Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Fact and Fiction

Ron Hansen (Mariette in Ecstasy) teaches at Santa Clara University which is a Jesuit Catholic university in Silicon Valley, California so it is not so surprising that the main character in his latest novel Exiles is a Jesuit priest. What is surprising is that the priest is a real Jesuit, the British poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. Hansen describes this work as “fiction based on fact.”

Facts: Gerard Manley Hopkins was a seminarian living in Wales in December 1875 when the steamship “Deutschland” ran aground off the coast of England. More than sixty passengers died including five Catholic nuns who were on their way from Germany to Missouri in the US. Hopkins memorialized the incident in his poem “The Wreck of the Deutschland”.

Fiction: Very little is known about the five nuns but Hansen has created individual biographies for each of them and described in detail their last moments on the ship.

At times the book reads like non-fiction in the biographical details of Hopkins’ life. Hansen switches back and forth between the events of Hopkins’ life and the events on the ship. He also weaves in certain relevant passages from the poem. I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to understand the poem without the historical background.

There are a lot of details about Catholicism and religious life that will be better understood by readers over the age of 50 who were raised as Catholics. Being in that category myself, I cannot judge how important that is to an appreciation of the novel overall.

While Hopkins and the nuns may have felt themselves as exiles in spiritual terms, there are other very real levels which earn them this description. And here we are returned to Fact. One of the reasons that the nuns were on their way to the US was that during this period in Germany under Bismarck Catholic religious orders were prohibited from practicing their religion. As a convert to Catholicism, Hopkins was rejected by his family and unable to teach at Oxford despite being a recognized scholar. Hopkins was not published or appreciated as a poet during his lifetime – and he died young at the age of 44. I had no knowledge of how important and influential he was in the development of modern poetry. The full text of his “Deutschland” poem is reprinted at the end of the novel – and truthfully it is a challenge for me to understand it even with the historical context.

While this novel succeeds wonderfully in joining fact and fiction, in the absence of lengthy footnotes or annotations, I found myself frustrated in not being able to distinguish which was which. You can hear an interview with Ron Hansen on “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross at

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