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.
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.