Friday, September 14, 2018

Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Virginia Woolf

It's not often we think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Virginia Woolf in tandem, but the two share common ground. Both hail from the educated upper-middle class elite of the pre-World War II era. Both came from large families. Both had ambiguous sexualities. Both were writers. Both were pacifists. Both were fascinated with their families of origin and sought insights through writing about them. Both were close to Quakers without becoming Quakers themselves. Both abhorred Hitler and both fought fascism, not simply in its political manifestation, but  attacked it at its deeper roots of ethical sensibility. Both suffered from depression. Both died during World War II: Woolf through suicide, Bonhoeffer executed at a concentration camp for opposing Hitler's regime: for both, the war was arguably the blow that did them in. And to understand either of them, we need to put on the lenses of another time.

Bethge, Bonhoeffer's close friend, and Bonhoeffer: Bromance or romance? Bethge was a muse to Bonhoeffer, especially when Bonhoeffer was in Tegel Prison. 

Woolf and Sackville-West, close friends and lovers. Vita was a muse to Virginia.

Both Woolf and Bonhoeffer were born into well-heeled, educated, academic families, and both were well aware of their privilege. Woolf's father, Leslie Stephen, was the editor of the Dictionary of National Biography, while Bonhoeffer's father was head of psychiatry at Berlin University. Both Woolf and Bonhoeffer grew up in capital cities: London and Berlin, in spacious homes staffed by servants. For both, their cities became a part of who they were. Both, however, found their happiest memories in annual family holidays to their family's summer home, Woolf's by the ocean in Cornwall at the very tip of Britain, Bonheffer's the Harz Mountains, the highest elevation in Germany. Both developed a love of nature during these holidays.

Woolf was the seventh child in a blended family of eight. Both her parents were widowed. Her father came to the marriage with one child; her mother, Julia Duckworth, with three. Together, Leslie and Julia had four more children. Bonhoeffer was sixth of eight, or, more accurately "sixth-seventh" of eight, as he was one of a pair of twins. He would develop a lifelong close relationship with his twin sister, Sabine, just as Woolf would with her older sister, Cassandra. All in all, the siblings in both families would remain close, and both Woolf and Bonhoeffer would sometimes feel distant from their parents, lost in a large household. Both Woolf and Bonhoeffer developed a fear of ridicule in their families of origin.

Both figures had complicated sexualities. Although married, and finding much support from her husband, Leonard, Virginia probably did not have sexual relations with him. Virginia was strongly attracted to women. Bonhoeffer never married, and though he was engaged late in life, the relationship with his fiancee was fraught. The love of his life, whether bromance or romance, was with his male friend, Eberhard Bethge.

Both figures became famous as writers. Both were committed to pacifism in countries in which this stand was considered radical and bizarre. Bonhoeffer did get involved in the 1944 plot to kill Hitler, but did not believe it was a noble act. In his Ethics, he discusses the tyrannicide in the context of the need sometimes to dirty the purity of one's conscience and even perhaps jeopardize one's afterlife for a greater good. Woolf found war deeply abhorrent at a visceral level.

Given their pacifism, it's not surprising that Quakers played a role in both lives. Bonhoeffer was friends with Quaker Herbert Jehle, who helped Bonhoeffer's fiancee, Maria von Wedemeyer, emigrate to the U.S. after the war. Bonhoeffer visited the Quaker Woodbrooke retreat center in Birmingham during his time in England. Woolf's aunt, Caroline Stephen, was a prominent Quaker who left Woolf money that helped her establish independence. Woolf was also very close with Quaker-raised Roger Fry and Quaker Violet Dickinson.

Several sharp contrasts, however, exist between the two: Bonhoeffer had no sense of woman's rights, a cause that animated Woolf in a core way. Further, Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor and committed Christian, while Woolf identified as an atheist. However, Bonhoeffer was a sharp critic of the Church, believing a total reform would have to occur following World War II. His idea of "religionless Christianity" became popular in liberal circles in the 1960s. Woolf's prose, such as in To The Lighthouse, is often luminous with a sense of the numinous and the miraculous.

For next time: Bonhoeffer and Woolf's lives overlapped between 1906, when he was born, and her death in 1941. During the period, Bonhoeffer had two extended stays in London. The first was as pastor to two German churches in London from late 1933 to early 1935, and the second was a six-week period in spring, 1939, he spent with Sabine, who was in exile in England with her Jewish husband. Could they met? It seems unlikely that Woolf would have much to do with a younger German clergyman, but their upperclass world was small.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Agatha Christie and Virginia Woolf: Two boats passing in the night?

Agatha Christie and Virginia Woolf near contemporaries, came from the same social class: upper middle and well-heeled, but not aristocratic. Woolf was born in 1882, and Christie in 1890, both into Victorian households replete with servants and a strong class consciousness. In both cases, their parents entertained none other than Henry James. Leslie Stephen, Woolf's father, would have known him from being at the center of the London literati, Christie's father because both came from wealthy New York society. Both women writers rose to literary prominence in the 1920s, Christie as the writer of popular mysteries and Woolf as the author of high-quality experimental fiction.

Christie is on top, Woolf below: both photos show elegantly fur-clad upperclass women in the 1920s. 

It's hard to imagine that they did not know of each other and read each other's prose, though I know of no documentation of either. It seems likely too they would have met, if only tangentially, as both travelled in roughly the same social circles. One can't help but wonder what they thought of each other--and wonder if the other's fiction had an affinity. Woolf advocates reading broadly and reading popular fiction. Christie was a reader and often frustrated at the formulaic constraints of her mystery genre. Like Woolf, she stretched the confines of her form. 

Clues that I have gather so far that Woolf and Christie might have rubbed shoulders are scant, but what of this?

Sir Harold Nicolson, Vita Sackville-West's husband reviewed Christie's The Mysterious Mr. Quin in the Daily Express in April of 1930. He wrote that 

"Mr. Quin and Mr. Satterthwaite are, to me, new characters, and I should like much more of them. Mrs. Christie always writes intelligently, and I enjoyed these stories as much as any she has written." 

Clearly Nicolson was aware of and reading Christie's work. Did the Nicolsons and Christie meet? They were both part of the same country house set, and it is not a stretch to think of them showing up as thinly disguised characters  in a Christie mystery.

More strikingly, Christie and Woolf shared some similarities in thought. Were these ideas simply in the air in the 1920s? Or is it a matter of two writers obsessed with the past thinking along the same lines?

In Woolf’s diary, vol III, 18 March 1925, she writes:
“I can only note that the past is beautiful because one never realizes an emption about the past at the time. It expands later, & thus we don’t have complete emotions about the present, only about the past.”

Christie conveys a similar sentiment in a story in  The Mysterious Mr. Quin called  "At the Bells and Motley,” first published in November 1925 in The Grand Magazine. In discussing a mystery, the elusive Harley Quin and protagonist Satterthwaite have a conversation in a small, dim London restaurant about a disappearance years before. Quin proposes that they reject Satterthwaite’s idea that they “imagine themselves back on that fatal day.” Quin responds that they should pretend the disappearance took place:
 “a hundred years ago. That we, in the twenty-first century, are looking back."
You are a strange man,” said Mr. Satterhwaite slowly. “You believe in the past, not the present. Why?”
“You used, not long ago,  the word atmosphere. There is no atmosphere in the present.”
“True … The present is apt to be—parochial.”
Both writers locate the past as a place where emotion or atmosphere can be best understood--if we can look back on the past from a distant vantage point. 

This is perhaps not an astonishing idea, but it is interesting that both writers were consciously exploring it at the same time, suggesting that their work has more commonalities than we might imagine. 

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Agatha Christie and Jane Austen: the problem of setting

I have written about Agatha Christie and Jane Austen on this blog in the past (, and now find myself revisiting  the two authors.

Who would put Agatha Christie, the queen of crime, and Jane Austen, "great English author," together? They seem an unlikely pairing. And yet I have more than once had the nagging sensation, as I occasionally revisit a Christie mystery, of her affinities with Jane Austen.

In my earlier blog post, I compared sleight-of-hand omissions in Persuasion and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.  Lately, I have been rereading, for the first time since my teen years, The Mysterious Mr. Quin, a volume of short stories that Christie points to in her memoir as important to her.

The cover of the first edition, 1930

A characteristic of Christie's writing is her tendency to be disembodied in terms of setting. She doesn't give the reader much, if any, sense of surroundings. This  aspect of her prose can easily be overlooked, because, when it comes to a murder scene or a locked room, the details then flood in. But the idea of describing setting if it doesn't pertain directly to the mystery at hand apparently seems superfluous to her.

For example, I shook my head in surprise while reading the second story in the Quin collection, "The Shadow on the Glass." The mystery-solving protagonist of all the tales, Mr. Satterthwaite, is in conversation with a Lady Cynthia. Because she is reading aloud from a journal and then "casting away the paper," I assumed the twosome sat inside. Yet there is absolutely no indication of setting until half down the third page of the story, when Lady Cynthia bids Jimmy Allenson to sit. He drops down on "the turf beside her." Turf! Are they outside? There has been a clue: Lady Cynthia, we are told at the end of the fourth paragraph, has a parasol laid "rakishly" across her knee. But could that not means she is planning to go outside shortly? Or would a lady in the 1920s not place a parasol across her knees inside?

And then came the nagging feeling. Who else leaves out settings? Jane Austen, of course, in the oddly disembodied opening chapters of Pride and Prejudice, where we are given only the scantiest idea of places, and no description of them.

Illustrator Brock uses his imagination to fill in what the library where Mr. and Mrs. Bennet confer in chapter 1 might look like. Austen does not provide these visual details 

Both authors are far more focused on the conversation between the characters than the visual surround. Why?

Doing my own "sleuthing," it occurred to me that both Austen and Christie were highly musical: both played the piano and Christie had studied to be an opera singer.  If for both sound was the primary sense they relied on, it would make sense that they would emphasize dialogue over settings. We remember that one of Austen's first pieces of juvenilia was a play about overhearing a conversation to which the audience is not privy. Could it be that both, in their privileging of speech, were showing their love of music but were out of sync with our largely visual culture(s)?

One might argue that the lack of setting in the opening of Pride and Prejudice reflects the epistolary style of the earlier drafts. This may be--though the opening chapters read more like a stage play--but Austen is known for her meticulous editing and rewriting. We don't have her first drafts (except for a chapter of Persuasion), but we believe Austen worked and reworked her writing to achieve her polished prose. Certainly, if she had wished to, or thought it was important, she could have added descriptive details.

Both authors were interested puzzles: the puzzle of what is really going on beneath the facade of everyday life, and both were interested in romance. Christie foregrounded puzzles and backgrounded romance, while Austen did the opposite, but the interests in both cases are similar.

My Jane Austen sleuthing partner-in-crime, Arnie Perlstien has had the same odd sensation of affinity, only centered around character. He believes Miss Bates in Emma is Christie's model for Miss Marple.

Austen's Emma has been called the first mystery, and as we possibly connect her more closely with the queen of crime, the appellation seems all the more apt.