Friday, January 2, 2009

Elizabeth Rundle Charles

Elizabeth Rundle Charles (January 2, 1828 - March 28, 1896) was a popular author in Victorian England. Nicholas Smith, in Songs From the Hearts of Women (1903) writes that her books "covered a wide field, including fiction, travels, history, biography, general religious literature, translations from the Latin, Greek, Swedish, and German languages, poetry, and hymnology." Though she was an Anglican by birth, her interests and her education pursued broader Christian themes.

One of her greatest successes was a novel (published anonymously) about Martin Luther and the Reformation, The Chronicles of the Schön­berg-Cot­ta Fam­i­ly (1863); many of her other books were published as "by the author of" that novel, such as the one pictured above, Christian Life in England in the Olden Time (1866).

She translated hymns from several languages (and therefore several denominations), many of them appearing in The Voice of Christian Life in Song (1859). She writes in the introduction of that book:

"It is trusted that the treasures of sacred song, faintly reflected in these translations, may serve to illustrate that unity of faith which binds one age to another through the Communion of Saints."

Her translated hymns seem to have survived into modern times better than her original ones (e.g., three to none in the Episcopal Hymnal 1982), but I find her original texts very intriguing, such as this one.

Around a table, not a tomb,
Christ willed our gathering place to be;
When, going to prepare our home,
Our Savior said,"Remember me."

We kneel around no sculptured stone,
To mark the place where Jesus lay;
Empty the tomb, the angels gone,
The stone forever rolled away.

No, sculptured stones are for the dead!
The three sad days of death are o'er;
Thou art the Life, our living Head,
Our living Light forevermore!

Thus round thy table, not thy tomb,
We keep the sacred feast with thee;
Until within our promised home
Our endless gathering place shall be.

Elizabeth Rundle Charles, 1862; alt.
English traditional melody;
arr. Ralph Vaughan Williams, 1906

Probably one reason I like Charles is that she also wrote verse and prose about the women of the Bible. I've talked before about how so many of those women went unnamed, perhaps due to the unconscious sexism of the time the scriptures were written. In Songs Old and New (1887), she advances a different theory in this excerpt from her poem The Unnamed Women:

He would not have the sullied name
Once fondly spoken in a home,
A mark for strangers' righteous blame,
Branded through every age to come.

And thus we only speak of them
As those on whom His mercies meet --
"She whom the Lord would not condemn,"
And "She who bathed with tears His feet"

I don't actually agree with her (the motive is still somewhat sexist, though chivalrous instead of unthinking) but the theory is interesting nonetheless.


Leland Bryant Ross said...

Yes, "Around a table, not a tomb" is an interesting text; I'm not sure about Herongate for it, but don't have an alternative to propose for the moment. Perhaps I'll come up with one in time for Evergreen Sings.

Leland aka Haruo

Adam said...

I've never seen "Around a table" before--or any of her other work, for that matter. Great text!

C.W.S. said...

Welcome, Adam --hope you'll come back again.

Other tunes I considered were HESPERUS, SPIRES, and the serviceable but overused WAREHAM.

Dorothy said...

I've never seen this hymn before but I do very much like Elizabeth R. Charles' thoughts as expressed in these words. And she sounds like such an interesting person to get to know (through her work, of course) in so many ways!

R. L. Vaughn said...

The Baptist church hymnal: Hymns, chants, anthems with music, edited by Rowland Briant, gives St. Luke and Ilkley (by John B. Dykes) for this hymn. I'm not familiar with either tune, but thought someone find be interested in looking at them.

C.W.S. said...

Yes, that UK Baptist hymnal is an interesting one to look through, with just over 800 hymns, and large sections of chant and anthems.

I think I like the ST. LUKE tune better than ILKLEY, but you can't really go wrong with one of RVW's folk tune arrangements either.

Hope you come back again, R.L. - there's another Elizabeth Rundle Charles hymn coming in the next week or 2.