Saturday, March 13, 2021

Maurice Baring, The Coat Without Seam; In My End Is My Beginning


Opening Passages: From The Coat Without Seam:

"When I grow up," said Christopher, to his sister Mabel, "I mean to be an explorer and to write a huge book of travel like Marco Polo."

They were sitting on the banks of an island of the river Seine. They had rowed there in a boat unsupervised, for it was the month of August when their Governess, Mademoiselle Altmann, took her holiday. (p. 1)

From In My End Is My Beginning:

The Queen was born in the Palace of Linlithgow. She was crowned Queen at Stirling when she was but one year old, and when she was yet a baby she was like a sweet apple thrown by the Goddess of Discord into a savage world, about whom warring factions and rival princes in several countries debated and fought. The King of England, King Henry VIII, sought her hand for his son, and the King of France, Francis I., wished for the marriage of the Queen's Grace to the Dauphin's son. When she was but five years old she was sent to the Island of Inchmahome in the Lake of Menteith, where there was a Priory, and she was sent thither because the times were troubled and there was strife between England and Scotland, and battles; and it was thought that in this time of peril she would be more secure in a fortress on land. For a year she was Queen of a little garden with boxwood and plants of box, and fruit trees, and Spanish filberts; and this was the only place where throughout her life she reigned in peace, and the only garden in which she took pleasure where there was no hidden threat, or where she was not a captive. After a year she sailed for France, for the lords determined to offer her in marriage to the Dauphin, and to let her be educated at the Court of King Henry. (p. 3)

Summary: The Coat Without Seam  follows the life of Christopher Trevenen, son of an Irishman and a French woman. His upbringing is culturally Catholic, but anti-clericalist and somewhat skeptical of anything too religious, as cultural Catholic upbringings often are. When he is still young, he takes his sister Mabel swimming; she catches a chill and gets very sick. During her illness at a point at which she seemed to be recovering, he was sent to church to light a candle to the Virgin in Thanksgiving; the local parish priest takes him on a tour of the parish treasury, including the parish's most important relic: a piece of reddish brown fabric that tradition says is a fragment of the Holy Coat, the garment without seam that Jesus wore and that was divided among the Roman soldiers at his Crucifixion. The priest has the normal balanced Catholic view of such things: we don't know for sure that it is in fact the relic, although the long tradition itself, in the absence of a defeater, is some evidence that it is indeed the relic, enough to have a reasonable opinion in its favor, and there is no harm in showing the same reverence toward it that one's ancestors did; but as it is only an opinion and not a doctrine of faith, no one is obligated to believe it is in fact the Holy Coat. The priest tells him part of the legend of the Coat and gives him a mirliton, a little wooden flute. He returns home and finds that Mabel has died; he plays the flute in the garden after she is buried, but is stopped by his parents. And young Christopher thinks for the rest of his youth that he has murdered his sister.

All these elements shall be interwoven throughout Christopher's life: the kindred spirit taken away, the music just out of reach, the Holy Coat, the apparent promise of a better future spoiled, the oversensitive boy overreacting in his interpretation of events. He shows some talent with languages and studies to be qualified for the Diplomatic Services; while studying he falls in love with a girl named Alex, who is musical. While that relationship is building, he comes across another fragment of the legend of the Coat, and that relationship ends, with Christopher overinterpreting it in his oversensitive way. Joining the Diplomatic Service takes him to the Ottoman Empire. There he stumbles upon an Armenian link in the story of the Coat, and, unwilling to keep standing by during the Armenian genocide, wrecks his diplomatic career by writing a letter to the newspapers about it. And so will his life continue. He is a likeable fellow, partly due to his sincerity, but unsocial and oversensitive, shy and proud, high maintenance and overly inclined to interpret everything as deliberate slight. Part of this is, I think, that his pride is intertwined with an insecurity, one that leads him to sabotage even his partial successes. Failure to failure to failure, almost all self-imposed for one reason or another. But he keeps running across new fragments of the tale of the Holy Coat, and slowly, slowly learns part of its significance: our lives are garments without seams, although they sometimes seem chopped up because we see them from the back side.

In My End Is My Beginning is the story of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots. The basic facts of the life of Mary Queen of Scots are these, more or less. Mary became Queen of Scotland as a little girl, so Scotland would be ruled by regents for a number of years. Eventually she is sent to France, on the expectation that she will eventually marry the Dauphin Francis, who is three years old. She is attended by a number of women, including four child-ladies who are also named Mary: Mary Beton, Mary Seton, Mary Fleming, and Mary Livingston. Mary thrived in France, and in 1559, when she and Francis were teenagers, they became King and Queen of France. It was not to last; Francis died of an ear infection the next year. The royal succession went to Francis's younger brother, Charles IX, with his mother, Catherine de Medici, as regent. Mary returned to Scotland, with Queen Elizabeth in England watching her actions closely, as Mary was the next in line for the throne of England as well. There was a definite problem already brewing: Scotland was heavily divided between Catholics and Protestants at the time, with the Protestants having several advantages, and Mary was Catholic. Mary herself demanded no more than that she and her household have freedom to practice the Catholic faith, but her tolerance pleased nobody: the Catholics were disappointed that she was not a more active patron, and Protestants like John Knox did not want to be ruled by a Catholic.

Shoring up her position required a good marriage. As Mary was an at least striking woman with a lively personality and an excellent sense of style from her education in the French court, and came with a sovereign crown and a position in the succession for another sovereign crown, she had more than a few options. But somehow or other the options all dwindled down. She eventually settled on Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, who was also in the succession for the English throne. Nobody quite knows why; she may well have fallen in love. In any case, Lord Darnley was not satisfied with being King Consort, and he kept insisting on receiving the Crown Matrimonial, by which he would become full King of Scotland by marriage. He also seems to have been a drunk. He became involved in a Protestant conspiracy against her, which led to the murder of David Rizzio, one of her closest advisors. Darnley, who in the course of conspiracy managed to betray both sides, is eventually murdered; nobody knows by whom, exactly, but Mary herself was suspected by some. Eventually, however, the consensus became that Darnley had been killed by the Earl Bothwell, but Bothwell manages to maneuver for an acquittal, and also gets the support of a number of nobles to marry the Queen. He abducts her -- it was disputed whether she went willingly or not -- and she marries him, for reasons not perfectly known. This shocked large numbers of people, and Scotland comes to the verge of civil war, but the Queen's army abandons her, and she is seized and imprisoned in Loch Leven Castle and forced to abdicate in favor of her child, the young James. She escaped and raised an army, but when defeated fled south to England, where Elizabeth essentially keeps her in custody until accusing her of a plot against Elizabeth's life, at which point she is executed.

The fundamental problem is how to interpret any of this. At one point, Mary seems like an extremely savvy and competent ruler; at others she acts in the most inexplicable ways. Was she involved in the murder of Darnley? Was she a martyr? The Protestants attributed to her all manner of sexual transgressions; was any of it true? Can the peculiarities of her life be explained by a bad taste in men, or by angling for the throne of England? Baring frankly admits that he doesn't know which of the many versions of Mary is the right one; he handles this by having the Queen's story told several times, narrated by the 'four Maries' who had accompanied her for so long, each of whom tells the story of her life up to the escape from Loch Leven, but does so from a different perspective, highlighting different features. The book ends narrated by Jane Kennedy, who was with her in her last days. The multiple retellings can get repetitive in places, despite the differences in details, but one advantage is that Mary's story is so complicated that reading several times from different perspectives is actually extremely helpful for figuring out what is going on and who is doing what and why.

'In my end is my beginning' was embroidered in French on Mary's Chair of State, which puzzled even contemporaries. But it is a true statement of Mary's life, regardless of what interpretation you take of it. Perhaps it was a statement that, as her end was God, so her rule began with God. One can read it as an anticipation of the death of a martyr, whose end is her beginning, the death day of a martyr being, in Latin, her 'birthday'. And one can see that, in fact, Mary's death accomplishes what her life could not: not only will her son unite the Crowns of Scotland and England, but Mary, who had difficulty even being treated as the sovereign Queen of Scotland in her lifetime has gone down in memory as the Queen of Scots, inspiring endless admirers and defenders she never had in life.

Favorite Passages: From The Coat Without Seam:

"I found the Coat without Seam, after all, M. le Curé. The real one, you told me about at Vernay, when you gave me the mirliton, but I needn't have searched, because it was there all the time. It was my life that was a Coat without Seam. But I tore it into shreds and now you have mended it. There is no seam in it now."

"Oui, oui, mon enfant," said the Curé, thinking that Christopher was delirious. (p. 309)

From In My End Is My Beginning:

...About nine of the clock she wrote to her almoner, praying him watch and pray this one night with her and for her, and asking his best advice what might be her best direction in her prayers this long night; and after she had written her will, she finished a letter to the King of France, which she had begun on the previous day, all but the end and the subscription, telling him that she was to die on the morrow, and recommending her servants to his care. When she had finished, the night was already far spent. Her servants washed her feet, and she said she would take some rest; and she bade Jane Kennedy, her reader, read according to her custom from her Book of Hours about some saint who had been a great sinner. And when Jane Kennedy came to the penitent thief upon the Cross, the Queen bade her read of that example, saying "In truth he was a great sinner, but not so great as I have been." And the Queen bade Jane Kennedy bring her a fair linen Corpus Christi cloth, which she needed for the morrow. Thereupon her eyes closed, yet her servants who sat round the bed for the last time thought that she slept not, albeit her eyes were closed, and her face was tranquil, and she seemed to be laughing with the angels. And from without came a noise of knocking and hammering, for they were making ready the scaffold. (p. 294)

Recommendation: Both are Recommended.


Maurice Baring, The Coat Without Seam, House of Stratus (Looe, Cornwall: 2001).

Maurice Baring, In My End Is My Beginning, House of Stratus (Looe, Cornwall: 2001).