Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Saint Elizabeth: Charles Kingsley

Charles Kingsley wrote a play about Saint Elizabeth of Hungary in which she, as she dies, renounces the life of denial that (at least as Kingsley sees it) was foisted on her by Konrad of Marburg and announces that she is looking forward to reunion with her husband in heaven, with all that implies.

Kingsley doesn't seem to have put much weight on Jesus's teaching that in heaven, "neither do they marry nor are they given in marriage."

I should tell you that, even though you have probably never heard of him, Charles Kingsley was a huge figure in his day. As one of the leaders of a movement that united male virtues with Christianity, and known as Muscular Christianity, Kingsley was one of the most influential thinkers of the Victorian era.

He was also what feminists would today call "sex positive". Feminists wouldn't like him much for reasons I'll get to.

I'm rather fond of the guy and the whole notion of Muscular Christianity myself. I wouldn't go so far as to say that I accept the original concept uncritically but I do think that current Christianity could do with some masculinity; actually, I think it could do with a lot of masculinity but that's a subject for another day.

To get back to Kingsley, he wrote the play, which he dedicated to his future wife, shortly before he got married and he was rather looking forward to the big night. Here is a nice little excerpt from one of the letters he wrote her in anticipation of their 'union".
When you go to bed tonight, forget that you ever wore a garment, and open your lips for my kisses and spread out each limb that I may lie between your breasts all night.
He meanwhile, would be having similar thoughts in his bed far away and, he goes on to say, they could achieve a kind of union in prayer even though they could not physically unite just yet,
At a quarter past eleven lie down, clasp your arms and every limb around me, and with me repeat the Te Deum aloud.
Kingsley saw sexual bliss as a foretaste of what was to come in heaven.  Strictly speaking, that view is a lot more orthodox than you might guess. With Kingsley's version, however, we might raise two questions. The more important of which is whether he keeps the priority in the right order. If sexual bliss is only a foretaste then his Saint Elizabeth need not look forward to reunion with her husband in heaven as something even better awaits her there. The second, a little more trivial, question is how it is that Kingsley, an unmarried man at this point, is so absolutely sure that sex is going to be great.

In any case, sex was what he wanted and he believed that Catholic teaching about the value of a life of self-denial was a false and misleading. Okay, but why would he pick Saint Elizabeth as his subject? Why not pick one of those virgin martyrs who renounced marriage? What made Saint Elizabeth such a likely subject? The full answer to that will come next Thursday but, for now, suffice to say that he admired Saint Elizabeth. He both admired and feared Catholicism: he thought that the saints had a lot to offer and worried that by excluding them, his faith didn't risk losing adherents to teh Catholic church.

This was not an unusual sentiment at the time.

Kingsley, by the way, was just as certain that sex was going to be really good for his wife as it would be for him, which contradicts the stereotype we have of Victorian men. The subject of the play was Elizabeth after all and Kingsley saw that sex as liberating for her too. To get at how he might see this, we need to consider something that will seem quite weird to us. For, contrary to what we project onto them, moralists of that era did not think that women did not experience pleasure in sex so much as they worried that they were prone to enjoy it so much that it would put them in danger. The self-image of the Victorian lady of high standing who seems impervious to passion was an image of stability and success. The sexual freedom that Kingsley proposed in his play about Saint Elizabeth was freedom within marriage to a man who would protect her. Presumably, this protection involved the predictable home and hearth but it must also, by implication, have included a promise on the part of the man to fully satiate his wife's desires, which he would be able to do because he was a good Muscular Christian who was healthy in mind and in body.

It's a view that is almost modern. Almost. Most, and probably all, feminists would disagree with his views. There is an old Latin saying to the effect that (I don't have the Latin at hand) , "protection drags subjection in its wake", and that would certainly apply here.

For my purposes, though, the question going ahead is, Does Kingsley understand why a woman like Saint Elizabeth would make her great renunciation? He can only see it as something imposed on her by Konrad. But such renunciations were not unique to her and there are good reasons to think that a woman like Elizabeth would have seen this life as a way to freedom. More on that come Thursday.

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