Barbara Pym’s priests

So far in my series on the Anglican clergy in British fiction, we have encountered just one clergyman in each novel, or two at the most; in Barbara Pym’s Some Tame Gazelle (published in 1950 but substantially complete by 1936), there are no fewer than four, two of which at least take a substantial part in the narrative as a whole. Set in an unnamed English village, it is the Archdeacon, Henry Hoccleve who features most prominently. The Archdeacon in different hands could have been an entirely unsympathetic character: cantankerous, vain, condescending and inhospitable to guests and parishioners alike. Like many clergy a devotee of poetry, he was susceptible to a literary allusion ‘and was delighted, in the way children and scholars sometimes are, if it was one that the majority of his parishioners did not understand.’ He is only saved from monstrosity by the subtle puncturing of his pomposity that Pym administers at every turn, and the unrequited devotion of years of Miss Belinda Bede, the spinster who, with her sister Harriet, are the heart of the book. (More than one writer has suggested that Belinda and Harriet are Pym’s imagining of her sister and herself in later life.) Even then, Belinda in a moment of reflection notes that ‘he had very few of the obvious virtues that one somehow expected of one’s parish priest’ (chapter 1) There is, however, more to dear Henry than mere social conformity and protectiveness of his status, as we see him contemplating mortality amongst the gravestones in the churchyard. For all its subtle criticism of the gap between expectation and reality in Hoccleve’s ministry, Pym’s portrayal has none of the hostility of that of Robert Tressell. .

The three other clergymen have less fictive work to do but are still better developed than many stock characters. Mr Donne the new curate is blank and pale and, though often present, makes little impression. Father Edward Plowman is the rather ‘Romish’ rector of the neighbouring parish: he wears a biretta, uses incense, and dislikes the Archdeacon as much as he is disliked in turn. Harriet, though, would rather like to attend his church if it were not so far to walk, since he preaches sermons that people can understand, and is ‘such a fine-looking man too, like Cardinal Newman’ (chapter 2) This competitive churchmanship recalls Orwell’s A Clergyman’s Daughter, written at a similar time.

Rather more of a rarity is Theo Grote, the colonial archbishop of Mbawawa, no longer the beautiful willowy curate that Belinda had known as a student, who is accommodated at the vicarage in as uncomfortable a fashion as the archdeacon can decently arrange. The novel predates both the growing to independence of the Anglican provinces in Africa and the growth of any real knowledge of the colonial churches amongst lay Anglicans in England, and so the bishop regales the parish with lantern slides of his flock and their curious dress and customs (chapter 16). Also rather rare in English fiction is the set piece in chapter 18 where all four men are at supper at the vicarage, in which one of Pym’s most devastating criticisms is delivered in characteristically oblique way.

‘Miss Aspinall was radiant .. glittering with beads and chains and agreeing rapturously with everything that everybody said. This was rather difficult with four clergymen present, as with the exception of the curate who hardly ventured an opinion on anything, they tended to disagree with each other wherever they could…. It was such a pity, Belinda reflected, that clergymen were so apt to bring out the worst in each other… as a species they did not get on, and being in a small country village made things even more difficult. These embarrassments would not arise in London where the clergy kept themselves to themselves in their own little sets, High, Broad and Low, as it were.’

A neater skewering of the partisan spirit in the inter-war Church of England I have yet to find.

After having tried several publishers, Pym succeeded in having this, her first novel, published by Jonathan Cape in 1950. It was the first of six in a similar vein before she was unceremoniously cut adrift by Cape, after which she could find no publisher until the late 1970s. The ODNB puts this abrupt descent into obscurity down to an increased appetite for fashionability (and thus profitability) at Cape under editor Tom Maschler. It may be that part of this unfashionability was the volatile mood of English Christianity in the early 1960s, in which such delicate miniatures, celebrations of the stasis of English village life, were increasingly out of place. Iris Murdoch’s atheist priest in The Time of the Angels was perhaps a closer reflection of the crisis of confidence into which the Church of England had talked itself. Pym’s portrait is also from the inside, a portrait of the Church of England by one who loved it as Belinda loved the Archdeacon. A reception history of Pym might well show that over time, fewer and fewer writers and readers could receive a book like Some Tame Gazelle, imaginatively complete in the 1930s, as a reflection of their own social reality; the vogue that Pym belatedly experienced after 1977 was surely in a different, more distanced mode. (For just such a recovery of the rural religion of the 1930s and 1940s as emblematic of a lost world, see John Fowles’ Daniel Martin.)

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