I got books this last week, and immediately devoured Exiles by Ron Hansen. It is a fictionalized account of Gerard Manley Hopkins' life paralleled with the lives of the five nuns who died in the shipwreck of the Deutschland, about which Hopkins wrote one of his most compelling poems.
The book's title reflects the fact that both Hopkins and the five nuns were in some sense exiles. The nuns were sailing from Germany to England and then to the U.S. at least in part because their religion and work was being suppressed by the Falk Laws against Roman Catholicism in Germany. Hopkins made himself an exile in one sense by converting to Roman Catholicism in an England which still despised and to some degree discriminated against Catholics (university degrees were not available to Catholics, for example, except from Catholic institutions); his conversion also cost him at least some fellowship with his family, although they did not disown him. His constant moving about by command of the Jesuit order which he entered was another form of exile, especially when his final move took him away from his beloved England to Ireland, where he died. In addition, Hansen suggests that he was in some sense exiled from his natural gift for poetry because of his vocational choice.
Hopkins was tremendously moved by the accounts he read of the wreck of the Deutschland, and especially by the deaths of the five nuns, one of whom was said to have cried out "O Christ, come quickly!" as passenger after passenger succumbed in various ways to the cold weather and the icy water. His poem, The Wreck of the Deutschland, imagines both the terror of the wreck, with many details gleaned from his reading, and the faith and hope of the nuns lost in it, as well as containing the story of his own faith. It is a magnificent poem, and it is especially important because it is the first complete effort in his experimental sprung rhythm -- which is quite likely the reason it was refused publication.
The book works very well at some levels. Hansen uses many of Hopkins' own words, from his poetry, his journals, and his letters; he does this explicitly but often simply merges them into the text, creating a stab of unexpected delight when the reader recognizes some loved phrase. He tells the two stories alternately within each chapter. The first couple of times he switched I found startling, but grew used to it quickly. The part of Hopkins' story that he tells, he tells well. There is a good deal of information about Hopkins available, and he stays true to this, making the scenes he creates ring true to what we know of the man already.
Next to nothing is actually known about the five nuns besides their names, so Hansen has pretty much free play here, and he creates five intriguing characters with very different lifestories, personalities, and motivations. He doesn't sugarcoat them -- they have their flaws -- but at the same time he shows a realistic commitment to their vocation.
However, when I finished the book I was left with a sense of incompleteness. It is true that Hopkins was a melancholic man who suffered from severe depression much of his adult life. The "terrible sonnets" reveal this to us as well as his journal, his letters, and second-party sources. Yet this was not the whole of the man, and Hansen only alludes to the hope and joy that his work also shows us. Yes, he gives some scenes and descriptions of Hopkins the genial colleague and friend, and Hopkins' dying words -- "I am so happy!" But the emphasis in the second half of the book is so much on the darkness that one could easily believe that Hopkins was simply a miserable person who had missed his true calling -- a suggestion at least hinted at in a long paragraph interlude speculating on how his life might have been so much better (and longer) had he not become a priest.
I do not believe that the body of Hopkins' work supports this idea, nor do I think it is our place to suggest that he should have led an easier life and given us more poetry. Perhaps, in fact, he could not have given us the remarkable work that he did had he lived an easier life. In any case, it seems to have been Hopkins' own very clear sense that he was living as he had been called to live, that God -- though at times He seemed far away and even uncaring -- was at all times his Friend and Father and Lord, and that disappointments and adversities were simply part of the refining process required of all of us. I wish that Hansen had shown this; I wish that he had emphasized the Hopkins that we see in the "sonnets of consolation" which Hansen barely mentions as having been written after the "terrible sonnets."
This same sense of darkness seems to permeate the story of the five nuns. Although he presents them as women of faith, true to their vocation, with prayer and meditation as an integral part of their lives, still they come across somehow as not particularly hopeful, meeting death stoically perhaps, but not especially with Christ in mind or a joy to meet Him. I don't know if Hansen was afraid to create plaster saints -- always a danger in writing about faith -- but in avoiding that danger it seems to me he has struck the opposite, offering us a stoicism that could be seen in many who do not have the hope of Christ at all.
Still and all, I will seriously consider assigning this book the next time I teach a course in Hopkins. It's reasonably well-written, and offers a perspective to be considered alongside Hopkins' own work and factual biographies of him. It might also be an interesting book to use in a creative writing course, given the two different sets of information and how Hansen uses and transforms each of them into fictional biography.