Ron Hansen. Exiles: A Novel. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008.
What is a novel? The genre is notoriously difficult to define. It encompasses everything from Tolstoy’s “loose baggy monsters” to Hemingway’s spare icebergs with “nine-tenths under the surface.” When I teach the development of the novel, I start with Terry Eagle-ton’s claim that novels are essentially cannibalistic—they consume and are nourished by other genres. They’ve successfully devoured tragedies, epics, poems, letters and, perhaps most prominently, historical accounts and biography. Novels borrow from, adapt, and transform other genres and, in some cases, drive them to virtual extinction. Who wrote or read epic poems after the eighteenth century? In the array of genres to borrow from, though, history must be the most popular. Few things are as tempting to a novelist as a historical character. Setting one’s brush to paint a well-known person’s life can result in portraits with surprising and illuminating perspectives. When a character has a literary dimension, moreover, there’s the added challenge and possibility of the play of language—the intersection of contemporary writing with the language of the past.
Ron Hansen’s new novel, Exiles, is an object lesson in the possibilities, limits, and pitfalls of historical fiction. It’s based on the life of the Jesuit priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins and the shipwreck that inspired one of his best poems. In December 1875, five German nuns, fleeing the religious persecution of Bismarck’s Kulturkampf, drowned when their ship foundered in the icy waters of the North Sea. Hansen makes this tragedy and Hopkins’s response to it both the central events and the motivating idea of his novel.
Hopkins’s life is full of the subtle tensions and drama that make for wonderful fiction—it is not difficult to see why Hansen was attracted to him as a subject. A product of his time and place—an England in a crisis of faith and an Oxford marked by decadent aestheticism—Hopkins was sensitive, eccentric, and both sexually and spiritually anxious. In response to his own inner turmoil and the currents of the age, he went against his Anglican family’s wishes and joined not just the Roman Catholic church, but one of the most controversial religious orders of the time: the Society of Jesus. Literary scholars love to comb Hopkins’s poetry for oblique suggestions of repressed homoerotic desire; biographers have puzzled over a man who named his desires in his adolescent confessional journal but never acted them out. Unhealthy repression or sublimated passion? Hopkins’s psyche is a mystery.
Hopkins as a literary figure is no less intriguing. As a young man, he already had started experimenting with the distinctive poetic style that would secure his position as one of the most important poets of the nineteenth century. He developed a unique metrical technique (sprung rhythm) and a theology and ontology to explain his overall poetic approach (coining terms such as “inscape” and “instress”). In his early years in the priesthood, however, he relinquished poetry, feeling that it was an unhealthy attachment. He started writing again with occasional poems on religious subjects during an idyllic sojourn in rural Wales. His poem, “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” responding to the death of the German nuns, launched him decisively back into the creative stream. Hopkins’s response to this shipwreck is likewise the impetus for Hansen’s novel.
Conceptually, this makes sense. The composition of “The Wreck of the Deutschland” began a period of striking creativity for Hopkins in which he wrote his most celebrated and frequently anthologized poems. Representative poems from this period such as “God’s Grandeur” and “Pied Beauty” celebrate the beauty of Jesus incarnate in the world and demonstrate Hopkins’s idiosyncratic and brilliant style. Hopkins’s complete life and poetic career, however, were more tragic than triumphant. This is what makes him such a fascinating subject. The Jesuits soon transferred him from Wales to a number of other appointments concluding with a teaching position in damp and pestilent Dublin, where he was overwhelmed with grading and physically miserable from various ailments. His poems from this period, later labeled the “Terrible Sonnets,” reflect a lonely and desperate man, calling out to a God he’s not sure will answer. He likewise despaired of anything ever coming of his poetry. When he died at age forty-five, of typhoid fever, only a few of his minor and less characteristic poems had been published.
Hansen’s novel begins with Hopkins learning of the Deutschland calamity and starting his composition. It then gives the backgrounds of each of the five nuns and narrates the shipwreck. The shipwreck narration is interspersed with an account of Hopkins’s life including the backstory behind his decision to become a Jesuit priest. The interspersed narrative extends to Hopkins’s death. All in a little over two hundred pages.
It’s not difficult to see Hansen’s aim: to tell parallel tragedies, both illuminated by religious hope and faith. If you are looking for biographical details about Hopkins’s life and a good shipwreck story, this book will suit you. As a single, compelling novel, however, it is unsuccessful.
Here I come back to my original question: what is a novel? What separates a novel from an embellished historical account, I would argue, is compelling narrative perspective. Whether it’s Jane Austen’s ironic social commentary, Ann Rice’s latest attempt to think God’s thoughts, or the shifting perspectives of postmodern novels, the crucial element is voice. They can be intimate and confiding or distant and knowing, helpful guides or unreliable rogues, but successful novels have interesting narrators.
As I mentioned, Exiles narrates most of Hopkins’s life as well as the early lives of each of five nuns, and tells the tale of a shipwreck. To contain all this in a slim volume, Hansen resorts to a voice that sounds much like that of a biographer—distant, informative, and full of the facts available to the contemporary researcher—but seldom realized in vivid narration. When Hopkins first reads of the Deutschland tragedy, the narrator informs the reader that the front page of The London Times “was filled with three-and four-line advertisements for Newcastle, Silkstone, or Wall’s-End coal, Bailey’s elastic stockings, ladies’ abdominal belts, Pulvermacher’s Patent Galvanic Chain Bands, Antakos corn plasters, Iceland Liniment for chilblains, and ‘Want Places’ appeals from wet nurses, scullery maids, and cooks, each willing to supply testimonials about their skills and finer qualities.” This sort of detail, offered at many turns, is moderately interesting. It has little to do, however, with the action or themes of the work and serves only to make one feel as if one is reading a history of Victorian popular culture rather than a novel. What do “Pulvermacher’s Patent Galvanic Chain Bands” have to do with Gerard Manley Hopkins?
Hansen also quotes extensively from Hopkins’s journal and letters. This too lends the novel the feeling of biography rather than of fiction. Instead of using the liberty granted by his chosen genre to imagine Hopkins’s thoughts and feelings or to elaborate on events, connecting them more deeply to the novel’s themes, the narrator gives us Hopkins’s actual words. These are often interesting, but don’t necessarily knit the novel together in a compelling way.
It is not only when giving local color that the novel’s narrator adopts the voice of a biographer or historian; he even takes this stance toward characters and their contributions to the plot. In an early scene, Hopkins has a brief conversation with a fellow novice. The narrator proceeds to tell us that “Thirty-three years later, Frederick would become the Bishop of Honduras, and he would drown in 1923, at age eighty-nine, when the overloaded paddleboat he was on sank in eighteen feet of water.” What knowing about the death of this man, decades later (in eighteen feet of water, no less), is supposed to contribute to the novel never becomes clear.
Details about future events are not only superfluous—they occasionally give away crucial plot information that could have heightened dramatic interest. When the nuns first board the ship, they meet, “Babette Binder, who would die along with her child; and… Mrs. Anna Gmolch, who would survive the shipwreck, and her little daughter Paulina, who died in her mother’s arms on board the rescue boat Liverpool.” More than once, before narrating the actual shipwreck, the narrator informs the reader of who will and will not survive.
It’s not that this narrator is incapable of vivid, novel-worthy prose. The shipwreck scenes and the deaths of the nuns are dramatic and moving:
[Sister Henrica]’s black veil smothered her face, her black cloak furled around her like the strips of burial cloths binding Lazarus in his tomb, and she could not help it, she gasped, and seawater filled her. She coughed and convulsed and took in more. Weakening and in pain, she slashed out with her hands and kicked her feet in the finality of a wild rage. But she was burdened and yoked by her habit, and demanded by the sea. She remembered as she sank: Jesus wept.
Passages like this remind us that Hansen is a gifted writer, fully capable of beautiful and effecting prose.
He seems flummoxed, however, by the life of Gerard Manley Hopkins. The chapters narrating the shipwreck are the strongest of the novel; those passages about Hopkins, the weakest. The poet’s meeting with John Henry Newman, when Hopkins is making his decision to join the Catholic church, is given a scant two pages of workmanlike prose. Hopkins’s own death, admittedly a quieter and less dramatic event than the drowning of the nuns, is narrated in a sparse style that does little to convey the tragedy of the man’s life. The details might have been poignant if the rest of the novel had given the reader an inside view of Hopkins’s psyche: “The house minister carried in sliced lemons and a porcelain tea service to help [Hopkins’s parents] in their watch.” At the end of this novel, however, these are merely random details, a dry account of events.
Is this a novel worth reading? For those who know little about Gerard Manley Hopkins and want a glimpse into his life, it should be of interest. Parts of the shipwreck narration, moreover, are masterful. Those familiar with Hopkins, however, are apt to be disappointed. They will have to wait for a truly compelling novel about this elusive figure. Hansen’s novel gives us a taste of what nonfiction prose can tell us about Hopkins’s life. Those who want more may appreciate Paul Mariani’s new biography, due out this fall.
Susan Bruxvoort Lipscomb is Assistant Professor of English at Houghton College in western New York.