Perfection, Preservation, and Prerogative, or: Do you know any novels about Shakespeare?

Charles Williams Book Summary #27: Bacon (1933)

BaconLast week, I posted a summary of CW’s play A Myth of Francis Bacon. It was performed in 1932. The next year, CW decided to expand upon his work in that play and write a full-length biography of Sir Francis Bacon. It was published by Arthur Barker in 1933.

I have never liked biographies. They are nearly always written in a very strange style, with a tendency to stick unrelated facts into one sentence: “Born at the turn of the century, he sported a goatee and horn-rimmed spectacles.” That sort of thing. (I hate the vague-modifier sentence construction in any context). Williams does not commit these syntactical sins. However, his biography is (as you will be unsurprised to learn) written in a [different] very strange style, with the assumption that the reader already knows all the outer facts of Bacon’s life.

I didn’t know much at all about Bacon when I picked up this book, and at first I thought I was not going to be able to read it. It was wildly confusing. Williams uses an enormous number of titles and nicknames for each person, without explanation. For instance, he will arbitrarily refer to Robert Deveraux, the Earl of Essex, as “the Favourite” or “the Earl” or any number of phrases about the one who was in the Queen’s eye or something like that. He switches from personal names to peerage titles without warning. Now, this is a somewhat common British trait, so I shouldn’t fault him too badly for it. But he does lay it on pretty thick.

He also skips plain exposition in favor of immediate, deep, profound analysis. CW had a remarkable ability for seeing into the core of something (or someone) right away—or at least of imagining such a core, and putting it forward as factual truth. And yet he doesn’t present those interpretations up front in the book, the way we would nowadays in our thesis-statement driven essay-writing style. No, he assumes these insights and assumes that the reader shares them.

Here are a couple of examples.

On page 153, he claims that:

The Monarch in action, then, was the proper concern of Bacon’s political thought, as mankind in action was of his moral, as nature in action was of his contemplative, as the word in action was of his creative, and himself in action of his person. The five movements march and countermarch through all his affairs.

And from that point onwards in the book he refers to those five movements of thought without reminding the reader of what they are.

He also asserts that “Absurd and contradictory, false and hypocritical as it may seem, Bacon believed in doing things for love” (164). intentional fallacy picWell, how the heck does he know that? It’s the Fallacy of Intentionality (or “Crit Fic”) in its worst form. But, see, CW does here what he does in all his literary criticism: he writes about others as if he were writing about himself. He analyzes their poetry the way he wants his poetry analyzed. He writes about their minds the way he wants his mind to be appreciated.

There’s my Intentional Fallacy for the day.

He also comes up with little organizing mantras, such as “Perfection and Preservation,” and uses them over and over throughout the book. Again, he doesn’t explain them. Perfection of what? Preservation of what? But then again, he applies them to nearly anything Bacon had to deal with in his life, so it ends up being Perfection and Preservation of nearly everything.

sir_francis_bacon_joke_shirt-rda92805dfec74dd18bf285580953ebe0_vjfe2_324He talks about The Prerogative, The Instauration, and other big Latinate abstractions, again, without any explanation. But an explanation gradually dawns on the mind of even a dull reader like myself, through repetition and context. The Instauration is the big change that Bacon wanted to institute in what we would call Scientific Reasoning: in logic, in research, in experimentation, leading eventually to the Scientific Method. The Prerogative is the debate over the Queen’s/King’s power (as opposed to Parliament’s) in the 16th and 17th centimes in England. Aha.

The upcoming crisis of King and Parliament, which was to break out in the 1640s, is always looming throughout this narrative. Indeed, the story becomes increasingly lively, and eventually I was completely drawn in and found it to be quite compelling. The crazy story of Queen Elizabeth’s infatuation with the Earl of Essex, their subsequent power play, and his final treason and execution, is as page-turning as a novel.

Francis-Bacon-but-not-Shakespeare1Well. Almost. OK, not exactly. I’d love to read an historical novel depicting those events, by the way. Do you know of a good one? How about any novels depicting the life of Shakespeare, while we’re at it?

Speaking of Shakespeare, CW fills his study of Bacon with many comparisons to Shakespeare. Once he writes: “If Shakespeare had, per impossible, been in Bacon’s place, he would have been Chancellor a dozen years earlier than Bacon was—if he had decided to be” (103). And yet he makes funny little nods at the authorship controversy, leaving open the tiniest crack in case Bacon wrote the plays. But of course he didn’t: “If indeed Bacon wrote the plays, he contained himself marvellously well over this in his letters” (116) and:

If Bacon had been in Shakespeare’s place there would have been many fewer jokes in the plays… But the real difference is metaphysical; it is between a man possessed of a particular vision of the universe and a man possessed of no vision but of the universe. It would almost be easier to believe that Bacon wrote Milton (103).

There are some strange, occult moments in this biography. There is an odd theory of pre-natal psychological development:

James may have disliked duelling from a natural horror born in him from that pre-natal crisis when his mother by the light of the candles caught from the overthrown table saw the daggers flashing over her musician and favourite, and felt her husband’s arm holding her away from interference with the savage deed” (205).

There are theological and moralizing digressions, such as this one:

There is, it seems, a law in things that if a man is compelled to choose between two good actions, mutually exclusive, the one which he chooses to neglect will in course of time avenge itself on him. Rightly considered, this is a comfortable if chastening thought, for it implies that the nature of good is such that it can never, not even for some other mode of itself, be neglected. If ever it is, for whatever admirable reasons, set on one side it will certainly return. (255)

And there is a summary conclusion in which “his Fortune” is personified as a woman who plays hide-and-seek with him.

Yet overall, I found this to be an enlightening book. It overwhelmed me with its enormous vision and sweeping insight. I would still prefer to read a basic factual biography of Bacon that assumed no prior knowledge, but since I had to read this anyway to get through CW’s works, I’m glad I learned a lot about the Elizabethan era along the way.

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About Sørina Higgins

Sørina Higgins is a writer, English teacher, and Inklings scholar. Sørina serves as Chair of the Department of Language and Literature at Signum University and teaches English at King's College and Lehigh Carbon Community College. She has published two books of poetry, "The Significance of Swans" and "Caduceus."
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10 Responses to Perfection, Preservation, and Prerogative, or: Do you know any novels about Shakespeare?

  1. Tom Hillman says:

    Sørina,

    The more of Charles Williams I read, the more convinced I am that one either has to read pretty much everything he says ten times to understand it, so layered is it with allusion upon allusion, or that everything he writes needs some kind of midrashic commentary. Don’t misunderstand me. I really enjoy his work, but very few rational authors I have ever read have caused me to say “Wait, what, let me read that again,” quite so often as our Charles.

    The quote about the price you pay for even the choice between goods is itself priceless. And I love the quote about Bacon, Shakespeare, and the universe.

    As for a novel about Shakespeare, any book asserting that anyone other than Christopher Marlowe was the the author of the plays of Shakespeare would do. :-/

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  2. michaelhuggins2591 says:

    To be sure, Williams went in for interesting theories, but the idea that James may have been prenatally frightened by the butchering of his mother’s lover, David Rizzio, in her presence when she was pregnant did not originate with Williams; it has been suggested for years, and perhaps centuries. It is known that James, as an adult, was a physical coward and wore padded clothing as protection against possible dagger thrusts, and I believe even his contemporaries, knowing the notorious story of Lord Darnley’s revenge on Mary’s lover, speculated that this was the reason for James’s fear.

    “The Succession: A Novel of Elizabeth and James,” by George P. Garrett, includes Lord Burleigh; his son, Robert Cecil, Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth, and perhaps Essex as historical characters (I read it about 25 years ago). It’s quite detailed, and the style may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I enjoyed it.

    I have read that Shakespeare appears as an historical character in Sir Walter Scott’s novel “Kenilworth,” though his presence as an adult is supposed to be anachronistic, since the novel contains such events as the death of Amy Robsart, which wouuld have happened about 4 years before Shakespeare was born.

    I’ll take a stab at “perfection and preservation,” based on what I think I understand of the thinking of that day. It may refer to a choice between progress in the spiritual life, whereby submission to God’s will allows his grace to perfect us in His likeness–vs. a desire to stop where we are and preserve what we already are, a manifestation of self-will and pride.

    But not having read Williams’s book, that is just speculation on my part.

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  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Attractive characteristic sample quotations – once again, you leave the reader keen to tackle the book!

    The Wikipedia Mary Queen of Scots article notes “On 9 March, a group of the conspirators, accompanied by Darnley, murdered Rizzio in front of the pregnant Mary at a dinner party in Holyrood Palace.” And “Mary’s son by Darnley, James, was born on 19 June 1566”. Perhaps Williams in particular (and the predecessors Michael Huggins notes, in general) were simply ahead of their time, waiting for the ‘Baconian method’ to catch up with them. I’ve read that the Canadian conductor, Boris Brott, was surprised, when learning new pieces of music, to find he already knew certain of them by heart, particularly the viola parts – until his mother realized they were pieces that she had practiced when he was in her womb. Maybe a single, traumatic, noisy incident could equally leave its mark on James at six months. (I wonder if anyone also talked about it in his hearing as he was growing up?) Hmm… nine days till James’s 449th birthday: a good lead up to Williams’s James biography?

    As to novels, I was impressed by various bits of Gary Blackwood’s Shakespeare Stealer series enthusiastically read aloud to me from the omnibus collected edition – though I have yet to read them all for myself.

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  4. Stephen Barber says:

    For novels with Shakespeare as a character, I can recommend three: the first two are Robert Nye’s The Late Mr Shakespeare (1998) and Jude Morgan’s The Secret life of William Shakespeare (2012). The third is the latest historical novel by my wife, Mary Hoffman, titled Shakespeare’s Ghost and due out later this year.

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    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      How bawdy (or whatever) is Robert Nye’s novel? (A short review at Amazon of his earlier Mrs. Shakespeare: The Complete Works (1993) includes ” it was too much soft porn that was coy–for my taste. (This from a woman who read all three 50 Shades books!)” (!), and “bawdy” is a recurrent word in reviews there of this one.) Having broached the subject of bawdy and/or pornographic, I will go ahead and mention a famous (or notorious) little work which preceded Willams’s Myth of Bacon in imagining a meeting of Shakespeare and Francis Bacon (among quite a host of other people of renown), Mark Twain’s “risqué squib” (as Wikipedia calls it), [Date: 1601.] Conversation, as it was by the Social Fireside, in the Time of the Tudors. (It’s conceivable that Williams even encountered one or another privately-printed copy of the sort which circulated surreptitiously, though I have no idea how likely that was in England c. 1930.)

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      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        I might add that Eric Partridge, in the “Preface” to Shakespeare’s Bawdy (first published in1947), expresses the opinion that, “If Shakespearean criticism had not been so largely in the hands of academics and cranks, a study of Shakespeare’s attitude towards sex and his use of the broad jest would probably have appeared at any time since 1918” – after first having observed of “this book, or one like it,” that “up to (say) 1930, it would have been deprecated”.

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        • Stephen Barber says:

          Academics now are almost too happy to discuss Shakespeare and sex. Stanley Wells’ Shakespeare, sex and love (2010) is quite sensible. On Shakespeare and the young man of the sonnets I admire the work of the late S. C. Campbell: the latest issue of her edition is titled Shakespeare’s sonnets: the alternative text (2009) and her study Only Begotten Sonnets, 1978.

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          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            “Academics now are almost too happy to discuss Shakespeare and sex.” I have the impression that that has been the case – even the ‘orthodoxy’ – for quite a while. I recall the appearance of Stephen Booth’s edition of the Sonnets, nearly 40 years ago, now… Thanks for the recommendations! (The ‘googlified’ 2001 edition of Partridge linked from his Wikipedia article has a “Foreword” by Stanley Wells.)

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      • Stephen Barber says:

        Sex does play a part in Robert Nye’s The Late Mr Shakespeare but so do many other things. I would not describe it as bawdy.

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  5. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Somewhat tangentially, where fictionalized Shakespeare is concerned, Henry James’s “The Birthplace” (1903) just sprang to mind – I am aware of it by somehow having encountered an audiobook version of it by the superb Nicholas Clifford for LibriVox.org, but have not tried it myself in any form, intriguing as it sounds! (Searching the Wade online list of Williams MSS., I did not find any reference to Henry James. I can’t recall any from Williams’s letters to Theodora Bosanquet, either, though it does not seem unlikely they would have discussed him – and I see among her papers in the Harvard online catalogue, ” Hopkins, Gerard, 1892. Memories of Henry James [a B.B.C. talk] TS.; [London] 27 Oct 1946. 5s. (5p.)”!)

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