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 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.