Friday, June 5, 2015

Father Gerard, SJ in Historical Fiction

From the English Historical Fiction Authors blog, English historical fiction author Linda Root writes about how Father John Gerard, SJ, started taking over a novel she was working on:

I had never heard of John Gerard until I was adding finishing touches to my work-in-progress. The novel interjects a fictional Scottish aspect into the Gunpowder Treason. A mystery surrounding the accountability of Lord Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury, for allowing the plot to remain undetected until the Eleventh Hour sent me exploring the impact of the conspiracy on the Jesuit mission to England.

Almost any historical novelist lured into that last wee bit of clarifying research before declaring a novel finished will have faced the dilemma created by a pestiferous fact challenging the novel’s premise. Do we go on, or do we set the current work aside and begin anew, perhaps with an entirely different story? What action should be taken when just before we type the words ‘c’est fin’, we uncloak a larger than life character whose exploits tarnish our protagonist? While we are not historians and can invoke the principle of artistic license and continue, it is often difficult to put the new character aside. The word that comes to mind is ‘sequel.’

I was well into my recent work In the Shadow of the Gallows, featuring Daisy Kirkcaldy and her husband, Will Hepburn, when I realized the priest I had written into the story sounded incredibly like the Jesuit John Gerard of my research, one of the few Jesuits of the English mission who survived the aftermath of November 5, 1605. The more I wrote, the larger his part in the tale became until I faced the prospect of marketing a tome. In today’s market, a historical novel the size of the Los Angeles Metropolitan telephone directory is doomed. The solution was to shave his role into something manageable and promise myself to do justice to his exploits in my next book in the series. In my case, I call it Deliverance of the Lamb.

Fortunately, in dealing with Father Gerard, there is a plethora of material on which to base a sequel. After his final flight from England in May 1606, a high-ranking Jesuit recognized the potential of using his life story as a recruitment tool. Gerard was ordered to document his life story in writing. The original was written in Latin, but it has since been translated into English and embellished with excellent notes. Anyone who fears an autobiography written by a cleric in 1611 will be tedious drivel is in for a shock.

I certainly agree with her, although I don't know whether or not she read the same edition of his autobiography as I did (from Ignatius Press):

Even the Gunpowder Plot Society calls Father John Gerard, SJ, "one of the most fascinating of the Jesuit priests in England".

Reading his memoir of his time in England as a missionary priest, I can see why--and in this Year of Faith, he provides a magnificent example of absolute trust in the Providence of God. As Father Gerard hides, finds places for other priests to hide, wears disguises, works to convert fallen away Catholics and sympathetic Anglicans, he is always reliant on God's protection and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. He describes his efforts to convince potential converts as never being his own successes, but inspired by the Holy Spirit. Father Gerard endures torture, experiences danger and discomfort, and enjoys comfort and safety, all with the same spirit of faith in God, love for the Church and the people he converses with, and hope that everything he does in the mission for the good of others will be rewarded with success. Father Gerard is even concerned for the wellbeing of the gaoler when he escapes from the Tower, doing all he can to divert blame from the man and his wife! He writes vividly and directly of his efforts and also of those who suffered martyrdom: St. Anne Line, Blessed Edward Oldcorne, St. Nicholas Owen, and several others. His memoir also highlights the Catholics who suffered fines and imprisonment, arrest and questioning, especially the many women who ran their households as safehouses and often yearned for the religious life (for which they had to go into exile, of course).

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