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One of the research projects I’m working on at the moment is an investigation of the work of Edgar Innes Fripp.  He was a Unitarian clergyman, who in the late nineteenth century studied at Oxford and wrote a book about Genesis, and in the early twentieth century retired to Stratford and wrote several books about Shakespeare and local history.  Given my work on Shakespeare and the Bible, and their relationship to each other, I’ve become very interested in Fripp, both for what he wrote and for what he might represent as a moment in the parallel histories of Shakespeare and the Bible.

E.I. Fripp

Edgar Innes Fripp, in the early twentieth century

Last month I was speaking at the British Graduate Conference at the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford, and took the opportunity to spend some time in the archives of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, which has a number of Fripp’s papers.  Calling up files from an archive like the SBT is always a delight, but also something of a gamble.  It’s not usually clear whether the string of letters and numbers which designate a file (such as “RSC/ SM/ 2/ 1960/ 8”, for example, a personal favourite that one) will contain a few sheets of paper or a bulging sheaf of notebooks and letters.  In the case of Fripp, there are some fascinating materials which will keep me busy for a while.


At this early stage I’m aware that I’m probably projecting all sorts of things onto the figure of this turn of the century clergyman, but what I know of his life and writings intrigues me.  The image of the young man studying at Manchester College in Oxford, an institution committed to religious scholarship outside the orthodoxy of the Church of England, eagerly reading German Biblical Criticism and publishing articles in “Dr. Bernhard Stade’s Zeitschrift fur Alt-Testamentliche Wissenschaft”.  Of the older man retiring to Stratford and becoming an antiquarian of the area, writing about the burgesses and bailiffs of the place, and how they related to Shakespeare.

He seems a superb example of two tendencies in the thought of the era – the historical criticism of the Bible, and the minute historical examination of Shakespeare’s works.  The very fact that it seems natural for a clergyman to begin his career analysing the history of the text of Genesis, and end it by remarking on the drowning of a spinster named Katherine Hamlet, and its possible relevance to Ophelia, is in itself symbolic of the way the turn of the century was a turning point in the relationship between these two great “sacred texts” of the Victorian era.  As I say, I’m projecting a great deal onto a sketchy outline here, and no doubt when I know more details about Fripp’s life and work complications will emerge to spoil this plausible narrative.  I hope they will – my research so far has taught me that it is in the odd, the eccentric and the unexpected that the real work gets done.

Today I’ve been taking notes on his early book The Composition of Genesis, and was struck by a couple of passages.  They’re not particularly radical in their approach, but they’re really interesting examples of particular ways of thinking about the first books of the Hebrew Bible, and very characteristics of their period.  Here Fripp discusses the major figures of the patriarch narratives, taking the same kind of character-centred approach that was applied to Shakespeare in the Victorian period:

The writers of the Elohistic and Iahvistic histories are both keenly interested in men, in places, in homely customs, in Nature, and in religion just so far as it sanctifies and heightens the beauty of these things.  Character is drawn with a skill worthy of Homer.  The patriarchs are living men.  Abraham is a mighty figure in the distance, a man of action, brave adventurer, enthusiast in faith, severe and simple in life, great and mysterious like the desert he wanders over, – a fitting personality to loom in the background of Israelite history. 

But Isaac is different.  He is a contemplative, stay-at-home man, who loves to be with his flocks and herds, or alone with his own thoughts and grief at eventide (xxiv.62), – calm and equable.  Again, Jacob is different from either, – far from equable, an up-and-down sort of man, made of good and evil, leading a busy life among men, with temptation, sin, and regret, – a stubborn, worldly-wise heart brought under nobler influences and changed to humility and tenderness. 

Similarly with Joseph – the young dreamer and man of genius, the faithful slave and upright statesman, honourable alike in misfortune and success.  They, and the women also – the jealous Sarai, and Hagar who despises her childless mistress, Rebekah at the well, the beautiful Rachel, and the weak-eyed Leah, – and their work and their homes, and the scene they move over, are drawn from life.

He moves directly from this into a picture of, almost a rhapsody on, the world in which these characters are depicted.  It struck me because it sounded almost pastoral, part of that strain of literature about the countryside which runs through Spenser (and Shakespeare) up into the writers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries who idealised a rural world which they felt to be under threat, on to Housman and Tolkien.  His account of “Old Israel” rings with something of “Old England”:

The shepherd fording a stream, fighting for a well, rolling the stone from a well’s mouth, and showing off his strength before the maid he loves, watering the troughs, taking a ram from a thicket, playing tricks on his master, feasting and drinking with harp and pipe, keeping watch through heat and frost, companion of the sun and moon and the eleven stars; and the hunter with his bow and arrows, seeking lion or wolf, or returning home with venison on his back; and the farmer busy with his vines and fig-trees, cutting up wood for the fire, gathering sheaves in harvest, driving his wagon to the threshing floor, lading his ass with sacks of corn, or in drought returning sadly with his cattle from the empty pit through fields scorched by the East wind; the old father at home whose word is law, and whose blessing is a birthright; his son’s lentil-pottage, best clothes and long-sleeved cloak; his wife’s cakes and savoury dishes, and love-apples; his daughter’s pitcher, bracelets, nose-ring, and virgin’s veil; his favourite wife or son and consequent family jealousies and troubles; his impulsive grief – like his greetings and hospitalities; his divining-cup and his household gods, his dread of Sheol, and the family grave; the merchants bearing spicery and balm and myrrh on their camels; and criminals left hanging on the gallows, a prey to wild birds; – are a true and vivid reflection of the life and scenery of Old Israel.

It rather makes me want to read a novel or play set in that world – which of course may be rather Fripp’s intention, since a reader might then pick up Genesis to do exactly that!  It also suggests to me how the scholar of the German Higher Criticism became the antiquary of Stratford, if only because I know how his life’s story would go on.  In this vivid glimpse of what Fripp saw as the world of “Old Israel”, we get an intriguing glimpse of a particular mental world of the late nineteenth century, one which I’m looking forward to getting to know better.