The Dean’s Watch

Reading Elizabeth Goudge’s novel The Dean’s Watch was akin to spending time with what Anne Shirley would call a “kindred spirit”. Taking in her beautiful writing and endearing characters, as well as her perceptive insights and Christian themes, was a delight. I’d read one of Goudge’s children’s novels years ago, but this was my first time to read an adult novel, and it has been a most lovely encounter.

The Dean’s Watch is set in a cathedral city of the 1870s, and the story centres around the fearsome dean of the cathedral, Adam Ayscough, and Isaac Peabody, a shy and sensitive clockmaker, who become an unlikely pair of friends. In many ways it is a story about love—love for others and God’s love for us. I, for my part, love Goudge’s emphasis on goodness and beauty. It’s not that her characters have an easy life or inhabit a perfect world—there is ugly sin and real sadness in the story—but the feel of the story is one of light more than of darkness and even the tinge of sadness in the ending doesn’t spoil the book because it is a beautiful, redemptive sadness.

I don’t want to give away too much about the plot, but let me whet your appetite by sharing the story of one of the secondary characters, Miss Montague. By the time we meet Miss Montague, she is an elderly lady. She’s described as the sort of person people love to talk to: “She did not as a rule talk very much herself but then she did not often get the opportunity, so eager was everyone else to talk to her.” As a child she was unattractive and had a limp after an accident, and growing up she was overlooked by her family. Knowing that she would never marry and that she would be the one left at home looking after her parents, she decided that her mission in life would be to love people. As the years pass, this resolution slowly changes her entirely by bringing her into a real relationship with Christ. “At some point along the way, she did not know where because the change came so slowly and gradually, she realised that he had got her and got everything. His love held and illumined every human being for whom she was concerned, and whom she served with the profound compassion which was their need and right, held the Cathedral, the city, every flower and leaf and creature, giving it reality and beauty. She could not take her eyes from the incredible story of his love. As far as it was possible for a human being in this world she had turned from herself. She could say, ‘I have been turned,’ and she did not know how every few can speak these words with truth.”

It sounds so enviable, doesn’t it? And yet “[t]hrough most of her life no one noticed anything unusual about her, although they found her increasingly useful. The use her family made of her, however, was more or less unconscious, because she was always there…. She was just Mary, plain, dumpy, lame….” The saints on earth can be easily overlooked.

Nor is their lot necessarily one of spiritual plain sailing. In her middle age, Miss Montague’s internal world collapses after the death of her brother.  She loses her grip on God and on joy. Gradually, however, things come right again, and the climax is beautiful.

It comes as she is sitting alone in the cathedral:

“How much more friendly it is when you cannot see, thought Miss Montague, and how much closer we are to him. Why should we always want a light? He chose darkness for us, darkness of the womb and of the stable, darkness in the garden, darkness on the cross and in the grave. Why do I demand certainty? That is not faith. Why do I want to understand? How can I understand this great web of sin and ugliness and love and suffering and joy and life and death when I don’t understand the little tangle of good and evil that is myself? I’ve enough to understand. I understand that he gave me light that I might turn to him, for without light I could not have seen to turn. I have seen creation in his light. He shared his light with me that I, turned, might share with him the darkness of his redemption. Why did I despair? What do I want? If it is him I want he is here, not only love in light illuming all that he has made but love in darkness dying for it….”

If I could but truly add an “amen” to that–not just the amen of a day, but of every day. And that is hard. Yet I know, theoretically, that–to steal an expression from George Herbert–“hard things are glorious”. Miss Montague’s path brought her through real difficulties, but it was worth it.

(And if you’re not convinced by now to read the book, will you ever be?!)

 

A Sprinkling of Shakespeare

I have only a few days left of my Shakespeare course (if one ignores the final exam, that is), and so I here present you with a far from comprehensive (and perhaps at times a tongue-in-cheek) summary of the eight plays I’ve been studying, along with some comments and favourite quotes. (The quotes, by the by, are generally only extracts from longer speeches—I thought you’d appreciate brevity!) Even if Shakespeare isn’t normally your thing, do take a moment to enjoy the beauty of some well-crafted lines!

Hamlet

Young Hamlet is sick of life, and even sicker of his uncle (whom he learns murdered his father), and after agonising over his problems for most of the play, he kills and is killed in a bloody final scene.

Being a happy endings sort of girl (as you may have already gathered), Hamlet isn’t the sort of play I’d choose to read, but I ended up becoming somewhat attached to it, perhaps because it was my first play and I spent more time on it that I have done on later ones and also because watching various actors on Youtube perform the famous “To Be or Not to Be” soliloquy was a lot of fun. Also, there are some memorable speeches in this play.

O that this too too solid flesh would melt, 
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew! 
Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d 
His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter!

Hamlet is of course most famous for his despairing “To Be or Not to Be”, but this passage was new to me, and the anguish of it struck me. Flesh melting into dew is such a striking metaphor.

Henry IV Part I

Prince Hal initially acts the part of a scoundrel in order to make his later good behaviour more impressive. (Hmmm….)

I will redeem all this on Percy’s head 
And in the closing of some glorious day 
Be bold to tell you that I am your son; 
When I will wear a garment all of blood 
And stain my favours in a bloody mask, 
Which, wash’d away, shall scour my shame with it: 

Again, I like the vivid imagery here. This speech is one of the things that makes me want to believe in the reformed Hal, but because I know what he was up to, I just can’t completely do so in this play.

King Lear

Self-centred Lear spurns the one daughter who loves him for the sake of the two who only pretend to, and realises his mistake too late. Another death-filled ending.

This is a rather depressing play, and the eye-gouging scene was horrid. I think it’s one of my least favourite plays to have studied, although there are some noteworthy passages in there, such as this one….

Fairest Cordelia, that art most rich, being poor; 
Most choice, forsaken; and most lov’d, despis’d! 
Thee and thy virtues here I seize upon. 
Be it lawful I take up what’s cast away. 

I love the rhythm and the contrasts in the first and second lines, and it’s also a sweet expression of love.

Henry V

The former Prince Hal, now King Henry, wages war on France, wins a glorious victory, and marries the French princess.

It’s unfortunate that Henry doesn’t appear to have a more valid reason for waging war on the French, but it’s hard to resist his stirring call to arms, the triumph of the underdog, and Henry’s humility in victory. A romantic ending is an added bonus!

God, the best maker of all marriages, 
Combine your hearts in one, your realms in one! 

I love the idea expressed here of two hearts becoming one. (Of course, two realms becoming one is nice too, but few of us are kings and princesses….)

Othello

Vicious Iago convinces the noble but naive Othello that the latter’s wife, Desdemona, has been unfaithful to him. You know what’s going to happen next. He kills Desdemona, and then realises the truth. And then he kills himself….

Ooh, but Othello’s naivety and jealously is frustrating! There are, however, some wonderful speeches.

Put out the light, and then put out the light: 
If I quench thee, thou flaming minister, 
I can again thy former light restore, 
Should I repent me: but once put out thy light, 
Thou cunning’st pattern of excelling nature, 
I know not where is that Promethean heat 
That can thy light relume.

This is the tragic, utterly wrong part just before Othello murders his wife. But “Put out the light, and then put out the light” is a hauntingly beautiful image as he describes Desdemona as a light that will be quenched for ever.

The Merchant of Venice

Bassanio borrows money from Antonio (who borrow money from Shylock) in order to make his fortune by winning the hand of the beautiful Portia. After choosing the right casket (long story), he hears that Shylock is threatening to take the pound of flesh which Antonio had promised should he default on his debt. (Dude, don’t make promises like that. Just don’t.) Bassanio runs to the rescue, but really it’s Portia who saves the day.

A happily-ever-after! It makes a nice change!

You see me, Lord Bassanio, where I stand, 
Such as I am: though for myself alone 
I would not be ambitious in my wish, 
To wish myself much better; yet, for you 
I would be trebled twenty times myself; 
A thousand times more fair, ten thousand times more rich; 
That only to stand high in your account, 
I might in virtue, beauties, livings, friends, 
Exceed account; but the full sum of me 
Is sum of something, which, to term in gross, 
Is an unlesson’d girl, unschool’d, unpractised; 
Happy in this, she is not yet so old 
But she may learn; happier than this, 
She is not bred so dull but she can learn; 
Happiest of all is that her gentle spirit 
Commits itself to yours to be directed, 
As from her lord, her governor, her king. 

I’ve liked the famous “The quality of mercy” speech for a long time, but this one was new to me, and I can resonate with Portia’s wish that she could be a better woman for the sake of the man she loves as well as with her desire to be taught by him. (Though, really, that girl had a lot going for her as it was!)

The Winter’s Tale

Leontes’ misguided jealousy and bitter desire for revenge causes havoc amongst his nearest and dearest, but what was lost is partially restored at the end.

I didn’t like this one….

Not so: 
I am as ignorant in that as you 
In so entitling me, and no less honest 
Than you are mad; which is enough, I’ll warrant, 
As this world goes, to pass for honest.

Little stood out to me in this play in terms of noteworthy speeches, but I did like this piece of frankness from Paulina to the enraged Leontes.

The Tempest

Propero and Miranda’s island exile comes to a glorious end when Prospero forgives those who have wronged them.

An ending of grace and reconciliation. Perfect.

(But what’s with Ferdinand and Miranda getting engaged after apparently knowing each other for less than three hours?!)

O, wonder! 
How many goodly creatures are there here! 
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, 
That has such people in’t!

I love this innocent and full-of-wonder exclamation for Miranda. She’s spent most of her life on a secluded island and up until this point has only ever seen three other human beings (apart from when she was a very little child). Now, she sees a group of men, and this is her amazed exclamation.

(And I now know where someone got the title of their book from….)

Obviously, there’s a huge amount more that could be said not only about these plays but about the extracts that I’ve chosen—and believe me, I have written a lot on Shakespeare over the last couple of months—but this is a sprinkling of Shakespeare, not an assignment! All I’ll say in closing is that while I have certainly encountered things that I’ve disliked while studying  Shakespeare, he’s famous for a reason….

That Final Chapter (Peace Like a River)

I bought Leif Enger’s novel Peace Like a River on the strength of a review by Doug Wilson—or more accurately, on the strength of part of a review by Doug Wilson. I didn’t read his whole post at the time because he warned he’d be giving things away (as will I here, so be warned in your turn).

A grown-up Reuben Land narrates the story of a tumultuous half-year in the lives of his eleven-year-old self, his father Jeremiah, older brother Davy, and younger sister Swede. One November, Davy shoots and kills two teenagers—an act which, while not justifiable, has partial extenuation given the circumstances which had led to that point. Davy escapes before his trial is concluded, and after some weeks the rest of the family set off to find him. The majority of the book recounts their experiences in searching for him, leading to when the family is eventually (and briefly) reunited, before once again being torn apart.

I have mixed feelings about Peace Like a River. Enger certainly knows how to write and having the story told through the eyes of an eleven-year-old boy works well. Reuben is a very human narrator and Swede is wonderfully feisty and likeable. It took me quite a while to get a handle on Jeremiah, and I still don’t completely understand him, but he is one of the great ones of the earth who live in near-obscurity. Enger also aces something which some people seem unable to do: writing a novel from a Christian worldview in a way that isn’t tacky or cheesy (not great adjectives, sorry). I don’t quite know how to describe the difference between that and something like Peace Like a River, but the truth in the latter is both more profound and more subtle than the other variety. Enger scatters some noteworthy insights along the way, one of my favourites being this reflection of Reuben’s near the beginning of the story:

“Let me say something about that word: miracle. For too long it’s been used to characterize things or events that, though pleasant, are entirely normal. Peeping chicks at Easter time, spring generally, a clear sunrise after an overcast week—a miracle, people say, as if they’ve been educated from greeting cards. I’m sorry, but nope. Such things are worth our notice every day of the week, but to call them miracles evaporates the strength of the word.

Real miracles bother people, like strange sudden pains unknown in medical literature. It’s true: they rebut every rule all we good citizens take comfort in. Lazarus obeying orders and climbing up out of the grave—now there’s a miracle, and you can bet it upset a lot of folks who were standing around at the time.”

So what’s not to like?

The last chapter.

If I could but re-write it! Throughout the story, I was waiting for the final culmination, the final redemption, and it never came—or not in the way I wanted it to. Jeremiah makes a great sacrifice, but the outcome that I wanted from such a sacrifice never came. Davy is still an exile by the end of the story, leaving me wondering: what was the point? I could only see two solutions to the mess Davy had got himself into—that he would be killed (sad as that would have been) or that he would hand himself in to the police. I did not foresee him remaining a (seemingly unrepentant) exile and I don’t like it. I wanted an ending of redemption and grace for him in one way or another, and I didn’t get that.

I admit I’m a happy endings sort of girl. A tie-up-all-the-ends-neat-and-tidy sort of girl. But as a family friend reminded me, when we were discussing the book yesterday, life’s not like that. Yes, for believers it will be that ultimately—eternally—but not necessarily now. Enger is refusing to tie things up neatly, my friend said—he’s doing something better.

Hmmm.

I see his point, both from a literary point of view and from a spiritual point of view. I just don’t like it—either from a literary point of view or from a spiritual point of view. I want happy endings in stories and in real life, and not just in God’s eternal time but in human time too.

But I know that doesn’t happen. Jared Wilson had a helpful post related to this recently:

“You know, it’s possible that God’s plan for us is littleness. His plan for us may be personal failure. It’s possible that when another door closes, it’s not because he plans to open a window but because he plans to have the building fall down on you. The question we must ask ourselves is this: Will Christ be enough?”

And so in this way, Peace Like a River accurately reflects the messiness of life, as my friend said. We might not like the way things turn out, but as Reuben concludes towards the end of his story, shortly before the final action: “Fair is whatever God’ wants to do.”

And as for Peace Like a River, I am sure that Enger knew what he was doing and I’d be interested to hear his thoughts on why he did what he did.

But I’d still like to re-write that last chapter.