An English priest in the beloved country

[Another post related to my occasional series on clergy in fiction. This time, not an English author, but an English character working overseas.]

I can think of no other novel in years that has struck me so forcefully as Cry, the beloved country, by Alan Paton. The book was first published in the UK in 1948 by Jonathan Cape; issued as a Penguin Modern Classic in 1958, and subsequently reprinted almost every year until at least 1982, the year in which my copy was printed. Paton was an educationalist, and campaigner for the rights of the native South African population. He was also a friend of Geoffrey Clayton, archbishop of Cape Town, whose biography he published in 1973.

Why am I so struck by it ? Fundamentally it is because the plot has an intense humanity, intertwining themes of place and home, familial loyalty and parental loss, individual moral responsibility and racial injustice. Part of its achievement is that the novel presents the full range of thought and feeling about the ‘native question’, but is not subsumed by it, as political novels sometimes are.

The Penguin Modern Classics edition, with a cover design by Germano Facetti from an original by Marianne Podlashuc.

The Penguin Modern Classics edition, with a cover design by Germano Facetti from an original by Marianne Podlashuc.

What is also surprising to a modern reader is the style. To readers accustomed to a prosodic palette of Orwellian plainness and the crispness of Evelyn Waugh, Paton’s elevation of style is reminiscent of the fiction of the nineteenth century and seems somehow marooned, out of time. Yet it achieves this heightened registration without pomposity; the elevation of the sentiment is always brought low by the brute tragedy of the matter at hand. And this height is achieved by means which are fast becoming inaccessible to modern readers, in that Paton draws freely not only on explicit Biblical images, but also on the rhythm of Biblical prose. In this, the narrator takes on the voice of the preacher, although this kind of preaching is in eclipse in the modern churches.

The plot centres on Kumalo, a black Anglican priest from the country who comes to Johannesburg in search of his son who (it transpires) has been involved in a botched burglary that resulted in the shooting dead of a white man. The dead man, Arthur Jarvis, was himself a vigorous supporter of change in the lot of the black majority, and an active and young Anglican layman. Kumalo is at the Mission House in Johannesburg when the news breaks, at which point it is not known that it is his son who is the culprit, only that Jarvis grew up in the same part of the country as Kumalo.

The reader is told very little of Father Vincent, ‘the rosy-cheeked priest’ of the Mission House who was also there, save for that he is from England. The two had been talking of their respective homes in the countryside: the white man of ‘the hedges and the fields, and Westminster Abbey, and the great cathedrals up and down the land.’ (p.65) After it becomes clear that Kumalo’s son is under arrest, Father Vincent promises whatever aid he can give. It is Father Vincent who marries Absalom Kumalo and the girl who carries his child in the chapel of his prison as he awaits execution, in order to secure the future of the girl and her child, the senior Kumalo’s grandchild. The words of the service are those of the Book of Common Prayer. In the hands of another novelist the scene might be desperate, even horrific; but in Paton’s handling it emerges as dignified, as the couple promise to be faithful for better, for worse, til death should part them.

It is also significant that it is the white priest, an Englishman, who is able to uphold Kumalo, the priest who is also the loser of a son, in a scene of great pastoral sensitivity between two men of the same calling, of which there can surely be very few in modern fiction (Book 1, chapter 15). Despite himself, Vincent manages to resist the temptation to offer facile words in the face of Kumalo’s desolation. Instead, he allows Kumalo to voice his bewilderment at his situation, in which God seems to have turned from him. He then leads Kumalo out of his focus on self to the need to see repentance on the part of his son. Finally he is able to send Kumalo away to prayer, again not for himself, or for some explanation as to why, or for his son alone, but for everyone else touched by the tragedy: for the bereaved family, for the girl soon to be left a single mother and for her child, for Vincent and his colleagues ‘who try to rebuild in a place of destruction, and ‘for all white people, those who do justice, and those who would do justice if they were not afraid.’ It is part of the priestly calling to remember, and to model to others, that ‘it is Christ in us, crying that men may be succoured and forgiven, even when He Himself is forsaken.’

The vicar and the Midwich Cuckoos

After an extended break, another post on the occasional series on Anglican clergy in modern British fiction. Today, it is the turn of John Wyndham, and The Midwich Cuckoos, first published in 1957.

The Penguin edition of 1960.

The Penguin edition of 1960.

The Reverend Hubert Leebody is one of the more substantial clerical characters in recent times, and the character functions as a foil to Gordon Zellaby, resident of Kyle Manor: gentleman sceptic, pragmatist, and the closest thing the novel has to a heroic character. Midwich is an archetypal English country village, in which nothing of note has seemingly occurred in a millennium. In Midwich, the old certainties about social leadership are embodied in Zellaby, Willers the doctor, and Leebody, resident of the Georgian vicarage and incumbent of the church: ‘mostly perp. and dec., but with a Norman west doorway and font.’ (chapter 1) And as the bizarre events unfold, Leebody continues to be the social glue that holds the community together. In chapter 6 the village flock to the church for the funeral of the first casualties, and it is Leebody who conducts them along with a service of thanksgiving for the sparing of the remainder. As the girls of the village discover their collective pregnancy, it is to Leebody that they come in their confusion. ‘He had baptized them when they were babies;he knew them, and their parents well.’ (ch.7) As the Children arrive, it is Leebody who baptises them in turn, in a faintly desperate attempt to normalise the hideous fact of their xenogenesis. (ch.12)

Ultimately, however, it is not Leebody who graps the depth of the moral crisis in which the village and the authorities find themselves, but Zellaby. Wyndham expounds much of the dilemma in dialogue between the two in chapter 17. How are humans to account for the existence in their midst of seemingly other beings, albeit in human form? How may they be fitted into a system of law that would allow a co-existence, and restrain the overwhelming coercive power that it is revealed that the Children have? Are they humans at all, or a dangerous other species, to wipe out which would be morally defensible in order to save humanity? Leebody confesses himself ‘in a morass’ about the matter, and the dialogue moves back and forth inconclusively until Leebody is called away to keep the peace as a lynch mob of villagers confronts the Children.

And this is the last the reader sees of the Reverend Leebody. In a manner reminiscent of H.G. Wells’s curate in The War of the Worlds, the reader is left with the impression that the vicar’s frame of reference can contribute no more to the situation. A good man, and socially important, when put under extreme pressure the vicar is found wanting. It is left to Zellaby to lead the village to the point at which a solution can be imagined; and it is the clear-sighted sceptic Zellaby – the only person in the village able and prepared to see the situation as it really is – who has the courage to act.

The curate and the faun

Another post in my occasional series on the Anglican clergy in British fiction: this time, from E.M. Forster. ‘The Curate’s Friend’, a short story, was written in the very early years of the century, and was first published in The Celestial Omnibus and Other Stories (1911). It was later published in the Collected Short Stories (Sidgwick and Jackson, 1947), which appeared as a Penguin title in 1954.

A Faun (detail), by  Pál Szinyei Merse, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A Faun (detail), by Pál Szinyei Merse, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It is one of the very few works in which the clergyman is also the narrator. To my knowledge, it also is the only such work of fiction that has an Anglican clergyman meet a faun on a Wiltshire hillside, and its exquisite construction and fantastic character (on first reading) obscure a rather radical message. The unnamed curate is discomfited by a faun during a picnic, shared with the object of his affections and her mother. His extreme reaction to his new friend, who none of the rest of the party can see, causes his companions to flee him. But his horror at his apparent disgrace ‘in the presence of ladies’ is soon overtaken by his new-found perception of the real nature of the natural world around him. The hill itself converses with the faun; the curate suddenly is able to hear ‘the chalk downs singing to each other across the valleys’, and the voice of the streams that never sleep.

And from this point on, the young curate who had hitherto been a fool, ‘facetious without humour and serious without conviction’, found himself happy. The epiphany that Forster presents is not one that causes doubt, or the evaporation of a vocation. Instead, by the end he is able to look down from his pulpit (for now he has a living of his own) on the better and the worse sort, and to try to impart something of the joy he has experienced. But, were he ever to disclose just how he came to know that joy, he should lose his living and the whole of his existence, so ‘profitable and agreeable.’ Forster’s religion of nature can be accommodated within the social structures of faith, but its true nature is available only to those to whom it is revealed.

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.

A Clergyman’s Daughter

One of the fullest fictional depictions of rural English parish life in the 1930s is in the first chapter of George Orwell’s A Clergyman’s Daughter. It was first published by Gollancz in 1935, and although Orwell disliked it and resisted reprinting, it appeared as a Penguin paperback in 1964. I’m not concerned here with Dorothy’s odyssey through the social landscape of the England of the Thirties, but with her father, the Reverend Charles Hare, rector of the church of St Athelstan, Knype Hill, in Suffolk.

Orwell’s Rector was born in 1871, and now we find him a widower with a sour temper. He leaves almost every parish duty to Dorothy, after having expected the same of his late wife, with whom he had been ‘diabolically unhappy.’ Orwell gives us an old man out of time, ‘tethered by his poverty to the age of Lenin and the Daily Mail’, who should have been much happier in an earlier time as ‘a happy pluralist writing poems or collecting fossils’ while curates carried the load of the parish.

The tomb of a clergyman's daughter. By Alan Murray-Rust, reproduced CC-BY-SA 2.0

The tomb of a clergyman’s daughter. By Alan Murray-Rust, reproduced CC-BY-SA 2.0

Born a grandson of a baronet, and having joined the clergy as the natural occupation of a younger son, he served a curacy in the East End of London, ‘a nasty, hooliganish place’. In Knype Hill he is socially out of sympathy with the ‘“lower classes”’ who, even if they no longer doff their cap, simply loathe him, while he merely disregards them. His alienation is equally complete from the local Best People, having both quarrelled with his social equals and despised the petty gentry without making any secret of the fact.

His refusal to accept the change in his social position extends to money. Dorothy lives in fear of the town’s tradesmen in the matter of a host of unpaid bills. As far as the Rector is concerned, for a butcher to want his bill paid is the fault of Democracy, a most undesirable development. The Rector’s response to his poverty is to make yet another doomed investment and deplete his assets further. Any thought of making economies is unconscionable.

So in twenty five years the Rector has reduced his congregation from six hundred to two hundred. But the decline is not purely due to social change and the Rector’s own peculiar pastoral gift. Here Orwell shows us a punctilious High Anglicanism which can no longer compete for attention against the available alternatives in the religious marketplace. Most of the Best People now drive their motor cars to one of two churches in a nearby town.

There’s the spiky Anglo-Catholic St Wedekind’s, in perpetual dispute with the Bishop and infected with what the Rector regards as ‘“Roman fever”’. There is also the Modernism of St Edmund’s, where to be successful a priest must be ‘daringly modern and broad-minded and preach comforting sermons proving that there is no Hell and all good religions are the same.’ After a verbal dispute over an open grave, he had not been on speaking terms with the local Roman Catholic priest. As for the evangelicals, Dorothy has been instructed to have nothing to do with ‘“vulgar Dissenters”’ and the ‘braying bald-headed elder who conducted the orgies at Ebenezer Chapel.’

Despite all this, is the Rector in any way a sympathetic character ? The early character sketch shows him merely negligent, if not quite wilfully unpleasant. But Orwell shows us a greater moral failure in his reaction to Dorothy’s appeals for aid in chapter 4, in which the Rector allows his own fear of the social consequences of her Fall to cause him to act in a clearly culpable way. Without this, his laziness and snobbery would have remained merely tragi-comic; as it is, they are positively baleful.

D.J. Taylor in his Life of Orwell has shown the degree to which Orwell retained an interest in the Church of England, if not exactly any adherence to its doctrine. This is borne out by the range and depth of the religious material to be found in his remarkable pamphlet collection, recently listed by the British Library. The portrait of the Rector in A Clergyman’s Daughter is as vivid as the picture of the Kentish hop fields and the streets of London that are to be found in the rest of the book.

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

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’.