You might be forgiven for thinking that there is precious little reading going on in the SCR at the moment, I certainly feel as if that is the case. I don't seem to be writing much about books and the tbr pile is simply growing by the day. However, in my defence I do have three quite substantial projects on the go. My Wednesday evening book group is reading Daniel Deronda for the first week in March and I have to lead the discussion. Not only is this a substantial read in its own right, but I'm also having to do quite a lot of background reading both on Eliot's own religious position and on the general reception of Jews in England in the period when the novel is set. I'm thoroughly enjoying the work, but it is taking time.
Then, my Wednesday Shakespeare Group is just about to move on to The Taming of the Shrew and the first of the three sessions is always the most difficult to prepare for as I like to look not only at the major sources for the play but also at the various editions that are available. In the case of The Shrew, of course, this means reading and comparing the Folio text with the three Quartos of The Taming of A Shrew which were published before the First Folio in 1623 and then taking on board all the arguments as to which, if either, is the original play. Again, this is fascinating, but it takes time.
Finally, I was suddenly asked to give a talk to our History Group about the seventeenth century poet, Andrew Marvell, on the somewhat shaky grounds that we have now reached that period in our study of English History and I am the literary one.
Now if push comes to shove, I can talk about any Shakespeare play for an hour or so off the top of my head, and this isn't the first time that I've read Daniel Deronda, but the sum total of my knowledge about Andrew Marvell prior to this request was the first line of the poem To His Coy Mistress. So, believe me, there has been a great deal of reading going on in the SCR but it's mostly been aimed at finding out more about this remarkable man, who was far better know in his own time as a politician and a writer of tracts designed specifically to get up the noses of the great and the good than he was as a poet.
Marvell was born in Yorkshire in 1621 and the family very soon moved to Hull, a city with which he was associated for the rest of his life. His father was an Anglican Minister and from what I can discover Marvell himself was solid in that faith throughout his life. Certainly, he was voluble orally and in writing against both the Catholics and the Episcopalians, and towards the end of his life this would set him at odds with all the major players in the political arena as Charles II moved further and further towards the Catholic church and those who wished to see the power in the hands of the Bishops fought the monarch in the House of Commons.
He was a very well-educated man, attending Cambridge University from before his thirteenth birthday, and using the chance to travel as governor to a young nobleman to learn Dutch, French, Spanish and Italian. His knowledge of languages was to become well known and he was employed as tutor to a number of well connected teenagers including, for a time, the nephew of a friend of Oliver Cromwell who was intended as husband for Cromwell's youngest daughter. When he moved into politics as MP for Hull, he was often given secretarial roles that required him to interpret and translate documents for visiting dignitaries and was part of a delegation to Russia when Parliament was trying to renegotiate trading deals that had been cancelled when Charles I was beheaded. Obviously Tzar Alexis didn't want his own subjects getting any regicidal ideas.
Looking at his time in Parliament you do tend to get the feeling that things were pretty much the same then as they are now. The Borough of Hull paid Marvell 6s 8d for every day that the House sat as well as expenses and the occasional barrel of ale. Oh that word expenses. We all know what that can mean after the scandals of the last year about the monies claimed by our current crop of MPs. And what about those barrels of ale? I suppose we can only be glad they weren't Duck Houses! (With apologies to my non UK readers who may not quite understand that last comment.) However, Marvell did speak out in the Commons against a bill designed to allow MPs to accept public office, a means of bribing politicians to vote in ways favourable to those who held the real power. In fact, my overall impression of Marvell is that he was his own man. He had his own ideas of what was right and wrong and he supported whichever grouping he thought was most likely to bring about the effects he thought desirable. This has led to people looking at him as something of a turncoat, but I think you could rely on him if you relied on him to be true to himself.
And all this time he was writing, but not primarily the poems for which we now remember him. The works that brought him most notice were the poems and the tracts which either feted or poured scorn on the major players in English government. His final great piece was An Account of the Growth of Popery and Arbitrary Government which opens:
There has now for diverse Years, a design been carried on, to change the Lawfull Government of England into an Absolute Tyrrany, and to convert the established Protestant Religion into down-right Popery
and goes on to trace the conspiracy back to Charles II himself. A real example of how to win friends and influence people!
Marvell died of the tertian ague (which probably means some form of malarial type illness) in 1678, but even then was hardly able to avoid controversy when his housekeeper claimed to have been secretly married to him and consequently to have rights over his estate. His poems were published after his death, but for a long time the more political writings were overlooked. It was really the essay written by T S Eliot for the tercentennial volume of his works, published in 1921, that brought Marvell back to general notice and led to a reassessment of his writings, both poetical and political.
So, you see there has been some reading going on in the SCR and now I just have to hope that I can satisfy my colleagues when I give the longer version of this paper on Monday. Fingers crossed.