Platonic love and secrets from beyond the grave

Providence and Love
November 17, 2000

Ten years before his death, the poet and critic F. W. H. Myers sealed a secret message into an envelope and deposited it with a friend. He promised the Society for Psychical Research that if he survived his bodily death, he would attempt to transmit the same message to its members. When Myers had been dead three years, a Cambridge medium who practised automatic writing found that she had transmitted these sentences: "I have long told you of the contents of the envelope. Myers' sealed envelope left with Lodge. You have not understood. It has in it the words from the Symposium - about Love bridging the chasm."

The envelope was then opened, and it contained the words: "If I can revisit any earthly scene, I should choose the Valley in the grounds of Hallsteads, Cumberland."

John Beer's research into Myers's life demonstrates that these two messages are not, in fact, unconnected. He contends that Hallsteads, the scene of some central episodes in Myers's Platonic love affair with a married woman, was where he discovered that love could span the chasm between men and gods.

The story of Myers and Annie Marshall had a fictional parallel in J. A. Froude's 1849 novel The Nemesis of Faith . Froude's protagonist loses his Christian faith and subsequently forms an intense but non-sexual relationship with a married woman, but, as in Annie's case, the woman dies as a result of the pressure of the relationship. Froude's narrator condemns the liaison, yet despite this, the novel was publicly burnt at Exeter College, Oxford. The hostile response to the book demonstrates the extreme unconventionality of Myers's belief that his relationship with Annie could be sustained with perfect honour.

Myers's experiences - the crisis of faith, the attempt to replace it with an ideal Platonic love, the perception of that love as providential, the response to the death of a beloved, and the exploration of the possibility of life after death - provide a focus for Beer's discussion of Victorian thinking about providence and love. Of Myers's conversation with George Eliot, in which she pronounced that God was inconceivable, immortality unbelievable, but duty absolute, Beer comments: "For Myers that desperate sense of the modern predicament could be alleviated only if one could discover some assured evidence of personal immortality, underpinning human affections by restoring the awareness of a divine providence. Without such an assurance, his position could be sustained only by falling back on the tentative Platonic solution he had already formulated."

Beer's discussion of Ruskin's relationship with Rose La Touche revolves around similar concepts, as does his intervention in the debate about Wordsworth's "Lucy". He refutes the identification of Lucy with Wordsworth's sister or his wife, arguing that the poems refer to a youthful love affair and to a woman who "acted as guarantor for the subsistence of a power at the heart of nature on which he could rely in the midst of much that suggested indifference or even malevolence."

The introductory chapter provides a wide-ranging history of the concept of providence in English literature and its eventual displacement. But in the body of the book, the argument is peculiarly constructed, with many tangents. Beer does ultimately assimilate all these discussions to his main theme, but it is sometimes difficult, especially when reading the earlier chapters, to perceive the larger outlines of his project. However, the blend of literary criticism with historical and biographical detail is effective and engaging.

Subtly inflected commentaries on 19th-century faith, science, morality and literature are interspersed with narrative sections that flesh out relevant episodes in the lives of the chosen authors. There is a particular focus on the meetings, interactions and connections between these authors, and on their discussions about providence, immortality, spiritualism and love. Beer's conclusions are founded on an impressive body of research, and he draws on many intriguing personal documents, including William Ellery Channing's recently discovered journal, which records his visits to the Lake poets, and some of George Eliot's hitherto unpublished letters. Beer frequently reproduces the whole text of letters and other archival material, thus providing a valuable resource for other researchers.

Providence and Love should be of interest to all specialists in the literature and intellectual history of the 19th century.

Faye Hammill is lecturer in English, University of Liverpool.

Providence and Love: Studies in Wordsworth, Channing, Myers, George Eliot, and Ruskin

Author - John Beer
ISBN - 0 19 818436 0
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £45.00
Pages - 335

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