‘Letters to Lydia: ‘beloved Persis’, by Barbara Eaton

A book review of 'Letters to Lydia: 'beloved Persis', by Barbara Eaton (Hypatia Trust, 2005), by John Martin, Head of Communication, Church Mission Society, Fulcrum Media Secretary and Reader in the Stepney Episcopal Area of the Diocese of London.

Hypatia Trust, 2005
paperback, 410 pages, price £12.50

ISBN: 1872229549

Originally published in the Church of England Newspaper, 2 June 2006, and republished here with permission

Henry Martyn is an icon of the missionary movement, even though technically he was never a missionary. Hundreds of young people, inspired by his story, have offered their lives in mission service. His diary has been called "one of the most precious treasures of Anglican devotion."

Martyn's life is well documented but one area that's received limited attention was his love for Lydia Grenfell, his "beloved Persis". Up to now Lydia has tended to suffer a somewhat bad press. Barbara Eaton seeks to redress the balance.

Born in Cornwall in 1781, Martyn was one of many young Cambridge men to come under the influence of Charles Simeon one of the founders of the evangelical movement. Encouraged by Simeon he gave up plans to study law and instead went to India.

The original intention was to go out with the fledgling Church Missionary Society but family circumstances changed and instead he accepted a chaplain's post with the East India Company.

On arrival in Calcutta, Martyn exclaimed, "Now let me burn out for God" and he did. He was almost reckless about care for himself. This is a trait that became part of a formula for a lot of subsequent missionary hagiography and strangely added to the appeal of mission service.

In the six remaining years of his life Martyn translated the New Testament into Hindi and Persian, revised an Arabic translation of the New Testament, and translated the Psalter into Persian and the Prayer Book into Hindi. He died at 31.

As well as surviving correspondence with Henry, Lydia left a lengthy diary offering less guarded comments about the suitor who for complex reasons she declined to follow to India. Lydia remained a spinster and died at 54 in 1829. Her tombstone in Breage churchyard has been identified after this book appeared.

This in truth is a bizarre tale. It was never Martyn's overall intention to marry and he falls in love with a woman older than himself. Had not his ship to India been forced to dock en route at Fowey in Cornwall, the matter may not have been pursued further. But from then Miss Grenfell seems to have become Martyn's permanent muse.

The contemporary reader will discern some sort of mismatch. Lydia is hardly Henry's intellectual equal and her evangelical piety, Methodist in style, is nowhere near as supple as his Anglican version.

Henry's love is blocked by a chapter of factors that are strange by contemporary standards. Lydia's mother is opposed to the match. Lydia herself feels an obligation not to commit because of an earlier broken engagement. They are bound by conventions where he cannot write direct and vital letters go missing thanks to the chancy state of transportation. Barbara Eaton has gathered the extant letters together and they are a good read.

We discover the inner world of the principal characters, though Lydia remains something of an enigma. There are plenty of insights into the conventions, manners and religious ethos of the times, opposition to evangelical enthusiasm and the threadbare lives of spinster daughters. Eaton's commentary doesn't always add greatly to the actual documents.

In 1811 Martyn left India for Persia, hoping to do further translations and re-work existing ones. In Shiraz he engaged in a series of remarkable debates with Muslim scholars. His insights on Islam and his defence of Christianity are moving and still highly valuable.

It was Martyn's plan to return to Britain via Arabia. Travel in those days was not a healthy occupation and he fell ill and died at Tokat, Turkey. Co-incidentally he was laid to rest not far from where 1500 years before another famous Christian witness, John Chrysostom, met his death and was buried in circumstances not all that different.

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