We arrived in Newark from London in late afternoon on Monday, temporarily wilted from the rigors of the cattle car aspect of the Friendly Skies, but more fundamentally refreshed and renewed by a visit to Britain that included about as much variety as was feasible for a visit of less than two weeks. For starters, our trip coincided with a certain amount of British political excitement. We arrived on the very day of the Scottish referendum, and awoke next day to the news of its result. Both the Labour and Conservative party conferences took place during our brief stay. We conducted some business and indulged in much pleasure, participated in an excellent scholarly gathering, and had good visits with family and old friends, spending quality time both in the country and in the city, where we had a day binging on museums and a night at the theater.
Joan and I met in Oxford in the late fifties, and we naturally have many fond memories of the place, to which we have returned as frequently as possible. In recent years we have been rather taken with the conference entitled “Meeting Minds” sponsored each September by the increasingly sophisticated (i. e., Americanized) Oxford University Alumni Office. “Meeting Minds,” which showcases many of the University’s most able scholars and lecturers, is a kind of Elderhostel on pep pills. This year we were actually able to rent a room reasonably in my old college, which like many others is realizing the financial potential of its hospitality. Our comfortable lodgings, while radically upgraded since my undergraduate days, still had the uniquely Oxonian whiff of antiquity about them. Each of the several lectures and panels we heard — beginning with a Dominican friar’s unusual explication of Dante’s Purgatorio — was of excellent quality, but as it is one duty of an essayist to propose credible unifying themes, I might suggest the indeterminacy of history. We are in the midst of the serial centenary observation of the events of the First World War, still often called in Britain the “Great War.” Not surprisingly, the Great War was a recurrent subject in the “Meeting Minds” program, and one memorable lecture was by Margaret MacMillan, a Canadian historian who is the Warden of St. Anthony’s College, and recently the author of The War That Ended Peace: the Road to 1914. Many of the best lecture titles are questions. Her question concerning the outbreak of war was the soul of wit: “Choice or Accident?”
She answered the question only as a throwaway at the end: probably an accident. If the Archduke Ferdinand’s driver had not made a wrong turn, there probably would have been no battle of the Somme. The Materialist View of history struggles with the Great Man View — with so much wiggle room in history’s interstices as to guarantee a succession of tenured slots in perpetuity.
Before leaving Oxford for Joan’s brother’s home in Wye in Kent, we had lunch with John and Frances Walsh, one of two surviving Oxford couples with whom we have enjoyed the continuing friendship of half a century. Regular readers already know that in rural Kent I had to declare electronic defeat, but there were compensations. I had a morning rambling about the chalky hillsides above Wye, and half a day on my own in nearby Canterbury — a treat that no Chaucerian is likely to squander in an Internet café.
A good friend’s fine apartment in Westminster, of which we enjoyed the use, is a short walk from the Houses of Parliament and practically no walk at all from the Tate (Britain), where the spectacular current show features the late paintings of Turner, overwhelming in their number and their chromatic daring. The painter largely turned away from oil and canvas in his later years to work, with increasing daring and experimentation, in water colors. Among the outstanding water colors in the show is the “Blue Rigi” — the Rigi being a mountain behind Lake Lucerne — which became famous as one of several British masterpieces “saved for the nation” from the philistine vicissitudes of the auction house by popular subscription through the Art Fund — a kind of Oxfam for British Art.
I thought that Turner, too, related to Professor MacMillan’s suggestions of historical indeterminacy — that what undoubtedly happened might not have happened, or could very well have happened differently, or does indeed “happen” in different ways once forcefully imagined. Turner saw things in a way doubtless unique to himself, though if one once vicariously views them through his eyes, the vision seems inexorable and definitive. I was surprised to realize that a large number of his paintings are at least in theory narrative — historical, mythological, or literary. The final three paintings — and a stunning trio they make — took as their subject matter the parting of Dido and Æneas from the fourth book of Virgil’s Æneid.
Getting to the Tate five minutes before it opened, thus guaranteeing that we would be part of the day’s initial and relatively sparse cohort of picture-peepers, was something of a coup — though not the literal coup de théatre that was to follow. My brilliant spouse, refuting naysayers on two sides of the Atlantic, had secured a pair of tickets to the Saturday night performance of the stage adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s novel Bring Up the Bodies at the Aldwych. This was a feat deemed impossible by the Common Wisdom.
As you probably know, Mantel has completed the first two of a projected trilogy of historical novels centered on the ambiguous career of Thomas Cromwell, the powerful lieutenant to King Henry VIII in the third and fourth decades of the sixteenth century. The first two — the first being Wolf Hall — made literary history by winning successive Man Booker (best novel) prizes in 2009 and 2012. They have been turned into stage plays by the Royal Shakespeare Society. An artist in search of historical ambiguity, controversy, or indeterminacy could hardly find a richer field than the interplay of hot pants and ecclesiastical politics of the Henrician period. I have made no deep study of that time, but years ago I did work my way through the four thick volumes of James Gairdner’s Lollardy and the Reformation in England (1908-1913) and still have them on my shelves. My rather blunt mental creation of Cromwell drawn from Gairdner’s copious documents is very different from that conjured up by Hilary Mantel and the Royal Shakespeare Company, and much less interesting. But of course on my own I would never see Turner’s colors in my reading of Virgil either. It is the peculiar gift of the artists — painters, writers, actors–to give serious meaning to such often vacuous phrases as in light of or from the point of view of. “The English Reformation: Choice or Accident?”
Little did I realize as we moved enthralled from the crowded theater to the yet more crowded streets of the Theater District, practically seething with exuberant, youthful life, that we were not yet quite through with the Tudors. The next morning, Sunday, we asked the doorman to direct us to the nearest church. He sent us in the direction of St. Margaret’s, check by jowl with Westminster Abbey. The Abbey itself has long since become a tourist phenomenon rather than a functioning house of worship. The truth is I had my silent reservations about Saint Margaret’s itself. I had passed by its beautiful exterior many times on the bus, but I knew nothing of it as a parish save that it was the frequent venue of posh weddings among the titled and the entitled. What we found was a beautifully conducted choral Eucharist, a sizeable and variegated congregation drawn from many lands, and a sixteenth-century architectural gem. Among its beautiful decorations one is prominent: the large, exquisite east window donated by King Henry and his wife Catherine of Aragon! It's a real shame that marriage didn't last.