|Portrait of Charles Kingsley by Lowes Cato Dickinson, 1862|
[Image source: http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw03650/Charles-Kingsley
Reading this old Victorian book confronts us with a thoroughly modern problem, which in one word we may term: blasphemy. I'm thinking of the cartoons in Charlie Hebdo
Kingsley was a devout Christian, but strongly anti-Catholic. His Saint's Tragedy
is a verse drama (intended purely for reading, I doubt it was ever staged) that tells the story of the medieval saint Elizabeth of Hungary (1207-1231), still venerated in central Europe and especially within the Franciscan tradition. Doubtless I am not being theologically exact in suggesting that to write irreverently of a saint amounts to blasphemy; that word, no doubt, can strictly only be applied when the topic is God himself; but still, Kingsley's play would be, we imagine, pretty deeply affronting to pious Catholics. In our secular and relativist era most of us feel that it's wrong to cause gratuitous offence to those who hold different beliefs from ourselves (this sense of consideration has been reductively termed self-censorship). Kingsley, on the other hand, was more than willing to offend Catholics. Those were less globalized days than ours, but he would have known that some Catholics in England would look over his play. His principal audience, however, was English Protestantism.
Not that he portrays Elizabeth without sympathy or admiration; she is the heroine of his play. (Furthermore, he wants to claim her as a proto-Protestant.) But no Catholic could ever see a saint's life as a tragedy; for them Kingsley's title could only be a contradiction in terms.
Kingsley's play shows us Elizabeth being "constructed" as a saint by Conrad of Marburg, the papal inquisitor that she ill-advisedly appoints as her confessor. This idea of construction comes from Devon Fisher's excellent book Roman Catholic Saints and Early Victorian Literature (
2012), but it doesn't account for all the play's subtleties: Elizabeth and Conrad undoubtedly pursue a lived sainthood, not merely its form.
Elizabeth's belief (it derives only partly from Conrad) that married sexuality is fundamentally opposed to the sainthood she strives for is presented as a grievous error, one she finally repents. Kingsley portrays her "discipline", her fasting, and her wild charities - all those outcomes of her extreme idealism - as essentially mistaken.
My expectations of Victorian verse-drama aren't high, and I might be losing my sense of perspective if I call this a brilliant exception to the rule, but it's what I feel like saying. Others apparently don't agree: Devon Fisher approvingly quotes John Maynard: like Kingsley's other works, The Saint's Tragedy
has "an importance beyond the talent [it displays]". But, a few clunky Shakespeare-isms aside ("Guta
: Still on your children?"), I can't say I'm really seeing this lack of talent.
One reason The Saint's Tragedy
is such a readable play is that Elizabeth's passionate saintliness is set against such a rich variety of contrasts: Conrad and the ultra-authoritarian church, Elizabeth's own sympathetic but less rigorous servants, the laxities of worldly prelates, the bluff and un-dogmatic (but sometimes self-interested) nobles, and the sometimes warm-hearted but often ungrateful and bitter populace. Refreshingly for a Victorian play, no-one is portrayed as completely admirable. (Browning's Strafford
can be compared in this respect; too often, though, Browning's dramas are concerned with issues that seem essentially undramatic.)
Kingsley's dramatic qualities are all the more impressive because his spacious play covers long tracts of time and he's determined to stick to Dietrich's story. This means that the action of the drama doesn't always fit his message particularly well. For instance, rather than showing the marriage of Lewis and Elizabeth caving in under the pressure of her beliefs, he records their parting at the height of their love, when Lewis sets off for the crusades and an unheroic death at Otranto. Kingsley makes fresh capital out of this by portraying Elizabeth's deeply conflicted response to her husband's vow. A little later, one ill-natured commentator remarks: "I'd never elbow him off to crusades with my pruderies." This remark, we see, is uninformed and wrong. But perhaps it isn't entirely wrong? Refusing to shape the history so it dictates its own interpretations, Kingsley allows multiple viewpoints to sit alongside each other, not fully resolved.
In the notes, he laments his own minor alteration of chronology so that Elizabeth's canonization precedes Conrad's death. In principle, he believed, "[T]he most strict historic truth would have coincided, as usual, with the highest artistic effect". Only failure of imagination made him have recourse to this arrangement (allowing Conrad to play a major role in sealing the canonization and to reflect on his finished work).
Online text of The Saint's Tragedy
The play takes place in various locations in the well-forested federal state of Thuringia in central Germany. The Landgraviate, into which Elizabeth married, lasted from 1131-1247.
The following gives an outline of the action, with some quotations from the scenes that interested me most.
In two contrasted parts, the first being a setup for the second. Epimetheus prays that our dismal modern age can be inspired to emulate the noble deeds of the German Middle Ages. Prometheus uses the images of natural decay and new growth to propose a healthier relationship to the past than mere emulation: we must not repeat it, we must use it to answer the more complex questions of our own age.
What though fogs may stream from draining waters?
We will till the clays to mellow loam;
Wake the graveyard of our fathers’ spirits;
Clothe its crumbling mounds with blade and bloom.
ACT I SCENE 1
Elizabeth, a royal child but an orphan, has been brought up in the foreign court of Thuringia. She has grown up alongside the young Landgrave Lewis, as brother and sister. She isn't popular or respected at the court. She's religiously inclined but, to her nurse Isentrudis and the friendly old Count Walter, her distress is a silent longing for Lewis, which they intend to do something about.
Lewis and Count Walter riding around Thuringia. They discuss being a ruler. They meet the monk Conrad (evidently Kingsley wants to introduce him early); he tries to inspire Lewis with religious fervour. Lewis is responsive to some extent. Lewis dreams of a saint-wife and names Elizabeth (Conrad exits at this point). Walter seizes the occasion to tell him that Elizabeth loves him and is only waiting to be wooed. Lewis accuses himself of cowardice, avows his love and asks Walter to tell Elizabeth.
Elizabeth with the dowager Sophia, an unattractive figure who dislikes her and her saintliness. Walter comes to bring the news, and Elizabeth is transformed into happiness.
The bridal feast. Elizabeth trembling with joy but terrified of her duties.
ACT II SCENE 1
The bedroom. Lewis asleep; Elizabeth awake on the bare boards, after forcing her maids to scourge her, conflicted between the joy of love and religious self-denial. Lewis wakes and is horrified to see her wounds.
But doleful nights, and self-inflicted tortures --
Are these the love of God? Is He well pleased
With this stern holocaust of health and joy?
It pleases me to bear what you call pain,
Therefore to me 'tis pleasure; joy and grief
Are the will's creatures; martyrs kiss the stake --
The moorland colt enjoys the thorny furze....
.....'Tis such medicine
Which breeds that paltry strength, that weak devotion,
For which you say you love me. -- Ay, which brings
Even when most sharp, a stern and awful joy
As its attendant angel -- I'll say no more --
Not even to thee -- command, and I'll obey thee.
Horror melts to pity,
And pity kindles to adoring shower
Of radiant tears! Thou tender cruelty!
Gay smiling martyrdom! Shall I forbid thee?
Limit thy depth by mine own shallowness? ....
The lovers are reconciled and go back to bed.
A Fool makes cynical remarks on saintliness; Elizabeth moralizes on this, and knows she needs to go deeper. Lewis arrives, describing Conrad's preaching. Elizabeth explains why she feels she needs the implacable Conrad as her confessor. Lewis is persuaded, Conrad appears and speaks with an un-subservient but potent mixture of humility and sternness. Count Walter comments:
So, so, the birds are limed :-- Heaven grant that we do not soon see them stowed in separate cages...
Conrad, drunk with his sudden elevation, soliloquizes...
... she is most fair!
Pooh! I know nought of fairness -- this I know,
She calls herself my slave, with such an air
As speaks her queen, not slave; that shall be looked to --
She must be pinioned or she will range abroad
Upon too bold a wing; 't will cost her pain --
But what of that? there are worse things than pain --
Elizabeth swears total obedience to Conrad.
Elizabeth gives herself to works of charity for the starving poor, but is rebuked by Conrad for failing to attend a service. He makes to abandon her.
Conrad and Elizabeth are reconciled, her works of charity continue. Count Walter provides captious but sympathetic commentary.
A peasant and woodcutter converse by a mountain chapel. Elizabeth appears with her newborn infant.
The famine. A merchant arrives with corn and is almost lynched. Elizabeth engaged in charitable works.
Disgruntled discussion by nobles and prelates about how wrong Elizabeth is to feed the poor. Count Walter reports (with some enjoyment) a bitter attack by Conrad on these worldly nobles and prelates. Lewis enters and they cautiously criticize his wife's charities. He summons her to hear them, and she talks them round (in Lewis' eyes, anyway.).
A love-duet between Elizabeth and Lewis. Then he introduces the possibility of him going away on a crusade. Elizabeth is distressed, the more so when it turns out he has already made a vow to go. Elizabeth blames Conrad, who disclaims responsibility.
Parting of husband and wife, with songs by various classes of crusader.
ACT III SCENE 1
Elizabeth with her waiting-women, already seeing herself as a widow. The dowager appears and harshly announces Lewis' sudden death, of sickness. Elizabeth's wild despair. The new Landgrave banishes her, and her separation from her children is announced.
Elizabeth in the street, with her waiting-women, turned away by all. She meets her children. Recounts her harsh treatment by the poor, who recognize her pride.
The scene switches to Bamberg. Elizabeth says she doesn't deserve to enjoy her children (she comes over as rather self-obsessed here). The venial bishop of Bamberg notes how Conrad orders her around.
Funeral of Lewis at Bamberg Cathedral. Elizabeth gathers followers to stand up for her children's wrongs.
ACT IV SCENE 1
Conrad persuades Elizabeth to give up her children, but does not allow her to give up her wealth. Conrad's young follower Gerard protests at Conrad's unswerving harshness to Elizabeth.
Alas, poor lady!
Why alas, my son?
She longs to die a saint, and here's the way to it.
Yet why so harsh? Why with remorseless knife
Home to the stem prune back each bough and bud?
I thought the task of education was
To strengthen, not to crush; to train and feed
Each subject toward fulfilment of its nature,
According to the mind of God, revealed
In laws, congenital with every kind
And character of man.
A heathen dream!
Young souls but see the gay and warm outside,
And work but in the shallow upper soil.
Mine deeper, and the sour and barren rock
Will stop you soon enough. Who trains God's Saints,
He must transform, not pet.....
The conversation continues. Conrad's alpine glacier image of hell gaping all round our paths.
Count Walter and Count Pama visit Elizabeth's miserable hut and are shocked by her transformation. They mention her royal father seeking her return to Hungary and offering her half his wealth. Elizabeth explains:
.....that child and father
Are names, whose earthly sense I have forsworn,
And know no more: I have a heavenly spouse,
Whose service doth all other claims annul.
Elizabeth's hut, with a leprous boy. The two horrible old women who scourge her, insult her, and act as Conrad's informers. Conrad, as in II.3, hints at elements of lust both in his unshakeable cruelty to Elizabeth and in the feelings of pity that he stifles. He orders her to attend the burning of two heretics, but doesn't insist on this final degradation. He forbids her to give alms or care for the poor.
Oh, let me give!
That only pleasure have I left on earth!
And for that very cause thou must forego it,
And so be perfect. She who lives in pleasure
Is dead, while yet she lives; grace brings no merit
When 'tis the express of our own self-will.
To shrink from what we practise; do God's work
In spite of loathings; that's the path of saints.
Elizabeth's death-bed. Conrad stage-manages the death of a saint. Elizabeth in her final words asserts that her true love was always her young husband.
ACT V SCENE 1
Several years later. Convent at Marpurg. Two aged monks and Gerard discuss Elizabeth's canonization. Gerard reports Conrad's speeches before the council and his accounts of miracles.
At Mayence. Conrad reviews what he did to Elizabeth, full of doubt about whether his behaviour was justified. Beset by terrors. Sees all as vanity. Values dogma little (see also IV.1). [At such moments I think Kingsley means us to agree with him, though not approve the path by which he arrives at this insight.] Conrad and Gerard set off to Marpurg, though forewarned of the danger.
They are assailed by a vengeful band whose loved ones Conrad has burnt for heresy without trial. Gerard and Conrad die.
Kingsley's interest in St Elizabeth apparently started with conversations aimed at persuading his wife of the sanctity of the marriage-bed.
That biographical background, of course, adds a piquant interest to the play.
So does the fact that Kingsley in his early youth had felt a very strong emotional pull towards Catholicism.
So do the personal erotic drawings that show that Kingsley found self-flagellation and bondage sexually exciting.
But all of these things might anyway be suspected from a close reading of The Saint's Tragedy
. Conrad at times becomes almost the hero. It's obvious with how much inwardness Kingsley could write of him.
Kingsley's portrayal of the Middle Ages is intentionally negative, and must be seen as taking on the established Romantic tradition of idealizing the period; Scott's Ivanhoe
and The Talisman
are signal instances. Chivalry and courtesy play no part in Kingsley's vision.
Kingsley based his account on the life of Elizabeth by her contemporary, Dietrich of Appold. In one respect its accuracy has subsequently been questioned: later commentators have doubted that Elizabeth was indeed forcibly exiled when her brother-in-law became Landgrave, and have supposed instead that she voluntarily exiled herself.
[Image source: http://www.thestarlitecafe.com/poems/89/poem_685492.html
. Like most modern pious images of St Elizabeth, this stained-glass window shows the loaves of bread, which she is carrying to the poor in the lap of her apron, miraculously turned into roses. Kingsley's play disdains mention of this and other legends.]
Labels: Charles Kingsley