The Christmas Story
The Speaker, December 29, 1900
The Beloved Son. By Mrs. Francis Rye. London: Heineniann
The success which Mrs. Rye achieves in delivering a suggestive narrative of the life of Jesus for children is all the more creditable as she has to steer her way with immeasurable cunning between the two most dominant and serious factors of the age- the profound unspirituality of the spiritualist and the astonishing irrationality of the rationalist. On the one hand she contrives to avoid dogma without the error of dogmatising against dogma. If we may venture to guess, we fancy that Mrs. Rye has already suffered many things from the everlasting doctors of theology, who never fail to propound to all expositors of Jesus the same class of idiotic riddles which they once propounded to Jesus Himself. But she has successfully eluded the pack of pursuing scribes, and in this work we are no more troubled about the origin and nature of Christ than we were about the origin and nature of our own mothers. There are some people who require no letters of introduction. On the other hand, again, she has been equally successful in eluding the bigotry which is in mortal fear of bigotry, the pompous orthodoxy of the agnostic. Wherever a frankly theological or supernatural story obviously assisted the portraiture of the Divine Figure, she has employed it fearlessly and with incomparable common sense. The terror in which many excellent educationalists stand of the supernatural in religious narrative certainly finds no welcome in Mrs. Rye, or in us. These worthy persons (when they are not quite mad) have no hesitation in teaching those axioms of education, the old fairy-tales. They inform children with the gravest face that a beanstalk grew up into the sky, that a giant turned into a mouse, that a pumpkin turned into a stage-coach. But the imaginative and merciful wonders told in the book which has made our literature, the stories which no one can ignore who wishes to understand three sentences of our plainest prose-writers, are the wonders which are, by a unique and ludicrous timidity, excluded from education by these blameless but amusing men. Mrs. Rye has pursued the wise course of the old nurses; she has realised that a beanstalk growing up to heaven is not more surprising than a beanstalk growing at all; that water being turned into wine is not, upon the whole, so incredible as a cloud being turned into water.
The best element in Mrs. Rye's work lies probably in the mere names of the chapters. This cannot be dismissed as a small matter, if only because Christianity itself conquered not by its miracles nor its doctrines, but by its names. "The Son of Man"- "The Kingdom of Heaven"- humanity will have exhausted a thousand theologies and philosophies before it has exhausted these. And in this faculty of naming, which is itself a kind of poetic definition, Mrs. Rye shows her best inspiration. We were fully convinced that the book was in some degree a good one, from the mere fact that the first chapter was called "Christmas Day." These two words express better than any religious periphrasis the peculiar richness and intensity which clings round the story of Bethlehem. They express that hilarious and obvious reconciliation which destroys the utterly fanciful opposition between Paganism and Christianity, the reconciliation under which Christianity drops its affectation of rigour and Paganism its affectation of frivolity. Above all, it expresses that quality of instantaneousness, of urgency and excitement, which distinguishes Christmas from so many of the earth's festivals: the sentiment that it does not celebrate some event a thousand years back, but some event that has just happened, some event that happens every year.
Again, Mrs. Rye is fortunate in her title for the chapter on the parables, "The Wonderful Stories He Told." By a magnificent and justifiable contempt, the word "parable," dear to the Sunday-school teacher, is entirely omitted. We are not told that it is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning, nor provoked, like the little boy in the anecdote, to assert that it is a heavenly story with no earthly meaning. The earthly meaning is primarily narrated and emphasised and this is profoundly right, for it is the whole point of the parabolic method that if the earthly meaning fail to touch the heart and head the spiritual meaning is useless and worthless. If a woman were really indifferent to the loss of sixpence, if shepherds were diverted humorously with the thought of a lost sheep in the snow, if sowers, instead of scattering the seed, laid it delicately with a pair of tweazers in the right spot, if fathers were really in the habit of serving up to their sons an elegantly grilled stone, preceded by a fish-course of boiled serpent, the parables would be empty and immoral. It is as stories that they are primarily valuable, as pictures of the truths of human life, and as stories they touch that profound need for stories that has flowed everlastingly out of the East. It seems to remind us that Christ sat down to teach. The one connecting link between the Book of Job and the Arabian Nights lies in the fact that the Oriental author must have sat down to tell them both.
The title of the last chapter, "How in the End He Won," strikes the true note of Mrs. Rye's story. She largely succeeds in giving to Jesus His neglected place at the head of the heroes of mankind. She has told the story as if it were new in all men's ears: the only possible justification for telling it at all. Thus the noble but familiar figure is gilded with a colour of dawn which is not common in devotional works. It is the deepest of our tragedies that we do not feel the great revolution which founded modern civilisation as a revolution at all. There was more compliment in those who crucified Christ as a novelty than in those who worship Him as a commonplace.
The passage which Mrs. Rye writes about "Darkness" shows that she has a fine literary instinct. Yet the chief fault we have to find with her lies in the fact that she scarcely reports enough of the actual diction of Jesus. That diction is not to be distorted or neglected on the supposition that it exists solely for the furtherance of truths. The words of Christ were like the lilies of which He spoke. They were doubtless not produced by any conscious artistic process, but they have unfathomable artistic value. They toiled not, neither did they spin. But Epipsychidion in all its glory is not arrayed like one of these.