In his 2001 collection, A Stay Against Confusion: Essays on Faith and Fiction, Ron Hansen lamented the misinterpretation of his first two novels, Desperadoes and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which he’d infused (perhaps too subtly) with biblical themes. Hansen, a devout Roman Catholic, wrote in the essay “Writing as Sacrament”: “It’s a bad form of sportsmanship for fiction writers to complain that too few reviewers pick up their subtexts, but in fact I was disappointed that the general reading of the book on Jesse James was pretty much as it was for Desperadoes. Hidden beneath the praise were the questions: Why is this guy writing Westerns? When oh when is he going to give his talent to a subject that matters?” He added, “I was frustrated that my fiction did not more fully communicate a belief in Jesus as Lord that was important, indeed central, to my life.”
Readers might have overlooked the “crime doesn’t pay” angle to Desperadoes or the parable of Cain and Abel running through the Jesse James historical opus, but there was no mistaking the Christian religiosity of Mariette in Ecstasy, Hansen’s third novel, which focused on a 17-year-old nun who develops the stigmatic wounds associated with the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Likewise, Hansen’s spiritual beliefs illuminate every page of his latest historical novel, Exiles, an exploration of the life, work, and premature death of poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, a 19th-century Jesuit priest whose experiments with unconventional meter anticipated the rise of free verse, but whose spiritual reservations about the creation of poetry made him feel exiled from his creative self.
The novel begins on December 8, 1875, in Wales, where a 31-year-old Hopkins (having abandoned his poetry) is studying at Saint Beuno’s School of Theology. In that day’s newspaper, he reads about the dramatic demise of the Deutschland, a German passenger ship bound for England and the United States, which ran aground near the mouth of the Thames, crumbling slowly over the course of two days while ravenous seas kept rescuers at bay. Among the 157 victims were five Franciscan nuns, “exiles” from Otto von Bismarck’s Second Reich, where Catholic religious orders were restricted. Survivors told the paper that one of the nuns, in the midst of the frigid, battering conditions, repeatedly implored “O Christ, come quickly!” as a plea to end their suffering.
“Hopkins was so greatly affected by the account that he was close to tears,” Hansen writes in Exiles. ” considered him and said, ‘Perhaps someone should write a poem on the subject.’” That evening, “in the rapture of inspiration,” Hopkins put down the first eight lines of what would become “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” a departure in style and form from contemporary poems of similar content.
“Among the Victorians there was a general fascination with tales of great tragedies at sea,” Hansen writes in the novel. A typical poem about sea disasters was Longfellow’s “The Wreck of the Hesperus,” which includes the lines:
She struck where the white and fleecy waves
Looked soft as carded wool,
But the cruel rocks, they gored her side
Like the horns of an angry bull.
Considering Longfellow’s example, Hansen writes, ” was the sort of cloying poetry that seagoing tragedies generally inspired in England and America: their sentiments trite, their rhymes forced, their syllabic counts as regular as the ticking of a hallway clock. Whereas had long had haunting his ear the echo of a new rhythm that would re-create the native and natural stresses of speech.”
His new poem, “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” comes together gradually, and Hopkins feels rejuvenated by the flex of his dormant poetic muscles. But when he submits the poem to a Jesuit periodical, The Month, “The subeditor’s opinion was that the thirty-five esoteric stanzas were hardly readable and had only managed to give him a headache. And the handwritten pages were eventually returned to Hopkins with regrets.”
Exiles shifts back and forth between the nuns on the ship and the creation of the poem, but Hansen has the good sense not to bog down the narrative with dry discussions of the poetic devices — meter, rhyme scheme, etc. — at play in “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” which wasn’t published until 1918, nearly three decades after Hopkins’s death from typhoid fever at the age of 44. Hansen, who holds the Gerard Manley Hopkins chair at Santa Clara University, explained in “Affliction and Grace,” one of his essays in the aforementioned collection, that “Concentrating solely on the poetry?is in some way to miss the point, for Gerard Manley Hopkins, the man, seems to me as inspiring as his work.”
A great deal is known about Hopkins and his conversion to Catholicism, which left him exiled from his family. Much less is known about the five nuns who perished on theDeutschland, and Hansen commendably creates fictional back stories for the women, drawing clear differences between their upbringings, temperaments, and paths to the convent. However, in one wince-inducing maneuver, he uses a cartoonish Russian passenger (who wears a sable hat and coat and drinks copious amounts of vodka) to provide a crib sheet of the nuns’ distinguishing characteristics, saying of Sister Barbara , 32, “You’re the tall one”; of Sister Aurea, 23, “You’re the short one”; of Sister Brigitta, 27, “You’re the pretty one”; of Sister Henrica, 28, “You’re the smart one”; and of Sister Norberta, 30, “You’re the angry ?” We don’t need those reminders, because this 240-page novel is not confusing or otherwise dull. And while everyone’s fates are known beforehand, Hansen pays beautiful homage to each respective exile — Hopkins and the five nuns.
Sister Henrica, in particular, is given new life in Hansen’s prose. Like Hopkins, she’s a poet, and many times we’re treated to her tight-focus observations. “Along the deck the snow was gliding over the tarred planks in white wisps that between trailing and flying shifted and wimpled like so many silvery worms.” A wimple is a nun’s covering, arranged so only the face is exposed. Here it’s used as a verb by Sister Henrica. Critic James Wood would call this free indirect style, when “we see things through the character’s eyes and language but also through the author’s eyes and language. We inhabit omniscience and partiality at once.”
In his fiction and faith, Ron Hansen admits to partiality. He’s unapologetic about the themes of his writing, because, as he sees it, religion and fiction seek a similar goal: the clarification of life. In the essay “Writing as Sacrament,” he wrote, “
Postscript: The text of “The Wreck of the Deutschland” is printed in its entirety at the end of Exiles. A copy of the poem is viewable here: http://www.bartleby.com/122/4.html.