In Hope of Heaven: English Recusant Prison Writings of the Sixteenth Century.
Strauss's topic is the prison writings of four recusants from two different periods of English history, from the writings of John Fisher (his two letters to his sister Elizabeth, a nun) and Thomas More (Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation) during the reign of Henry VIII, to those of Robert Southwell (Epistle of Comfort, written while Southwell was in hiding but addressed to the imprisoned Earl of Arundel), and Benedict Canfield (The Christian Knight) in the reign of Elizabeth I. Strauss gives a brief summary of the historical circumstances of each priest's imprisonment, but his main interest lies in the Christian, as opposed to classical, traditions that each priest selects in constructing his own consolation, including the prison writings of the apostles Paul and John.
In John Fisher's letters to his sister, Strauss locates the solitary, spiritual, and pastoral nature of Fisher's last writings, as Fisher directs attention to his sister's spiritual needs. Fisher writes not as an influential official - as bishop and chancellor of Cambridge - but as a preacher and brother. Thomas More's Dialogue of Comfort eschews polemics, taking its impetus instead, Strauss explains, from More's fear of being disemboweled and his desire to seek comfort in light of his imprisoned condition.
While Strauss's interest in Fisher and More lies with the private struggle that attends persecution, his interest in Southwell and Canfield rests in their embracing the opportunity for martyrdom. Strauss contextualizes Southwell's enthusiasm for martyrdom - as he writes to the imprisoned Arundel, and as he confronts his own death - by juxtaposing Southwell to John Donne, who, in Pseudo-Martyr, would condemn English Catholic martyrdom as mere suicide. In contrast, Southwell finds glory in martyrdom: "Let them draw us upon hurdles, hang us, unbowel us alive . . . set our quarters upon their gates to be meat for the birds . . . in such chariots do we triumph" (121). Turning to Canfield's The Christian Knight, Strauss summarizes the situation in England after Queen Elizabeth had made the English presence of priests ordained after 1572 illegal, and after invasive Catholic strategies to return England to Catholicism had become well-known. Canfield fits his writing into a charged atmosphere of confrontation by replicating in his treatise the tradition of the knight as "one who attempts to reestablish justice" and "defend the Catholic faith" (132) in his role as a traveler to heaven.
The usefulness of this book to scholars lies in two areas: it provides another means of access to the discourse of early modern religion in England - a subject that is currently drawing the attention of a significant number of scholars; in addition, by focusing on the private and inner life, and on the spiritual as the exemplary, it also stands in opposition, however uneasy at times, to cultural studies that tend to find in all seeming exemplarity a self-interested self-fashioning directed at material gain.
DONNA B. HAMILTON University of Maryland, College Park
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|Author:||Hamilton, Donna B.|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1998|
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