Friday, November 5, 2010

A Good Tip for Biblical Scholars from an Aussie Communist Author

As I said in my previous post, I've been reading Frank Hardy's The Hard Way, his account of the writing of Power Without Glory and the trial that followed publication. It's likely some people haven't heard of Hardy or of his book which he self-published back in 1950. The book was a fictional account of political powerbroker and businessman, John Wren, who had considerable influence in Victorian state politics and especially the Labor Party. In the book, the character John West is based on Wren. Hardy, a member of the Communist Party of Australia, was charged with criminal libel by Ellen Wren, wife to John Wren. In the book her character, Nellie West, is portrayed as having an adulterous relationship from which she became pregnant and had a child. If found guilty of criminal libel not only would the book have been banned and suppressed but, as the author, Hardy faced a lengthy gaol term as well. As I said in my previous post, reading The Hard Way has sent me back in time through my memories of living in Melbourne back in the early 70s. Most of the time I lived in Fitzroy, part of a network of Catholic Worker inspired households in the area. In many respects the world that Hardy describes in the Melbourne of 1950 was still there in 1972. The Melbourne City Watchhouse was largely unchanged, the streets, the pubs, for the last two days I've even been reliving the smells of the Fitzroy I knew then. Oh the tantalising tricks of memory. Because, of course, that Melbourne, that Fitzroy no longer exists. When I was last there on 2004 the working class neighbourhood had become pretty gentrified and up-market. I found that quite sad, in fact. I think that all those memories flooding back now may prompt some reflective posts of my younger days in Melbourne but not tonight. Tonight I want to pick up on something that Hardy wrote that seems quite relevant to biblical studies today.

As I said, Hardy's book was an historical fiction. It was based on the Wrens, especially John Wren and was designed to expose the corrupt workings of power in Victoria, especially as it related to the Labor Party and working class struggles. Hardy aspired to be a realist writer and, as a Communist, wrote the book as a tool for politicising and consciousness-raising amongst working class Australians. The Hard Way is fascinating for its portrayal of the way Communist and union activists brought literature into the lives of working class people, even when on the job.

At the end of Power Without Glory Hardy included an Author's Note on fiction and history and the writing of characters. It's referred to a number of times during the trial and so is quoted a few times in The Hard Way. I'm going to share those quotes here because I thought Hardy's observations were quite pertinent to biblical studies.

Hardy points out that there are three types of characters in his book, fictional, 'real people' and composite characters. The composite characters are a blend of real and fictional elements. He then observes

Will the characters be real or invented ? Characters – that is, people - cannot be invented, they must be based on persons drawn from real life… But no single person, as he exists, is concentrated or typical enough for literature; something must be added, something taken away. In every person there are characteristics typical of many people… Sometimes actual historical events and people will be portrayed, often composite incidents and characters…

I'm struck by the thought then that no matter how 'real' a character may be they are still in some sense composite because even for real people "something must added". At the same time too, even fictional characters in some way are derived from real people. All narrative then, even or especially narrative about real people and real events is in some sense composite, a blend of fiction and actuality. Power Without Glory is an example of such a composite work, so too is The Hard Way. Frank Hardy himself used a nom de plume, Ross Franklyn, based on both his and his wife's given names. Ross Franklyn becomes a character in The Hard Way; it's Hardy's way of reconciling the two people he had become, the novelist and the activist. Ross Franklyn is a fictional character but he is also a composite character, too, based on Frank Hardy himself.

Hardy's insights can also be applied to the biblical narratives, both Old and New Testaments. Even when they are dealing with real people, among whom I would place Ahab, Hezekiah, Josiah, Judas Maccabeus, Jesus, Pontius Pilate, Herod, Mary the mother of Jesus, these are all to a greater or lesser extent composite characters. The events that surround them, that they perform are likewise composite events, blends of fiction and reality, reality fictionalised. As for the fictional characters and events, they too are drawn on real people and events in some way, we just don't know who these people and events are and we will likely never know.

Many people might be upset by this fictionalising, the composite nature of the people and events recounted, probably no more so for large numbers of people, that the Gospel portraits of Jesus might be composite, fictionalised. In response I want to quote another passage from The Hard Way. First I needed to point out that despite the fact that the criminal libel was brought by Ellen Wren due to Nellie West's adultery, it's a fact that Nellie West is portrayed sympathetically all the way through Power Without Glory. She is driven to adultery by her husband. Also in The Hard Way, Hardy alleges that information he and his defence team received, gave them to believe that Ellen Wren was pressured by her husband into the action because he didn't want to bring an action himself. If he did he'd be putting the spotlight on serious allegations of criminal behavior on the part of the book's character, John West, criminal behaviour that might actually have been composite in nature, much moreso than Nellie West's adultery.

After the trial when Hardy is found not guilty by the jury, he relates this account of the reactions of John and Ellen Wren to the result.

I put the pen aside and idly began to read press cuttings which lay on the table.

‘John Wren was reading a copy of Fortune, the American business magazine,’ I read the interview by Herald journalist, Noble. ‘He put it down. I said, “Mr Wren, have you heard the news? The Hardy jury has returned a verdict of Not Guilty!” Not an emotion showed on the face of the seventy-nine-year-old financier. There was a long silence, broken only by his occasional repetitions, “Not Guilty… extraordinary!”… With a pale blue shawl around her shoulders, grey-haired Mrs Wren opened the kitchen door herself. She was white-faced but composed. She said, “The verdict is nothing more than I expected, that’s all I can say.”’

Ross Franklyn seemed as if he had been reading over my shoulder: ‘Well, John and Nellie West acted in character,‘ he said.

‘Yes,’ I replied simply.

What really counts is not that a figure has been made a composite of fiction and real. That's how narrative works. What counts most is that they act in character, in the text and vice versa. It's up to us to work out whether or not they do.

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