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Jane Austen, in EMMA, taught me a new word

Emma, by Jane Austen, is a delightful story with vivid characters, challenging interpersonal relationships, but overall a backdrop that encourages doing one’s duty, being principled, caring for others, and ultimately doing what is right.

In this reading of the story, I was struck by a new word that I learned:

 

Valetudinarian: A person of poor health or unduly anxious about health.

Oxford Reference English Dictionary

After introducing the term, Austen illustrates it accurately in the character of Mr. Woodhouse, Emma’s father.

Before I describe him for those who have not read Emma recently, I think it’s important to distinguish Valetudinarian from Hypochondriac. A hypochondriac imagines he has a serious disease. I suppose when those fears are disproven, fear of another raging, illness emerges.

A valetudinarian, such as Mr. Woodhouse, does not necessarily believe he is ill at the moment, but rather evaluates every activity, every relationship, and every interaction from the perspective of the health implications. So, for example, when others are enjoying a hearty meal, Mr. Woodhouse insists on a thin gruel. When guests are coming over, he insists Emma make sure they are not ill. Children are seen as carriers of disease and travelling is to be avoided if there is any chance of cold, rain, or snow.

Austen does not overtly criticize Mr. Woodhouse, but simply shows how his valetudinarianism constrains his own life and the lives of those around him. Still he is much loved, and understood. Emma cheerfully looks after him. Even Knightley acknowledges this duty as an important obligation.

The implications

When I look at my own life in 2020 and 2021, the tendency toward valetudinarianism is very strong. I seem to have been conditioned to see every relationship, every activity, every human interaction from the perspective of health. Like Mr. Woodhouse, this long term focus, this application of a health filter to every aspect of my life is not beneficial and constrains me much as it did Woodhouse. Indeed, it naturally engenders a constant feeling of vague fear.

So what’s the answer?

While I was reading Emma, I was also reading George MacDonald’s The Seaboard Parish. MacDonald, like Austen, lived in an era when medicine could do very little to improve health. The recipe seemed mostly to rest and wait to see if the patient is able to recover. MacDonald’s personal experience with illness and death, should have made him a prime candidate for valetudinarianism, but he was not like that at all, even though he suffered many sorrows from disease.

 Sickness, particularly Tuberculosis, was no stranger to the MacDonalds. George would christen it as being “the family attendant” in later years. It took the lives of four of his children and some of his grandchildren as well.

http://georgemacdonald.info/children.html

MacDonald lived the idea that God is supremely good and we can trust the future to him, including whatever confronts in the way of illness or death. Our job is to do our duty in the present and leave our future (over which we really have no control) in the hands of the Almighty.

In The Seaboard Parish, there is a massive storm which casts a great ship on the rocks just off the coast of Walton’s parish. At great peril, some sailors and passengers are rescued but many were not. A battered sailor with a broken leg believes he is dying (he was not) and asks Vicar Walton what he should do. Here is what what MacDonald said through the character of Walton:

Trust in Christ and do not be afraid.

George MacDonald, The Seaboard Parish, Kindle Edition (Unabridged).

He did not lie to the man as perhaps some would today, to make him hopeful of recovery and easier. He gave the unvarnished truth and I believe it was the best thing to say, since MacDonald had a hope that transcended even the prospect of imminent death. So, as I continue to hear the never-ending news reports on Covid strains as they move through the Greek alphabet, like hurricanes moving through alphabetical names in September, I’ll remember George MacDonald’s admonition and try to live a life of faith, unintimidated by the government, the health agencies, and the news media.

A Collision of Two Imperfect Causes

I have read and enjoyed The Last Castle several times. I enjoyed it so much, I am reading it now in its much longer, original, unedited version. The title MacDonald originally chose was St. George and St. Michael.

MacDonald’s story begins in 1641 shortly after Thomas Wentworth, The Earl of Stafford was arrested by Parliament, tried for treason, and beheaded. King Charles I, a personal friend of Stafford, signed the order for the execution and regretted his decision to his dying day.

MacDonald, as a masterful storyteller, does not chose the easy road and cast the conflict between Parliament (Roundheads, Puritans) and the King as a one dimensional conflict between Good and Evil, but rather he shows how two groups of people, the Heywoods on one hand, and Henry Somerset , the Earl of Worchester, and his subjects on the other hand, find themselves by differing honorable convictions on opposite sides. Although on opposing sides, they fought each other for noble and altruistic reasons.

The Earl of Worchester, a catholic, and his followers had given their allegiance to the King and would stand by him to the bitter end. Hence St George is in the title, representing the red cross of England and the crown.

On the other hand, Richard Heywood and his father, believed their first allegiance was to their conscience and truth. For that reason they chose the side of Parliament and the Puritans. The archangel St. Michael stands for truth.

Although they were on opposite sides of this great civil war, when they met they respected each other since they saw a true man, a man of principle in the other. They were taking part in a war that was a collision of two imperfect causes (I think this phrase was used by MacDonald but I cannot locate the reference).

Indeed when Richard Heywood is captured inside Worchester’s Raglan Castle, The Earl now a Marquis offers him freedom if he would renounce his cause or even share his secret how he came to get into the castle. Richard declines and is sent to the dungeons.

After Richard is taken away the honorable Marquis says to himself:

“I doubt not the boy would tell everything rather than see his mare whipped. He’s a fine fellow, and it were a thousand pities he turned coward and gave in. But the affair is not mine–it is the King’s. Would to God the rascal were on our side! He’s the right old English breed.”

How Does This Speak to Me Today?

In Matthew 7:1-2 Jesus says:

“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.”

The reason I am not to judge, is not because judgment must never happen, but rather because I am so poor at it. I am too ready to excuse myself and condemn others. I know nothing of the background, assumptions, or personal history that led to a particular action in others. If this is true of contemporaries I know reasonably well, it is much more true of historical figure in whose shoes I have never walked and whose motivations I could never fathom. Yet, as I get to know people from other eras through what they have written , that reading can be invaluable in finding out about myself, my own biases and about the uncritiqued assumptions that so plague my thinking.

Concluding Thoughts

We live in a time when the wholesale destruction of our history is taking place. Statues are torn down, graves desecrated, and places named after historical figures are being renamed. We act as if we  moderns are uniformly righteous and those that have gone before us are irredeemably evil. Even if that were true (we are too complex as human beings for that to be so clear cut) we would still be better off to leave our history intact and learn from our past both good and bad. It is better to have a view into the past from historical eyes than to leave the writing of history to the biased ideologues of today who desire us to think in a certain way.

Every war is a collision of two imperfect causes. Those on opposite sides may indeed be there for different, honorable reasons. I hope I continue to have the courage to respect that.

George MacDonald – On the Importance of the Imagination

I am re-reading George MacDonald’s Thomas Wingfold-Curate again, and in another sense, for the first time. I previously read and enjoyed Michael R. Phillip’s excellent edited version entitled The Curate’s Awakening (which I would recommend for first-time readers of this series) but now I’m reading the original version which is much longer.

Some spoilers to the story

Thomas Wingfold is a curate who has slid into his clerical profession without much thought. His uncle gave him a complete set of detailed sermons which enabled Wingfold to provide messages and sermons for all occasions in the church year. The sermons were so numerous that when they were recycled, so much time would have passed that the word-for-word repetition would have been unobtrusive to the congregation.

Wingfold’s complacency is shaken

Two things happened to begin a crisis in Wingfold’s life:

  1. He was accosted by a self-assured, masterful, self-confident atheist who challenged him with words to the effect: “Surely you can’t believe all that nonsense you are spouting?”
  2. A dwarf who occasionally attended Wingfold’s church gently informed him that his sermons were plagiarized from a well-known minister called Jeremy Taylor.

The metaphor of a carriage

Wingfold, seeking to be honest, at first considers resigning his appointment, but Polwarth, the dwarf, encourages him to remain in his post until he completes his quest for faith, but, while there, to be honest in his sermons.

In Chapter III, as Wingfold prepares his second genuine sermon, he sees the progression of his intellectual quest through the metaphor of a carriage. His will has the reins; the guard beside the driver is his conscience. The dog running beside him is Fancy, which I take to mean his desire and feelings for beauty, order, and completeness. Imagination is the outrider that explores paths in all directions but can be called back at any time.

The importance of imagination

As I thought about this metaphor, I concur with MacDonald’s view that imagination is a necessary but not sufficient condition for progress in understanding our physical world (science) or understanding the spiritual world as in the case of Wingfold’s quest.

In my previous post, I talked about the importance of working very hard to disprove theories and hypotheses. in my own view (and I know many will disagree with me) I see defects with current explanations of our physical origins. Use of the imagination to come up with better explanations that describe all of the data are needed (again in my view).

Finally a caveat: imagination is useful only in generating possible explanations. After the work of imagination is done, one has to put on one’s skeptical hat and try to disprove the new hypothesis, just as one did with the old.

As Science Fiction author, I am able to let my imagination roam as I write my novels and don’t have the difficult obligation of disproving the backstory of my imaginary inventions.