Holy Deadlock

This latest post in my series on fictional clergy is an unusual one, in that it connects very directly with some of the stuff of more traditional ecclesiastical history: the law on divorce (in England and Wales), and a novel by A.P. (Alan) Herbert. Called to the Bar in 1918 (though he did not in fact practice as a barrister), Herbert made his name as a writer, for Punch and elsewhere, before entering Parliament in 1935 as an independent member for Oxford University. Perhaps chief among his achievements as a parliamentarian was the introduction of what became the Matrimonial Causes Act 1937, which is directly connected with his 1935 novel Holy Deadlock. Writing later, Herbert credited the book with having influenced public opinion and thus providing cover for MPs to support reform that might before have been very politically risky indeed.

The Penguin edition of Holy Deadlock (1955)

The depiction in Holy Deadlock of the procedure for divorce was so full and so accurate that Herbert knew of cases when, being advised by their solicitor, a young thing in trouble would produce a battered copy from handbag or coat pocket. Still highly readable, the novel irresistibly shows the results when a gap opens up between the law and the common sense of the public. The Adams – Mary and John – were married very young and still are young (she is not yet 30). Their marriage has broken down and they wish to divorce, but cannot without convincing a court both that John has committed adultery (which he has not) and that Mary has not (when in fact she has, but only subsequently to their separation). The absurd, almost farcical unfolding of their case, with its carefully staged trysts in seaside hotels and pursuits by weary private detectives, showed the impossibility, without deceit, of achieving what Herbert plainly wishes the reader to see as a just end. The chasm is vast between (on the one hand) the high-flown rhetoric about the law and the absolute respect it demands, and (on the other) bewilderment – even ribald amusement – among the public, and quiet connivance and circumlocution among the lawyers.

The law prior to the 1937 Act allowed only one ground for divorce – the ‘matrimonial offence’ that John’s trips to Brighton and elsewhere are designed to imply – and this was, of course, a traditional understanding of Christian morality as translated into law. The Bill proposed additional grounds, including desertion (with a minimum period), and cruelty. That Christian opinion was, in fact, divided on the need for reform may be seen in the Hansard record of debates on the Bill. The Bishop of St Albans, Michael Furse, opposed the Bill, believing it to be ‘against the most fundamental law of God with regard to the procreation of the human race, its upbringing and its education in the ultimate problem of life, which is how to live together.’ Henson of Durham, by contrast, supported it; Cosmo Lang, archbishop of Canterbury, thought it probably now ‘impossible for the State to impose Christian principles by law upon a mixed community when many of its members have neither the religious faith nor the assisting grace to enable them to live up to the Christian standard’, and so abstained at third reading.

There is more to say on the religious sentiment of the novel than I shall include here. That said, Herbert allows his characters only rather limited editorialising, and there is little of what one might call anti-clerical sentiment in the novel. (Indeed, the enforcers of the old consensus are more likely to be ‘good churchmen’ rather than the clergy.) But there is one clerical character, who stands both for a particular theology and as one side of a generational conflict. That character is Mary Eve’s father, about whom we learn rather little and meet only once.

John and Mary meet for the second and crucial time while both are working in 1919 in the East End of London – he at the Oxford House settlement, an outpost of a certain kind of Christian social concern, she at St Hilda’s Mission – and John notes that the father of this ‘golden girl’ is a ‘rector in Sussex’. But the Revd Eve, rector of Chatham Parva, was to be sorely disappointed at the couple’s decision not to marry in church (he must have expected to solemnise his daughter’s marriage himself). Mary was ‘repelled and puzzled’ by the words of the Book of Common Prayer. She could not accept that procreation was the first end of matrimony, and neither could she in conscience vow to remain married ‘til death us do part’. One had to be sensible, and prepared for divorce, she thought; her father’s idea of marriage was ‘an ideal – but it could not be a positive rule, much less a clause in a contract.’ The Reverend Eve was realistic enough to know that to withhold his consent would be futile, and so after a unhappy weekend of discussion and examination of texts, he gave up the struggle, consoling himself with the thought ‘that it was honesty of mind that made her say such dreadful things.’

Ten years later, Mary and John have indeed failed to reach the ideal, and she has not yet screwed up the courage to visit her father and let him know that divorce proceedings have begun. She, still not yet 29, had made a silly mistake at 19, and he was now an old man, 68 perhaps, and (we are to understand) a widower, ‘pottering about the lawn with a mower in his hands and a sermon in his mind – watering his roses and reciting the Old Testament – old, feeble and ineffective and, she thought sometimes, a little mad.’ Though his age looms large in her thoughts, and is associated with all things that are outdated, still he was her father, and she must either avoid him (which would cause hurt), or ‘confess her wickedness…. which, she thought, would kill him.’

In time, however, her father comes to hear gossip, and so the issue is forced. He writes in a shaky hand, disbelieving but upset; might she come and see him? Instead she writes, putting her whole case. She has read the report of the Royal Commission, and the Biblical texts and others: she was ‘quite clear that Christ never meant to lay down laws, only ideals and principles, or, as Dean Inge, said, “a counsel of perfection”’. Distracted and distressed, Mary sends the letter, which swings from pleading to peevish defensiveness and back. The reply arrives, and it is to be the last we hear of the Reverend Eve: ‘I can be glad of your honesty, at least. But it grieves me most, my dear daughter, to know that there is still, in thought, so great a gulf between us, a gulf which not even the Word of God can bridge.’ He should dearly love to see her, but under the circumstances it is best not to meet, though he will pray for a better understanding for her: ‘I am too old and tired for disputation, and will say no more.’ It is ‘the whimper of a hurt dog’ (the narrator’s words); Mary is ‘so miserable that she could not even cry’.

It is Herbert’s achievement that none of his main characters become mere ciphers for the ideas they represent. Mary is an unhappy woman under great pressure, and not merely the mouthpiece of a small-l liberal, non-rigorist ethical Christianity. The Reverend Eve is a stout defender of a particular interpretation of the Bible and of the church-state relationship, but also an old and broken man who cannot understand his daughter, and now fears he has lost her.