Books: Rome: pagan days to papal centuries

Books: Rome: pagan days to papal centuries

Rome: pagan days to papal centuries

The Popes: A History

By John Julius Norwich

(Chatto & Windus, €33 / £25.00)

Rome: A CulturalHistory

By Robert Hughes

(Weidenfeld & Nicholson, €33.00 / £25.00)

Michael Collins

The leading art critic, Robert Hughes, familiar to many for his history of his native Australia, has distilled his life-long passion for the city of Rome into a remarkable volume.

The Eternal City, more than perhaps any other, has exerted a fascination on generations.

Founded in the 8th Century BC in a bend of the Tiber River, the tribes of Rome developed a system of language, laws, literature and military prowess with which they came to dominate the ancient world.

Hughes brings the reader on a journey through more than two and a half millennia. As he introduces the reader to Julius Caesar, Cicero and Virgil, he paints a visual picture of the Rome which they inhabited. Equally, the artists who enjoyed the patronage of the papacy from the Renaissance to the Baroque are intriguingly brought to life.

Hughes’s language is bright, sparing yet illuminating. Considering the period the Pontiffs spent in France, Hughes remarks: ”Nor did the Avignon Popes keep frugal tables.”

He then informs us how in 1324, Pope John XXII hosted a meal at which 4,012 loaves, nine oxen, 55 sheep, eight pigs, four wild boar, 200 capons, 690 chickens, 580 partridges, 270 rabbits, 40 plovers, 37 ducks, 50 pigeons, not to mention fruit and cheese, were washed down with eleven barrels of wine. He fails to mention if any of the guests suffered from indigestion!

The prologue and epilogue alone, let alone the text itself, show the author’s immense learning.

The book is also furnished with an eleven page bibliography and 55 colour plates. This, so far, is my best read of the year.

Turning now from pagan imperial Rome to the long centuries of papal Rome, and a new history of the Popes.

I had the pleasure of hearing John Julius Norwich speaking on Byzantium at the Royal Dublin Society four years ago.

A witty and engaging speaker who wears his great learning lightly, he talks about his subject with passion and an encyclopedic knowledge to be envied.

In this his most recent book, a follow-up to his books on Byzantium, Lord Norwich sets himself quite a task — to give a broad outline of the 2,000-year-old papacy in 505 pages.

In his introduction he denies that he is a scholar. Yet his detailed familiarity with so many areas of history make him an excellent guide to the Popes — good and bad — who sat in the chair of Peter.

Lord Norwich dispatches five centuries worth of Pontiffs in 36 pages before arriving at Gregory the Great. This Pope receives eleven pages and throughout the book, the author adopts the same pattern.

Several Popes pass by in a either a sentence or a paragraph while the more important or interesting Pontiffs are singled out for proper attention.

Given his vast knowledge of various branches of history, especially of Byzantine history, the pontifical episodes are not simply confined to their ecclesiastical domain, but are placed in the context of the evolving secular world in which they participated.

These two books will give the reader an almost complete conspectus of the Eternal City’s long history.


A family of many talents

More Lives Than One: The Remarkable Wilde Family Through the Generations

By Gerard Hanberry

(The Collins Press, €24.99 / £22.99)

John Wyse Jackson

A plaque to Oscar Wilde’s father can still be seen outside No 1 Merrion Square. It reads: ”Sir William Robert Wills Wilde, 1815-1876, aural and opthalmic surgeon, archaeologist, ethnologist, antiquarian, biographer, statistician, naturalist, topographer, historian, folklorist, lived in this house from 1855 to 1876.”

It can scarcely be wondered at that his sons, Oscar and Willie, with such an overbearing paternal legacy looming over them, preferred to seek their fortunes outside their native land.

The plaque does not say it all, not by a long way. In his lifetime it was said of Sir William that he rarely washed, and that he was a serial philanderer with ‘a child in every farmhouse’.

Worse, he was (quite unjustly) accused of taking advantage of a young female patient while under anaesthetic, and the resulting libel action taken by his wife became a nine-day wonder in Dublin.

Though he earned his knighthood for services to medical statistics in recording the Famine for the census of 1851, he deserved another one for putting up with his wife, Jane.

Daughter of a Dublin solicitor (and granddaughter of a Wexford Archdeacon), Lady Wilde (née Elgee) was a terrible snob.

Under the name ‘Speranza’, she was one of the most acclaimed (though, alas, least talented) poets in the group that wrote stirring verses for the Nation and other Young Irelander publications.

She would become legendary for her literary soirées and parties, both in Dublin and, later as a widow, in London, where she had moved to be close to her boys. It was she who persuaded Oscar, on a point of honour, not to flee the country to escape the trial that destroyed his life.

The Wildes were such an extraordinary pair that it now feels inevitable that at least one of their children would achieve either fame or notoriety: Oscar of course achieved both.

After the scandals of his life, for many years his name was not one to bring up in mixed company.

Arguably, the rehabilitation of his reputation in Ireland began with reports of his deathbed conversion.

After spending almost a lifetime talking about the attractions of Roman Catholicism, he remained uncharacteristically silent — and may even have been in his final coma — as he was at last received into the church by Fr Cuthbert Dunne of the Irish Passionist Fathers (not, as here, ‘Passionate’ — an unfortunate lapse, due I suppose to a wayward spellchecker!) Oscar’s attraction to Catholicism can be traced back to his childhood and runs like a purple thread through his life.

There have been previous books about Oscar’s parents, but Gerald Hanberry tells their story well, devoting over half of his beautifully produced book to them.

Almost all the remainder concentrates on the thrilling and sad — if familiar — tale of Oscar’s rise and fall, along with a useful account of his brother Willie, an alcoholic yellow-press journalist who was, it seems, doomed to failure from the beginning.

It is perhaps a pity that despite the book’s subtitle we are given only brief pen-portraits of the family members who came after Oscar.

It would have been good to have more about his son Vyvyan Holland, his niece Dolly (Willie’s even more ill-fated daughter), and indeed about those who are still living, the admirable Merlin Holland, Oscar’s grandson, and his son Lucian, who are both justly appreciative of their unique forbears.


One man and his brave dogs

Search Dogs and Me: One Man and hisLife-saving Dogs

By Neil Powell

(Blackstaff Press, €15.85 £11.99)

Barbara Pierce

It is truly amazing the tasks that the author, a skilled and dedicated dog trainer, can teach his dogs. In his late 20s, Neil Powell, a teacher in a school in Co. Down, joined the Mourne Mountain Search and Rescue team. They trained every month to be ready to go out, often in terrible conditions, to find those lost or injured on the rough and dangerous slopes.

Being an owner and lover of dogs, he pondered ”surely life would be easier if I could train a dog to help in the search work?”

A dog could cover more ground, and, with its keen sense of smell, darkness and poor visibility would no longer be a problem. Why had it not been done before?

From that time, Powell has dedicated his time and energy to train dogs to perform demanding and specific searches.

As a team, man and dog search and rescue, and find bodies, even victims of drowning — tragic work which brings some peace to sorrowing families. The author and his dogs have worked all over Ireland and assisted in disaster areas after earthquakes, crashes and bombs.

Despite the serious nature of the work, the accounts of travelling to assessments and to rescue situations are tense and amusing as he relates anecdotes about the dogs and assessors and the journeys.

This is a fascinating book. It is with great admiration that one reads how the author has used his talents to assist fellow humans in their times of need, giving credit not to himself, but to his beloved dogs.

Recent books in brief

Bread of Life:Reflections on theEucharist

By Cathal B. Daly,edited by Gemma Loughran

(Veritas, €12.99 / £11.25)

The late cardinal was anxious that this little book of reflections should be published as a part of the lead-up to next year’s International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin. It is in a sense a sequel or continuation of his thoughts in The Breaking of Bread (Veritas, 2008). The editor notes that it was the hope of the cardinal ”that individuals would find in these reflections rich sources of understanding, prayer, contemplation and practical advice”.

Of the six sections, one of the most striking is his essay on ”The Mass and the World of Work”, which deals with the role of the Christian faith in the world we live in.

”Christianity is not about explaining the world,” the cardinal observes, ”but about changing it. It is not about explaining human existence but about making us new creatures.”

It is often overlooked when people talk about the previous Eucharistic Congress here, that it was not all ceremonies and processions. There was also a theological conference at which many papers were presented.

The thoughtful and insightful side of the upcoming Congress will, for many who find theological writings beyond them, be well served by the Cardinal’s reflections. PC


The Gospel of Mark

(Veritas, €5.99 / £ 5.15)

As the Mass readings turn in the cycle to the Gospel of St Mark, this special edition aims not merely to provide a text for advance reading, but to make a special feature of the Lectio divina, an ancient way of praying with scripture and promoting communion with God.

Intended not just for study but for devotional use, this beautifully illustrated book should find a place, both in parishes and groups, but more importantly in the family home. ”Bringing the Good News home” might be a good slogan for 2012. PC


Catholicism in Uxbridge: A BriefHistory

By Nicholas Schofield

(St Paul’s Publishing, €8.10 / £6.99)

Parish histories are always of great interest and often importance. Here in Ireland, many parishes would like to write one, but all too often do not have a model to work from and the results, while pious and proud, are often diffuse and at heart uninformative.

This little book about what was once the village of Uxbridge on the edge of Greater London, is a model of what a parish history might be. Author of two books already, Fr Schofield is the current parish priest.

While he gives due space to the roots of the local faith in medieval times, and the grim years of post-Reformation persecution, his story really starts with the ”second spring”, the revival of the Catholic Church after 1830.

Some seven of his nine chapters are devoted to the decades since, to the efforts of such priests at Fr Moloney to revitalise the faith through a new building, but also with his successors to meet the challenges of change and indifference in more recent times.

The Catholic Church in England is in significant ways an extension of the Church here. This is a wholly commendable little book, and one which might help many parishes here focus on their own historical record. PC


The World of Books

By the Books Editor

This autumn Eason’s, the leading booksellers in Ireland, are celebrating what they describe as their 125th anniversary with a big promotion, and in some cases a major rearrangement of their stores.

Actually the event they are marking is not the birth of the firm, but the executive buy-out by general manager Charles Eason of a bookselling business that had been established years before as a branch of the British chain W. H. Smith, famous for their invention of the railway book stall.

The history of Eason’s was written by the distinguished historian Louis Cullen in 1989.

For anyone interested in the development of book selling and publishing, let alone reading, in Ireland over the last two centuries, the book is a deep mine of information. I say deep mine for it is a long book, which I understand was even longer before it came into the hands of an editor.

Bookselling had been transformed by the arrival of the railways in the 1840s.

This new ease of transport changed the way books, and more especially newspapers and magazines, were distributed. The station bookstall became a part of many people’s daily round, and is still at the core of Smith’s and Eason’s businesses.

Eason’s after the buyout remained the same kind of business, focused on the distribution of newspapers and magazines, with added lines in stationary and importantly, the publication of books of Catholic piety.

They also ran popular subscription libraries — these rather than the emerging public libraries were the ”libraries” against which writers of 1880s railed because of their refusal to carry certain ”advanced” books.

Charles Eason was himself the focus of a famous case of subscription library censorship. In 1895 an ‘advanced’ novelist of the day, Grant Allen, published a controversial novel, The Woman Who Did, an attack on the institution of marriage. What she ‘did’ was have a baby out of wedlock.

The high-minded editor of The Review of Reviews, W. T. Stead, devoted 18 pages to a critique of it, and after quoting extensively from the text, concluded that the book was its own best antidote. Far from undermining marriage, in the minds of right thinking folk the novel would reinforce it.

However, when that issue reached Dublin, Charles Eason refused to distribute it because the book was ”an avowed defence of Free Love”. The resolute stand by a Catholic business man on moral grounds impressed many people. Less impressive was the follow-up.

A Mr James O’Hara, of 18 Cope Street, wrote to the Liberal Westminster Gazette (‘the most powerful paper in Britain’) to reveal that he had been interested in reading a new book called Napoleon and the Fair Sex, by the distinguished French historian Frédéric Masson.

He was told by the assistant in the subscription library that the firm was not circulating the title. Mr Eason thought it contained ”improper details”. It had even been refused to ”one of the best-known pressmen in Dublin”.

However, Mr O’Hara then witnessed an assistant in the shop offering the book from under the counter with a low bow to a well dressed customer.

He queried this with Mr Eason himself, and was informed that it was perfectly in order as the customer was His Serene Highness Prince Francis of Teck.

Mr O’Hara was dismayed. ”I told him it was likely, from the description he had given of it, to be more injurious to a young man such as Prince Francis of Teck than to me.”

Eason replied: ”Oh, these high up people are different. Besides they are so influential we cannot refuse them. However, if you wish you can now have the book.” Mr O’Hara replied he had no wish to read it since learning it was ”quite improper”.

The critic and novelist A. T. Quiller-Couch, commenting on this affair, observed that Mr Eason seemed to believe at one and the same time that ”ordinary moral principals cannot be applied to persons of royal blood”, and on the other hand that they could be applied to princes, but ”the application would involve more risk than Mr Eason cared to undertake”.

This little anecdote finds no place in Prof. Cullen’s book, but one wonders if things have changed, for minor royalty, persons of influence, or the managers of bookshops.

All shops are now well stocked with ”advanced books” with ”improper details” galore. Eason’s, however, now once again the property of W. H. Smith, no longer publish works of Catholic piety.