James Gould Cozzens, who knew so many clergy, and right up close, remarked in a letter to his mother that he didn’t think he had met a ‘professional Christian who was other than a knave or a fool’ (23 July 1935). The ‘fool’ part got this reader’s attention, and I wondered.
For some reason, the first image that came into my head was Frankenstein’s Monster as portrayed in the overwrought Hollywood melodrama from 2004, Van Helsing. In that long, long movie, there is a surprising moment, an arresting moment — if you weren’t asleep already, so over-filled with action the movie is — when Frankenstein’s Monster is being wheeled in on a gurney to be tortured by yet more ‘Mad Scientist’ surgery and he begins to recite The Twenty-Third Psalm! This moment was noted not so long ago in a Mockingbird post, and I filed it away. Thus when the arresting moment came on the screen recently, I was moved. It comes so from out of the blue in that CGI zoo of a cinematic ‘video game’, that it is most impressive. Like all Christian witnesses when they are real witnesses, the scene catches you off-guard. It also seems sincere. The Monster is affirming his confidence in the sustaining of God.
In other words, to go back to Cozzens, Frankenstein’s Monster is neither a knave nor a fool.
For the same reason, the real hero of Terence Rattigan’s last play, “A Bequest to the Nation” (1970), is a Christian witness who is neither a knave nor a fool. Let’s look at her. She is Frances, Lady Nelson, whose maiden name was Frances Nisbet. She has been thrown over for almost five years now, in favor of Emma Hamilton, mistress now of Lady Hamilton’s husband, Lord Horatio Nelson, naval hero, ‘Divine Hero’, and Champion of all England.
In Act One, Scene I of “Bequest to the Nation”, Lady Nelson is shown being contemptuously avoided by Lord Nelson’s family, for whom she had only recently been the ‘beloved’ Aunt Frances. Yet she is able to have a conversation with her nephew, George Matcham, who sees, because he is young and not yet fully formed for prejudice, the woman’s quality:
Now here is a woman who is in the throes of a humiliation so destroying and so personal that she is overcome with the deepest emotion that it is possible to experience. In fact, the character George later says these words to a somewhat supercilious character who is trying to play both sides of the field:
We see, early on in “Bequest”, that Frances Nelson is a woman of heart and feeling, completely un-self-righteous or ‘icy’ in what could possibly appear otherwise as a form of ‘heaping coals’ on the heads of her enemies: her rejecting husband and his utterly vindictive mistress Emma.
We saw in the earlier post concerning this play that Lord Nelson hates his wife because she forgives him for the way he has treated her, and continues to forgive him. She will not stop forgiving him! For this, as he explained in Act Two, Scene II, “What is there, then, left for me but to hate?”
It is important to say that Frances, the spurned wife of Lord Nelson, is no ‘door mat’, although she loves in such a way that her love could be interpreted that way. Here is what Frances says to the subtle and insinuating Lord Minto in Act One, Scene IV:
Lady Nelson’s purpose in visiting her now disconsolate and truly hopeless rival is to let Emma know that Lord Nelson provided for Emma in a statement written just before his death and that Emma is now a ‘Legacy to the Nation’. Lady Nelson in this closing situation reveals so much compassion for the impossible Emma — we have seen ‘up close and personal’ in the other scenes of the play — that it is, well, Frankenstein’s Monster by way of complete credibility and shattering surprise. Here are the last lines of “Bequest to the Nation”:
Lady Nelson is the Christian of the play. She may be the Christian of all Rattigan’s plays. She has rheumatoid arthritis, she has been overwhelmingly rejected as a woman in favor of someone for whom the only explanation of her husband’s obsession is a middle-aged ‘awakening’ for whom almost any woman might have been the catalyst; her husband truly wishes she were dead; and the whole world has snubbed her and despises her in a classic case of ‘blame the victim’. Yet she persists in love. And it is a love not only for her spurning husband, but even for the true enemy of her life, ‘That Hamilton Woman’.
This play reminds me a little of Shusako Endo’s approach to the Gospel. It capitalizes on the ‘blind, the halt, and the lame’. Lady Nelson has something about her of the spurned, loving-in-return Catholic priest of “Deep River”. Tiny Tim is also in the wings. And, that Frankenstein Monster from Van Helsing. Note, too, Lady Nelson’s dignity, albeit weakened physically, with which Rattigan’s described Person lights the stage. And her heartfelt words affirming life and hope, against hope.
I think Cozzens was probably mainly right about “professional Christians”. But he wasn’t completely right. And it took a playwright who by 1970 was just as unfashionable as could possibly be — you can look it up — to make the point. I feel almost certain that Rattigan was not making his point consciously.