was dozing or undergoing tests, I buried myself in Jane because, as we all know, time moves slowly in a hospital, but reading is a hyperspatial by-pass through tedium.

Frequently, when I read a novel like Jane Eyre, I'm so wrapped up in the story that I pay scant attention to the author's technique. But this time I was more aware of how Bronte achieves her effects. I was particularly struck by her use of present tense narrative when the heroine is facing an important turning point. It gives the reader a sense of immediacy, but also conveys the character's feeling of mental distance or dislocation -- that numbing daze when Everything Has Just Become Too Much and one feels cut off from both the future and the past. When Jane narrates in the traditional past tense, you have in the back of your mind the assurance that she has survived her adventures and is looking back on them. But when she switches to present tense you are with her right at that moment, dazed and uncertain.

Well, my mom recovered and returned home. So did I, still reading Jane Eyre. And when I finished I was in the mood for more Bronte. So I checked out Villette from the public library (which I had never read before) and then reread The Professor as a chaser.

I decided I'd like to know a bit more about Bronte so I looked her up in the Britannica and the Catholic Encyclopedia. According to the latter, "her novels are marked by anti-Catholicism." Jane Eyre doesn't really show any signs of it. (Just the bit about her creepy, selfish cousin becoming a nun.) I originally read The Professor many, many years ago and didn't recall much anti-Catholic sentiment -- no more than you'd expect from any British author of that time period. As a bit of a lark, I decided to mark the most egregious anti-Catholic sentiments with Post-it notes.

I think that the examples in The Professor simply reflect the English dislike and distrust of foreigners and foreign ways. Of course the natives of Belgium are dull and stupid. Of course the French are sly and devious. So what else can you expect from Catholics? They haven't had the moral advantages of being upright English Protestants. (As I read the book, the refrain Song of Patriotic Prejudice by Flanders & Swann rang through my mind: "The English, the English, the English are best: I wouldn't give tuppence for all of the rest!"

But the anti-Catholicism in Villette is downright virulent.

Religous issues aside, Villette is a real downer that should not be read by anyone having even the slightest tendency to depression. The heroine is lonely, hopeless, starved for affection, suffers from apparent visitations of the spectre of a murdered nun, has the meanest, most devious boss in the world, and teaches horrid school girls. During the summer vacation she goes through a period of clinical depression that is almost psychotic. The author allows her a brief moment of happiness when she is finally allowed to fall in love with a professor who teaches at her school. But no sooner has she accepted his proposal than his scheming (Catholic) relatives who oppose the marriage, have finagled him into traveling overseas to take care of business concerns, separating the lovers for several years. And then the author whips up an ocean storm to drown him on his return. Actually, at the request of her father, Bronte rewrote the ending to make it just slightly more ambiguous than her original version. If Pollyanna read this revised version she might, just possibly, come away with the impression that the hero could have survived the waves and would yet turn up. But I doubt it. In Villette Bronte has drawn a heroine who has schooled herself to reject hope, and has placed her in circumstances which vindicate that rejection.

By contrast, The Professor was a light hearted romp -- though it is a sedate novel compared to Jane Eyre. It was interesting to discover that Bronte wrote it before Jane Eyre. She wanted to portray a realistic hero in a novel that did not indulge in romantic excess. Alas, no publisher would take it, having instead "a passionate preference for the wild, wonderful, and thrilling -- the strange, startling, and harrowing . . . ."* So she went off and wrote Jane Eyre, and it was commercial success.

One thing which the two novels have in common is that the hero is first attracted to and falls in love with the heroine's mind. Both heroines are intelligent, and captivate their beloveds with their pert wit. Both are described at times as a vexing fairy or elf. And both preserve a special companionship with their husbands after marriage. In The Professor, Frances teaches in her own school. And she requires her husband to also teach there an hour a day because, as she says, "people who are only in each other's company for amusement, never really like each other so well, or esteem each other so highly, as those who work together, and perhaps suffer together." Jane also works with her husband. She becomes Mr. Rochester's eyes, seeing for him, reading for him, and generally being his right hand. And talking with each other all day long -- ah, what bliss! And how I miss it -- since my late husband and I, like the Rochesters, could say that "to talk to each other is but a more animated and an audible thinking."

As a girl I loved the descriptions of these two marriages. Perhaps they gave me hope that I too would someday find romance -- I was certain no one would ever marry me for my looks!

Instead of reading Shirley, I detoured into Mrs. Gaskell's The Life of Charlotte Bronte. Fascinating. (But I won't talk about it now. This post is already too long.) And then I felt the need to read one of Gaskell's novels. Mary Barton is the only one in our public library, so I'm working my way through that right now.

*from Bronte's introduction to The Professor.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Heinlein Juveniles Revisited

I'm not allowed to eat chocolate anymore, so during stressful periods I find myself rereading favorite books from my youth. Not surprisingly, during the past two years I've worked my way through most of Robert Heinlein's early books. So I appreciated John C. Wright's timing in posting a list of his reviews of RAH's juvenile works at the end of his post, The Horrible Earths of Heinlein's Juveniles.

Citizen of the Galaxy is one I haven't reread yet, but now I intend to based on his review:

. . . The book is the best of the coming of age books because coming of age is about maturity, which is, the process of learning self-command. Self-command is a paradox, because the philosopher can be perfectly free even when chained up or reduced to beggary, because he is free in his soul, which no outside despot can touch. And yet self-command demands sacrifice and toil and self-sacrifice above even what restrictive customs or the iron laws of military service compel.

The book is about status, what it means in society, what a person has to do to get it, and what unscrupulous people will do to keep it. Part of the maturing process is learning what status is, and how to earn it, and, yes, how to dispense with it when need be, lest it possess you.

This book is about honor. It is about paying your debts, especially spiritual debts, despite strong personal interest and inclination. The almost mystical reverence and respect all the admirable characters pay to the concept of honoring the wishes of the dead, honoring the humanity of a slaveboy who seems to have lost his, honoring customs one does not understand, honoring the service to which one belongs, honoring one's father, honoring one's conscience .... the book is one long meditation on the meaning of freedom and obligation, slavery and license.