Surpassing the Love of Riseholme: The Bible and Mapp and Lucia’s Memorial Sermon

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The memorial service held for Mapp and Lucia in their eponymous novel by E.F. Benson is a brilliant piece of social commentary.  Benson gently satirizes the pomposity and even the hypocrisy of his characters in the face of death, whilst showing how their slightly stuffy and conventional attempts to mourn the loss of their friends who died (they think) on a kitchen table out at sea are quite genuine.  One particular part of this sequence I’d like to examine is the Padre’s sermon on the occasion: I’ve been thinking particularly about the deliberate misapplication of Biblical texts in Benson (and in Trollope) recently, and I think there’s an example going on here…

The service was of the usual character, and the Padre gave a most touching address on the text “They were lovely and pleasant in their lives and in their death they were not divided.”  He reminded his hearers how the two whom they mourned were as sisters, taking the lead in social activities, and dispensing to all who knew them their bountiful hospitalities.  Their lives had been full of lovable energy.  They had been at the forefront in all artistic pursuits: indeed he might almost have taken the whole of the verse of which he had read them only the half as his text, and have added that they were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions.

The unsuitability of the text here is part of the general difficulty that Tilling has with officially mourning Mapp and Lucia, given the bizarre nature of their leaving.  There is a mild (or perhaps more than mild) hypocrisy in the Padre stating that “they were lovely and pleasant in their lives”, since they were anything but pleasant to each other, and “in death they were not divided” is technically true, though they had divided the whole of the town as long as they had both been in it.  In preaching a sermon on the lost Mapp and Lucia, the Padre has to fit them into some Biblical paradigm, or at least find a text which he could use as the basis for his address, and the mismatch between that text and the situation is part of the comedy Benson extracts from the scene.

The suggestion that they were imbued with the power of eagles and lions tips the whole sermon over into the vaguely foolish, though it does encourage the reader to mentally locate and consider the origin of the text he had chosen to preach upon.  I suspect a lot of readers would hardly need that encouragement, given how famous the passage is, how much more Biblically literate early twentieth-century audiences would have been on average, and the particular valence of that passage for E.F. Benson’s own readers.  It comes from the second book of Samuel, in the passage during which David laments for the death of Saul and Jonathan:

 17 And David lamented with this lamentation over Saul and over Jonathan his son:

18 (Also he bade them teach the children of Judah the use of the bow: behold, it is written in the book of Jasher.)

19 The beauty of Israel is slain upon thy high places: how are the mighty fallen!

20 Tell it not in Gath, publish it not in the streets of Askelon; lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice, lest the daughters of the uncircumcised triumph.

21 Ye mountains of Gilboa, let there be no dew, neither let there be rain, upon you, nor fields of offerings: for there the shield of the mighty is vilely cast away, the shield of Saul, as though he had not been anointed with oil.

22 From the blood of the slain, from the fat of the mighty, the bow of Jonathan turned not back, and the sword of Saul returned not empty.

23 Saul and Jonathan were lovely and pleasant in their lives, and in their death they were not divided: they were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions.

The passage is, at least, a lamentation for the dead, which makes it suitable in one sense for the memorial service of Mapp and Lucia, even if the extravagant mourning for the slain warriors sits rather awkwardly alongside the actual situation, as I mentioned above.  However, the lamentation goes on to an even more famous line:

24 Ye daughters of Israel, weep over Saul, who clothed you in scarlet, with other delights, who put on ornaments of gold upon your apparel.

25 How are the mighty fallen in the midst of the battle! O Jonathan, thou wast slain in thine high places.

26 I am distressed for thee, my brother Jonathan: very pleasant hast thou been unto me: thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.

27 How are the mighty fallen, and the weapons of war perished!

The love between David and Jonathan is a matter of controversy amongst Biblical scholars, though it is certain that traditions of Biblical interpretation from the medieval era, through the early modern period and on into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, use them as an image of same-sex love.  The phrase “passing the love of women” (and its variant “passing the love of men) has become a familiar reference to homoerotic relationships and romantic friendships.  Oscar Wilde cited the narrative of Second Samuel at his trial as an example of “the love that dare not speak its name”, defining it as “Such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michael Angelo and Shakespeare”.

In continuing on from the Padre’s chosen text, as the sermon itself encourages us to do, we come to the most famous line associated with gay love in the whole Bible.  The lament of David might have been out of focus in the earlier passage about pleasantness and lions, but here it becomes a much clearer lens.  There is at least one person in the congregation – Quaint Irene – whose inconsolable mourning for Lucia’s apparent death stems from exactly the kind of love many people associated with David’s lament for Jonathan.  There is another – Georgie – whose feelings for her were the kind of intense romantic (if non-sexual) friendship which has also been associated with the pair.

Submerged in the Biblical misapplication of conventional pieties about the virtues of the departed is another, more powerful strain which does connect with the feelings of those left in Tilling.  The Padre’s sermon almost accidentally releases the obscure currents of love and loss which cannot be openly discussed or categorised in this society, but which are strongly present in the fictional world and the world of the readers

This could be a coincidence, but I find it really hard to believe that E.F. Benson accidentally left David’s lament for Jonathan next to the story of the mourners for Mapp and Lucia.  His other work is suffused with a concern for gay and lesbian love and with intense romantic friendships between people of the same gender – Paying Guests, for example, and Secret Lives – and this is a theme which the “continuations” of the Mapp and Lucia novels by later writers have often made much more explicit.  Almost the whole narrative of David Blaize could be approached in terms of David and Jonathan with more cricket matches.

e.f. benson

If nothing else, this is surely evidence of Benson’s instinctive choice of one particular passage of lament when he wanted a text for the Padre to preach upon, and his greater familiarity with David’s lament for his lost love Jonathan than the rest of the many, many passages of lament in the Bible.  But I think it’s rather more than that: it reads to me as a brilliant example of Biblical misapplication which tries to account for the feelings of the Tilling inhabitants in conventional terms, and which is subverted into a far more real connection by the parts of the passage left unspoken.  As so often with Benson, let the reader understand.

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