When I went to read English Literature at York University in the late sixties, the King James Authorised Version of the Bible was on the Required Reading List. Not because they wanted to make Christians of us all, but because, for the last three hundred and fifty years, the rhythms and imagery of the Authorised Version have permeated the consciousness of every English writer.
It did mine. I could tick the Bible off the Reading List straight away. I had what now seems an unimaginably religious upbringing. At home, we attended our parish church once or twice every Sunday, usually for Matins in those days, occasionally Holy Communion. I still have the Book of Common Prayer by heart, and all the Bible readings were from the Authorised Version. My primary school was a Roman Catholic convent, where I became a devotee of Saint Bernadette. I was then despatched to a Scottish Presbyterian boarding school where I was obliged to hide my china statue of the Infant Jesus at the back of the sock drawer and endure the long unscripted prayers and sermons of the Minister. My parents were impartial in sectarian matters. As long as a school was Christian it was respectable.
When I was confirmed in 1964 my grandmother gave me a copy of The New English Bible: New Testament, which had come out a few years earlier. Leafing through it I can see that my thirteen-year old self has written notes in the margin. But it was too late by then. The Authorised Version was already imprinted on my consciousness, as it had been for so many generations of English men and women before me.
When I consider the heavens, the worke of thy fingers, the moone and the starres which thou hast ordained;
What is man, that thou are mindful of him? And the sonne of man that thou visitest him?
For thou hast made him a little lower than the Angels; and hast crowned him with glory and honour.
When God Spoke English, Adam Nicolson’s account of the making of the Authorised Version, is a wonderful book. It opens a window into another world, where people thought and felt differently to us – the world of Jacobean England. It was a world where religion was absolutely central to all aspects of life, both personal and political; where the fault-line between the Puritan sensibility and High Anglican conviction that would culminate in the Civil War was already starting to widen. Yet, as Nicolson introduces us to the diverse company of the Translators, we start to perceive how the Authorised Version arose precisely from the creative fusion of both views; the Puritan desire for simplicity and the Jacobean love of linguistic richness and ornament.
Nicholson’s account had a particular resonance for me as a writer of historical fiction. The most challenging aspect of writing about periods other than our own is the translating of a different world view into a contemporary idiom. We all know how jarring it can be to read historical characters who speak in a C21 demotic – or, worse, in a forced archaic mode. But it’s about far more than language. It is so easy to patronize eras other than our own, to believe that their world view was primitive or less enlighted than our own. Here is Nicolson on the translation and annotation of the Song of Songs by Chaderton, one of the Translators:
‘That aching gap, between the ecstatic sexuality of the poem and of the rather helpful and interesting notes which the Translators provide, might make us smile now, but it was clearly not a comic effect that the Jacobean translators were after. The modern reaction to their binding of the religious and the erotic experience is a measure of what Eliot called ‘the dissociation of sensibility’ that occurred in the English consciousness at some time later in the seventeenth century. We can no longer imagine that erotic passion and religious intelligence can be bound together into one living fabric. All we see in the commentary of Chaderton’s company is what looks like their prudishness, their refusal to see the erotic and passionate for what it is. But in doing so we patronize them, we assume they were trying to conceal what they were so clearly and so consciously making vital and present. The Sancroft – Bonnest correspondence (previously quoted), Andrewes’s private prayers, Donne’s sermons and sacred sonnets, the poetry of Herbert, Vaughan and Traherne, all show that a profoundly open ‘passionality’ is completely and immediately available to these men. Their lives and works are largely motivated by a frame of mind in which emotion, intellect, spirituality and desire do not exist in insulated compartments but feed and nourish each other in what Eliot might have called, but didn’t, an ‘association of sensibility’, a self-communicativeness which we have lost.’
Nicolson elucidates so finely here a particular shift of consciousness, and our tendency to understand the past within the blinkers of our contemporary world view. For anyone writing about the past it is both a salutary warning and a huge challenge.