Land of Pure Delight

Dinah Birch

  • The Holy Land in English Culture 1799-1917: Palestine and the Question of Orientalism by Eitan Bar-Yosef
    Oxford, 319 pp, £50.00, October 2005, ISBN 0 19 926116 4

Printed in 1958, the Bible given to me as a child was illustrated with photographs of the Holy Land. I was particularly taken with the ‘Native House near Bethlehem’. A woman broods over the baby on her lap, while her husband steadily returns the viewer’s gaze. This calculated image, every shadow still imprinted on my memory, seemed both homely and exotic. Tethered to the stone wall, next to the manger, was what I recognised as a white-faced Hereford cow, like those which grazed around the farm where I was growing up. The incongruity was normal. Places I saw in my Bible (‘A Fountain at Nazareth’, ‘Road from Jerusalem to Jericho’), and heard about at Methodist Sunday school, were as familiar to my imagination as the villages and farmhouses where my grandparents, aunts and cousins lived. Some of the local fields had biblical names. My uncle’s land included a boggy patch known as Jericho, not far from our own Home Close. As far as I was concerned, the authenticity of the Bible was confirmed by the fact that the pictures in my copy were photographs, not drawings. But I thought that the sanctity of these scenes, dignified by sepia and artfully scattered rocks, meant that they could never change. The point of the photographs was to emphasise their actuality, but also their separation from the shabby modern world. I would often project myself into those austere landscapes, witnessing the events of Christ’s life. They existed as a privately sacred extension of my own experience. ‘I should like to have been with them then,’ as we sang on Sundays. It was one of my favourite hymns.

Without knowing it, I was catching the last breath of a vernacular tradition that had shaped English culture for centuries. Protestantism disapproved of pilgrimages to holy places, and had little time for the crusading tradition. Yet the concept of the elect in their promised land determined the ambitions of its churches and chapels. You didn’t have to go there, or even to recognise its historical existence, to claim ownership. Better not to think in those terms. The Holy Land was at its most holy in your own heart. This might be a demanding belief for those who took it seriously, but religious certainty could also make it a comfort. Sometimes the reassurance came a little too easily. Even when such faith was common, the inward annexation of the Holy Land made sophisticated religious thinkers suspicious. In Apocalypse (1931), his final and most vehement repudiation of Christianity, D.H. Lawrence mocked what he had come to see as the complacencies of dissent:

With nonconformity, the chapel people took over to themselves the Jewish idea of the chosen people. They were ‘it’, the elect, or the ‘saved’. And they took over the Jewish idea of ultimate triumph and reign of the chosen people. From being bottom dogs they were going to be top dogs: in Heaven . . . It is doctrine you can hear any night from the Salvation Army or in any Bethel or Pentecost Chapel. If it is not Jesus, it is John. If it is not Gospel, it is Revelation. It is popular religion, as distinct from thoughtful religion.

Palestine functioned as a timeless image for those of this conviction. It was a place where everything was mundanely known, but endowed with the potential for miraculous grace. For all his impatience, Lawrence knew what he owed to this tradition. In ‘Hymns in a Man’s Life’ (1928), another late contemplation of religion, he remarked that ‘it was good to be brought up a Protestant, and among Protestants a Nonconformist, and among Nonconformists a Congregationalist . . . the Congregationalists are the oldest Nonconformists, descendants of the Oliver Cromwell Independents.’ The 17th-century roots of his early religious experience provided a cultural authority that Lawrence valued. It was a continuity channelled through the texts of the Bible, with its numinous landscapes that ‘never existed on earth’. The imagined Palestine mattered more than the actual place. ‘I don’t want to know where it is,’ Lawrence remarked. ‘I never want to go to Palestine.’ For many, this habit of thought was constantly reinforced by the extraordinary persistence of The Pilgrim’s Progress as a template for the good life. Bunyan’s progress through an ordinary Bedfordshire is transformed by the intensely realised biblical narratives that underwrote his faith. He has no interest in conceptualising images of the Holy Land as representations of the ‘Other’, for there is no radical distinction between the green landscapes of England and the blessed scenes of Canaan. Both are his inheritance, the divine home to be possessed by all who could travel to the Celestial City.

The world of Athens and Rome might have been more vivid to educated middle-class men, but those who had not been schooled in the classics invested biblical landscapes with the elegiac force of childhood experience. The Hellenist Matthew Arnold pointed out in his contemptuous analysis of Nonconformist Hebraism that the fervours of chapel-goers were often rooted in provincial experience. He was not wrong, though he failed to see that this might be part of the point. Despite the proliferating printed records of travellers in the Holy Land, the geographical knowledge of those who learned to read through Bible study was often sketchy. For such children, the ‘land of pure delight’ was always just around the corner. The desire for a domesticated Holy Land runs through the literary culture of English Nonconformism. William Blake’s image of an English Jerusalem is an extravagant affirmation of what Bunyan had suggested – that England and the Holy Land were not the separate places that history and politics might imply:

The fields from Islington to Marybone
To Primrose Hill and Saint Johns Wood:
Were builded over with pillars of gold,
And there Jerusalem’s pillars stood.

Blake’s short poem ‘Jerusalem’, peculiarly celebrated as the most English of visions, thinks of Christ among the English, rather than picturing the English as pilgrims to the hallowed scenes of his life: ‘And did those feet in ancient time/Walk upon England’s mountains green?’ Clearly not. Yet to those formed by the idea of Palestine as a mystical dimension of England, the question seemed natural.

The purpose of Eitan Bar-Yosef’s persuasively argued study is to suggest that the influential model developed in Edward Said’s Orientalism won’t quite do as an explanation of popular English perceptions of the Holy Land. Said was steadily committed to the Palestinian cause, but the school of postcolonial criticism which he fathered has not fully appreciated the cultural consequences of the peculiarly English practice of appropriating Palestine as the ground of domestic salvation. When William Thomson, the Archbishop of York, addressed the first meeting of the Palestine Exploration Fund, established in 1865 to sponsor accurate surveys of the country, he voiced a widely shared set of assumptions:

This country of Palestine belongs to you and to me, it is essentially ours. It was given to the Father of Israel in the words: ‘Walk through the land in the length of it, and in the breadth of it, for I will give it unto thee.’ We mean to walk through Palestine in the length and in the breadth of it, because that land has been given to us. It is the land from which comes news of our Redemption. It is the land towards which we turn as the fountain of all our hopes; it is the land to which we may look with as true a patriotism as we do to this dear old England, which we love so much.

This is an upmarket version of the proprietorial impulse described by Lawrence. The investigators of the Palestine Exploration Fund had the resources and ambition to overlay their textual familiarity with geological and scientific observations. Unlike Lawrence, they wanted to know what Palestine was really like. It was hoped that the enterprise might vindicate religious faith, allowing it to rest on intellectually secure foundations. But its driving principle was not so different from the convictions which animated the Nonconformists: it was built on the assumption that the landscapes of the Bible were a dimension of the deepest English identity.

The bizarre claim that piety could entitle the English to the possession of Palestine as an existing country rather than as the site of scriptural history worked only if the resident population were erased from the scene. Descriptions of Palestinian territories in the 19th century habitually suggest emptiness, relieved only by glimpses of a primitive people lurking in the distance, with habits apparently unchanged since the days of Abraham. These accounts often imply arduous journeys undertaken in solitude, although the explorers were accompanied by retinues of guides and servants. The Holy Land became a fashionable destination for the Victorian adventurer – and then for the not quite so adventurous, after Thomas Cook’s Eastern Tours began operations there in 1869. Numbers remained small, however, for these trips were expensive and so available only to the prosperous middle classes. Others might share their experiences through the reports that tumbled from the presses in increasing numbers throughout the century. But these too were costly, and often produced in small editions. Publishing houses lamented low sales and losses, and proud authors often found themselves having to reimburse the costs of production. Illustrated travel books were beyond the reach of most English people, who continued to derive their ideas of the Holy Land through their reading of the Bible, and what they learned in church, chapel and Sunday school. Bar-Yosef points out that the Palestine Exploration Fund never caught the imagination of the religiously-minded donors who had been expected to support its work. The statistics are telling. Between 1865 and 1914, vigorous campaigning brought in a total of £138,650 for the fund, while the income of the British and Foreign Bible Society had exceeded £100,000 a year by the middle of the 19th century. Many shared Lawrence’s disinclination to learn about the actualities of Palestine.

Yet the tradition of locating the biblical Holy Land in England lingered stubbornly within Protestant artisan culture. Recalling his 1920s Cumbrian childhood, Norman Nicholson, a tailor’s son and a Methodist, put it more eloquently than most:

We all belonged to the same country. And that country was the Holy Land. The landscape of the Bible was far more familiar to us than the geography of England. We had news of it twice every service in the lessons; the preachers preached about it; the hymns depicted and extolled it. Jerusalem, Jericho, Bethlehem, Canaan, the Sea of Galilee, Mount Carmel, Mount Ararat, Gilead, Moab, the Brook Cherith and cool Siloam’s shady rill – all these seemed no further from home than, say, the Duddon Valley . . . It was not only that the Bible lands seemed near to home: in some ways they were home. And they looked like home. To me the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks were men like the Watsons of Millom Farm, or the Tysons of Beck Farm, or the Falconers of Water Blean.

This recalls the nostalgic particularities of Blake’s Jerusalem: ‘The Ponds where Boys to bathe delight:/The fields of Cows by Willans farm’. Stanley Spencer, fired by the Methodism he had known in his youth, found a visual language to express comparable ideas. That the life of Christ should be enacted in the unassuming streets of Cookham seemed to him unremarkable. The wilder reaches of Catholicism occasionally threw up comparable visions. ‘In No Strange Land’, a religious lyric by Francis Thompson, sees the traffic of Jacob’s ladder pitched ‘betwixt Heaven and Charing Cross’, and Christ walking on the water ‘not of Genesareth, but Thames’. In general, however, nonconformity remained the most fertile source. Dennis Potter, who had experienced a potent version in the mining communities of the Forest of Dean, translated its assumptions into something more threatening, closer to Christian’s trials in The Pilgrim’s Progress. The scenes where he grew up ‘were the Holy Land – I knew Cannop Ponds by the pit where Dad worked, I knew that was where Jesus walked on water; I knew where the Valley of the Shadow of Death was, that lane where the overhanging trees were . . . I was a coward. At dusk I’d whistle, going down that particular lane.’ Potter’s apprehension of otherworldly encounters that could transform the everyday into strangeness is grounded in this knowledge, and it colours all of his most forceful drama.

The Victorian middle-class travellers who actually made their way to Palestine saw things differently, and were inclined to find evidence of what Harriet Martineau called ‘home-feeling’. They wanted to discover a country which was like their own, and persuaded themselves that the Holy Land fitted the bill. Dean Stanley was struck by ‘the Western, almost the English, character of the scenery . . . The absence of palms and the presence of daisies greatly contributes to this result.’ Daisies or not, those who went there for reasons other than the cultivation of the mind were much less likely to describe Palestine as a friendly version of England. The soldiers shipped out during the Great War were often disparaging, finding it bleak and uncomfortable – ‘so lacking in trees, foliage, flowers (except for four or five weeks in the year)’. Conditions were dismal and the fighting hard. They longed to escape.

Then it’s ’ome to good old Blighty
And we’ll all go down the Strand.
A tidy sight more lively,
Than this bloomin’ ’oly land.

The Holy Land as a spiritual destination, the ‘sweet and blessèd country’ that these working men had learned to revere in Sunday school, was more accommodating in the pages of the Bible than in the hot, fly-blown army camps of Palestine. It was to be found in England, not the Middle East. A thankful soldier, on his way home at last, remarked that ‘the Land of my Dreams is where I started from but I did not know it.’ What Bar-Yosef makes clear is that the English cared for Jerusalem as an intimate metaphor for salvation, rather than a recalcitrant political and geographical locality. This was a phenomenon that enriched English culture in countless ways, but only added further confusion to its entanglements in the politics of the region.