A few years ago, my dear friend, Cecily, suggested a book to me — A Severe Mercy. Now, Cecily is one of those beyond interesting people so anytime she suggests a book, film, activity, I listen up, but little did I know this book and author would easily creep its way into my top ten or so favorite books of all time.
A Severe Mercy is the autobiographical story of Sheldon Vanauken and his wife, Jean “Davy”. I delighted in their story and soaked up every minute of their adventurous life, literally shedding tears when it was over (in part because of the touching end, but I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, but in part because I just didn’t want it to end). Many of you may be familiar with his personal friend, C.S. Lewis, author of the Chronicles of Narnia, with whom he corresponded and who plays a role in his life story.
As I often do with authors I’ve enjoyed, I sought out information about his life, and read every other one of his titles, even though many are now out of print. As I read through his (too) few books, I came across a used copy of an interesting title called The Glittering Illusion. Originally his thesis at Oxford University in England, this book is published as a fascinating look into the lives and feelings of the English people about the American Civil War. While most of us are intimately familiar with the reasons and events surrounding the War Between the States, I’ve never given much thought as to how other countries felt about the prospect of two separate countries where there had only been one.
Mr. Vanauken makes a compelling argument as to why the English didn’t join the bloodiest war in America’s history. While the English had sympathy for the Confederates, they saw General Robert E. Lee as unbeatable, and therefore didn’t offer their assistance. What I find most interesting is that he takes extensively from writings of the English at the time, and not from public opinion after. He purports that history is best looked at from that particular moment in history rather than looking backward from historians current perspective.
While they were not in support of slavery, Britain had much to gain from a Southern victory commercially and geographically, and, from their unique viewpoint on history, including their role in the American Revolution, believed the South had a legitimate right to assert its independence. While secession has now been made illegal as a result of the war, it was not part of the Constitution at the time. And we must recall that while slavery was arguably the primary reason for the South’s declaration of independence, it was not the only cause.
Vanauken purports that the South would have eventually freed the slaves of their own volition, and goes on to explore what might have happened had the South been successful in securing its freedom.
Vanauken began teaching at Lynchburg College in Virginia in 1948, and continued on in Virginia until his death, even requesting his ashes be scattered in Virginia. While originally born in Indiana, Vanauken claimed he was at home in Virginia. An ardent anglophile, Mr. Vanauken saw many similarities between his beloved English and his beloved South — including gentlemanly and aristocrat traditions.
One can imagine how different history would have looked had the English intervened.
If home is where the heart is, Sheldon Vanauken was a true Southerner, through and through. He wrote for publications such as The Southern Partisan. I love history, and certainly learning about the South’s complicated but rich history from a different perspective.
I’ll leave you today with a small section of a poem Mr. Vanauken wrote about his beloved state of Virginia, as it related to the motherland.
The Virgin Queen, King’s River, Old Dominion:
This is the land that England found.
Northumberland south to Sussex, now Virginian
–But tobacco stirred in English ground.
The nightingale became a whippoorwill,
Through English Church upheld the throne;
A softer speech spread westward, courteous still,
And cornbread overcame the scone.
The vision of Home beyond the seas grew pale,
The land found legends of her own:
The knights who rode with Spotswood told a tale;
Then tales of Redcoats overthrown.