recent reading, largely about faith

I’ve been catching up on various purchases from Adobe Books, which has an outrageously good history section. First up was Theodore Zeldin’s An Intimate History of Humanity, not at all what I expected – I’d been thinking it was something like a shorter History of Private Life, but in fact it’s a set of contemporary interviews woven around a narrative that traces the emergence of humanity – not humankind but humane thoughts and acts.

It was a mind-bending and addictive read, a bit like Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence in that it cast new lights on everything I’ve read over the last few years. Despite many setbacks and abundant evidence to the contrary, I’m a great believer in the Renaissance and the Enlightenment and humanism generally. It pains me considerably that civil discourse is presently flying from reason and tolerance and humanity and back to benighted faith in invisible superheroes in the sky, with all the misogyny and oppression that seems to imply, but I try to take a longer-term view and remind myself, for example, that my lifetime has encompassed the journey from Stonewall to gay marriage in Massachusetts, which is pretty damn cool.

Next up was Alan Moorehead’s Darwin and the Beagle, followed immediately by William Irvine’s Apes, Angels and Victorians which picks up more or less exactly where the Moorehead book leaves off. They’re both a bit dated and completely outshone by Janet Browne’s exceptional two-volume Darwin bio, but good nonetheless. Writing in 1955, Irvine very endearingly takes the position that the Creationist argument is discredited where not actually dead. It’s hard not to grind your teeth over the fact that the church is making exactly the same arguments now that it did when Darwin published a century and a half ago, but it’s wonderful to be reminded what a complex and well-supported and insightful piece of work he did, and how many of his predictions and guesses have been nobly borne out by subsequent evidence. The science gets more and more polished and refined, even as the church gets duller.

I’m not a huge fan of Dawkins and his taunting tactics, but it is the case that I got bored with Christianity as a way of interpreting the world. It’s just not interesting or complicated enough. A propos of which, I finally finished Roy Jenkins’ Gladstone, ten months after I started it. As with his Churchill, I walked away from this book with immense respect and admiration both for the subject and for Jenkins himself. Gladstone started his extraordinary parliamentary career with the proposal that all civil servants should be required to be communicant Anglicans. By the time of his second premiership, fifty years later, he was disestablishing the Irish church.

Jenkins pulls off two masterly feats in this funny, warm and utterly engaging story. The first is to track Gladstone’s conversion from hardest of hard-line Tories into the statesman who defined English liberalism – an conversion brought about by his exceptional combination of intelligence and conscience. It just became apparent to him that he couldn’t force his deeply-cherished beliefs on other people. You can almost hear the ship of state groaning as he goes about. Queen Victoria, by the way, was not amused.

Jenkins’ second achievement is to convey the sense of what parliamentary work is actually like: the whistle-stop tours, the long speeches, the kowtowing to interests with a constituency in their gift; and then after the election victory, the wrangling with the Queen over the Cabinet appointments, the setting of the government’s legislative program, the protracted process of drafting bills and ushering them through both houses, the back-room deals and horse-trading required.

The church figures hugely in Gladstone’s life, and not only because he was so devout. I hadn’t realized how small the government was in his day – the budgets (that he balanced superbly) are ridiculously small! Of course, there was virtually no income tax, no welfare safety net, no National Health Service, very little in the way of state-funded education – because all that was considered to be the province of the church; hence the immense importance of Anglican politics, and the main matter of Trollope’s Barsetshire novels. Gladstone’s career embodies England’s trajectory away from the ruthless equation of social conscience with Christian morality, and this to me is what liberalism is. Poverty isn’t a punishment for bad behaviour and welfare isn’t a reward for virtue; providing welfare is simply the right thing to do.

After Gladstone I powered through a couple of colic-momoirs, Inconsolable and Operating Instructions, just in case Julia spends her first six months in a state of violent outrage. Recent turbulence in the media- and blogo-spheres raising fresh hell over working versus stay-at-home mothers just depresses me. My early new year’s resolution is that I will not judge other women for their choices at all, any more; my hands are way too full trying to deal with the well-meaning ignorance of even kind, intelligent men to fracture my essential feminist support network by dissing my sisters.

This resolution informed my first re-reading of Gaudy Night in about ten years. This book had way too much influence over me, figuring largely in my dreams of doing a DPhil in English Lit at Oxford. Didn’t get in (it’s okay, Trinity College Dublin took me instead). Still, I had to handle Gaudy Night with tongs for a long time after that. Very odd returning to it now. Sayers remains a charming and persuasive writer. Harriet is likeably brittle and Lord Peter amusing, if not particularly credible, but the whole argument of the book is flawed, or at least goes nowhere near far enough. Sayers keeps banging on about equality and to do her justice, it is significant and praiseworthy that the final settlement has to account for Harriet’s intelligence and integrity, as well as the work she’s called upon to do. Even so, Peter appears all deus-ex-machina at the end, explains the plot to us and to Harriet – who is too emotionally involved to have solved the mystery on her own! Bah, I say.

I wonder if I’m importing too much extraneous information to my reading of it now? Sayers’ marriage was not particularly inspiring and she eventually moved away from amusing, brittle detective stories to a fairly conservative theology (and a highly readable but somewhat didactic translation of The Divine Comedy). She’s not likely to win unqualified approval around here while I’m in the mood for admiring Darwin and Gladstone and intelligent accommodations between public secularism and private faith.

As for that whole Oxbridge fiasco, I must tell you one of the funniest and sweetest things my mother ever said to me in my life. We were visiting Cambridge and walked through the gates into the beautiful Trinity College there, and my mother looked around at those hallowed walls that had housed Bacon, Marvell, Dryden, Newton, Byron, Thackeray, Tennyson, Maxwell, Thomson, Rutherford, Russell, Wittgenstein and Nabokov, and she sniffed and said “I like your Trinity better.”

Now that’s good parenting.

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