I have never read The Water Babies and it is perhaps to unfair to judge the author of that book, considered by some a classic, on a work like Hypatia.
To put it bluntly, Hypatia is a hard read. It’s very densely written and uses the high falutin language we imagine our Greek and Roman forebears would speak, if they spoke English.
The plot of Hypatia
“I have shown you New Foes under an old Face – your own likenesses in toga and tunic, instead of coat and bonnet”
Philomen a young man leaves the desert community in which he grew up, to see the world and arrives in Alexandria. Here he briefly becomes a member of the parabalanai and takes part in a non violent progrom (?) against the Jewish community in Alexandria. Horrified by this experience he leaves the parabalanai although he does not reject Christianity. During his time at Alexandria, he also meets Hypatia and falls under her spell. There are several subplots involving riots, political machinations, Libyan aristocrats, Jewish witches, a Gothic warband and Augustine. The novel ends with the death of several characters including Hypatia.
Charles Kingsley author of Hypatia
In Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son, the biography of his father, the Christian scientist Philip Gosse, the character of Charles Kingsley, the author Hypatia, comes out strongly:
“Charles Kingsley had never hesitated to come, from the beginning, ever since our arrival. He had reason to visit our neighbouring town rather frequently, and on such occasions he always marched up and attacked us. It was extraordinary how persistent he was [… And I…] watched the author of Hypatia nervously careening about the garden, very restless and impatient, yet preferring this ignominy to the chance of losing my Father’s company altogether. ”
The conflict (and friendship) between the two men grew out of dual interests in science and religion. Philip Gosse was a Christian fundamentalist who struggled to reconcile science and religion post-Darwin and Charles Kingsley was a Latitudinarian for whom Science and Religion could be reconciled. Kingsley worked hard to convince people like Philip Gosse of this (not always successfully). Kingsley was an active man. He was also a socialist and was involved in several campaigns including for widening participation in education.
There is something of this active and paternal attitude in the novel and yet whilst Hypatia is perhaps best described as a polemical work it comes from a place of great ambivalence and uncertainty. A place in which it luxuriates. Although it was written five years before the publication of Darwin’s Origins of the Species, Hypatia reads as a key source for the mindviews of educated men from the mid-Victorian age of doubt.
The ninenteenth century imagination
Hypatia is a novel of its time, yet in a very complex ways. In some ways it has a more modern outlook than say Dickens. In the novel there are no wholly good or bad characters, just people seeking to do good (some more genuinely than others)
Synesius, in the novel, is described as “one of those many-sided, volatile, restless men, who taste joy and sorrow, if not deeply or permanently, yet abundantly and passionately. He lived […] meddling and toiling for the mere pleasure of action”.
He rides his parish “followed by four or five brace of tall brush-tailed greyhounds”, “chuckling at the prospect of action”. Bishop Synesius is the Englishman’s idea of an active and muscular bishop. He also brings a balance and rationality to his role as Bishop lacking in the fanatical Egyptian monks led by Peter and indirectly by Cyril.
In the novel, the Egyptian monks are also an “Other”. They are fanatical and tyrannical. Even as they take power from the Roman Orestes, they are not quite our sort of chaps. What Egypt needs, we feel, is a benovolent and paternal government. It is not for nothing that the character best positioned to do this is Aben-Ezra, the Jewish convert under the tutelage of Synesius and Augustine.
Hypatia and ambivalence
The fanaticism of the Egyptian monks is seen best in their attitudes and actions against the novel’s Jewish characters. Early in Hypatia, the monks organise a progrom. Cyril argues this is fault of the Jews.
He says “Their blood be on their own head! It is not enough for them to blaspheme God and His church, to have the monopoly of all the cheating, fortune-telling, usury, sorcery, and coining of the city, but they must deliver my clergy into the hands of the tyrant?”
The progrom is the result of Cyril’s racist beliefs and a political expediency to weaken his rival Orestes’ powerbases. To what extent does this reflect Victorian Britiain’s attitude to anti-semetic progroms in eastern Europe?
If Philomen is converted from Christian fanaticism by events leading from the progrom, Aben-Ezra the novel’s other major protoganist is converted from a sceptical Judaism ultimately to Christianity by events leading from it. He is convinced that Juadaism is just the precursor to Christianity. He also marries a beautiful, and well connected, Christian. “The chrysalis case had fallen off, and disclosed the butterfly within.”
Hypatia is the centre of this ambivalence. To [the Egyptian] Cyrus “She is subtler than the serpent”, a subtle conjunction of the Genesis tale and Cleopatra. There is something of the goddess Isis.
She is a person on which to project sexual fantasy. On her death: “She shook herself free from her tormentors, and springing back, rose for one moment to her full height, naked, snow-white against the dusky mass around—shame and indignation in those wide clear eyes, but not a stain of fear. With one hand she clasped her golden locks around her”. Yet Hypatia is never completely feminine with her interest in philosophy.
Pelagia, “a fallen woman”, is more feminine but is caught between the two worlds of the exotic classical and the civilised Christian. ” If Pelagia were a baptized woman, what was before her but unceasing penance? Before her, as before him, a life of cold and hunger, groans and tears, loneliness and hideous soul-sickening uncertainty […] Yet—perhaps, she might not have been baptized after all. And then she was safe”. Kingsley’s irony is laid on thickly here. Pelagia never regrets her sinful love. If she is not quite a Becky Sharp or Rosie Driffield, she is nevertheless the most modern of all the characters in this sometimes stiled book.
This book is worth reading for the light it throws on the nineteenth century but is a difficult novel to enjoy.