Monday, 27 August 2012

Emily Hickey

Just over a year ago - I'm slow on the uptake - Carol Rumens chose 'The Ship from Tirnanoge' by Emily Hickey as her poem of the week in The Guardian. Like Rumens, I'd not heard of Hickey before but she sounds quite a fascinating figure: "A talented and complex writer, scholar and translator, Emily Henrietta Hickey, 1845-1923, was the daughter of a Protestant rector of Goresbridge, County Wexford. She eventually become a lecturer at Cambridge University, and a Catholic convert."

Rumens also recommends Hickey's Our Catholic Heritage in English Literature of Pre-Conquest Days which begins like this:

"This little book makes no claim to be a history of pre-Conquest Literature. It is an attempt to increase the interest which Catholics may well feel in this part of the great 'inheritance of their fathers.' It is not meant to be a formal course of reading, but a sort of talk, as it were, about beautiful things said and sung in old days: things which to have learned to love is to have incurred a great and living debt."

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Catholic Sci-fi

I've just come across Walter M. Miller Jr's Crucifixus Etiam, a short story about a labourer on Mars, in a fascinating anthology of Catholic short stories, The Substance of Things Hoped For, edited by John B. Breslin S.J.

It's an interesting story not just because it contains a short account of a mass on Mars but also because it depicts the quasi-redemptive nature of labour in the harsh Martian environment. However, although it's worth reading, I can't honestly say that it's anything more than interesting. The problem with sci-fi is that it dates so quickly; this particular story is ultimately unconvincing largely because science and technology moved on so much more quickly than Miller envisaged they would in 1953.

A better bet is Miller's best-known work, A Canticle for Leibowitz, which I remember being (surprisingly) very popular in evangelical circles during my student years. Miller wrote the book after being involved in bombing raids on the great Benedictine abbey at Monte Cassino during World War II. His own relationship with the Church - and, indeed, his own life - was complicated but this is one science-fiction novel that has stood the test of time. (Though see this interesting comparison with Cormac McCarthy's The Road.)

I'm not a great sci-fi expert so I can't write with great assurance but Gene Wolfe (who is a great fan of G. K. Chesterton) is often held out as the greatest Catholic writer of science fiction. His The Book of the New Sun is recommended in particular.

There's also an interview with Sandra Miesel at Ignatius Insight here which provides a list of other authors worth looking out for.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

More on Tolkien in Love

BBC Radio recently broadcast a programme about Tolkien in Love but I suspect Tolkien was actually more interested in love than in being in love.

One of his most interesting letters (No 43 in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien to his son Michael from March 1941) deals with love, marriage and his relationship with Edith, his wife. I could happily quote chunk after chunk of it but I'll restrict myself to two powerful passages. I have add one paragraph break for the sake of clarity in the limited space available here:

"The essence of a fallen world is that the best cannot be attained by free enjoyment, or by what is called ‘self-realization’ (usually a nice name for self-indulgence, wholly inimical to the realization of other selves); but by denial, by suffering. Faithfulness in Christian marriage entails that: great mortification. For a Christian man there is no escape. Marriage may help to sanctify & direct to its proper object his sexual desires; its grace may help him in the struggle; but the struggle remains. It will not satisfy him – as hunger may be kept off by regular meals. It will offer as many difficulties to the purity proper to that state, as it provides easements. No man, however truly he loved his betrothed and bride as a young man, has lived faithful to her as a wife in mind and body without deliberate conscious exercise of the will, without self-denial. Too few are told that – even those brought up ‘in the Church’. Those outside seem seldom to have heard it. 

"When the glamour wears off, or merely works a bit thin, they think they have made a mistake, and that the real soul-mate is still to find. The real soul-mate too often proves to be the next sexually attractive person that comes along. Someone whom they might indeed very profitably have married, if only -. Hence divorce, to provide the ‘if only’. And of course they are as a rule quite right: they did make a mistake. Only a very wise man at the end of his life could make a sound judgement concerning whom, amongst the total possible chances, he ought most profitably to have married! Nearly all marriages, even happy ones, are mistakes: in the sense that almost certainly (in a more perfect world, or even with a little more care in this very imperfect one) both partners might have found more suitable mates. But the ‘real soul-mate’ is the one you are actually married to."

The letter ends - or at least the extract we are given by Humphrey Carpenter ends - with this amazing passage:

"Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament….. There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all you loves upon earth, and more than that: Death: by the divine paradox, that which ends life, and demands the surrender of all, and yet by the taste (or foretaste) of which alone can what you seek in your earthly relationships (love, faithfulness, joy) be maintained, or take on that complexion of reality, of eternal endurance, which every man’s heart desires."

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

James MacMillan - a world premiere and a fascinating discussion

James MacMillan's Credo is receiving its World Premiere at the Proms this evening. During the interview MacMillan will discuss Religion in Music with Louise Fryer and the Director of Music at St Paul's Cathedral.

MacMillan is quite an inspirational figure. Speaking on Radio 3 this morning, he was quite happy to refer to himself as a Catholic composer, which may not seem surprising until you think about how many people are happy to call themselves Catholic authors.

As I have suggested elsewhere, Catholic writers have something to learn from the example of Catholic composers like him.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Tolkien in Love

Tolkien rightly distrusted all attempts to find links between authors' biographies and their books, not because such links don't exist but because of their complexity: 

"An author cannot of course remain wholly unaffected by his experience, but the ways in which a story-germ uses the soil of experience are extremely complex, and attempts to define the process are at best guesses from evidence that i inadequate and ambiguous." (from the Foreward to The Lord of the Rings)

With that proviso, I'd like to draw attention to this programme from BBC Radio 4:

Novelist Helen Cross, who herself lives in Birmingham, uncovers the story of the young J.R.R. Tolkien, falling in love with Edith Bratt. The love story of Beren and Luthien at the heart of his novel The Silmarillion was inspired by their relationship. They were both orphans, living in a boarding house in Edgbaston, Birmingham. The teenagers would talk out of their respective bedroom windows until dawn, and go for cycle rides to the Lickey Hills. However, when their romance was discovered, Tolkien's guardian, Father Francis Morgan, forbade Tolkien to see Edith until he came of age.Tolkien won an Exhibition to Oxford and Edith went to live in Cheltenham. But at midnight, as he turned 21, Tolkien wrote to Edith saying his feelings were unchanged. Unfortunately, in the intervening years, Edith had got engaged to someone else. Tolkien got on a train and she met him at Cheltenham station. They walked out to the nearby countryside and Tolkien persuaded her to break off her engagement and marry him instead. But the First World War was about to intervene, and Tolkien volunteered and was sent to the Somme.

Helen Cross visits key locations in Birmingham, Cheltenham and Oxford, to tell the story of Tolkien's young life and the love story at the heart of it.
Readings by David Warner as Tolkien and Ed Sear as the young Tolkien.

I'd want to point out that The Silmarillion is clearly not a novel but, nonetheless, it's always worth hearing more about Tolkien and this programme is available online only for five more days.

Friday, 3 August 2012

Articles now available online

The Catholic Herald archive is now available free and online which means that all sorts of interesting articles and reviews are available without a subscription. It also means that three of my articles are now easier to access.

Click here for my review of Amy Hungerford's Postmodern Belief: American Literature and Religion Since 1960.

Click here for my article on the Chinese Prime Minister who became a Catholic Monk and Priest.

Click here for my article on adoption. (Not strictly relevant, I realise, but there you go).