Reading: The Radical Theology of Eva Ibbotson’s A COMPANY OF SWANS (1985)

A_Company_Of_SwansMiss Bates read one of the best romances ever and it was Eva Ibbotson’s A Company Of Swans. Woven into Harriet and Rom’s magnificent romance is Ibbotson’s notion of what faith constitutes: how it calls us and how we enact it. Religious references are threaded throughout Harriet and Rom’s great love. To set the scene: Harriet lives in 1912 Cambridge, England, under the puritanical, stringent, miserly, dour thumbs of father and aunt. Her singular joy: ballet. Her love of dance leads to her escape from her father’s house to join an eccentric, eclectic company of dancers and prima ballerina, Simonova, slated to dance in the Amazon rainforest. There, she meets Rom, a wealthy, generous, darkly good-looking, self-exiled ex-pat. Rom falls in immediate love, as does Harriet, but they, for individual reasons, bide their time. Eventually, they are lovers. Another Woman, nasty machinating by sundry parties, including Harriet’s father, aunt, and ex-ish fiancé, conspire to destroy Harriet and Rom’s idyll. Rom plays shiny-armor knight, in a scene reminiscent of one of MissB’s favourites, the ending of Hitchcock’s Notorious. All’s well that end’s well, as is the Bard’s wisdom and the romance genre’s. MissB will, in a most unscholarly fashion, pen what struck her about Ibbotson’s theology in A Company Of Swans. Read it for the romance, remember it for how love is our most vital calling.

WARNING: This post be LONG!

We are introduced to Harriet as she muses on the fate her father, aunt-from-hell, and the Ladies of the Trumpington Tea Circle have determined for her: early marriage. The fiancé? Edward Finch-Dutton, a scientist with hopes for a bright academic future, one part of which is marrying the daughter of a Master who can further his career. Harriet hugs her love of dance to herself, feeds swans, and prays: 

“Don’t let me give in, God,” she begged, tilting back her head, sending the long soft hair cascading down her back as she searched the quiet, dove-grey sky of Cambridge for some portent – Halley’s comet; the pointing finger of Isfrael – to indicate deliverance. “Don’t let me marry Edward just to get away from home. Don’t let me, God, I beg of you! Show me some other way to live.”

A church clock struck four, and another … and suddenly she smiled, the grave little face utterly transformed as she picked up her case. Somehow her dancing lessons had survived; those most precious times were left to her. And abandoning the resolutely silent firmament, she quickly made her way beside the verdant lawns towards King’s Parade.

When Miss Bates read this early-in-the-novel passage, she recognized its magnificence. Harriet is not a prig and hypocrite like aunt and father, or follower and sycophant like Edward. She prays for the strength to hold out for “another way to live”. She knows she’s suffering under her father and aunt. She also admits Edward’s reign would be benign. To marry Edward, however, would be to give up her heart, never to love truly and freely. Harriet acknowledges her too human weakness: the desire to be delivered from suffering, asks for God’s help, and finds a response, a bolstering, a strength to withstand the temptation of an easier, emotionally-numbing path.

Harriet’s desire is for Dostoevskian beauty, one found in dance. Before Harriet sets off on her Amazonian ballet adventure, she follows the fifth commandment and asks her father’s permission. This dinner-table exchange follows:

She had pushed away her plate and was gripping the edge of the table, the intensity of her longing turning the usually clear, grave face into an image from a pietà: a wild-eyed and beseeching Magdalene. “Please, Father,” said Harriet, “I implore you to let me go.”

… “You will drop this subject immediately, Harriet,” barked the Professor. “You are embarrassing our guests.”

“No, I won’t drop it.” Harriet had become very pale, but her voice was steady. “You have always thought dancing was frivolous and silly, but it isn’t – it’s the most marvellous thing in the world. You can say things when you dance that you can’t say any other way. People have danced for the glory of God since the beginning of time. David danced before the Ark of the Covenant … And this journey … this adventure … “

To finish Harriet’s sentence, “this journey … this adventure” is for the “glory of God.” If Harriet can create beauty for others, then she will be doing God’s work. In her father’s puritanical, rigid, narrow-minded, joyless house, paradoxically, Harriet has grown into a loving, giving person. From whence her gift and heart? Her heartache at scene’s end is heart-breaking: “It was not her father’s refusal that so devastated her now; it was his bigotry, his hatred, his determination not to understand. And lying there … Harriet gave up the long, long struggle to love her father and her aunt. It was for this loss above all that she wept. She had learned, during the long years of her childhood, to live without receiving love. To live without giving it seemed more than she could bear.” To give love freely makes life meaningful. Suddenly, Harriet’s father’s cruelty has brought her to the point Harriet cannot love – that is devastating to her.

Harriet’s journey is one where she, at first, realizes no matter how much love she offers father and aunt, they have turned themselves away from it. Turning away from love is sinful? Harriet neither judges nor condemns, but slips into unhappiness, taking this knowledge solely upon herself. Harriet knows this is a dangerous moment. With Edward, she could have slid into complacency, she is now in danger of hopelessness: “Only I must not despair, thought Harriet. Despair was a sin, she knew that: turning one’s face away from the created world. And resolutely she forced herself not just to look at, but really to see the greening hedges, the glistening buttercups, the absurd new lambs – setting herself, as unhappy people do, a kind of pastoral litany.” Yet another return to the equilibrium of love for Harriet, by considering the lilies of the field. Even in unhappiness, there is comfort, hope, possibility in meditating on the beauty of creation.

As Harriet heals from the spiritual wound of her father’s betrayal, she redefines what it means to love and discovers that it has to do with answering a vocation’s call: “Marcus Aurelius whose Meditations she now pulled out and opened at random, to read: Live not as though a thousand years are ahead of you. Fate is at your elbow; make yourself good while life and power are still yours. Only, what is good? wondered Harriet. She had thought of it as submission, virtue, not setting up her will against others. But might it mean something else? Might it mean making yourself strong and creative? Might it mean following your star?” A most interesting passage, thought Miss Bates: how to find the good is not through obedience that demands erasure of creative spirit. Harriet realizes she fixated too much on the idea of command and obedience as ends. Command and obedience are life-giving when at the service of higher purpose, in serving beauty. When Harriet reaches the ballet company, the discipline of the body to create beauty translates into her understanding that beauty must be made from something and offered to others. Her body can be used in its service, rather than in submitting to the empty, soul-destroying discipline of her father’s household.

Harriet makes her way to the Amazonian town where the ballet company is to perform and Rom lives in its countryside. Miss Bates adored this sly little addendum to Harriet’s comments about “dancing for the glory of God”. Sundry audience members arrive for the performance, including two Catholic priests: “The mission boat belonging to the Silesian Brothers at Santa Maria brought Father Joseph and Father Anselm, who knew that all art was for the glory of God and had made sure of excellent seats in the stalls. The cafés were now filling up. A party of lady schoolteachers from a select seminary in Santarém, offered the choice of sleeping in the street or in Madam Anita’s brothel, sensibly chose the brothel.” Like our Lord in the Gospels, humanity mixes the sinner and pious; yet, if their hearts are true and they look to the “glory of God,” they are joined by the joy of arrival to partake in one of our greatest gifts – artistic endeavour and the beauty it engenders.

And we arrive, finally, at the moment of Harriet and Rom’s meeting. It is at his estate, where the dancers have been invited, and Rom chances upon Harriet holding one of his servant’s babies; she hands the baby to his mother: 

“God must be very brave,” she said, making babies with fontanelles like that. What if their souls should escape before they’ve joined? What then?”

“Oh, God is brave all right,” said Rom lightly. “You see Him all the time, chancing His arm.” But he was startled, for she had smiled as she spoke and everything he had thought about her gravity and seriousness was suddenly set at nought.

It is a whimsical conversation, light and brief. And yet it is a peculiar one for a newly-acquainted couple. Harriet speaks in jest, about the baby’s delicacy, with wonder at God’s creation of this fragile, dependable creature. Rom follows her reasoning, in sync, with a retort that evidence of God’s faith in his creation is constant. It is a perfect moment of understanding and sympathy and will be echoed in those moments after Rom and Harriet become lovers.

The morning after Harriet and Rom become lovers, Harriet revels in being “ruined.” First, Ibbotson seems to say something about social and higher standards. By society’s standards, Harriet is a fallen woman; but in God’s “standards,” a higher purpose, Harriet has come fully into herself by choosing love. And, at the centre of this joy is the human body and the God-given communion of physical congress:

… “I think God has made a mistake about love,” she said to him, lying with her head in the hollow of his arm. “If one can find it – all this ecstasy, and seeing the world in a grain of sand like this … then one isn’t going to struggle to be properly religious and good.”

“If you knew how rare it was, Harriet,” he said, smoothing back her hair. “What we have here. God wasn’t chancing His arm much, I assure you. Not many people are deflected from the pursuit of the good by a requited passion. I have chased it all my adult life – and I found it the day you came.”

“It’s because they haven’t got you that they don’t find it. But then why should I be given this chance? Why me?”

She could make no sense of this. Wickedness had led to ecstasy … “Only I’m not completely happy all the time,” she pointed out, “because you won’t let me creep from the foot of the bed into your presence. So perhaps God will let me – “

“Oh, Harriet, let Him be. He’s not after you, poor God! You’re His suffering creature now bathed in love. Come here and I’ll show you.”

Other than its incredible, moving sexiness, this Harriet-Rom exchange explores the tension between Harriet’s father’s version of God and Rom’s. Harriet has only known her father’s letter-of-the-law, puritanical, judgemental version of Christianity, of God. Harriet’s slyly ironic struggle with the God that allows “wickedness” to lead to “ecstasy”: surely, she stands with the goats, she muses. Rom’s response is a fascinating one: on the one hand, he seems to say that Harriet and Rom’s “little love” doesn’t take too much on God’s part.

Ibbotson’s notion is a radical one: love “deflects” from the pursuit of the good, the pharisaical good of ambition, advancement, propriety, of living within social approbation. Harriet’s response to Rom is to claim for herself a place of abject love, the privilege of submitting to the beloved. Rom’s antithesis to Harriet’s understanding is to point to her suffering humanity as redeemed by his love, his earthly love, which is no more, and yet no less, than the Divine, as we experience here, in this limited world and self. Blake’s “grain of sand” is an image that says there are ways, through sharing with the Beloved of body and soul, that is given to us to partake of eternity. As Harriet and Rom live their Eden, before insidious snakes enter to exact its ruin, Rom muses on what it means to be Harriet’s lover: “For Rom, since he had snatched Harriet from the stage, there had been no moment of hesitation, no second when he did not know his mind and heart. She was everything to him – beloved, companion, intellectual equal and passionate mistress – one of the world’s naturals for that mysterious act which human beings use to break down the barriers of the self.” Here is the crux of the matter: the dissolution of the barriers of the self, the going beyond the self, the offering to the Other as a means of salvation in the act of human love.

When snakes arrive, Rom and Harriet endure a dark night of the soul made of separation and loneliness. They don’t despair, however, because they have the memory of their time together. They do not hope; they endure. When the snakes are defeated by faith and love, Rom and Harriet can revisit what God asks of them in their union, with joy and a little playfulness:

“Well, you said we were going to be married tomorrow, didn’t you? Because of the special licence?”

“Yes, I did say that. If you wish it, that is?” he teased.

… “I do rather wish it,” said Harriet. “I wish it like someone who has been lying in a cold grave might wish for the day of resurrection. Or like an extremely hungry lion might wish for a Christian. And I mean to be immensely respectable and wear a mob-cap and have quarrels with you about the coal bill to show how independent I am. Only there is one thing I so very much want to do, still, and it isn’t a very married thing. I know you don’t approve of it and I do understand that, but it would make me so happy because you know how interested I have always been in Suleiman the Great.”

He looked at her and felt tears spring to his eyes, because after all she had been through she had kept the gift of laughter, could offer him what he longed for with such gallantry and grace.

“You want to creep from the foot of the bed into the presence?” he asked with mock severity.

Harriet admitted that this was so. “They weren’t abject, the odalisques,” she explained. “People have that wrong. They just worked very hard at love – it was all they had.”

But Rom, aware that the time for conversation was running out, was applying himself to the practical aspects of the problem.

“Under the counterpane or over it, do you wish to creep?” he inquired … and in two strides he was beside her.

“We will creep together,” announced Rom …

A perfect end to what began as a young woman feeding swans and praying for the strength to make choices true to herself: a creator of beauty, a lover of nature, a companion, friend, helpmeet, lover, wife, and mother, fully herself, not truncated, not compromised, a flourishing, thriving, giving being in communion with an earthly beloved. 

Years later, after the Great War’s devastation, one of the stiff, unbending “tea” ladies glimpses Harriet and Rom as they walk through their estate garden:

… in the middle of a sunny afternoon, it was unutterably shocking. This man with his silvered hair and his honorary post as Financial Advisor to the Cabinet had gathered his wife to him as if in acute hunger, then and there, for her presence. And Harriet … What was one to say of a woman close to her thirtieth year, and obviously pregnant, who stood on tiptoe in order to put up her arms and pull down her husband’s head?

Mrs. Belper stared. For the briefest of moments she remembered the opening bars of a Mozart sonata which her mother had liked to play, and that she had once thought there were angels. Remembered too Mr. Belper, who had brought her white violets when they were engaged, cupping them in an unexpected manner in his hands for her to smell …

Harriet and Rom are the Art and a glimpse of God’s arm at work, or the sound of His tread in the cool of the Garden, the fleeting glimpse of eternity and perfect love, celebrated in the body and enjoyed in companionship.

In the end, it’s fair to ask Miss Bates what makes Ibbotson’s “theology” radical? A Company Of Swans, in the genre’s context, is no inspie; most inspie publishers, reading between the lines, wouldn’t find its theology acceptable. Ibbotson’s theology is “radical” in the way of Dickinson’s: God is unknowable and not terribly collaborative in human affairs (hence, Rom’s comments about His arm). Ibbotson makes the “ruined” woman her champion. Ibbotson prefers the blurred lines of impropriety and freedom. God is, in the implications of our introduction to Harriet, part and parcel of “the resolutely silent firmament.” There is no road to Damascus for our protagonists, no “conversion narrative”. And yet, these are characters who partake of the Divine: in nature, in art, in love and companionship. And that is enough for MissB.

Miss Bates purchased A Company Of Swans and read it at great leisure and with the greatest enjoyment.

 

15 thoughts on “Reading: The Radical Theology of Eva Ibbotson’s A COMPANY OF SWANS (1985)

  1. I have this book in the house, so I think I will read it and then read this post afterwards. I’m on a mini-binge, I started with “The Morning Gift”, then went straight to “Magic Flutes”.

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  2. Brilliant review! You found words after all! lol TBH I was so verklempt after reading ACoS, it took me almost three weeks to find words. Brava, Miss B, Brava! For making me think of this lovely book in an entirely different light. 🙂

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    • This is the first Ibbotson I’ve read, but I have piled them all up in the paper TBR and, after my present Heyer, I’ll read another and another. Alas, the pile is finite.

      I love Willig: she was a gateway to romance author for me b/c of The Pink Carnation series, which I still really like. But I haven’t read That Summer … yet! Thank you for the rec.

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  3. Eva Ibbotson’s work is amazing. I have never read anything she wrote that didn’t speak to me, whether it was her books for children, young adults, or whoever. She packs so much into her elegant and subtle writing. Her stories seem very simple, and then the complexity and nuances gradually sneak up on you. I loved your review. What a wonderful perspective you provided on the work of a great author.

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