Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Poets and Catholics in Macaulay's Cambridge: They Were Defeated

I went to high school with a girl whose last name was Trollope; she HAD to be a writer, with that last name. Rose Macaulay had to be a writer too, with that last name. She studied history at Somerville College at Oxford, but mostly wrote contemporary fiction--with one notable exception. I was reminded of one of her novels in this Ignatius Press Novels blog post by Dorothy Cummings McLean: The Towers of Trebizond (Best first line in novel: "Take my camel, dear," said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.) The High Mass referred to is C of E, and as McLean notes,

Although the book is heavy on irony, it is delightfully funny about English Anglo-Catholics, Roman Catholics and Evangelicals. At the same time, it demonstrates a grave respect for the Christian faith and a poignant longing for Grace. The narrator is in a state of mortal sin, and as the child of a very old Anglo-Catholic family, knows himself or herself to be in a state of mortal sin.

One of the growing mysteries of the book is whether the narrator is a man or a woman. Unfortunately, this is often spoiled by those who write the blurbs on the backs of books. The device places the reader more easily in the head of the narrator, be the reader male or female. It may also suggest that men and women are not as different as they may seem, even in 1956.

In the book travel serves as a metaphor for the soul’s progress towards or away from God. Trebizond, now an impoverished Turkish town whose Byzantine history is of no interest to the locals, represents for the narrator the glories of the past and the material and physical riches of the Byzantine court. But it also represents heaven, and grace, from which the narrator is barred.

Read the rest here.
With that serious undercurrent of sin and forgiveness, The Towers of Trebizond transcends its rather high British humour and is much more than a brittle comedy of manners. Before that book, Macaulay wrote a historical novel, set in Cambridge just before the English Civil War, with Robert Herrick and John Cleveland as characters, and with appearances by John Milton, Sir Kenelm Digby, Sir John Suckling, and a host of "Metaphysical" poets (Abraham Cowley, Henry More, Richard Crashaw, etc.) Please note that John Cleveland, the English poet, died on April 29, 1658--356 years ago today. 
Religion is at the heart of this story too, as it begins in a church where the divisions of Church Papists, Puritans, and Anglicans are all too obvious because of the display of harvest bounty in Robert Herrick's church. One of the fictional characters becomes a Catholic and just avoids being arrested  while attending Mass in Cambridge, along with two priests who are arrested and taken away, probably to be sent into exile. Tensions over religion are increasing in Charles I's reign and the dangers of being Catholic, even in the relatively friendly atmosphere of Charles I's reign, are evident. Even leaders at the university who have demonstrated their animus toward Catholicism are considered Papist if they follow Archbishop Laud's example in using The Book of Common Prayer in high liturgical style, like John Cosins, Vice Chancellor of Cambridge and Master of Peterhouse, who also appears in the novel. 

This is a good summary of the plot of the novel. The copy I have, which I bought from Eighth Day Books and read in 1990, is the Oxford Paperback edition with an introduction by Susan Howatch.

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