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).
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’.