An exquisite, elegiac novel about Gerard Manley Hopkins’s composition of the poem “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” as well as the five nuns whose death in the wreck inspired it.
The novel opens at St. Beuno’s School of Theology in northern Wales, where Hopkins is studying in the final years of his Jesuit training. He reads of the Deutschland maritime catastrophe in the London Times and almost immediately begins the struggle, after ten years of silence, to articulate the depth of his feeling about this event. The narrative focuses on Hopkins’s production of the poem and on the nuns from Germany forced into exile by Bismarck’s anti-Catholic laws barring religious orders. While little is known historically about the lives of the Franciscan nuns, Hansen (Isn’t It Romantic: An Entertainment, 2003, etc.) constructs plausible life stories in loving detail. In flashbacks we also learn of Hopkins’s initial crisis of faith, his conversion to Catholicism (which Hopkins saw as a corrective to “the triviality of this life”) and his subsequent estrangement from his family. Along the way Hansen uses excerpts from Hopkins’s letters and journals and also cleverly inserts into the novel images from Hopkins’s poetry—the “gear and tackle and trim” of the transatlantic steamer, for example, or a Rhine Valley landscape that is “plotted and pieced” with farms. Because we know what will happen to the Deutschland, the novel has a tone of doomed inevitability as we learn of the nuns’ optimistic plans to restart their conventual life in Missouri after the journey. The title refers not just to the status of the nuns but also to Hopkins himself, exiled from ever feeling fully at home in this world.
A glorious work about tragedy, creativity and literal and metaphorical shipwrecks.