views, reviews and previews

HORACE WALPOLE AND STRAWBERRY HILL

Victoria and Albert Museum 6 March–4 July 2010

Admission £6; concessions £4

If you’re bored by today’s corrupt and  spendthrift politicians and you need to lighten the mood, take a trip to South Kensington. There you can enjoy some of the fruits of the Palace of Westminster’s most corrupt and spendthrift parliamentary dynasty, a dynasty which makes the current lot of parliamentarians mere amateurs.

Horace Walpole was the youngest son of the great Robert, who had spent his parliamentary expenses buying Norfolk to live in proper style with his mistress. Horace stuck with his mother and metropolitan life. Though an MP he was not a powerbroker like his father. Instead his time was dedicated to friendships with aesthetes, collecting and bon mots. Strawberry Hill, his out-of-town villa by the Thames at Twickenham, became a place from which to visit old dowagers, create Gothick fantasies and exercise feeling. In the course of this he created the ancestor of the National Trust house, with open days for the paying public who gawped at the extraordinary objects on show. He also created a taste for self-designed interiors, whose debased children now inhabit the schedules of daytime TV.

Strawberry Hill itself is set to reopen to the public this summer after an extensive refurbishment. Unfortunately much of the furniture, sculpture, glassware, miniatures, armour, relics, incunabula and paintings won’t be there – they were sold off in a grand auction in 1842. The V&A has, however, been able to bring together 250 of the objets which Walpole owned.

The most important of these are miniatures by the greatest artists of the genre – Holbein, Hilliard, Isaac and Peter Oliver. In these paintings historical celebrities like Anne Boleyn, Robert Devereux, Second Earl of Essex and Sir Francis Drake look out at us as real people. The collection is a genuine link with the past and the most successful expression of Walpole’s sympathy with history. Less successful are the curios which the exhibition coyly says Walpole thought belonged to historical figures – Cardinal Wolsey’s hat and Francis I’s armour being the two outstanding examples.Sadly there isn’t the bowl in which Selima, Walpole’s favourite cat, died, the event immortalized by Walpole’s close friend Thomas Gray in the ‘Ode on the death of a favourite cat, Drowned in a bowl of goldfishes.’

With the exception of the miniatures, Walpole’s most successful collections were of works by his contemporaries rather than with the bric-à-brac of history. On show there is a wonderfully lifelike bust of Colley Cibber; a fine Hogarth of the murderer and papist Sarah Mallock – it is not clear which Hogarth thought her greater crime was; the picture of a pineapple being presented to Charles II which I had long wanted to see, and an excellent Ramsey of the Keppel sisters. By contrast, some of the pots and stuff by lady amateurs show a misguided preference for feeling over technical ability.

Overall, despite the emphasis on the Gothic looking, Walpole’s success came through being modern. He was an aesthete eccentric who anticipated all the fun of the Sitwells, Constant Lambert, Stephen Tennant and the friends of Evelyn Waugh as he greeted guests wearing the long red gloves of James I (possibly) and a wooden cravat carved by Grinling Gibbons (certainly). What he invented at Strawberry Hill – the sensibility of the ‘country house’ visit, the Gothic novel, the cult of amateur decoration – is part of today’s culture.

Owen Higgs

 

THE ONE-STOP BIBLE GUIDE

Mike Beaumont

Lion, 128pp, pbk

978 0 7459 5335 9, £7.99

As Philip was a God-sent Bible guide to the Ethiopian official in the book of Acts, so could this booklet be a blessing to seekers today trying to make sense of scripture. It provides a colourful double page spread for each Bible book and witnesses to their undergirding in the basic themes of the Christian revelation.  

  My initial reaction was a combination of enthusiasm for its beauty and brevity, with suspicion at its oversimplification of issues. Then I remembered the One-Stop header. It is an economical resource that keeps things simple to draw folk in. Mature Christians see biblical truth in a more subtle fashion.

The writer is not a literalist, but he clearly wants the book marketed in literalist circles. There is no mention of the deutero-canonical books, which a big part of the Christian world sees as part of the Bible. The New Testament commentaries are strong on redemption theories but weak on the importance of the Church.  

With these qualifications The One-Stop Bible Guide is unparalleled as a tool to help Christians new and old  get into the word of God. As the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible approaches, an opportunity to refresh people’s use of the Bible, few guide books will compete with this in terms of simplicity, looks and accessibility.

The Revd Dr John Twisleton, 
Rector of Horsted Keynes, West Sussex

 

A GAMBLING MAN

Charles II and the Restoration Jenny Uglow Faber, 580pp, pbk
978 0 57121 734 2, £9.99

Jenny Uglow is an elegant and perceptive biographer and historian. Her Hogarth effortlessly established itself as the indispensable volume on its subject.

Her Lunar Men was an imaginative glimpse into a neglected aspect of eighteenth century history, which broke new ground and was entertaining in itself. Now we have a history of the Restoration with a light touch and some brilliant insights.

I confess that as soon as the book dropped through my letter box I cheated. I turned to the index and looked up my own personal interest and speciality, John Dryden. From bitter experience I know how little people generally know about Dryden’s dramatic works: the titles of some, and nothing else. Not so Uglow, who has grasped not only the importance of Dryden in the Restoration theatre, but the way in which his heroic plays in particular provide a witty commentary on the mores of the court and its sometimes rather comic attempts at grandeur and moral rectitude. Dryden remodels French heroic tragedy in a way that has more in common with John Wilmot than with Jean Racine and Pierre Corneille.

So Uglow passed the test with flying colours and many others on subsequent reading. This is a book full of telling detail and judicious choice. She is sure-handed with everything from court gossip to religious controversy. Where the tale is familiar (as with the Plague and the Fire) she tells it well; where it is less familiar and more convoluted (for example, the secret treaties with the French) she is clear and incisive.

Despite its title (and the slightly contrived use of a card game to provide titles for the different sections) this is not a book about Charles – though he figures largely and sympathetically. It is a portrait of an age, the biography of an era; its foibles, its interests and its intellectual achievements. As such it cannot be too highly recommended. Mrs Uglow specialises in having something for the specialist and much for the general reader in the same narrative. She has done it again.

Mark Stevens

 

 

COVENANT MARRIAGE

The Movement to Reclaim Tradition in America

Steven Nock, Laura Sanchez & James Wright 

Rutgers, 190pp, pbk

978 0 813543 26 0, $25.95

‘We did everything to save our marriage, such as going to a counsellor. But we still got divorced.’ How often have you heard couples say that? Has it ever occurred to you that couples who go to America’s 100,000 marriage counsellors actually are ‘substantially more likely to divorce, than couples who forego this option.’ That’s the shocking conclusion of this recent study.

Almost exactly 40 years ago, California became the first state to allow a divorce without any evidence that a spouse was guilty of a major fault, such as adultery, abuse or abandonment. One simply alleged that there was an ‘irremediable breakdown of the marriage.’ Pushed by feminists and lawyers eager for business, virtually all states quickly passed similar No Fault Divorce laws, allowing unilateral divorce.

Covenant Marriage, passed in 1997, was the first law in America designed to restore traditional marriage. It gave every couple in Louisiana a choice between a conventional marriage that could be ended easily and a fortified marriage that, for the first time, required premarital counselling and was significantly harder to terminate. Couples choosing Covenant Marriage agreed to take all ‘reasonable steps’ to preserve their marriage, including marriage counselling to heal any crisis.

Covenant Marriage is ‘the first comprehensive legal reform in at least a century intended to make both marriage and divorce more rather than less difficult to obtain,’ write the authors. Arizona and Arkansas later passed similar laws. With what result?

What is most disappointing is that only 2% of couples chose a Covenant Marriage. Why? Only a third of clerks in marriage offices asked if couples wanted one, according to confederates of the researchers posing as marriage applicants. However, the deeper problem was that most clergy did not advise couples to choose a Covenant Marriage ‘to give your marriage the extra protection it offers’.

The Catholic Church, which marries 53% of Louisiana’s couples, actually opposed the law, because it implied that the standard marriages are inferior, ‘marriage lite,’ an imitation of the real thing. But that’s what standard marriages are, requiring no counselling before marriage or divorce, allowing one person to file for divorce unilaterally.

More significant, the Catholic Church also objected to the premarital counselling provision because it required a discussion of divorce, which the Church does not recognize. 

In fact, in studying 700 marriages, half from each category, over four years, 8.6% of Covenant Marriages ended in divorce as against 15.4% of standard ones, James Wright, one of the authors of the study confirmed.

What’s most shocking, however, is found on page 122: ‘All forms of marital counselling are associated with a two- to threefold increase in the likelihood of divorce.’ Why? ‘Many couples sought and obtained divorce counselling (rather than counselling to avoid divorce).’

Dr Bill Doherty of the University of Minnesota, says, A‘ lot of people doing marriage counselling are not trained and are incompetent. Even Christian counsellors and pastors recommend divorce.’

Another answer is to train couples whose marriages once nearly failed, to mentor those in current crisis. A couple who survived adultery is uniquely gifted to help a couple through infidelity.

Covenant Marriage was a valiant attempt to reform marriage and divorce law. It prompted the Bush Administration to give $100 million a year in grants to strengthen marriage.

Tony Perkins, its creator, now says he favours replacing No Fault with Mutual Consent in cases involving children: ‘No Fault leaves one spouse powerless over their future. Mutual Consent would give a voice to the powerless.’

Mike McManus

 

 

THE RAGE AGAINST GOD

Peter Hitchens

Continuum, 168pp, pbk
978 1441 10572 1, £16.99

As a Christian apologist in the world of secular journalism, Peter Hitchens is reminiscent of Malcolm Muggeridge. But arguably his latest book is of more practical use in parish ministry than anything the Sage of Robertsbridge wrote.

Christian people in our parishes are often bewildered by the increasing aggressiveness of unbelief and the rapid disintegration of the Christian culture they felt they grew up in. They are in desperate need of a perspective on the intellectual currents of the twentieth century that have led to the spiritual and moral shipwreck of the once Christian West. They are also in need of intellectual tools to help them to cut their way through the cultural wreckage.

Mr Hitchens aims to ‘explain how I became convinced, by reason and experience, of the necessity and rightness of a form of Christianity that is modest, accommodating and thoughtful – but ultimately uncompromising about its vital truth. I hope very much that by doing so I can at least cause those who consider themselves to be atheists to hesitate over their choice. I also hope to  provide Christian readers with insights they can use the better to understand  their unbelieving friends, and so perhaps to sow some small seeds of doubt in the minds of those friends’ [p. 2].

He is well-placed to help beleaguered Christian readers in this respect because of his experience in debating with his famously atheist elder brother Christopher. In 2008 the pair debated publicly in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and he says the book has an agenda to complete the ‘unfinished business of that evening’.

He is also well-placed to reflect on the moral state of atheistic societies, as was Muggeridge who reported on the Soviet Union in the 1930s. Mr Hitchens was there at its demise, working as a foreign correspondent in Moscow in 1990. He is eloquent in his description of the decadence of that godless society, and its similarity with the growing anti-theism of politically-correct Britain: ‘I came to the conclusion, and nothing has since shifted it, that enormous and intrusive totalitarian state power, especially combined with militant egalitarianism, is an enemy of civility, consideration and even enlightened self-interest. I also concluded that a high moral standard cannot be reached or maintained unless it is generally accepted and understood  by an overwhelming number of people. I have since concluded that a hitherto Christian society which was de-Christianised would also face such problems, because I have seen public discourtesy and incivility spread rapidly in my own country as Christianity is forgotten’ [p. 66].

Each chapter of the three-part book begins with a well-chosen Authorised Version quotation from the Psalms. Part One charts Mr Hitchens’ personal journey through atheism in the 1960s when he burnt his Bible through to his rediscovery of Christian faith in the 1980s. The catalyst for this was a holiday visit to Hotel-Dieu in the Burgundy town of Beaune, where he saw Rogier van der Weyden’s fifteenth-century painting of the Last Judgement: ‘I scoffed. Another religious painting. Couldn’t these people think of anything else to depict? Still scoffing, I peered at the naked figures fleeing towards the pit of hell, out of my usual faintly morbid interest in the alleged terrors of damnation. But this time I gaped, my mouth actually hanging open. These people did not appear remote or from the ancient past; they were my own generation. Because they were naked, they were not imprisoned in their own age by time-bound fashions. On the contrary, their hair and, in an odd way, the set of their faces were entirely in the style of my own time. They were me, and the people I knew.’

This experience gave him ‘a sudden strong sense of religion being a thing of the present day, not imprisoned under the thick layers of time. A large catalogue of misdeeds, ranging from the embarrassing to the appalling, replayed themselves rapidly in my head.’ A onetime Trotskyist converted by this. One can only glory at the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Part Two addresses ‘three failed arguments’ advanced by the new atheists, namely that religion causes conflicts; that effective and binding moral codes can be achieved without God; and that atheism is not to blame for atheist totalitarian cruelty.

Part Three, titled ‘the league of the militant godless’, offers a response to the claim of ‘my anti-theist brother’ that ‘the cruelty of Communist anti-theist regimes does not reflect badly on his case’ [p. 121].

A BCP devotee, Mr Hitchens is interesting in his perception of the spiritual agenda behind liturgical revision. He describes how after he rediscovered faith he ‘bicycled from place to place in search of citadels of the old worship’. In one particularly lovely Oxfordshire church, he enquired of a priest if they ever used the Prayer Book. ‘Never,’ he pronounced, ‘I hate Cranmer’s theology of penitence.’ ‘This was a moment of abrupt realisation... The new, denatured, committee-designed prayers and services were not just ugly, but they contained a different message, which was not strong enough or hard enough to satisfy my need to atone’ [p. 81].

Julian Mann

 

3 BARUCH

Greek–Slavonic Apocalypse of Baruch Alexander Kulik de Gruyter, 458pp, hbk 
978 3 11 021248 8, €99.95

The theology of rain. There’s a subject I had not encountered before. Water is the source of life; but not just any old water; sea water will not grow crops. No, the life-giving power of water (to an agricultural community) is a gift of God. The distinction is made clear when, on the second day of creation, God ‘separated the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament.’ 

One philosophical suggestion that developed from the fact of this division was that the male waters from above were creative, while the female waters from below were merely neutral. Greek natural science, however, argued that the water cycle was entirely material and fully contained within the ordinary world; in other words, there was no specifically divine origin for its life-giving property.

How did devout Jews, around the time of Jesus, marry the thesis of observational science with their natural desire to ascribe the power of life to the Lord God? Slavonic Baruch has this exchange [10.8f], ‘And I said, "How is it that men say that clouds come down to the sea and take water and rain?" And the angel told me, "The race of men is mistaken, for all the water of the sea is salty, so that if it rained with sea water, a fruit would not grow on earth. But know this, that clouds are from that lake and they rain".’

‘That lake’ is ‘in the midst of the mountain’ of heaven and populated with fantastic birds ‘praising God unceasingly day and night. And the clouds take the water from there and rain upon the earth, and a fruit grows.’ Greek Baruch, varying the solution a little, has three types of rain, ‘from the sea and from the waters upon the earth,’ and from this heavenly lake, which is the only type that produces fruit.

An obvious problem with this cosmic hydrology is that the stock of water on earth will increase remorselessly. And so we are introduced to the Serpent who ‘drinks one cubit of water from the sea every day’ thereby restoring the balance. And so on. The weird and wonderful details of God’s creation, beyond our immediate observation, are all carefully assembled in this strange apocalypse.

Strange, because it lacks the fierce movement of divine history or the partiality to the children of Israel. We are still in a fantastic world of beasts and heavens, but the concerns are gentler and more universal, and the outlook less frenetic and more philosophical. 3 Baruch is a strange work, even by the measure of the Pseudepigrapha. Found in two recensions, Greek and Slavonic, it is hard to date or even to place, for it is neither sectarian nor Gnostic.

It seems, in its fragmentary and mutilated form, to carry more general ideas of Jewish ouranology [the study of the heavens and their denizens] from which both Rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity grew. As such it is well worth greater study than it has so far attracted.

It may be expensive, but the production values of this book are superb. Kulik’s analysis is exhaustive and the cross-references to other works particularly rich and helpful. In both form and content, this is a beautifully produced book of scholarly reference. Get your local theological library to buy it: a good investment for it will still be used in fifty years time.

John Turnbull ND

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