Any book that begins with “Take my camel, dear,” said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass deserves to be read by every Anglican without exception. Until last week I had not done so, but certainly should have much sooner.
If the Dowager Countess had written a book, it would have been Rose Macaulay’s Towers of Trebizond (Collins, 1956). Or, at least, it would have if the Dowager Countess was not only wickedly arch and hilarious, but also an inveterate world traveler, a deeply pious but somewhat prejudiced high-church Anglican — not quite sure about Christian doctrine on the whole but very sure that the Anglo-Catholic version of it must be the best one — and somewhat world-weary and mournful, with a heart set on a heavenly country that she fears is too far off ever to reach.
I am conflating the book’s characters here, on the assumption that they all reflect some part of Rose Macaulay, who must have been one of the most interesting dinner party guests of the 20th century. Her Anglicanism, so it would seem, was not that of her more orthodox contemporaries C.S. Lewis and Dorothy Sayers. For her, the logic and language of the Heavenly City bore a hard core and pattern: forever foreign and strange to her, enchantingly beautiful, and impossible to give up — a country she could only visit as a tourist, not live in as a home.
In The Towers of Trebizond, the enchanting beauty and mysterious, intricate patterns of Anglo-Catholic liturgy provide the lineaments of imagination, along with the epics and poems of the ancient Western world that English schoolchildren like Rose Macaulay used to know in their bones. The mournful notes of Tenebrae have become characters in a story, members of a Greek chorus of woe that haunt the darker alleys of memory. Her characters sail along the Black Sea coast with Jason and the Argonauts, and see Troy with the eyes of Homer’s verse.
Trebizond, once the seat of the last holdout of the Roman Empire, becomes in Macaulay’s hands a symbol for the Heavenly City of human desire. After Constantinople fell to the Ottomans in 1453, the sister empire of Trebizond held out until 1461: a tiny, Black Sea principality crammed with the moldered imperial glory of lost ages.
When Macaulay’s wonderfully eccentric English travelers visit it, as ineffectual yet stubborn Anglo-Catholic missionaries, it is only plain drab Trabzon, peopled by Muslim Turks who care nothing for the glories of imperial Rome and the Catholic faith (let alone the Anglo-Catholic faith). Trabzon is not what it once was, nor was it ever what the novel’s characters imagined it to be. It was as corrupt and low-minded and violent as any empire, not really the glorious eternal Rome of the imagination. But the narrator’s Anglican and classical imagination let her see the far-away outlines of that City for which Trebizond stood, which at its best moments it yearned to be. Perhaps, she had me wondering, precisely by trying to bring the Heavenly City down to earth, Trebizond had become all the more low-minded and violent and corrupt. (In this, I could not help but think of the old minor classic Christianity and Classical Culture [Oxford, 1940] by Charles Norris Cochrane — in Macaulay’s day a recent book, praised by W.H. Auden, that she may well have read.)
There are so many passages of real wisdom, set amid some of the funniest writing I’ve read in a long time. There is this:
I have often thought that it is a most strange thing that this important part of human life, the struggle that almost everyone has about good and evil, cannot now be talked about without embarrassment, unless of course one is in church. … Once people used to talk about being good and being bad, they wrote about it in letters to their friends, and conversed about it freely; the Greeks did this, and the Romans, and then, after life took a Christian turn, people did it more than ever, and all through the Middle Ages they did it, and through the Renaissance, and drama was full of it, and heaven and hell seemed forever round the corner, with people struggling on the borderlines and never knowing which way it was going to turn out, and in which of these two states they would be spending their immortality, and this led to a lot of conversation about it all, and it was extremely interesting and exciting. …
They went on like this through most of the nineteenth century, even when they were not evangelicals or tractarians or anything like that, and nineteenth century novels are full of such interesting conversations, and the Victorian agnostics wrote to one another about it continually, it was one of their favorite topics, for the weaker they got on religion the stronger they got on morals, which used to be the case more then than now. I am not sure when all this died out, but it has now become very dead.
Turks, like Russians and Israelites, seem to want you to see the things that show how they have got on since Ataturk, or since the Bolshevik revolution, or since they took over Palestine. But how people have got on is actually only interesting to the country which has got on. What foreign visitors care about are the things that were there before they began to get on. I dare say foreigners in England really only want to see Stonehenge, and Roman walls and villas, and the field under which Silchester lies buried, and Norman castles and churches, and the ruins of medieval abbeys, and don’t care a bit about Sheffield and Birmingham, or our model farms and new towns and universities and schools and dams and aerodromes and things. For that matter, we don’t care a bit about them ourselves. But foreigners in their own countries … like to show off these dreadful objects, and it is hard not to let them see how very vile and common we think them, compared with what was in the country before they got there.
And then there is this, from whence the mournfulness in the book comes:
I thought how odd it was, all that love and joy and peace that flooded over me when I thought about Vere, and how it all came from what was a deep meanness in our lives, for that is what adultery is, a meanness and a stealing, a taking away from someone what should be theirs, a great selfishness, and surrounded and guarded by lies lest it should be found out. And out of this meanness and this selfishness and this lying flow love and joy and peace, beyond anything that can be imagined. And this makes a discord in the mind, the happiness and the guilt and the remorse pulling in opposite ways so that the mind and the soul are torn in two, and if it goes on for years and years the discord becomes permanent, so that it will never stop, and even if one goes on living after death, as some people think, there will still be this deep discord that nothing can heal, because of the great meanness and selfishness that caused such a deep joy. And there is no way out of this dilemma that I know.
The novel is all in all a beautiful, civilized, intelligent, riotously funny, sad book that is really about the restless human heart’s desire for God. And of how many books can one say all of that?
They that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country. And truly, if they had been mindful of that country from whence they came out, they might have had opportunity to have returned. But now they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city. (Heb. 11:14-16)
I said a little prayer when I finished the book, that Rose Macaulay by God’s mercies might have found her place in that heavenly country after all.
Fr. Jordan Hylden is a doctoral candidate in theology and ethics at Duke Divinity School and a priest in the Diocese of Upper South Carolina. He will soon take up a post as canon theologian in the Diocese of Dallas and an associate editor at The Living Church. His other posts are here.