How Fiction Fails

The figurative “exile” of religious believers—their status as unsettled pilgrims in a hostile world—was a literal condition for many Catholics in nineteenth-century Protestant Europe. In Germany, religious orders were disbanded under the Falk Laws, enacted to restrict the activities and influence of the church. Many sent their members to serve abroad. Thus five Franciscan nuns were aboard the Deutschland, en route to America, when the ship ran aground off England’s rocky coast in December 1875. They and fifty-nine other passengers lost their lives. Above the storm, newspapers reported, one sister was heard calling, “Christ, come quickly!”

Gerard Manley Hopkins, then a Jesuit novice, was well aware of the German Kulturkampf: the Society of Jesus had been expelled from the country outright, and many of his religious brothers had immigrated to the UK. He was also privately acquainted with ostracism, having scandalized his Anglican family first by converting and then by abandoning a promising academic career for the priesthood. When news of the shipwreck and its victims reached Hopkins in Wales, he responded by renewing his pursuit of poetry. In “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” an astonishing 280-line elegy, Hopkins hears the doomed nun’s desperate appeal to “her master and mine” and raises his own voice to the one he calls

                past all
Grasp God, throned behind
Death with a sovereignty that heeds but hides, bodes but abides.

Like the drowned nuns to whose “happy memory” his poem is dedicated, Hopkins lived in obscurity and died young; most of his work, including “Deutschland,” went unpublished until after his death. In Exiles, novelist Ron Hansen sets the poet and his subjects side by side, focusing on their common experience of wasted potential and early death—their status as exiles not from heaven, but from the families and societies they belonged to on earth.

The “tall nun” who called on Christ achieves mythical status in Hopkins’s poem: she is stalwart and courageous, wiser than the apostles whose faith wavered on the rough Sea of Galilee. Hansen brings the portrait back to earth. The sisters of Exiles are misfits who, having found a home in the convent, reluctantly reenter the world, and leave it not shouting bravely to the elements but huddled below decks. Their vocation stories are simple and moving, though as individuals they are crudely sketched—the childish Aurea is a pouting caricature. Where Hopkins imagined rapturous mysticism, Hansen’s nuns are limited to insights like “Christ was an exile, too. Wasn’t he?” Their martyrdom is pathetic, senseless, heartbreaking.

Hopkins, too, is a less inspiring hero than his poems suggest, but this is due to Hansen’s reluctance to invent where the record is silent. An anxious “author’s note” declares, “Care has been taken not to contradict biographical details or historical testimony.” The result is a novel with too much fact and not enough fiction, a story told by a narrator on less-than-familiar terms with his characters. We study Hopkins from a disorientingly uncertain and limited point of view, granted access to the poet-priest’s interior life only through excerpts from his actual correspondence. Rumors of homosexuality are repeated, then nervously brushed aside, as though Hansen (who holds a professorship named for Hopkins at Santa Clara University) felt obliged to be accurate but was too respectful to elaborate. There is no hint of the tortured introspection of Hopkins’s confessional poetry. Only rarely does Hansen, a Catholic deacon, suggest the depth and centrality of Hopkins’s faith, as when he describes the young priest’s first Mass: “He was so thrilled at the consecration that the Host shook in his hands.”

Robert Bridges, Hopkins’s ambivalent, posthumous editor, described his friend’s work as “injured by a natural eccentricity.” For the reader, surviving “The Wreck of the Deutschland” requires struggling with a strict but esoteric meter, obscure vocabulary, and ardent Catholic theology. Each line reflects the exacting standards the author set for himself—but there is no sign of that struggle in Exiles, where Hopkins easily turns out stanzas in finished form. Hansen finds no drama in the act of creation itself. The poet’s creative impulses are represented in reveries awkwardly embellished with tricks from Hopkins’s playbook: a burst of alliteration, a noun used as a verb, a purloined turn of phrase (“He kissed his hand to the stars”). A hungry Hopkins imagines “a muchness of food,” and the reader winces at the littleness of elegance. Hansen’s eccentricities are injurious precisely because they are so unnatural.

Defending “Deutschland,” Hopkins wrote to Bridges, “What refers to myself in the poem is all strictly true and did all occur; nothing is added for poetical padding.” Though Exiles has a muchness of poetical padding, its reliance on the recorded facts of Hopkins’s life prevents it from illuminating the relationship between creativity and spirituality or the condition of social and spiritual exile. The most compelling passages concerning Hopkins are expositional accounts of his conversion, his Jesuit formation, the consternation provoked by his poetry—and these would be more satisfying in a straightforward biography. Late in the novel, after Hopkins’s priestly service has been all but spent in a series of inglorious assignments, Hansen allows himself, and us, to “imagine it otherwise,” outlining the life a more orthodox theologian or single-minded author might have had. It is the one true taste of fiction in an otherwise unimaginative recital of history.

Only in recounting the disaster at sea does Hansen take control, free to invent where historical details are scant, no longer straining to echo Hopkins’s voice, and replacing the poem’s abstract philosophizing with prosaic, harrowing detail. We watch from the deck as lifeboats fail: “The nameless passenger’s skull was cracked and blood bootlaced his face as he tottered forward and huddled like a child in the prow of the sloshing boat.” Would that all the story’s minor characters were “nameless.” Even at its most vivid, Exiles is burdened with a stultifying excess of proper names: “Sister Barbara cooed as she rocked Anna Gmolch’s daughter Paulina, and Sister Aurea danced her doll for Babette Binder’s dazzled baby.” Historians and archivists may cherish the credited cameos. Less invested readers are likely to lose patience.

“The Wreck of the Deutschland” is included as an appendix to Exiles, as if to facilitate Bridges’s suggestion that the reader “attack [it] from the rear,” sampling Hopkins’s later, shorter verse before confronting the longer poem’s “distasteful” eccentricities. Those daunted by the challenge of “Deutschland” may find Exiles an inviting preface, as well as an occasionally gripping drama. But a richer encounter with the God who “heeds but hides” and the poet who struggled to know him awaits those who plunge directly into the storm of Hopkins’s words.


Related: Hopkins Agonistes, by Matthew Boudway
Anthony Domestico's review of Paul Mariani's Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Life
The Upstairs Room, by Mary Coady

Published in the 2008-10-10 issue: 

Mollie Wilson O’​Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads