Badalia Herodsfoot and the Curate

Another post in my occasional series on clergy in British fiction; this time from a short story by Rudyard Kipling, ‘The record of Badalia Herodsfoot‘, first published in his Many Inventions in 1893. Both posts in the series so far, from H.G.Wells and George Orwell, have featured clerical characters working in prosperous and settled areas of England. Kipling’s character, by contrast, is an example of a recognisable type in the later nineteenth and early twentieth century: the ‘slum priest’.

The Reverend Eustace Hanna is curate of an unnamed parish in London’s East End (it is always the East End). He works amongst the poor of Gunnison Street, dispensing aid as best he can, both material and spiritual, but mostly material. He works alongside the Little Sisters of the Red Diamond, a house of Anglican religious, as well as Brother Victor, of the (Roman Catholic) Order of Little Ease. He must also stay in the good books of Mrs Jessel, of the Tea Cup Board, who ‘had money to dispense, but hated Rome.’

What this group of do-gooders, partly co-operative, partly competitive, come to recognise is that they need help. While the residents of Gunnison Street need material help, they are considerably less interested in any religious attachment that might go with it; although some are not above feigning a conversion for a bite to eat. Hanna and the others are interlopers; not despised as such, but tolerated at best; separated by an insuperable barrier of class and outlook.

And so Hanna enlists the help of Badalia Herodsfoot, a deserted wife of indeterminate age, childless, who shifts for herself by ‘a mangle, some tending of babies, and an occasional sale of flowers’. Once a week Mrs Jessel subvents a sum of money for the poor, which Badalia dispenses, and records the details in a book which Hanna must sign. Mrs Jessel is concerned about Badalia’s godlessness of speech, but all recognise that her local knowledge is too useful a means that they should question her conduct.

It is important that Hanna is a curate. The rector of the parish is more concerned with altar-cloths and a new brass eagle lectern for the church, and (we are to understand) would rather the curate did not spend his time pauperizing the poor by dispensing charity to them. But Hanna is young, and still tender of heart. And his heart is particularly tender towards Sister Eva, ‘youngest and most impressionable’ of the Little Sisters, alongside whom he works and whom he would rather be able to protect. All of them work themselves hard, with a faintly desperate determination, ‘since time is precious and lives hang in the balance of five minutes.’

Hanna is a more sympathetic character than either Wells’ curate, or Orwell’s rector, but there is still moral complication. It is as a direct result of Badalia’s involvement with Hanna that she is beaten to death by her degenerate husband Tom, returning to her after a desertion of two years. This is partly because she will not hand over the money for him to spend on drink. But Tom is disposed to believe the gossip that Badalia is the subject of more than just the charity of this ‘aristocratic parson’. But Hanna and Brother Victor are able to put aside their differences, and the denominational demarcation of death, to both be at Badalia’s deathbed as she succumbs to her injuries. Kipling’s curate is a good man at work with limited success in an alien environment.

The arts in evangelical history

I’m very pleased to be able to say that I have agreed to contribute a chapter to a forthcoming Ashgate Research Companion to the History of Evangelicalism. This is to be one of the first volumes in a new series, Ashgate Studies in Evangelicalism, edited by Andrew Atherstone and David Ceri Jones.

Some of my publications in the past have touched on evangelicals and the arts in twentieth century Britain, most directly in relation to worship music, but also in relation to the theatre and the visual arts. This project will require a much wider perspective, taking in the whole of evangelical history from the early eighteenth century onwards, and across the world.

I’d thus be very pleased to hear of particular issues that readers think I should be addressing, and secondary literature I should be reading, within these broad themes:

(i) evangelical use (or disuse) of the various arts in public, private and domestic worship;

(ii) the use of the arts as means of evangelism;

(iii) evangelical theologies of the created work of art itself, and its right performance, realisation and reception;

(iv) evangelical involvement in the creation, performance and consumption of the arts in situations not associated with worship or evangelism, such as the secular theatre;

(v) evangelical challenge to works of art and/or their performance, on grounds of either their content (subject matter), or their style, or on grounds of their likely effects on performer and/or viewer or listener.

(vi) more generally, all of these matters are intimately connected with evangelical theologies of culture, and the relationship of the church, the individual Christian and “the world”, however defined.

I’m particularly keen to hear of particular matters of note before c.1850, or from outside Europe and North America at any point between about 1730 and the almost-present.

Alister McGrath on C.S. Lewis: a double review

[This review will appear later this year in the Christianity and History Forum Bulletin. This extended version is published with the kind permission of the Editor.]

Alister McGrath, C.S. Lewis. A Life (London, Hodder & Stoughton, 2013)

Alister McGrath, The Intellectual World of C.S. Lewis (Oxford, Wiley-Blackwell, 2014)

In the words of Tom Wright, former bishop of Durham, ‘many of us thought we knew most of what there was to know about C.S. Lewis’. A problem for any scholar looking to shed new light on Lewis – literary scholar, Christian apologist and creator of Narnia – is the easy accessibility of the sources. Walter Hooper’s three volume edition of Lewis’ letters contains very nearly all that are known to have survived. The vast bulk of the essays were recently edited by Lesley Walmsley for Harper Collins. As for the books, a check of my own shelves revealed copies of more than half of the list, accumulated second-hand in recent editions without any great intent or effort. Most of the fiction and much of the apologetic work remains in print. Apart from the Lewis Papers, eleven volumes of manuscript transcripts concerning Lewis’s background in Belfast, there are no significant manuscript collections associated with Lewis that remain unmined.

Yet the wheels of the Lewis Studies machine continue to turn, with study after study traversing the corpus, parsing Lewis’ work in every conceivable way. But for all the attention paid to the works as texts, Lewis seems less well integrated into the history of British Christianity in the 1940s and 1950s than he ought to be. With the exception of Dorothy L. Sayers, also a writer of fiction and apologetics from within the Church of England but on its edge, Lewis seems without easy parallel, and hard to locate.

Lewis is particularly hard to place since, as Walter Hooper observed, there is not one Lewis but several. Most readers will be familiar with Narnia, but perhaps less so with the science fiction of the Ransom trilogy (1938-45), or the fictionalised retelling of classical myth in Till we have faces (1956). Many readers, although perhaps not quite the same readers, have experienced Lewis as Christian apologist and popular theologian, most famously as a wartime broadcaster and in Mere Christianity (1952). Few modern readers will know Lewis’ academic writing on medieval and Renaissance literature, such as his work on Milton’s Paradise Lost, for which he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature long before Narnia. In common with Lewis’ colleagues at Oxford, those who know all three may well struggle to connect them.

McGrath - Intellectual World of Lewis - cover

Now we have two fine complementary studies of Lewis from historian and theologian Alister McGrath. The aim common to both is to integrate the many Lewises, and to show that the many sides of Lewis’ thought can, and must, be read as springing from the same set of fundamental preoccupations. In this McGrath is wholly successful, and both studies will surely establish themselves as essential reading.

From Wiley-Blackwell comes The Intellectual World of C.S. Lewis, a collection of eight essays: fine contributions to the history of ideas in its pure form, and of considerable interest to specialist historians. There are acute and stimulating observations on Surprised by Joy as autobiography cast in a Christian mould, and its reliability as a source for historians. There are two particularly fine chapters showing the long-range influence on Lewis of the tradition of classical, medieval and early modern literature. The first of these re-emphasises the importance of myth for Lewis, and of understanding Christianity as foremost a true myth; the apologetic task was not merely about the cerebral apprehension of certain propositions, but about engaging the imagination. This is an important counter-balance to the plain man Lewis and the plain prose of the wartime apologetic. Perhaps the most striking piece is on Lewis’ use of metaphor, and the privileging of ocular metaphors, of light, sun, sight. McGrath brilliantly contrasts this with the weight of Protestant metaphor which is aural – of hearing the Word – to which Lewis the Ulsterman might have been more disposed.

Lewis - Life - McGrath cover

Published by Hodder is C.S. Lewis. A Life. While it may not surprise specialists in matters of fact, as a Life written for a general readership this will be hard to better. McGrath adroitly steers through the ‘meteoric shower of facts’ that have accumulated around Lewis, giving a pacy account of Lewis’ career, integrated carefully with the genesis of the works. There are pithy expositions of the key works, which send the reader back to the writings themselves as good criticism should. Particularly fine are the accounts of The Pilgrim’s Regress (1933), and of A Grief Observed as a transposition of the abstract concerns of The Problem of Pain into a much higher and more painful key.

McGrath also avoids the temptation to psychoanalyse Lewis overmuch, particularly given the curiously unresolved traumas of Lewis’ experience: in the trenches in the First World War; the loss of his mother; the oddity of his relationship with Mrs Moore; and the marriage of convenience with Joy Davidman. Only occasionally is an odd note sounded. The detailed exposition of the Narnia series in chapter 12 is overlong in relation to McGrath’s treatments of the other works, and feels like a long interlude in the narrative. Occasionally some of the detail is incongruous: ‘the Minto’, Lewis’ nickname for Mrs Moore, may well be connected with the sweet of the same name (p.84); but it isn’t clear why the reader needs to know who invented it, when and where (the Doncaster confectioner William Nuttall, in 1912).

As McGrath points out, on one point he stands alone amongst Lewis scholars: his redating of Lewis’ initial conversion from atheism to theism, from 1929 to 1930, which to this reviewer seems wholly convincing. Historians of Christianity are provided with few enough detailed accounts of individual paths to conversion, and of those few as idiosyncratic as that of Lewis. As such, the redating is welcome and important. Several of the early reviews also identify this as the major piece of new biographical light to be seen here. At the same time, it is a redating of an event in a sequence of events rather than a reordering of that sequence; and the redating does not affect our understanding of the composition of any of the works, other than to show that Lewis’ own account in Surprised by Joy is itself wrong.

There are both advantages and disadvantages to the separation into two volumes. The placing of much of the detailed exposition of Lewis’s intellectual context in The Intellectual World allows rich and nuanced writing that would be difficult to integrate successfully into a chronological narrative. However, the removal of that contextual material leaves the Life rather denuded of very much context that was not contained within Lewis’ head, the Bodleian Library, and a square mile of central Oxford. The impact of the Second World War is limited only to its effect on college life; the ‘low dishonest decade’ that was the Thirties hardly figures. There is also little sense of the wider currents of thought and feeling in post-war British life that together constitute the much-disputed idea of secularisation, apart from its manifestation within Oxford philosophy. Lewis may have self-consciously positioned himself as a dinosaur; but readers of the Life without access to The Intellectual World may need to know rather more about the elements of contemporary discourse with which Lewis was out of sympathy. In both volumes, McGrath correlates the apparent eclipse of Lewis’s thought with the rise of secularism, and then his recovery of influence with the sway of postmodernism. This is entirely plausible, but the suggestion is made without engagement to any great extent with the large and well developed historical literature on both.

Another odd note is sounded in the chapter in The Intellectual World on Lewis as theologian. McGrath is determined to show that Lewis counts as a theologian, and that any definition of the role that would exclude him is a faulty definition. To this reader, at least, this feels very much like pushing at a long-open door. Historically, McGrath tries to show that the theological establishment in Britain tried to exclude Lewis, but at the end of the chapter it remains unclear just who was doing the excluding, from what, and by what means. Undoubtedly there was opposition to, not to say distaste for Lewis in Oxford; but the most waspish character assassination I know of is in the letters of Hugh Trevor-Roper, hardly part of the theological establishment. The bewilderment amongst Lewis’ colleagues at the wartime apologetic was not that it did not pass muster as “theology”, but that he should want to write such stuff at all. By and large Lewis didn’t concern himself with the issues that were preoccupying Oxford divinity; the story is surely one of mutual ignorance, rather than deliberate exclusion.

The final chapter offers an analysis of Lewis’ afterlife, providing a highly suggestive outline of what a reception history of Lewis might look like. It is indeed striking that Lewis, no evangelical, should be thought theologically unsound by Martyn Lloyd-Jones in the year of his death, yet go on to achieve something approach star status amongst evangelicals, particularly in the USA. As with the earlier chapters, however, there is a relative lack of engagement with recent historical scholarship on the period, leaving historians with many threads to pick up and examine more closely. It is to be hoped that they do, along with much else in these splendid volumes.

Anglican clergy in twentieth century British fiction: an open notebook

Regular readers may have seen a series of occasional posts on clergy in fiction. I thought it worth noting what this series is, and is not designed to achieve.

Firstly, and importantly, I am no literary critic. There is little here in the way of criticism of the text as text; I’m in no way qualified to place these in the context of a writer’s works, or comment on style. I am an historian, and I want to collect examples of clergy of the twentieth century Church of England that appear in British literary fiction. While care is needed in reading fiction as a primary source, fictional clergy are nonetheless an important source in assessing the religious temper of the period in which they were written, and in which the narrative is set.

This is nothing like a research project; but more like a collection of notes, out of which something more formal might evolve. And this notebook is an open one, and suggestions from readers of examples to include would be very welcome. It is in part inspired by Luke McKernan’s admirable picturegoing.com

Some notes on scope:

1. Which period ?
My initial definition of the twentieth century is quite broad. For example, H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds was published in 1897 but in its sensibility looks forward, and so is included. It may be that, over time, 1914 proves a more significant date.

Note also that both character and text must be within the century. So, historical fiction written in the twentieth century but set in an earlier period is not included.

2. Which clergy ?
I’ve restricted myself to the Church of England, for several reasons. One is that the number of depictions of ministers from the Methodist, Baptist and other Protestant churches is very small. More importantly, the clergy of the established church have many more meanings projected onto them than those of other denominations, and I am concerned with these broader representations of the Church of England and its social and political importance.

I’ve also excluded the Roman Catholic clergy, for some of the same reasons and for others. Priests of the Roman obedience often serve quite distinctive symbolic functions in fiction of this period, which needs its own treatment. And there are also many more of them, from Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh and David Lodge amongst others, and with a specific critical literature around them.

They may also be real – that is, fictional representations of historical figures are included.

To read the posts so far, look for the clergy in fiction tag.

Falling in with the Curate

Another in my occasional series of posts on the clergy in modern British fiction. This time, I’m interested in the figure of the nameless curate in H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1897).

The Penguin edition of 1946

The Penguin edition of 1946

Wells’ general antipathy towards the churches is well known, and it comes out very clearly here. The nameless hero falls in with the curate in Book 1, chapter 13. His face was ‘a fair weakness, his chin retreated [..] his eyes were large, pale, blue, and blankly staring.’ At first, the reader is invited to see the character as a sympathetic one: a young man in his first job, patiently building the church in Weybridge to which he has been sent, but blown off course, shattered indeed, by the destruction wrought by the Martians.

‘Be a man’ the hero says, not without some sympathy: ‘what good is religion if it collapses at calamity?’ As the dialogue continues, however, Wells juxtaposes the hope and purposefulness of the hero with the continued derangement and fatalism of the curate. When tested, his faith is shown to be lacking; to fail to sustain the believer when it really matters. As they journey on together, the curate reaches a state of complete collapse (‘the complete overthrow of his intelligence’) as they are confined for nine days in a ruined house, fighting over food and water. Finally, as the curate is seized with the determination to burst out from their cover, to proclaim to a sinful world that the judgement of God was upon it (‘Woe unto this unfaithful city!’), the hero, in order to save himself, strikes him dead.

Our hero is no atheist. Later, in ‘the silence of the night, with that sense of the nearness of God that sometimes comes into the stillness and the darkness’, he examines his conscience over the curate’s death and finds it clear. However, whatever form Wells’ hero’s faith might take, a faith that might be able to deal with disaster, it was not that of the curate: (in the words of another character) ‘a sort of do-nothing religion, very pious and superior, [which would] submit to persecution and the will of the Lord’.

A novel use for theology books

Hewlett Johnson, dean of Canterbury, has an unique place in recent church history, having become a symbol for the kind of sympathetic engagement amongst well-meaning English churchmen with Soviet Russia in the forties and fifties. From our safe distance, works such as The Socialist Sixth of the World now appear almost comic in their naivety, and Johnson has come to be seen as a Soviet dupe. An intriguing indication of how this picture of the Red Dean has escaped from academic historical writing into the wild is Tibor Fischer’s comic novel Under the Frog. Fischer was born in 1959 to Hungarian parents, and brought up in England. His first novel, Under the Frog won a Betty Trask Award in 1992.

In the novel, Gyuri is a slightly bemused if self-absorbed observer of the popular uprising in Budapest in October 1956, which was crushed in short order by Soviet forces. In a moment of quiet before the tanks arrive, Gyuri passes a bombed-out bookshop, thinks to gather up some the kind of edifying reading that the comrade proletariat had (in Soviet mythology) been delighted to read, and decides to conduct an experiment. When next he has recourse to the bathroom, and is in need to toilet paper, the experiment begins.

We Knew How to Use Freedom by the Party ideologue Jozsef Revai failed the test, as its paper was too shiny. Others are more successful, being printed on coarser paper, notably those by Matyas Rakosi, leader of the Hungarian Communist Party, but overall Gyuri concludes that ‘[t]he Communists couldn’t even hack it as toilet paper.’ Finally:

The last book Gyuri turned to was in English, Eastern Europe in the Socialist World [1954] by Hewlett Johnson, who was supposed to be the Dean of Canterbury. The book was a paean to the Socialist order. Either the book was a forgery, or else the Dean must have been …. blackmailed into writing this, thought Gyuri, because no one could be stupid enough to write things like this of their own volition.

Ruth Etchells and ‘Unafraid to Be’

I note the recent passing of Ruth Etchells, theologian, teacher and ‘the best female bishop we never had’ (in the words of the Guardian). There have been various obituaries, including that in the Guardian, and from John Pritchard on Anglican Mainstream. From Durham, of which city she was a stalwart, comes a tribute from the Dean, Michael Sadgrove, and a funeral sermon from the Sub-Dean, Michael Kennedy. Also of interest is Margaret Masson’s oration at the presentation of the University of Durham Chancellor’s Medal in 2010.

Of most interest here is a little book of which I was only dimly aware, but when viewed in its context is most unusual. Michael Sadgrove found her 1969 study Unafraid to Be a profoundly influential book as an undergraduate in Oxford: ‘an important catalyst in developing cross disciplinary engagement, not least in the emerging field of theology and literature.. ‘ What is most interesting about the book is the milieu from which it emerged. Evangelicals at that time were not known for their positive engagement with the contemporary arts, and so for the Inter-Varsity Press to publish such a book at that time is significant.

The Church and literature

I’ve just finished correcting the proofs of my article on the archbishops of Canterbury and the censorship of the theatre between 1909 and 1949, which is destined to appear in Studies in Church History vol. 48 this summer. It can be pre-ordered on the Boydell and Brewer site, which has a list of the contents. Re-reading it after 18 months, I’m still pleased with it, although the re-reading has suggested some new questions to pursue, about which I’ll blog another time. There’s a brief summary of the article here.

It isn’t always that themed volumes such as these that the Ecclesiastical History Society produce are so squarely in one of my areas of interest, but this one certainly is. It can be read as a companion to SCH 28 (1992), which was on ‘The Church and the Arts’ and contains several articles which remain the most recent word on their subjects. I was at the St Andrews conference that spawned the forthcoming volume, and as one of the session chairs was involved in the EHS’s normal peer review process, and am looking forward to reading the final versions of several of the papers I heard. Judith Maltby writes on Rose Macaulay, Stuart Mews on the Lady Chatterley trial, and Crawford Gribben on rapture fiction. There are also several pieces on twentieth century representations of the medieval past, by Sarah Foot and Stella Fletcher amongst others.

[Update: see a summary of the published article]

The Rainbow

I note an interesting essay by Rachel Cusk on D.H. Lawrence’s Women and Love and The Rainbow, around the same time as the BBC were screening an adaptation of the two novels. I’m fairly sure that religious historians are not at all finished with Lawrence’s curious religion of the sensual, and his treatment of ‘religious’ characters.