I was first introduced to Angus Wilson’s 1956 novel Anglo-Saxon Attitudes by a fellow graduate student, a medieval historian, and, were this a series on fictional historians (rather than fictional clergy), its main character, Gerald Middleton, professor emeritus, would be prominent in it. And the book is populated by a great many scholars of early medieval England, but of interest here is the late Reverend Reginald Portway, in later career a canon residentiary of Norwich, antiquary, pursuer of progressive causes, patron of the promising but disadvantaged.
It is on his land on the east coast that there is discovered (in 1912) the lost tomb of Eorpwald, missionary bishop to the East Folk in the seventh century. As well as being the lord of Melpham Hall, Portway is also rector of the parish, and secretary of the East Coast Antiquarian Association. As a leisured pursuer of the local and obscure, Portway evokes a literary type stretching back deep into the nineteenth century and beyond, which we have encountered before in this series, from John Fowles and George Orwell.
But the novel is set in the 1950s, by which time Portway is dead, and Middleton, now an old man, is attempting to get to the bottom of the mystery of the Melpham burial, namely, how it came apparently to contain a carving of a pagan fertility god, otherwise unprecedented in England. And we only meet Portway in the first person once, and that only in Gerald’s daydream recollection of meeting him as a young man during the excavation. The rest of the time we encounter him, as does Gerald, in the self-interested and contradictory recollections of others. At the distance of forty years, and two world wars, we are shown Portway at a remove, the nexus of local religion and society that he represented almost as remote as the world of Eorpwald.
For his elderly sister, living in reduced and faintly desperate obscurity in a Tyrolean spa town, the canon lived on as The Times had described him: ‘moral leader, outstanding antiquarian, lover of beauty, fearless fighter, great Churchman.’ To his grateful parishioners he had restored ancient English ceremonies, ‘age-old services of beauty and dignity’; in her drawing room, a ‘centrally-heated mausoleum’, is a photograph of him with his flock in their costumes for a revived Coventry Mystery Play. Another character remembered being adopted as a clever youth of limited means, with Portway intending to send him to Oxford though the war intervened. In Lilian Portway’s pomp as an actress and friend of Shaw and Wells, her brother had stood alongside her and argued the cause of women’s suffrage. But here was no angry revolutionary, but one with a reputation for promoting ‘advanced’ causes with a lightness of touch, committing no offence against the good manners of his class.
A young friend of Middleton’s took a more jaundiced view: the Portways were ‘rich cultural snobs’ desperate to have their unprofitable estates made interesting by some historic find. All the maypoles and dancing and plays were a ‘peculiarly mischievous and foolish sort of egalitarianism based on some romantic notion of medieval society – in short, the cloven hoof of William Morris.’ But the local ladies swooned at Portway’s theatrical good looks, and as a ‘Modern Churchman’ a canonry was in the offing, though to be ‘progressive’ seemed only to entail ‘an attachment to any and every belief save the dogmas of his own religion.’ (There are overtones here of Evelyn Waugh’s hapless Mr Prendergast.)
The solution to the mystery at which Gerald eventually arrives I shall not elaborate, as its unravelling is one of the great pleasures of the novel. But the plot turns on the invidious moral choice (which Portway, it turns out, was forced to make under great pressure) between the absolute scrupulousness of the scholar (on the one hand) and his own interests (and those of others) and his sense of the interests of the discipline of history as a whole, on the other. In the end Middleton’s final act is a compassionate one; despite Portway’s failings, Gerald spares at least some of his reputation. But time is called nonetheless on the clerical amateur: in the words of a fellow member of the Historical Association of Medievalists, ‘all these local parsons ought to be stopped by their bishops from meddling in things they don’t understand’.