Nun’s (not) on the run (Caroline Bowden)


Nuns’ Chronicles and Convent Culture in Renaissance and Counter-Reformation Italy by K. J. P. Lowe
CUP: Cambridge, 2003; ISBN: 9780521621915; 454 pp.; Price: £83.00.

Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant
London : Virago, 2009; ISBN 9781400063826; 432 pp.; Price: £8.99.

Reviewer: Caroline Bowden (Queen Mary, University of London)

The challenge in writing a comparative review of Kate Lowe’s fine study of early modern Italian convents Nuns’ Chronicles and Convent Culture with Sarah Dunant’s gripping novel Sacred Hearts is to find ways of making sense of the experience of reading both beyond stating the obvious. They are both about the religious life ofwomen in a particular time (early modern) and in one country (Italy). They are both well worth reading for entirely different reasons, but I think few people (apart from this reviewer) are likely actively to enjoy reading both: most readers will, I suspect, choose to read one or the other. Having made a brief survey of online discussions of historical fiction, it is clear that there is a huge readership for historical fiction and some well-crafted reviews of historical novels of all periods. At the same time it seems to me that there is a degree of misapprehension among the contributors to these sites about the ways that historians work and write, with repeated emphasis on their opinion that historians research to ascertain the facts which they then write up in narratives. Probably with the recent increasing interest among historians in commenting on historical fiction there will be similar misunderstandings coming from the other direction. We all need to be aware of the debates if we are to appreciate how each contributes to our understanding of the past.

In the case of this pair of books, Sarah Dunant’s novel relies heavily on Lowe’s research: her heroine, the apothecary (who saves the newly arrived Serafina from a life of incarceration) is closely modelled on the family circumstances of the Chronicler from S Cosimato in Rome. Both their fathers had medical qualifications. Perhaps coincidence, but it is part of the novelist’s skill to turn such trifles into significant elements in their story telling. The plot and indeed many of the relationships in the convent are governed by Dunant’s acceptance of Lowe’s argument that in Italian convents of the period a majority of entrants were placed there against their will and negotiating a way out was virtually impossible. Given the number of convents in early modern Italian cities, this suggests that a large proportion of aristocratic women were incarcerated for life. Much of the subtlety of characterisation of the fictional members of Santa Caterina is dependent on acceptance of this argument and the ways that individuals came to terms (or failed to do so) with forced professions. Dunant’s novel effectively recreates the atmosphere of an enclosed space, governed by extraordinarily complex rules and with the added tension created by office holders working out their own strategies for achieving grace. However, I think it is important to point out that the detailed research to support this argument does not form part of Lowe’s study. Certainly young women and even a few small children were placed in the convents for a variety of reasons and remained there for long periods of time with little choice about staying or leaving. Further research is needed to identify individual life experience in the convents to support more definite conclusions about the numbers involved.

I have to confess that I am not a reader of historical fiction by choice, but in this case I found myself drawn into the life of Serafina with her beautiful voice and her travails in the Ferraran convent, where her profession was forced on her because she had fallen in love with her music teacher and the family wished to separate them and focus on her younger sister’s marriage instead. Serafina finds it impossible to accept her enclosure and the story reveals how she gains support from a few nuns in the community in her struggle. Dunant creates a very real sense of the claustrophobic atmosphere of the restricted space, occupied by women governed by regulations affecting every part of their life, many of whom had not chosen to be there. Is it significant that there has been a change in the cover design? For some editions there is a rear view of a cloaked figure moving towards a dark doorway: there is now an attractive young woman with a low(ish) cut dress, eyes modestly cast down. This version gives no clues about the convent setting of the novel. The book does now advertise discussion points: my edition did not so I cannot comment on their value for teaching purposes. Their target audience was more likely to be readers in book groups.

Sarah Dunant brilliantly conjures up the atmosphere in a single convent for a small group of members. She has absorbed the detail provided by Lowe’s meticulous study to take the reader with her behind the walls. By contrast with the novel, Lowe is working on a much larger canvas to present an overview of three significant urban convents in the period as revealed in the chronicles written in the 16th century. Because of her own detailed knowledge of the sources and the period, Lowe is able to move confidently across three very different sources and convents. Such movements present challenges to the reader especially as the cultural context which clarifies some of the early material appears later in the book.

What are we to make of the central themes of these books: that of forced professions and the negative impact of male-instituted reforms? As someone who has spent a number of years studying the experience of female religious life in the early modern period, it is the denial of free will and choice to a substantial proportion of members of convents, who are in reality the inmates of a locked institution, which is shocking. Lowe argues too that Tridentine reforms were almost wholly negative in their impact on the convents. At S Cosimato for instance ‘life after Trent was merely a more severe version of an already very restricted lifestyle…’ The ‘nuns lost their opportunity to take decisions for themselves’ and their independence was repressed.(1) However if we look at the English convents with which I am more familiar, their foundations were made after Trent and neither they nor we as historians are in a position to compare life before and after. They had to accommodate the rules established by Trent and attract candidates in difficult circumstances and they created cultural and religious centres of some importance. In the English convents in exile, care was taken to ensure that women entered convents of their own free will and evidence has survived from many of the convents showing that candidates could, and in fact did, leave if they changed their mind about joining. They attracted patronage, constructed and decorated buildings in much the same way as their Italian counterparts in the earlier period described by Lowe.

The 16th century saw significant changes for women religious, largely as a result of Tridentine decrees which imposed enclosure and which are seen (as I have already suggested) by Lowe as negative in their impact on women. In fact as she shows, the reforms at Le Vergini in Venice pre-dated Trent in ending an unusual version of the religious life which permitted considerable freedom to the Canonesses who lived there. Perhaps it is the contrast between the latitude experienced there before 1519 to the forced professions described elsewhere in the study and in the novel which makes the incarcerations so notable. Reactions to enclosure did vary elsewhere. For instance, some writers in the new English convents founded in exile on the continent from 1598 even embraced enclosure, commenting how they welcomed separation from the secular world and the opportunities it provided to focus on their religious life without distractions. Perhaps it was different for them having experienced religious persecution and having to make a personal commitment to go overseas to join a convent. It was also not so hard as it was in Italy for them to leave if they were unsuited to the religious life. Such differences of female experience serve to demonstrate the importance of working comparatively as historians to take into account variations of circumstances.

It was good to read the bold conclusion by Kate Lowe emphasising the cultural significance of the Italian convents that formed her study and in particular their contribution to history writing. While, as she argues, their works were little known outside the convents at the time, ‘convent histories enter the mainstream of historical debate’.(2) Equally the success of Sarah Dunant’s book and her wide readership introduces a new group of readers to thinking and talking about a hitherto closed world.

1                    Lowe, pp. 393, 394.

2                    Lowe, p. 397.


Restoration: fact and fiction in the stores of history (Alan Marshall)


Restoration by Rose Tremain
London; Vintage Books, London, 1989, 2009 ed.,ISBN 978-0-099-53195-1; 399 pp.; price £7.99

Culture and Politics at the Court of Charles II, 1660-1685 by Matthew Jenkinson
Woodbridge, Boydell Press, 2010, ISBN 9781843835905; 293 pp.; £60.00

Sir Walter Scott, masquerading both as ‘The Author’, as well as his pompous alter-ego, the historian ‘Dr Jonas Dryasdust’, inserted the following dialogue into the beginning of his historical novel of the Restoration period, Perevil of the Peak (1823):

‘Author…you mean to say these learned persons [historians] will have but little toleration for a romance, or a fictious narrative, founded upon history?

Dryasdust: Why sir, I do rather apprehend, that their respect for the foundation will be such, that they may be apt to quarrel with the inconsistent nature of the superstructure; just as every classical traveller pours forth expressions of sorrow and indignation when, in travelling through Greece, he chances to see a Turkish kiosk rising on the ruins of an ancient temple …’ (1)

Comparisons between historical fiction and historical work of fact have become much more frequent since Scott’s day, but the basis of the argument often seems the same. The presence of any number of novelistic ‘Turkish kiosks’ erected in full view of not a few historian’s own grounds and filled with ‘frothy and superficial knowledge’ has been often criticised for at the least foolishly spoiling the historical view, and at worst for looking in completely the wrong historical direction; that is, of course, where they have not been ignored entirely.(2) The two sides seem destined to live, if not at war, then at least in state of mutual antipathy. Nevertheless the historical novel was just as much a development of the 19th century as serious academic history and both of these genres have, arguably, come to their full flowering in the modern era.(3) Yet the Dryasdust distain for the historical novel still lingers on in some quarters. Can historians still afford to ignore the historical novel completely? Can it really tell us anything about our views of a particular period?

If such literary works tend to be treated at all by historians, then it is often as a somewhat smaller, less worthy, over-rowdy, and much more emotional younger brother, over-concerned with mere story and (taken as given by many historians) often containing many an ill-conceived, ahistorical, character creation. Far better, it is thought, to till the historical soil in our primary sources, so as to capture the genuine essence of the factual past and only then display the results in serious academic tomes and in serious academic language. Yet both genres possibly still have much to learn from one another. Indeed if popular and just occasionally academic history has become more novelistic in tone at times, then sometimes historical novels have become more academically serious.(4)

The idea of the Restoration period has been present in the historical novel genre for some time. It has never, of course, been the most popular of periods for the historical novelist to explore -inevitably that palm lies with the all-powerful Tudors, who alongside Romans and Nazis seemingly dominate the popular historical imagination of students of all ages in all forms of the media. Having said this, there are some interesting examples of the genre of Restoration historical novels in existence. Indeed the use of the Restoration period as a vehicle for the novel has something of a history of its own that can still give us some perspective when examining one particular example of the genre in the context of a new and serious academic work on the period.

The ‘founder’ of the historical novel, Sir Walter Scott, actually set the ball rolling on the Restoration novel by setting one of his more unreadable than usual books in the period. This was the aforementioned Peveril of the Peak, wherein Scott crashed about the period with improbable settings and even more improbable characters and their unlikely dialogue, doing unhistorical things in a singularly ponderous manner. Others soon followed his lead.

Rose Tremain’s novel Restoration is not Scott by any means; it is very readable for one thing, has engaging characters and is not that improbable in its story.(5) Nor is it a pot-boiler or bodice-ripper romance a la Kathleen Windsor’s Forever Amber (1944). Instead it is really a novel about ideas, which happens to be set in the past, and it can lead us to ponder and then go on to explore many of these ideas in a genuine historical context, which is perhaps what the really good historical novel should do.(6) Space naturally precludes an examination of all of the ideas in this particular work. The novel covers many historical themes, from Nonconformity in the character of Pearce, through the issue of gender, to ideas of madness and of science. Clearly the suggestion of the very idea of the Restoration as aspirational is crucial to the novel. Robert Merivel, the main protagonist, who has more than a touch of Samuel Pepys about him, aspires, after his Candide-like adventures, to a restoration of his soul. A further theme, the idea of a historical burn-line in 1660, presents the somewhat old-fashioned view that everything changed in May 1660 and nothing was ever the same again.

Tremain’s view on this particular point is made clear through her main character’s statement that: ‘The truth is that when the King restored, it was as if self-discipline and drudgery had exploded in clap of laughter. I became much too excited by and greedy for life to spend much of it at work. Women were cheaper than claret, so I drank women’ (p. 9). This is the idea of the 1660s as the 1960s, or at least as the 1980s when the novel was written: metaphorical and sometimes actual, wealth, sun, licentiousness and sex; but, of course, if the 1960’s and 1980s wasn’t really like the proverbial and mythical 1960s or 1980s, neither was the 1660s like the mythical 1660s.

Intriguingly, though, in this novel, as in other Restoration novels, one of the real centres of gravity in the work lies in the character of a real person: Charles II. The invented characters, interesting though they are, move around a King whose own restoration is the political act in the title. It is also implied that it has botched and unsatisfactory results, even for him. While Charles II is off stage for much of the novel, there is little doubt that it is his character, or Tremain’s view of his character, that really dominates the work. He is the novel’s deus ex machina. Why is there such a fascination with this particular monarch? For it might be said that that one of the main characteristics of most Restoration-period novels is that they always tend to be dominated by Charles II whatever their plot, just as the Tudor historical novel is dominated by Henry VIII or Elizabeth I.

Of course, we know, or believe that we know, where we are with Charles II. He is, so any number of authors have told us, a `personality’.(7) In popular culture Charles II remains a hale fellow well met sort of man, one of us really, sometimes a sort of early Blairite ‘pretty straight sort of guy’, with, for a king, the ‘common touch’. He was naturally a man with faults, but was also a lover of wine, women, dogs, song and pleasure and who could dislike such a man as that? He was also a supporter of the theatre and it might be said that in Restoration comedy is to be found a form of drama which the King’s personal life sometimes resembled. So, if Charles II has been frequently depicted in the modern era as a generally all-round good fellow, as well as occasionally a shrewd reader of men, as in ‘Restoration’, we feel we ought to like him and, we are perhaps meant to feel he would probably like us. It might be said, however, that this image is arguably a hangover of the Charles II of the Arthur Bryant School of history. While the real Charles II actually was some of these things, and even at the time he was portrayed as some of these things, he was also a lot more than this, as historians have tried to explain. He was actually a complex and intelligent man living in a post-revolutionary political and cultural environment and above all a survivor, not merely the caricature Nell Gwyn-chasing ‘merry monarch’. However, for the real Charles and his political space we must always turn to the historian’s view, which is where Matthew Jenkinson’s serious and genuinely weighty work of history can help us.

‘For the King moves like God in our world, like Faith itself. He is a fount of beauty and power, of which we all yearn, in our overheated hearts, to feel some cooling touch’ notes Robert Merivel in the novel (p. 24). Jenkinson takes a similar view of the Caroline Court, its culture and its monarch. The court, a space Merivel continually aspires to, finds a minor place in and then is catastrophically cast out from, is vitally important to Jenkinson’s work too. Merivel finds by the end of the book that the court was not worth that much anyway and fortunately for him he is eventually given his own space to inhabit, but few of those who aspired to the court at the time would have thought like this and they were eager to be there whatever the consequences for themselves. In Jenkinson’s work the Restoration court image matches this significant historical nexus. For Jenkinson’s is a sober view of this important institution, its inhabitants and its culture, and much more penetrating than Merivel’s.

For Jenkinson the central idea is of a court culture that is informed by and influenced by politics and in which politics also influences culture and the nation. It is indeed the presentation of the king and his image within the contemporary multiple voices of culture. The book is located around a Restoration court that was politicized in its many forms including its artefacts. The court contained ideas on kingship, on performance, on faction and on contemporary disagreement, as well as the distrust of philosophies. It was also a problematic space. Following the failed republic, the court was part of a much needed political stabilisation in the period, but it was continually undercut by cultural interests that stressed negativity, advice and challenge. This was significant. For argues Jenkinson the ‘order and health of the nation was reliant on, symptomatic of and a reflection of that of the royal court’ (p. 213) Underneath the pleasurable veneer of the Restoration court therefore stood both severe uncertainty and a ‘lively interrogation’ of the issues of the court: ‘virtue, love, loyalty, reason, authority and … honour’ had to be interrogated (p. 236) The monarch who compromised these political/cultural elements was Charles II. The King, by his indulgence of both himself and his courtiers, was in the end exactly what was not what was needed, for his reported actions only emphasised the fears of disorder in the realm; the same fears, of course, that are primary to understanding the early modern psyche.

Chapter two of the book goes on to explore the features of the court in the early Restoration, the first being a rhetorical commitment to the law as evinced by the executions of the regicides. Jenkinson then examines the role of churchmen at court and the role of the author John Crowne; he discusses the court wits in chapter five and John Dryden in chapter six as a court poet (though not in the sense that Rochester had been), alongside sections on Tory discontent at court, printed propaganda and the ‘empty atmosphere’ of the last days of the court of Charles II after the ‘second Restoration’ of the 1680s. It is a rich and finely detailed mix for the reader to interrogate and gives us a good understanding of the cultural ambience and the cultural ambivalences of the court. If the entire Restoration court experience has, it is argued, implications for the health of the body politic then indeed the ideas of ‘words and meanings’ of the courtiers and their king need to be deconstructed.

In many senses therefore the historical work parallels that of the novel; it too is about ideas. The court however has moved away from prurient interests in disorder and sexual libertinism that we find to some extent in the novel, into something more. The court was the central organisation of the new state in the 1660s, and if it was dysfunctional then so was the state itself. As Jenkinson puts it, the court should be viewed as ‘a political institution to be taken seriously, whose vibrant cultural life could be used to navigate contemporary political complexities’ (p. 7). Here then is the nub of the issue: for while the historical novel can in the end only ever deal with surface and story, the historical work can probe deeply into the heart of the court’s problems. Yet, for all of this there is still arguably room for both versions, for used wisely the one can provoke questions of the other. As Scott the author noted long ago:

‘The stores of history are accessible to everyone; and are no more exhausted or impoverished by the hints thus borrowed from them, than the fountain is drained by the water which we subtract for domestic purposes. And in reply to the sober charge of falsehood, against a narrative announced positively to be fictitious, one can only answer by Prior’s exclamation

‘Odzooks, must one swear to the truth of a song!’.(8)


1 Sir Walter Scott, Perevil of the Peak (2 vols., 1836 ed.), I, p.x–xi.

2 ibid.,I, p.xii.

3 See Jerome de Groot, The Historical Novel (Abingdon, 2010).

4 One example would be Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall (London, 2009).

5 Having said this, as so often in historical fiction the timescale within this novel jars to the historian’s eye. The novel is set c.1660–7, but these years are telescoped and extended apparently to suit the plot.

6 Of course, in the end the novel is an entertainment and many reading it will be content with this pleasure alone.

7 Modern approaches, both academic and popular, to Charles II can be found in R. Hutton, Charles II: King of England, Scotland and Ireland (Oxford, 1989); R. HuttonDebates in Stuart History(Basingstoke, 2004), pp.132-170; T. Harris, Restoration: Charles II and His Kingdoms, 1660-1685 (St Ives, 2005); A. Keay, The Magnificent Monarch: Charles II and the Ceremonies of Power(London, 2008) and Jenny Uglow, A Gambling Man: Charles II and the Restoration (London, 2009).

8 Perevil, I, p.xii.

Moscow as city and metaphor (Alexander Martin)


The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald
London: Flamingo, 1989; ISBN 9780006543701; 256pp.; Price £7.99.

Holy Fathers, Secular Sons: Clergy, Intelligentsia, and the Modern Self in Revolutionary Russia by Laurie Manchester
DeKalb, Illinois: Northern Illinois University Press, 2008; ISBN 9780875803807; 302pp.; Price £28.00.

Penelope Fitzgerald’s historical novel The Beginning of Spring, set in Moscow in 1913 but written at the height of perestroika, conveys an ambivalence familiar to those of us who spent time there during the Gorbachev years. Much in the Moscow she describes is grimy and discouraging: the oppressive bureaucracy; the ugly, derelict buildings; and, for much of the year, the gray, wet, depressing weather. But the book also gives an idea of the light that shone through the cracks in Russia’s shell: the Chekhovian charm of the ramshackle wooden houses and overgrown gardens; the churches with their golden onion domes, exuding a majestic sense of history and enduring, timeless faith; and the people themselves, approaching life with a humor and an almost mystical intensity of feeling that seemed to prevent the everyday from becoming banal. In the late 1980s as in 1913, the country was on the verge of epochal changes, and to be there meant to be a witness to history.

The Beginning of Spring expresses the Zeitgeist of the Gorbachev years, but it also incorporates much older images and stereotypes. It could hardly be otherwise. Penelope Fitzgerald (1916–2000) was a distinguished and talented novelist – her fiction was awarded both the Booker Prize and the American National Book Critics fiction prize – but she was evidently no Russia hand; at least, The Beginning of Spring is her only work set in that country. Much of the novel is about the Russians’ sheer cultural otherness. Like many thoughtful, well-meaning Westerners trying to understand the Russians, Fitzgerald represents them as people who are exceptionally soulful, passionate, and melancholy. This is a stereotype that first appeared in Russian literature in the 19th century, and it has since become a fixture both in Russia and in the West.

How the stereotype used by Fitzgerald originated becomes clearer if one reads Laurie Manchester’s Holy Fathers, Secular Sons, a study of the role of secularized popovichi (sons of Orthodox clergymen—from pop, “priest”) in the formation of the Russian intelligentsia. Russia’s high culture was long dominated by nobles who looked down on their lower-born compatriots because they lacked European culture. When commoners became more educated in the mid-19th century, and more resentful of the nobility’s snobbery and arrogance, they asserted their own moral superiority over the nobles by treating lack of cosmopolitanism as a badge of national authenticity. Manchester’s book argues that no one did more than the popovichi – many of whom acquired great influence as writers, educators, scientists, journalists, or political activists – to promote the idea that ’real’ Russians should aspire to a pattern of thought and behavior rooted in the mystical spirituality of Russian Orthodoxy, not in supposedly universal notions of rationality and enlightenment modeled by West Europeans.

The ’Russian‘ traits espoused by Manchester’s popovichi are pervasive in The Beginning of Spring, and they appear all the more exotic because Fitzgerald shows us Russia through the eyes of a semi-outsider, a Russified Englishman. The central character in The Beginning of Spring, Frank Reid, is a husband, father of three young children, and owner of a modest printing business in Moscow. The business was founded by his parents, Britons who settled in Moscow, and Reid himself is at home in both cultures. When the story begins, his English wife Nellie has just unaccountably walked out on him and gone home to Britain, and Reid is left trying to sort through the implications – where she has gone, whether she will come back, and what it all means for him, their children, and his own relationship with Russia. This is the novel’s central plot line, which reaches a surprising dénouement at the end that I won’t give away.

As Reid attends to his affairs, we meet a variety of other characters. This is where Fitzgerald beings the Russian stereotypes to life: there is the eccentric Anglo-Russian businessman Selwyn Crane, who writes Russian poetry about birch trees, wears a Russian peasant blouse, and tries to live by the utopian Christian precepts of Tolstoy; there is Kuriatin, the moody, theatrical merchant; Tvyordov, Reid’s employee, a compositor and erstwhile labor organizer, who approaches his craft with almost religious reverence; Lisa, the enigmatic peasant housemaid, whose sexual allure derives from her preternatural calm and serenity; Volodya, the pistol-wielding student who is either a revolutionary, a jealous lover, or both; and assorted drunken coachmen, bribe-taking police officers, and officious station masters. Restless seekers all, they resemble Russia itself, that ‘magnificent and ramshackle country’ (p. 177).

The novel’s characters are a study in contradiction and opacity: rebellious yet submissive, lecherous yet ascetic, corrupt but also profoundly moral. Moscow itself shares these traits. Fitzgerald was ill served by whoever advised her on language matters, because she keeps mangling the Russian words that are supposed to provide local color, but judging from my own research on tsarist Moscow, her sense of the city is spot-on. The city’s sights, sounds, and smells are described in such pungent detail that Moscow must count as a quasi-character. Fitzgerald does a beautiful job of evoking the city in passages like this one:

‘Dear, slovenly, mother Moscow, bemused with the bells of its four times forty churches, indifferently sheltering factories, whore-houses and golden domes, impeded by Greeks and Persians and bewildered villagers and seminarists straying on to the tramlines, centred on its holy citadel, but reaching outwards with a frowsty leap across the boulevards to the circle of workers’ dormitories and railheads, where the monasteries still prayed, and at last to a circle of pig-sties, cabbage-patches, earth roads, earth closets, where Moscow sank back, seemingly with relief, into a village’ (pp. 35-36).

Running through the whole book is the theme of ‘the beginning of spring’. Perhaps Fitzgerald was thinking of Ilya Ehrenburg’s 1954 novel The Thaw, which provided an entire generation of Soviet readers with a metaphor for the return of freedom and hope after Stalin’s death. In Fitzgerald’s novel, the season is late March, when the snow and ice begin to melt. It is not a pretty time of year, but winter’s grip loosens at last and life comes into its own again. Fitzgerald describes how the double panes are removed from the windows, and once more the sounds of the street penetrate the interior of people’s homes. A nervous anticipation and uncertainty takes hold. Nellie has abandoned her family, but we don’t know why. Reid loves Moscow yet considers moving to England; he is attached to his business but has doubts about its long-term viability, and he understands neither Nellie’s sudden urge to leave nor his own unexpected feelings for Lisa. Selwyn Crane is spiritually torn between two conflicting sexual impulses – free love and chastity – and is about to pour out his heart to the world in his first book of poetry; the approach of summer also means another restless season of wandering the Russian countryside in peasant birch-bark sandals. In the wider world, meanwhile, it is 1913, and we all know what lies in store.

When Fitzgerald anthropomorphizes the city and uses human characters to embody the mood of a fateful historical moment, she is making use of time-honored literary devices. What makes these devices believable to the reader is the appeal to well-established images of Russians as soulful, brooding, oblivious to external order, and uncompromising in their quest for deeper spiritual experience. But this was no timeless Russian national stereotype; rather, it was invented in the mid 19th century.

Until the early 19th century, Westerners as well as upper-class Russians viewed the Russian Empire primarily as a quasi-colonial civilizing project that aimed to bring an amorphous mass of backward peoples and lands into the ambit of European enlightenment. The issue on which debates about Russian society turned was whether the empire’s multiethnic population was becoming enlightened, not whether there was a single, identifiable Russian ethnicity and what its essential national character might be.

All of shifted in the second quarter of the 19th century. Educated Russians – writers, painters, journalists, historians, musicians – began exploring what they thought were the unique features of the Russian nation. It is at this moment in time that the cliché on which Fitzgerald relies came into being: that Russia’s exterior is harsher and more forbidding than that of Western countries because its inner core is warmer and more spiritual. Like all national stereotypes, these claims were based on observations of reality, but they were above all a protest by dissenting intellectuals against the imperial regime. The regime wanted its subjects to be obedient and rational; instead, they were now exalted as rebels and dreamers. Russia’s flat, monotonous landscapes, criticized earlier as oppressive and dreary, were found to contain a mystical beauty, and the filth and poverty of peasant villages was recast as a sign of spiritual greatness. The West – and, by association, the tsarist regime – was nothing but pretty appearances; ’Russia’, by contrast, was spiritual truth.

Laurie Manchester’s Holy Fathers, Secular Sons helps us understand how this conception of Russianness arose. It has long been known that the rise of 19th–century Russian nationalism had roots both cultural (German Romanticism, Slavophilism, liberalism) and sociological (the disillusionment of noble intellectuals, and the growth of a non-noble educated class). Manchester draws our attention to a social group whose role has traditionally not received adequate attention – the clergy, or rather, their sons.

The fact that scholars studying the sociology of Russian intellectual history have focused so much more on nobles than on the clergy is, come to think about it, surprising, because clergy and popovichi formed a crucial reservoir from which educated laypeople – including many who were technically noble – were recruited. The government needed more officials than the nobility could supply, while the clergy had more educated sons than could be placed in Orthodox parishes, so there was a steady flow of popovichi out of the clergy and into the state service (where many were ennobled) and other literate professions. Much of Russia’s educated population therefore had roots in the clerical milieu.

Laurie Manchester shows, based on a study of a hundreds of popovich memoirs, that popovichi all through the 19th century shared a similar outlook on life. This outlook sharply differentiated them from the group they viewed as their chief rival and with whom they were locked in a relationship of profound mutual dislike and disdain – the nobility. Both considered themselves the natural leaders and moral enlighteners of the nation. The popovichi, born among the common people and raised to serve in local parishes, prided themselves on being ‘real’ Russians, unlike the Europeanized nobility. Nobles were torn between a European and a Russian self, and some felt like foreigners among the Russian people or harbored guilt feelings toward the peasantry; popovichi considered themselves part of the Russian populace and hence experienced none of these tensions. Nobles aspired to a lifestyle of politeness and refinement; popovichi took pride in having grown up in poverty and living an ascetic life.

One source of the popovichi’s powerful sense of corporate identity, Manchester argues, was their clerical upbringing. Orthodox parish clergy were almost always sons of clergymen and married to daughters of clergymen, so they were a caste-like group, isolated from other classes and imbued with a sense of their own saintly mission in a society whose elites were corrupted by sin and estranged from Russia’s sacred traditions. The nobles, they felt, were haughty, spoiled by material luxury, and estranged from Russia by their cultural cosmopolitanism. The merchants were alienated from their nation by the greed that inhered in their occupation. Only the clergy, they felt, aspired to a life of godliness, service to the people, and devotion to Russia’s true national essence.

This sense of the clergy’s special calling was reinforced by the experience of quasi-martyrdom at the bursa, as the schools of the Orthodox Church were colloquially known. The bursa system resembled secular secondary schools in aiming to provide a sophisticated humanistic education, but otherwise it was like no other school system in Russia. Attendance was compulsory, and unlike most schools, it was for one social estate only: it was staffed by clergymen and designed exclusively for sons of the clergy, so depending on his level of ambition and talent, a young man could go from primary all the way to post-secondary schooling without ever coming into contact with lay teachers, administrators, or classmates. Lay schools, especially those for the nobility, placed great emphasis on neatness, order, and polished manners. By contrast, the bursa was notorious for its filthy and decrepit buildings, the squalid living conditions of its students, and the coarseness with which obedience to authority was enforced; the sadistic violence of corporal punishments at the bursa was legendary even in lay society.

Manchester argues that across generations, the experience of the bursa united popovichi entering lay professions with each other and with their peers who remained in the clergy, and isolated them from the other elements of society. The bursa formed memories that no other class shared. Leaving home for the bursa was universally remembered as a traumatic break with the innocence of childhood. Gazing back across that fateful divide, popovichi remembered their earlier family life with an intensity of affection that reinforced the bonds of loyalty uniting them with the clergy. They recalled their fathers as bearers of a saintly, quintessentially Russian masculinity, and their families as models of love and harmony. Although there was affection for particular teachers and comrades at the bursa, the bursa itself was recalled as a place of suffering. Other classes, especially the nobles, might pity or despise the popovichi as people degraded by an abusive education – as late as the 1930s, dictionaries still defined seminarskii (the adjective derived from “seminary”) as meaning ’coarse, ill-bred’ – but popovichi themselves regarded the horror of the bursa as a trial by fire that made them into saintly martyrs and thus uniquely qualified as moral leaders of the nation.

Manchester argues that the popovichi were the principal source of the distinctive, at times paradoxical ethos that educated contemporaries as well as historians have generally attributed to the 19th–century Russian intelligentsia. Both groups hated both the nobility and capitalism. They condemned leisure, privilege, and wealth, and embraced a life that was demonstratively austere and anti-materialistic. They felt a deep bond with the peasantry but expected to be acknowledged as its leaders. They were unsparing in their social and political criticism, but their sense of embodying the nation’s indivisible essence made them uncomfortable with dissent and disagreement. All of these were attitudes common both to the intelligentsia and to the popovichi, and they underlie the outlook of Selwyn Crane and the radical student Volodya in Fitzgerald’s The Beginning of Spring, just as the notion of an all-pervading, mystical Russian essence shapes Fitzgerald’s description of Moscow itself.

Holy Fathers, Secular Sons places this transformation of popovichi into intelligentsia in a dual explanatory framework. First, Manchester argues – persuasively, I find – that much in the popovich mentality represented an adaptation of the clergy’s Orthodox religiosity. They carried on, in secularized form, the clergy’s belief that it alone represented both moral integrity and true Russianness, and that the peasantry was not corrupted by sin as the nobles and merchants were. Secularizing the notion of individual salvation and of a future messianic redemption of humanity, they refused to separate the political from the personal, instead insisting that the struggle for change in the sociopolitical order be accompanied by tireless efforts at moral and spiritual self-improvement.

Aside from the secularization of religious sensibilities, the other concept that Manchester uses to frame her analysis is the notion of ’modern selfhood’. Modern selves, she argues, are people who think critically and believe that they can control their own lives and surroundings; variations of this definition are repeated throughout the book (e.g. pp. 5, 115, 135, 153, 214). The argument that the popovichi were pioneers in the development of modern selfhood in Russia is plausible and makes intuitive sense, but it does seem a bit conjectural. The popovichi made autonomous career choices, but might not their clerical ancestors have done the same had the social order permitted it? Some popovichi wrote memoirs and kept diaries in which they constructed a sense of their own selves – but most did not do these things, and might their ancestors not have done so if their culture had encouraged this particular form of self-expression? A systematic exploration of the older sense of self might have shed light on these questions, but the book does not attempt it, and perhaps the available sources may not allow it.

I argued earlier that Manchester’s book could be read as a study of the origin of the national stereotypes that underlie Fitzgerald’s novel. On one crucial point, however, the two diverge. Fitzgerald’s characters are driven by a spiritual quest, but they are eccentric, naïve, passive people, and in Moscow in March 1913, they drift helplessly into the maelstrom of the 20th century. By contrast, the popovichi had a sense of destiny that made them vigorous participants in modern Russian history – the sorts of people who helped build the new Soviet order after 1917, and whose descendants helped bring it down in Fitzgerald’s own time.

The many lives of John Bale (Matt Phillpott)


Books of Bale by John Arden
Methuen: London, 1988; ISBN: 9780749390303; 520 pp.; Price: Out of print.

John Bale by Peter Happé
Twayne: New York, 1996; ISBN 9780805770483; 174 pp.; Price: Out of print.

The Complete Plays of John Bale (vol. 1) by Peter Happé
D.S. Brewer: Cambridge, 1985; ISBN: 9780521190275; 177pp.; Price: £45.00.

Reviewer: Matthew Phillpott (Institute of Historical Research, University of London)

For those historians who have studied the English Reformation or the writing of polemics, histories and plays in the 16th century the name John Bale (1495–1563) appears high on the list of English scholars supporting a reformist agenda. Bale popularised the genre of martyrology for an English audience, later taken to its logical conclusion in John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. Bale helped to preserve England’s manuscript heritage in part through his cataloguing of ancient English writers and texts and in part through his influence on the Archbishop of Canterbury, Matthew Parker, who became a great patron of ancient manuscripts. Bale is also remembered among much else for his polemics, theological treatises and evangelical plays. In addition Bale’s tendency to write autobiographical accounts makes him the perfect subject for novelisation.

That novel is John Arden’s Books of Bale. The framing sequence is set late in Elizabeth’s reign, when the playwright Anthony Munday finds himself in competition with the newcomer William Shakespeare. The story focuses on the relationship between Lydia (the daughter of John Bale and his wife Dorothy) and her own daughter Lucretia. Lucretia runs away from home at 16 and makes contacts within the London theatre scene. After being separated for some time mother and daughter re-establish their relationship through several connections to John Bale’s own involvement in plays, especially his adaptation of King Johan.

The main portion of the book, however, belongs to Bale’s wife, Dorothy. This is the story of the hidden presence behind John Bale. In her youth Dorothy works as a ‘singing-woman, a dancing-woman, a woman of “the business”’ in and around Norfolk and London (Arden, p. 11). Through an association with Lord Wentworth (1), Dorothy escapes this vagabond lifestyle, and is given premises in the Birdcage (a disreputable performance venue) where she gives birth to Wentworth’s illegitimate son. At the time of Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon, Dorothy’s room in the Birdcage is used as a secret meeting place for reformers intent on putting on evangelical plays. Included among this group is John Bale, appointed play-master by Wentworth under the auspices of Thomas Cromwell. Although Bale’s plays are largely successful the tides of religion are turning against them, as Henry VIII cracks down on the Protestant sympathisers in his government and, in the 1540s, begins to backtrack on many of the reforms that had begun to be implemented during his reign.

Dorothy and John Bale find themselves in exile twice; first during the latter years of Henry VIII’s reign, and then during the ‘bloody’ reign of Mary I. Dorothy also joins John Bale in Ireland when the latter is appointed Bishop of Ossary. They barely escaped from there with their lives when Mary came to the throne!

Dorothy’s life, as depicted by Arden, is both rich and traumatic. It is, unfortunately, also entirely fictional. Little is known of the real Dorothy other than her Christian name. She is a woman left almost entirely in the shadows of her husband. Bale himself mentioned in his The vocacyon of Johan Bale to the bishoprick of Ossorie in Irelande his persecions in the same (1553) that his wife accompanied him to Ireland – ‘Upon the .xxi. daye of January we entred into the shippe, I, my wyfe, & one servaunt’ (2) – but nothing more is mentioned of her in his account. Bale’s autobiography that appears in his Catalogus notes that ‘I took the faithful Dorothy to my wife, listening attentively to this divine saying: let him who cannot be content seek a wife’ (Happé (1985), p. 147). Bale earlier stated that it was better to marry than ‘to burn’ (Summarium, fo. 243). These appear as odd statements, suggesting that his marriage was part political, part religious and part a search for self-contentment. Indeed in Arden’s novelisation Bale’s motivations cross spectacularly from the personal to the religious in nature. John N. King is the most recent historian to presume that Dorothy was a widow as she married Bale with a child of apprentice age in tow.(3) While this is plausible, Arden’s alternative claim that Dorothy’s child was born a bastard is not inconceivable either, although the chance that it was Wentworth’s illegitimate son seems highly unlikely.

Books of Bale is now over 20 years old. The question therefore has to be asked: why look at it again now? Most of the other pieces written for this special edition of Reviews in History, will, I imagine, focus on books published in the last decade and held in higher critical esteem. Arden’s novel is nevertheless interesting to revisit, particularly because historians who look at Bale find themselves trapped in a web of fiction and mythmaking partly created by the man himself.

The historical Bale is derived in large part from the autobiographical accounts found in his Vocacyon and catalogue of English writers. In both instances Bale has exaggerated or twisted the facts and his role in events to make a point. In his Vocacyon Bale’s intent was to write a polemical account of his escape from Ireland as a parallel to St Paul. In his Catalogus Bale wishes to present himself as one link in a chain of English writers preserving the true faith against the heresies of antichrist. Although both accounts are filled with accurate facts about Bale’s life and career, neither can be taken as entirely true. Indeed, Happé claims that Bale’s autobiography ‘reads like a piece of fiction’ (Happé (1996), p. 19). Leslie P. Fairfield goes even further, charging Bale as being the ‘Mythmaker for the English Reformation’.(4) Fairfield argues that Bale formed a new mythology for post-reformation England and that while his works were basically true they were always written with a set picture of history in mind. The historical Bale is therefore bound within a fictional wrapper partly of Bale’s own creation. He is therefore the ideal candidate for novelisation and a constant enigma for historians searching for accuracy and truth.

It is perhaps telling then, that John Arden depicts his 1988 novel Books of Bale as a ‘fiction of history’. Arden provides little explanation of this choice of description other than to state that ‘the central thread of the whole story is necessarily invented’ while elements of the situations, characters and events are taken directly from known historical evidence.

Arden attributes his research to notes and discussions provided by Peter Happé, Hubert Butler, Maurice Craig, Jeff O’Connell and Mary Joyce. The latter four sources derive from Ireland and seem most utilised in Arden’s chapter six, ‘I am of Ireland’. The final chapters of the book most certainly rely upon Bale’s own account of his adventures as he tells it in his Vocacyon. Happé probably supplied Arden with a summary of the Vocacyon which eventually formed the basis for a modern edition of the text (published by Happé and John N. King in 1990).

Books of Bale was published eight years before Happé published his biography of John Bale and three years after his publication on Bale’s plays (which Arden references).(5) This locates Arden’s novel at a mid-way point between the two texts. Although there have been several previous biographies of Bale (most notably by Leslie P. Fairfield in 1976, Honor McCusker in 1942 and W. T. Davies in 1940) and several vital texts that highlight Bale’s work (such as William Haller’s ‘Elect nation’ of 1967 and Richard Bauckham’s study of the apocalyptic tradition) there is little, if any, sign that Arden had access to them.(6) Arden’s Bale fits very much the description given by Happé in his biography and that given by Bale himself in his autobiographical Vocacyon.

The personality of Bale conceived of in the novel is larger than life, which in part reflects the requirements of a fiction writer and in part relies on a comment by Happé that Bale presents himself in his Vocacyon with a ‘self-dramatizing tendency’ (Happé (1985), p. 2). For instance Bale openly cries in front of Dorothy and others in the story and acts highly emotionally in several scenes, beyond what would normally be acceptable.

The novel’s depiction of Bale’s attitude towards homosexuality is also questionable. Historical accounts and Bale’s own words suggest that he may have been abused as a child by Carmelite friars but there is no evidence that he himself had homosexual leanings, something that is strongly hinted at in Arden’s book. In addition, in the novel Bale seems to have little difficulty ignoring the lesbian traits displayed by his, then, future wife. The depiction of Bale’s character in this aspect of the novel, while reflective of Bale’s tendency to exclaim against sodomy and ‘illicit’ sexual acts, seems intended entirely to add emphasis to the complexity of the character.

The novel dots across the years with no seeming cohesion, at one moment focusing on Dorothy’s early life, then to Ireland, and then back again to her first meetings with Bale and Wentworth, and then back to Ireland again. But this matters little as the book is really about memory, about how various characters recall and live through the events that circle around Dorothy and Bale. Entire chapters focus on different events from particular perspectives: ‘IV: Letters of loyalty’ focus entirely on correspondence between Lord Wentworth and Sir Thomas Wyatt concerning their involvement in reformist plays; ‘III: A Word from Til’ provides a less favourable view of Bale and Dorothy during Henry’s reign and through their first exile, using the recordings of a fictional character called Konrad Spielmann (or Conrad) who describes himself as a pamphleteer and independent Protestant agitator born in the Siegenwald and educated at Wittenberg. Conrad is a forcible presence throughout the first half of the book. In his youth he is a member of Dorothy’s ragtag group of vagabond players. Later he falls in with John Bale and helps produce his plays under the leadership of Wentworth and Cromwell. Then later still he helps Bale out of prison only to be exiled for his trouble along with Bale and family.

Using Conrad as his cypher (Arden, p. 268), Arden stresses the difficulty involved in writing a fiction of history and the limitations of historical sources in providing us with a true image of a person:

‘I am not sure that any of these theories were consistent one with another. I only record them here to show the difficulty of recording anything about so gargoylish a man as Bale, so sphinx-like a woman as La Hant-Jambée [Dorothy]. We can but look at them as they appear to us, shrug our shoulders, write what we see, and that’s it’.

This sentence seems to sum up Arden’s own views about Bale – that despite our seemingly having a fairly full knowledge of his life and career we still, in fact, only have the bare bones. This is particularly the case for Bale who even historically is a difficult man to categorise. He is at once an ex-friar, a bishop, a scholar, a poet, a playwright, a polemicist, a collector of manuscripts, a bibliophile and cataloguer. The list goes on. What we do know of Bale is largely his own invention and has a tendency to lean toward the fictional with more than a little embellishment. It is this difficulty in interpreting the historical evidence that makes a ‘fiction of history’ about Bale all the more enticing. While Arden does not provide us with a truthful representation of the man, he may well have provided a caricature no less accurate than the one we are led to recount by Bale himself.

1          See P. R. N. Carter, ‘Wentworth, Thomas, first Baron Wentworth (1501–1551)’, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004).

2          John Bale, The vocacyon of Johan Bale, ed. Peter Happé and John N. King (New York, 1990), p. 51.

3          John N. King, ‘Bale, John (1495–1563)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004).

4          Leslie P. Fairfield, John Bale: Myth Maker for the English Reformation (West  Lafayette, IN, 1976).

5          Peter Happé, The Complete Plays of John Bale (Vol. 1, Cambridge, 1985).

6          William Haller, The Elect Nation: the Meaning and Relevance of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (New York, 1963); and Richard Bauckham, Tudor Apocalypse: Sixteenth-Century Apocalypticism, Millennarianism and the English Reformation: From John Bale to John Foxe and Thomas Brightman (Oxford, 1978).