What he meant by happiness

Patricia Beer

  • The Wreck of the Deutschland by Sean Street
    Souvenir, 208 pp, £15.99, March 1992, ISBN 0 285 63051 2
  • Hopkins: A Literary Biography by Norman White
    Oxford, 531 pp, £35.00, March 1992, ISBN 0 19 812099 0

Time brings many surprises, as I have long known, but I never imagined being excited by the news that the nun’s famous cry in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’ was almost certainly not uttered by Sister Henrica Fassbaender. But in fact Sean Street’s book The Wreck of the Deutschland, which makes much of this incident, is engrossing from start to finish. It has the further appeal of sounding sympathetic. The author’s motivation throughout the fifteen years he devoted to assembling and deploying his material has clearly been an affectionate anxiety to tell the story fully and accurately rather than to expose people and call down vengeance upon them. His attitude to his chosen wreck is highly possessive, which naturally makes him very selective. Other appalling naval disasters, the blowing up of the Mosel at Bremerhaven, for example, affect him only in so far as they have some connection with the Deutschland. In this case, the Mosel is mentioned as being a sister-ship of the North German line which perished at about the same time.

One cannot say that the book has nothing to do with Hopkins’s poem, for the poem was Street’s original stimulus and the provider of the long-distance stamina he needed for his research. But one can say that his account throws no light whatever on Hopkins’s poetry as such; it is not intended to. Neither does it give any background information which might lead to greater appreciation of this particular poem. In Hopkins’s judgment, all that anybody needs to know about the shipwreck is contained in his dedication: ‘To the happy memory of five Franciscan nuns, exiles by the Falk Laws, drowned between midnight and morning of December 7th, 1875’.

It would be ungrateful, however, to deny the intrinsic interest of Street’s material, extraneous though it is to the poem which inspired it: the chapter on Bismarck, for example. I am not qualified to judge its scholarship but it gives a gripping and suitably menacing account of the Kulturkampf by which he set out to undermine the Catholic Central party; in which enterprise he was supported by Adelbert Falk, the Minister of Religion and Education, whose laws effectively destroyed such religious communities as Salzkotten which was forced to send these five nuns to America, as a place where they could pursue their vocations.

Street writes knowledgeably about naval matters. As a sea-story his book is as riveting as any of C.S. Forester’s and at first we might expect to meet Hornblower shinning down a rope in the nick of time. But Street’s characters develop as the recognisable human beings they actually were, some brave and resourceful, others not. And his situations are all too convincing: people fall out of the rigging and are never seen again, and Hornblower does not shin. The terror conveyed by Hopkins’s poem is inevitably the more insidious but Street can make our blood run cold too, in his own way. The possibility of being off-course is one of the great atavistic fears, and both poet and prose-writer bring our ancestors out in full force.

Hopkins does not name his five nuns. Street does, starting with the tombstone in the Catholic cemetery at Leytonstone which records all of them, though only four were in fact buried there, or anywhere else; beside the name of Henrica Fassbaender somebody has added ‘Not found’. In the course of his narrative Street, with skill and patience, addresses the mystery of what happened to her and exactly when, and whether or not she was ‘the tall nun’ whom Hopkins exalts as the heroine of the wreck who with her dying cry ‘O Christ, Christ, come quickly’ became the inspiring focus of those terrible hours. He was up against a mass of reports, eye-witness and second-hand, professional and amateur, Protestant and Catholic. One journalist, presumably Protestant, describes how the nuns made it all much worse by their hysterical behaviour; Cardinal Manning, on the other hand, in his funeral oration went over the top with his eulogy of their tranquillity and holy calm. As to the widely-reported final cry, it became debased in the telling and also in the translation from German, so that the ultimate version was ‘My God, make haste’ which might have been anybody, not a nun, shouting at a dilatory lifeboat.

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