The New Elizabethan Age: a review

[This review appeared in the LSE Review of Books earlier this month, and is here republished under a Creative Commons licence.]

The New Elizabethan Age. Culture, Society and National Identity after World War II.
Irene Morra and Rob Gossedge (eds).
London, I.B. Tauris, 2016.

The Britain of the late 1940s and 1950s has often languished in the historiographical shadow of its neighbours in time: the World Wars that preceded it and the sixties that followed. The popular perception of the early 1950s in particular is now of greyness and stasis: of a desperately slow recovery from the effects of the war and a return to social conformity; an in-between time without energy or direction. Only in 1963 did sex begin (it would seem), and the nation became young, swinging, forging ahead in the white heat of technological revolution.

Recent scholarship has begun to rescue this period from such caricature. The New Elizabethan Age: Culture, Society and National Identity after World War II, edited by Irene Morra and Rob Gossedge, both of Cardiff University, goes further again in cracking open the time to reveal fresh insights. Far from being culturally uniform and static, the nation that emerges is in vigorous dialogue with itself over both its past and its future. Here are chapters on Shakespeare, opera, ballet, musical theatre and film; others engage with national identities in the constituent nations of the UK; still more with British technological invention and with the persistence and usefulness of Arthurian, Byzantine and medieval themes. They are for the most part clearly written and suggestive, although some seem only to be connected with the theme in the most tenuous sense, notably the two pieces by the playwright Edward Bond, which although interesting, add little to the volume as a whole and should perhaps have been omitted.

The volume as a whole stands as a highly stimulating exploration of culture, society and national identity, as the subtitle suggests. This reviewer was left with more reservations about the overall theme of the ‘New Elizabethan Age’. As the introduction clearly shows, there was a moment associated with the coronation of Elizabeth II in which media and other commentators sought to bring the figure of the first Elizabeth into symbolic play. The ‘New Elizabethans’ were to be in continuity with their past, but also youthful, inventive, exploratory – a spirit most clearly to be seen in the arts. This was no ‘false start’ to the sixties, but rather an enduring cast of mind that deserves close attention. The instruments of this particular discourse were the media (and the BBC in particular) and the arts, as fostered by the newly founded Arts Council. The particular attention paid to the means by which this discourse was articulated is important and welcome.

That there was a ‘New Elizabethan’ discourse is therefore hard to dispute, but there is a marked centrifugal tendency among the essays not wholly overcome by the introduction. Too many of the authors seem to acknowledge the notion of the ‘New Elizabethan’ in introductory paragraphs only for it to recede to vanishing point in the body of the chapter. Not everything that occurred in the early 1950s may usefully be dubbed ‘New Elizabethan’ without emptying the concept of its meaning. Readers most interested in this particular aspect would be best served by the introduction, and Chapter One from Morra, which explore and define the New Elizabethan discourse. Also key are Paul Stevens on the historian A.L. Rowse and Powell and Pressburger’s A Canterbury Tale, Helen Phillips on literature for children and Stephen Banfield on the ambiguous music of the ‘New Elizabethan soundtrack’. Amongst the others, it becomes clear that British people in the 1950s looked all over for resources to fund their thinking and actions, including to Tudor revivals that were in fact much older, such as in music, and to several periods of the past that were not Elizabethan. For every example that might fit the template, there are counter-examples, dissensions and dissonances.

One other striking omission is the visual arts, in which the symbolic play of past and present may be observed in other contexts, and which were similarly the object of both state and private patronage, and the forces of a growing market. Of course, the editors may only include work which is available to publish, but there is yet a space open for studies of artistic representations of both the new queen and of the Tudor past in this particular period.

The New Elizabethan Age as a whole is highly suggestive and valuable, and shows well the moment in which answers to pressing questions of national identity were sought. Several of its chapters throw light on aspects of British culture seldom if ever illuminated before, and will be read with profit by cultural historians and scholars of the arts alike. However, it may be that in order to realise the full value of this collection the reader needs first to set aside the search for an essential New Elizabethanism. Read without this particular frame, the collection vividly presents a Britain seeking a means to reconcile a reverence for elements of its history while also imagining a future in fundamentally changed circumstances after World War II. While losing both an empire and any last vestiges of world leadership and adjusting to a new social settlement in the welfare state, for some the figure of the new Queen and her earlier namesake did indeed symbolise something important; for others, notably outside England, the new Queen provided little symbolic heft. Ultimately, the interest lies in the fact of the search for such meaning, rather than in any single finding.

Britten’s country vicar

Compared to the number of clergy characters in British fiction of the last century, there are very few indeed in opera. One, however, appears in Benjamin Britten’s Albert Herring (1947). And, given the various attempts both to stress and downplay the strength of Britten’s attachment to the Anglicanism of his youth, the vicar of the fictional Suffolk village of Loxford is a useful point from which to view Britten’s treatment of the established Church of England.

I don’t propose here to analyse Britten’s religion in any depth, since there are several such accounts already. I would note only the creative tension between Britten’s friendships with figures such as Walter Hussey (and the small but important corpus of religious music) with readings of Britten that stress his status as outsider, a gay man in a country in which homosexuality was illegal until he had reached near old age. I would argue that Mr Gedge is at once a character with which Britten and his librettist Eric Crozier have some sympathy, but who by virtue of his office is integral to the repressive society in which Albert has been trapped.

Loxford is of course a lighter, more comic sketch of the same social forces in lockstep that appear with such terrifying effect in Peter Grimes; the Borough has its own vicar, the Reverend Horace Adams. This is the Protestant England of 1900, in which poppies are too Roman Catholic to be used to decorate the church; Albert is presented with a copy of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, as Gedge exclaims:

The Bible, Shakespeare, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs…
Three cornerstones of our national heritage!

Gedge is obsequious to the formidable Lady Billows, a relationship with overtones of that between Austen’s Mr Collins and Lady Catherine de Bourg. He, as vicar, is part of the committee, along with the mayor, the schoolmistress and the superintendent, that meets to assess the virtue of the young people of the village: aristocracy, church, school and town together as monitors and enforcers of what we are supposed to read as a stifling conformity. To be sure, this is the dominant note of the opera as a whole.

But there are signs that Britten does not regard the vicar wholly negatively, such as the shimmering, luminous music to which Britten sets the vicar’s musing on the nature of virtue, which, ‘says Holy Writ’, is:

Grace abounding whensoever, wheresoever, howsoever it exists.
Rarer than pearls… rubies… amethyst,
Richer than wealth… wisdom… righteousness! (Act One, Scene One)

Although it is obscured by productions that cast Gedge as an very elderly man, there is also the moment in which he and the schoolmistress Miss Wordsworth, inspired by the signs of spring around them, duet with lines from the Song of Songs, that most spring-like and indeed erotic book of the Bible. Here is a glimpse of an idealised Christian world in which virtue is no deadening renunciation of the world; Christian relationships need not entail a denial of the flesh.

‘And lo! the winter is past…
‘The rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth… (Act One, Scene One).

Religion, law and national identity in the archived Web: new article

I’m delighted to say that an article of mine has appeared this week in a new collection of essays, edited by Niels Brügger and Ralph Schroeder: The Web as History (London: UCL Press, 2017, ISBN: 9781911307563).

My article is ‘Religious discourse in the archived web: Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, and the sharia law controversy of 2008’ (pp. 190-203). It examines the controversy over a public lecture given by the archbishop on the interaction of civil and religious law, but from a new angle: the imprint the controversy left in the archive of the UK web. It makes particular use of British Library data documenting the link structure of the .uk country code top level domain for the period 1996-2010.

The whole thing is available as an Open Access PDF, but here’s my conclusion.

It is a brave historian who attempts to interpret the very recent past, as opposed to merely documenting it. As with most aspects of very recent history, the full significance of Rowan Williams’ lecture about sharia law will only become clear as the passage of time grants the historian a sufficiently long perspective from which to view it. An exhaustive qualitative examination of both the published record, and memoirs and private papers that are as yet inaccessible (not least the papers of the archbishop himself, not due to be released until 2038) will be needed to place the episode in its fullest context. Without these, we cannot yet know how changes in patterns of communication that are observable in the archived web were motivated, or how opinions expressed online related to broader patterns of social and intellectual change. However, even if it is difficult to explain changing patterns of religious discourse on the web, we may nonetheless document those changes.

First, the sharia law episode prompted a step-change in the levels of attention paid to the domain of the archbishop of Canterbury, as evidenced by the incidence of inbound links, and also a broadening of the types of hosts that contained those links. Second, a comparison of the inbound links to the Canterbury domain to that of the archbishop of York suggests that the historic privilege given to the views of Canterbury over those of York was extended onto the web. Regardless of their actual status in relation to each other within the Church of England, the media and the public at large seemed only to pay attention to Canterbury. Finally, a qualitative examination of the site of the British National Party shows that at least one organization, with a very particular concern with the place of Islam in British life, certainly took new account of the person of the archbishop as a result of the 2008 controversy.

This chapter has also sought to use the episode as a means of demonstrating both the potential for historians to utilize the archived web to address older questions in a new way, and some of the particular issues of method that web archives present. At one level, the methodological complications presented here – understanding the meaning of a link from one resource to another, say – are peculiar to the archived web and must be understood anew. As with all other born- digital sources, there is work to be done amongst historians in understanding these issues of method, and in acquiring the skills needed to handle data at scale. At the same time, it is part of the historian’s stock- in- trade to assess the provenance of a body of sources, its completeness and the contexts in which those sources were transmitted and received. The task at hand is in fact the application of older critical methods to a new kind of source: a challenge which historians have confronted and overcome before.

This chapter has also tried to show some of the potential available to historians, should they accept the challenge. In the study of public controversy, the archived web allows the detection of changing communication patterns at scale that would be impossible using a traditional qualitative method. It also enables the detection of attention being paid online in places where a scholar would not think to look. More generally, the chapter has attempted to outline an approach that combines quantitative readings of the links in web archives with qualitative examination of particular subsets of resources. When dealing with a new superabundance of historical sources, a combination of distant and close reading will be required to understand the archived web.

Iris Murdoch and the death of God

Iris Murdoch’s The Time of the Angels (1966) features not one but two clerical characters, both of the Church of England, and amongst the principal characters to boot. A little while ago I introduced the physical setting in which Murdoch’s drama is played out: the vicarage of a ruined church in a London wasteland, blanketed in snow and shrouded in the twilight of a London fog. It is against this backdrop of isolation and purposelessness that Murdoch is able to dramatise the impact of the ‘Death of God’ theology of the 1960s.

The blitzed church of St Dunstan in the East, now a public garden. Image: Peter Webster

The blitzed church of St Dunstan in the East, now a public garden.
Image: Peter Webster

There are two Fisher brothers: Marcus, and his elder brother Carel, the rector of St Eustace Watergate. Marcus has become concerned about his brother, living as a recluse in the rectory and refusing all callers, including Marcus. He is concerned not only for Carel, but also for Carel’s daughter Muriel, and for Elizabeth, to whom Marcus and Carel are guardians. He is also concerned on his own account. Marcus, a schoolteacher, is writing a book, Morality in a World without God (chapter 7), which will ‘rescue the idea of an Absolute in morals by showing it to be implied in the most unavoidable human activity of moral evaluation’. Thus armed, no longer would either theological metaphor or crude existentialism be necessary in order to society to function. But somehow he is distracted by the thought of his brother.

Marcus’ friend Norah has her doubts about the book, and Marcus’ intentions in writing it (chapter 2). Despite his apparent wish to start afresh, Marcus’ favourite reading is still works of theology; for Norah, Marcus is ‘just a Christian fellow-traveller. It’s better not to tinker with a dying mythology.’ The sooner the West would pass through its current twilight of the gods, the better, Norah thought. Her aim, characteristic of ‘the brisk sensibleness of an old Fabian radical’ was to get all that out of the system.

Concerned about Carel’s state of mind, Norah and Marcus consult with his bishop (chapter 9). Murdoch does not name him, but the parallel is very clearly with John Robinson, bishop of Woolwich, whose 1963 book Honest to God was perhaps the last theological bestseller in British history, for which he was censured by Michael Ramsey, archbishop of Canterbury. Both Norah and Marcus press the bishop on Carel’s apparent lack of belief, while he tucks into their treacle tart, washing it down with their claret. ‘It is a time’ he says ‘when, as one might put it, mankind is growing up. … Much of the symbolism of theology … is, in this scientific age, simply a barrier to belief. Our symbolism must change.’ As for Carel, the key is not his beliefs, but ‘passion, Kierkegaard said, didn’t he, passion. That’s the necessary truth.’ For the so-called ‘South Bank Religion’, what one believed was not so important as the earnestness with which one believed it. Despite his confession of atheism, the bishop regards Carel as ‘a profoundly religious man’.

I don’t want to write too much here about Carel himself, since to do so could very easily spoil the plot for anyone who has not read the book. But his character, and his actions, are the dark counterpart to both Marcus and the bishop. Marcus is superficially sure that his project of morality without the supernatural can be achieved. The bishop seems content enough that the church can survive the kind of testing and purification that the current ‘interregnum’ (Norah’s twilight of the gods) will entail. Carel, and the suffocating darkness that seems to emanate from him and damage those around him, is the side of their argument that neither can contemplate. Murdoch shows us the abyss of meaninglessness that may be glimpsed but cannot be faced.

On structuring a book

Another review of my book on Michael Ramsey appears this week, this time from Keith Robbins in the English Historical Review. It is of course a pleasure to have a review from a senior scholar such as Professor Robbins, and in a leading generalist journal such as the EHR. Robbins concludes that it is a ‘well-balanced survey’, but otherwise has few substantive criticisms to make, positive or negative.

There is one, however, which merits some further discussion here. Robbins writes:

The drawback [of the book’s thematic structure] is that it is difficult to form a sense of how, year on year, each of these topics related to each other in terms of Ramsey’s ordering of their importance and his attention. It is convenient for historians to write about ‘the state’ and ‘the nation’ in different chapters, but so many questions flow across boundaries that their separate treatment seems a little artificial.

Most historians writing a book, I suspect, will have faced the choice between adopting either a chronological structure or a thematic one. My forthcoming book on Walter Hussey adopts a hybrid method: a broadly chronological structure, with some extended analyses of contextual themes interspersed. The adoption of either approach entails gains and losses, as Robbins states. With Hussey, the chronological structure works (I think) because the story has one track: a succession of commissions of works of art for his churches.

In Ramsey’s case, there is no single narrative thread, but several that progress side by side during his time as archbishop. There are points of contact between them, to be sure, which both introduction and conclusion were intended to draw out, perhaps unsuccessfully. But year by year there is not the kind of clustering of attention that Robbins suggests there might be. Instead, there are multiple threads of political, ecumenical and legal development, each of which moves according to its own internal dynamics: fast and slow; some recently arisen and others of very long standing; bursts of activity and long pauses. If one were to order Ramsey’s career as a sequence of events, one would see legislative moves in Parliament, political events overseas, sessions of the Church Assembly, interactions with the media, meetings with the other churches, sometimes in the same week or indeed the same day. Ramsey seems to have been adept at putting disparate matters in their separate boxes in order that they might be dealt with on their own terms. But the day to day experience of the archbishop was one of a rapid succession of highly disparate matters.

Sometimes Ramsey acted on his own initiative in response to events, such as the crises in Southern Rhodesia or Vietnam. In Parliament, sometimes he was able to initiate, and at other terms react, and to try to influence. The process of internal change in the Church is one of commissions, working groups, reports, and the to-and-fro between archbishop, bishops and the periodic deliberations of the Church Assembly or General Synod. Ecumenical change was necessarily a process of both initiative and reaction in relation to other churches at home and abroad. Part of the experience of being archbishop that I wanted to show was the imbalance between the power that he was supposed by many to wield, and the reality of the constraints under which he in fact operated. His power to initiate was considerable, but at the same time more limited than many thought.

The structure of the book was an attempt to isolate some key themes in order that they might be analysed. It may well be possible to achieve the same analytic end in a more chronological way; but it would have required a better writer than me. More pragmatically, the structure of the book more closely serves the needs of most of the readers it may attract. As an author, one might fondly imagine that every reader will want to savour every page of the book, but the majority will come to it in search of material on a particular issue, as Robbins acknowledges. I had no wish to force those readers to work with the index to hew that material out.

The Church, law, and politics, 1958–1974

I’m delighted to be able to say that an article of mine is to be part of a volume now under contract with Boydell and Brewer. Edited by Thomas Rodger and Philip Williamson, it has the title Church and State. The Church of England and British politics in the twentieth century, and should be published in 2019.

Abstract

The ‘Long Sixties’ (1958-74) saw a series of changes in the relationship between the Church of England and the law: some spectacular, others rather less so. Most prominent was the series of reforms in the ‘moral law’, such as in relation to divorce, abortion, capital punishment and male homosexuality. Valuable work has been done on these episodes as they implicated the Church of England, such as that by Matthew Grimley on the Sexual Offences Act 1967. However, the focus of this scholarship on particular issues and episodes has tended to obscure a longer-term and more fundamental shift in the relationship between the established Church and the law at large, of which these spectacular moments were but component parts.

This paper surveys these changes in the moral law, but also the longer-range renegotiation of the relationship between the Church, Parliament and the law that was instigated shortly after the Second World War by archbishop Fisher in pursuit of a reformed code of canon law. This process culminated in the Worship and Doctrine Measure of 1974, under which the Church gained the power to settle its own doctrine and practice of worship without recourse to Parliament, thus removing one of the key causes of tension in earlier periods. This raft of reforms, small and large, touched upon almost every aspect of the Church’s life, internal and external – the relationship with Parliament, the representation of the voice of the laity, the ordering of worship, the settlement of doctrine, the discipline of clergy, the organisation of parishes and the finances of the Church as a whole.

Examining all these changes in aggregate, and the various debates within and outside the Church that they provoked, the chapter will argue that when taken together they constitute a significant widening of the gap between established church and state. The process also coincided (and interacted) with a profound reconsideration among some within the Church of its right relation with the other Christian churches and with the nation as a whole. Some, notably Michael Ramsey, saw an opportunity for the Church to take a more detached and prophetic role as the distance between Church and State widened. That the opportunity was not taken in later years is the subject for a different study.

Christopher Wren in the wasteland

Iris Murdoch’s The Time of the Angels (1966) is a dramatisation of the crisis of belief of the 1960s, and her two clerical characters deserve their own blog posts. But here,  I want to dwell on the setting of the novel in London and the atmosphere it creates.

A little while ago I wrote about Penelope Lively’s London churches of the mind: how the churches of Lively’s late 1980s are bearers of meanings imprinted by the past, but with no present life, and no future. As the redevelopment of parts of London is in full spate, these buildings are stranded, mute islands of memory in a sea of forgetting and obliteration. Murdoch’s London is of the mid 1960s, when pockets of land still remained uncleared of the rubble of the Blitz twenty years before. London’s population continued to fall, and it was only town planners that thought parts of the city had any future.

St Dunstan in the East. Image: Peter Webster

St Dunstan-in-the-East.
Image: Peter Webster

Although an invention of Murdoch’s, St Eustace Watergate is (or was) a Christopher Wren church, only the tower of which survived the bombing. The tower, and the nearby rectory are the only remaining buildings in the midst of a building site on which there is no building, shrouded by the London fog that makes day night, cut off from the city that surrounds it. The scene is the London docklands, close to the City but yet at the same time isolated on the peninsula of the Isle of Dogs, hemmed in on three sides by the river.

There were many blitzed churches, several of them of Wren, but by the 1960s the Church of England had more or less found ways of dealing with them, a cluster of fine buildings without parishioners to serve. Some were abandoned, their demolition completed and the sites sold. Some that could be rebuilt were rebuilt; others such as St Dunstan-in-the-East were left in ruins and converted into public gardens, both war memorial and public utility. Even those that were intact were no longer typical parish churches, but lived only during the working week: ‘lectures and concerts and shut on Sundays’ (p.13).

Murdoch’s St Eustace, neither rebuilt nor demolished, is ‘a niche for problem children’ (p.13): clergy whom the bishop can neither make use nor be rid of. There is half-hearted talk of an appeal to wealthy Americans for funds with which to rebuild, but we hear little of it. St Eustace is half a church: stranded amidst the debris of an old order, an empty shell which looms in the gloom, the only thing yet to be cleared before rebuilding may begin. But that rebuilding is itself stalled, stymied, by the withdrawal of planning permission for a skyscraper. All is becalmed, frozen in the half-light of the fog and carpeted in snow. It is both symbol and backdrop against which Murdoch develops her theme of the loss of faith and the directionless search for something with which to replace it.