400 Years of the King James Bible
No one present 400 years ago at the birth of the King James Bible, least of all the translators themselves, could have imagined that it would live so long. As Arnold Hunt writes in the TLS this week, King James’ offer to commission a new Bible translation had been made quite casually in 1604, chiefly to console the Puritans for their failure to secure any other changes to the relationship between religion and the state. To many contemporaries, it seemed little more than a royal vanity project. As for the literary style of the new Bible—so often regarded as its greatest glory—there was little sign that the translators paid it much attention. For the most part, it seems, they were content to take care of the sense and leave the sounds to take care of themselves. This is a literary masterpiece that shows no evidence of its writers striving for literary effect.
It is scarcely any wonder, Hunt argues, that it seemed to an earlier generation of critics to have emerged miraculously, almost from nowhere, as though, in the age of Shakespeare, beauty and majesty of style were simply present in the air that the translators breathed. The truth is more complex as David Norton describes in The King James Bible: A Short History from Tyndale to Today; Norton's achievement is to “demystify the KJB.”
In reviewing Gordon Campbell's Bible: The Story of the King James Version, 1611-2011, Hunt notes too its unexpected influence in the United States. A copy of the Scofield Reference Bible was a rare sight in British homes even when almost every home had a bible of some kind or other. In the U.S. it remains a commonly found version of the KJB. Scofield annotated the text in order to synthesize the dissonant messages that he feared might trouble readers on the journey between the creation of the world and the Last Judgment. His efforts still encourage the more fundamentalist of evangelical groups and form part of the reception of the King James Bible which, as Hunt argues, is in Britain the least familiar part of its remarkable history.
Tennyson and the Real Arthur Hallam
Arthur Hallam was an English Victorian gentleman whose death inspired Tennyson's In Memoriam, one of the greatest literary tributes to a lost friend. Robert Douglas-Fairhurst considers this week Martin Blocksidge's “scrupulously fair-minded biography of Hallam” and reflects on a man whose “main benefit to mankind was through his posthumous influence.” Not only was Hallam the moving force behind In Memoriam, but the rest of his social circle could find comfort in rewriting his story as a tragedy of unfulfilled promise. For friends like Gladstone, his death may even have been something of a relief. There was now nothing to prevent him from “polishing up his memories like jewels.” The main casualty of this process was the real Hallam, “whose presence was gradually blotted out by the magnificent idol raised in his place.” Faced with so many gushing tributes, the challenge for any biographer is to see his subject plain, and, “Blocksidge is good at pointing out the spasms of wishful thinking in Hallam’s later reputation, as well as quoting dissenting voices such as the clergyman who coolly noted in his diary on October 10, 1833: 'Hallam is dead!—such is life: the accomplished—vain, philosophic Hallam, dead.' "
The Other Women of History
What is a mistress? Elizabeth Abbott, who has published A History of Celibacy and held the post of Dean of Women at Trinity College, University of Toronto, offers this definition: “A woman voluntarily or forcibly engaged in a relatively long-term sexual relationship with a man who is usually married to another woman.” This week her book, Mistresses: A History of the Other Woman, is reviewed in the TLS by Lisa Hilton. Abbott maintains that “mistressdom,” like celibacy, is an essential means by which to consider sexual relationships outside marriage—“in fact, an institution parallel and complementary to marriage.” In royal palaces a woman’s ability to “parlay her emotional command of her lover into tangible control” turned into big business. Nell Gwyn might have been reduced to the “gutter tactics” of lacing a rival’s supper with laxatives, but at least she got to be the ancestress of five of Britain’s current 26 dukes. “Mistressdom” might also be considered a safe bet for a publisher’s list, and Hilton judges that “Abbott duly provides us with a generally cheerful tumble through adultery down the ages.”
Peter Stothard's latest book is On the Spartacus Road: A Spectacular Journey Through Ancient Italy. He is also the author of Thirty Days, a Downing Street diary of his time with British Prime Minister Tony Blair during the Iraq war.