Previously in this series on the clergy in British fiction, I looked at the Reverend Habbakkuk Bosher in Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, possibly the most one-dimensional and least sympathetic of all such characters. Bosher is pure cypher, a blank canvas onto which Tressell can project his condemnation of the complicity of the established Church in the oppression of the proletariat. Where Tressell is crude, several other authors are more subtle; but relatively rare is the clerical character who is allowed room to be more than a mouthpiece for the attitudes of his profession and class. One particularly interesting example of the clerical character as pure symbol is in The Aerodrome by Rex Warner, first published in 1941.
The contemporary reputation of George Orwell’s 1984 is so weighty that it has tended to obscure other attempts to understand the phenomenon of authoritarian politics by means of the novel. As Anthony Burgess observed in the introduction to the 1982 edition from Oxford University Press, The Aerodrome preceded 1984 and in many ways is more complex and more interesting in its avoidance of overt brutality and the shades of grey that it reveals. Warner opposes two different visions of society, the Village and the Aerodrome. The former is sensual, muddled, corrupt, uncontrolled; it is in thrall both to its natural environment and to its history. The latter is a model of order, efficiency, cleanliness; it exists to subdue nature and to transcend the past. Warner’s achievement is showing the appeal of the Aerodrome to Roy, the principal character, and the degree of ambivalence it provokes; there is no such doubt for Winston Smith, no reluctant attraction.
There is no theology proper in Warner’s novel, no reflection on the nature of the claims to truth that the Rector’s church makes; indeed, they are not mentioned. The church, as represented by the Rector, is nothing but a social fact; part of the fabric of the Village as is the pub. (The character of the Squire, also never named, serves a similar function). The casual murder of the Rector, his replacement in the pulpit by the Flight Lieutenant and its annexation as a propaganda channel shows the degree to which authoritarian regimes recognise the threat that unrestrained religion might pose.
Although we see little of him, the Rector is broadly a sympathetic character: kindly, an affectionate father to Roy and both respected and loved in the Village. While his confession of past guilt in chapter 2 may well be the most baroquely unrealistic portrayal of prayer ever set to paper, it shows a sensitive conscience in dialogue with its God, a fallen sinful man trying to live rightly. But it is perhaps this very weakness, the degree to which the Rector (and by implication the Church) is embroiled in, indeed sullied by the imperfect world in which it must minister, that explains the brutal appeal of the Aerodrome. Roy, who had been brought up as the Rector’s son now gradually transfers his obedience and his admiration to the Air Vice-Marshal, commander of the Aerodrome and a new father figure; a symbolic replacement of one kind of moral leadership with another. Religion had for centuries had an ‘ennobling, if a misleading effect’, said the Air Vice-Marshal; now that had come to an end, and so it was for the Aerodrome to discipline the Village, to raise it from its torpor: ‘earthbound … incapable of envisaging a distant objective, tied up forever in their miserable and unimportant histories’ (chapter 15). The Rector is a symbol of the English and indeed European society that fascism sought to refashion.