The vicar and the excellent women

[Another post in my series on clergy in English fiction: this time, Excellent Women (1952) by Barbara Pym.]

Mildred Lathbury’s London is small and grey, ‘so very much the wrong side of Victoria station, so definitely not Belgravia’ (ch.1). It is a constrained world, of rationed food that is bland when it comes, of shapeless and moth-eaten clothes retrieved from trestle tables in the church jumble sale. And, like some of Pym’s other novels, it is a world full of clergy. A young clergyman, a curate ‘just out of the egg’ looks out from a donated picture frame. In the bombed church of St Ermin, its vicar gamely conducts services in the one undamaged aisle, amid piles of wall tablets and the occasional cherub’s head. There is also a brief appearance by Archdeacon Hoccleve, a visiting preacher up from the country and Pym’s earlier novel Some Tame Gazelle.

And there are clergy in Mildred’s memory too, of her childhood in her father’s country rectory, ‘large, inconvenient … with stone passages, oil lamps and far too many rooms’. There are curates, whose names we do not learn, on whom Mildred had placed her teenage hopes without success; there was a visiting canon who knew much, and talked much, about Stonehenge. And there was her father, whose battered panama hat was the epitome of ‘the wisdom of an old country clergyman’. And Mildred now has made an existence for herself rather like that of her youth, with a small income and a flat full of her parents’ furniture with a shared bathroom. Aside from her work in the relief of distressed gentlewomen, that existence is centred around St Mary’s, ‘prickly, Victorian Gothic, hideous inside, I suppose, but very dear to me’. It is ‘High’, and it is with the vicar, with his biretta, that we are most concerned.

There are others much better placed than me to expound the subtle feminism in Pym’s work. But it seems clear to me that the moral centre of gravity of Excellent Women is female, around which the various male characters orbit. These men are casually dismissive of the women around them, but ultimately dependent on them in a way that is almost childlike. It is among this group of men – complacent, frivolous, ineffective – that we must read the vicar, Julian Malory, and it is largely through Mildred’s eyes that we see him.

Father Malory is not, Mildred thinks, a good looking man. Aged around forty, he is ‘tall, thin and angular’, which gives him ‘a suitable ascetic distinction’. But his manner is forbidding, such that only his smile serves to soften the ‘bleakness’ of his face. Not for him then the fluttering attention of the single women in the parish: ‘I am not even sure whether anyone has ever knitted him a scarf or a pullover.’ But the excellent women of St Mary’s are between them quite sure that, though he has not said as much, he is not for marrying. ‘Perhaps it is more suitable’, Mildred thinks, ‘that a High Church clergyman should remain unmarried, that there should be a biretta in the hall rather than a perambulator’ (ch. 2)

Malory is conventionally serious as his parishioners expect. Mildred is expected to ‘say a word’ to her new neighbours, the intellectual and worldly Napiers, and when she initially takes against Helena Napier, she is brought up short by the recollection of a sermon. But there is evidence too in Malory of a degree of introspection: when in chapter 5 we find him ineptly trying to paint a wall in the vicarage, his failure prompts the reflection that ‘it must be such a satisfying feeling, to do good work with one’s hands. I’m sure I’ve preached about it often enough.’ (Pym here captures an aspect in some of the more romanticised Anglo-Catholic theology of work at the time.) But even that satisfaction is to be denied him: ‘”I’ve certainly learnt humility this afternoon, so the exercise will have served some purpose. It looked so easy, too” he added sadly.’ ‘I suppose I am not to be considered a normal man’ he adds, ‘ and yet I do have these manly feelings.’

Image: Trojan_Llama via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

To say much more about the plot would risk spoiling the rich pleasures to be had from the novel by readers who do not yet know it. But it seems that Father Malory is, after all, the marrying kind, and it is in his handling of this, and of Mildred, that his culpable frivolity is clearest. Having lacked either the sensitivity to notice Mildred’s feelings for him before he reveals his engagement, he becomes guiltily solicitous for them at the precise time when he ought not to (ch.15). To compound the error, it is to her of all people that he returns when the plan collapses, and his clumsy attempt to return to a time in which their friendship had within it the unspoken potential of something more is gently sidestepped with a line of Keats (The wistful poetic clergyman is another familiar fictive type, and the use of verse as a substitute for saying what needs to be said) (ch. 22).

It is a measure of Pym’s art that this is not the only available reading; it might well be argued that, far from being particularly culpable, Malory is only as emotionally inarticulate as Mildred, and that their mutual discomfort is merely a product of culture. But he is direct to the point of embarrassment when attempting to save the marriage of someone else, or in the interest of his spinster sister, while vague to the point of irresponsibility on his own behalf. Pym gives us a character who has escaped the narrow fictive confines of his vocation, a well-intentioned but weak man in the company of excellent women.

On memoir and the construction of an artistic life

For reasons too complex to dwell on here, the writer of modern English church history is peculiarly reliant on biography, autobiography and memoir. Of old we knew to distrust people’s own accounts of their lives; memory sometimes plays us false. More recently we learned to suspect the conscious or unconscious construction of a life to give it coherence, a sense of purpose, even (in some cases) to cleanse it of its moral blemishes.

It is a particular perspective given only to biographers to observe the full extent to which a memoir matches the actuality of a life. Such was my experience when writing my book on Walter Hussey, Anglican patron of the arts. Hussey left a carefully curated set of papers, under the control of his successors as dean of Chichester, and kept by the West Sussex Record Office. But they have to be read in a state of dialogue with his memoir, Patron of Art.

Hussey in the deanery, late 1960s. Image copyright Sussex Life, all rights reserved.

Hussey retired to London from Chichester in 1977, to be nearer both to his closest friends and to the capital’s galleries and concert halls. But by 1983, during which year he wrote his draft, his health had worsened and isolation set in, as his friends aged with him, and others died. It seems he met with a refusal from at least one publisher, but he had some friends still, among them the media baron Hugh Cudlipp, who had proved an ally after retiring to Chichester. Cudlipp, having read the draft, wrote to his friend the publisher George Weidenfeld, recommending a book of ‘unusual and absorbing interest, essentially about the great artists of our time.’

How influential Cudlipp’s intervention was, we do not know, but the book was accepted, and it appeared in March 1985 at a price of £12.95 (about £34 today), accompanied by a BBC television interview. Hussey himself bought a remarkable 500 copies, at a cost of over £3,000 even at a discount, presumably for distribution to his friends as a parting gift, an aide memoire to what he thought the great work of his life. How many he did distribute, we do not know, but almost none of his friends’ responses to it have survived, as Hussey died on 25th July.

It was quickly reviewed in the mainstream press. Copies found their way into a handful of libraries in the UK, and it has been widely cited as the principal source on Hussey’s career since. This reliance on the book is understandable, since it gives a detailed account of the making of several of his commissions, and reproduces a number of important letters and other documents. However, Patron of Art in many ways obscures as much as it reveals.

The obscurity is in part due to the writing itself, since Hussey, for all his years spent in contemplation of the beautiful, was clumsy and banal when he took up his pen. One reviewer, the poet and publisher Christopher Reid, thought Patron of Art ‘a dull and inadequate book … lacking any sustained argument, content to itemize his successes chapter by chapter as they arise, and without any serious attempt at evaluative discrimination’. We learn of an unfortunate incident with a coffee pot when Leonard Bernstein and his wife came to visit the Deanery; of the delicious meatballs that were served at Marc Chagall’s French home. Cudlipp admitted that there was a ‘parochial atmosphere which occasionally moves to the front of the stage’, but thought it important due to its ‘authenticity’. Be that as it may, though these details were those that had most impressed themselves on Hussey’s mind, the reader could have managed without them.

Hussey was also indiscriminate in his reproduction of the letters of those he had encountered, several of which are trivial. As another reviewer noted, ‘in Patron of Art Canon Hussey relives it all, reproducing a great many letters from notable people, many of them saying what a splendid fellow Walter Hussey is. Their reproduction is probably the only lapse of taste in his career.’

This lack of discrimination would be more easily excused were Patron of Art compendious, but the surfeit of information on some matters is matched by some glaring omissions.

In Patron of Art Hussey eschewed almost entirely questions of his motives for pursuing his task with such tenacity. Absent also, as his successor as Dean, Robert Holtby, observed, is any sustained theological reflection on the relationship of the arts and the church, or of truth and beauty, all questions to which Hussey’s work ineluctably and urgently gives rise. Holtby also sagely noted the lack of any sense of the place of all these works of art in the liturgical action of the church (a point which I develop here). Patron of Art also begins with the first commissions and in doing so obliterates Hussey’s formation as a lover of art and as a priest – in fact, his first 34 years.

It is also in places verifiably inaccurate in matters of fact, and almost comically unbalanced. If the decisions made by Hussey as author of Patron of Art is a reflection of his estimation of the worth of his commissions, his judgment was surely wrong in the case of the anthem Lo, the full final sacrifice, by Gerald Finzi. Patron of Art gives fully eight pages to the two visits the soprano Kirsten Flagstad made to Chichester in 1947 and 1948. The fact of a world star of Flagstad’s reputation coming to a provincial parish church was certainly notable; the repertoire, however, was not, and neither was the fact of a recital in a church; Hussey had already established a series. Hussey also devoted half a page to the seemingly minor matter of print designs for Chichester.

For Finzi, however, there is but half a sentence, for a piece of music the first page of which has been described by one of Finzi’s foremost interpreters as the ‘best thing Finzi ever wrote’. Of all the Hussey music for Northampton, it is Lo, the full final sacrifice that has entered the repertoire, along with Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb. Hussey was usually fulsome in his thanks after a first performance or an unveiling – politeness demanded it – and this was no exception. However, there is a clue as to the possible reason for Hussey’s later downplaying of the piece from Finzi himself, who had the impression that Hussey disliked it after playing the piece through at the piano. Finzi admitted that the piece ‘isn’t like Britten, for whom Hussey has a great, great admiration.’ The making of Rejoice in the Lamb, by contrast, has its own chapter, and the first one.

I’ve argued elsewhere that Hussey was an instinctive patron, acting on his instincts and his enthusiasm. This is writ large throughout Patron of Art, in which Hussey documents the episodes he treasured in the most lavish detail, while downplaying others or omitting them entirely. And the very guilelessness of Hussey’s shaping of his record is an example of a kind of instinctive, unselfconscious fashioning of the self. In Patron of Art there is little need to read ‘against the grain’ to draw out the conscious, intentional elisions and omissions of a better writer, bent on deceiving the reader. Hussey’s estimation of his career is plain to see. It is the instinctive memoir of an instinctive patron.

Church and Patronage in 20th Century Britain: Walter Hussey and the Arts is published by Palgrave Macmillan

Walter Hussey, the liturgy and the Eucharist

[A short talk given to a symposium on Visual Communion, organised by Art and Christianity and held at the Bishop’s Palace in Chichester on Saturday 2nd March. On the panel with me were Frances Spalding, art historian and biographer of John Piper, and Simon Martin, director of Pallant House Gallery, where Walter Hussey’s private art collection is kept and shown. The theme was Hussey’s commissions for Chichester, and the 1966 tapestry by John Piper in particular. What follows is derived from my recent book on Hussey.]

Today I want to put Walter Hussey in theological context, and (since our theme is Visual Communion) to look in particular at his own liturgical and Eucharistic sense. In general I think that Walter Hussey is the most significant individual patron of the arts in the 20th century Church of England. Today, however, I want to suggest that Hussey was not very theologically driven, and almost entirely unliturgical, at least in relation to the visual arts.

Hussey was an instinctive patron: he knew what he liked, and went out to get it. A regular visitor to London galleries while at his first parish in Northampton, and from Chichester when dean of the cathedral, his interest in the London artistic scene was first developed when a curate in Kensington in the 1930s. He was also an assidous seeker of expert advice. His network of connections grew as he commissioned art, music and poetry for Northampton in the 1940s, which he used both as a source of intelligence and of expert witnesses whom he could use to help persuade his church council to assent to his plans. Hussey’s network was unique among provincial clergymen, and by and large he allowed it to do his thinking for him.

Even when given the opportunity, Hussey did not articulate his theology of art in any depth, but two themes emerge. Both derived from others, and neither was new in the 1940s: art as a means of instruction, of conveying a message, and art as offering.

In 1949 Hussey wrote that a piece of religious art ‘should convey to those who see it some aspect of the Christian truth.’ Speaking shortly before he retired in 1977, he argued that the artist ‘may, by forcing us to share his vision, lead us to the spiritual reality that lies behind the sounds and sights that we perceive with our senses.’

The work itself was also an offering, as was the effort of the artist in making it. The artist may well enjoy the act of making, and at some level feel compelled to do it, Hussey argued, but ‘whether he is entirely conscious of it or not, [he does it] because it is an act of worship which he must make.’ Hussey was fond of quoting Benjamin Britten’s comment to him that ‘ultimately all one’s music must be written to the glory of God’. There was a pervasive sense in his thinking that the act of making was in itself religious in some way.

So much for Hussey’s theology of the arts. What do I mean by suggesting that Hussey’s approach was unliturgical in relation to the visual arts? To begin with, I certainly do not think that Hussey, as a clergyman responsible to leading liturgical worship, was unconcerned with its conduct. Woe betide the chorister with brown shoes beneath his cassock rather than the regulation black; the two boys carrying the candles in procession had to be of the same height for the visual effect. All was to be done decently and in order.

My point is rather that his patronage was purely aesthetic: the object is everything, and the context of use in which it sits – the regular worship of real people in a particular place – is largely secondary.

David Stancliffe, retired bishop of Salisbury, reviewed my book on Hussey, and made the following point, with which I largely agree:

Hussey seems to have viewed commissions in isolation rather than as part of a coherent whole. It was Coventry’s architect, [Basil] Spence, who described the building as a jewel-case for the series of commissions it contained, and in a way this is rather what Hussey’s commissions feel like.

Take, for instance, the Chagall window at Chichester, Hussey’s retirement project, which stands as a commentary on his work. The theme (which Hussey gave to Chagall) is of ‘the arts to the glory of God’, and though a beautiful thing, it is a work of art about the idea of sacred art; a piece on (or rather, in) a gallery wall, for solitary contemplation. Tucked away in the north quire aisle, it bears no relation to any chapel or altar.

The Mary Magdalene chapel in Chichester cathedral

In contrast, the Graham Sutherland painting Noli me tangere is on an altar, but it is not one that is used to any great extent, by virtue of its location in the building. The whole ensemble in the Mary Magdalene chapel is – to my non-specialist eye, as an historian rather than a critic – the most perfect thing in the building: altar, candlesticks, rail and painting form a perfect whole in union with the stonework and with the prevailing light. But it is something that demands to be seen, either from a distance or from close up, rather than being an invitation to prayer.

What about Piper? Surely it is ‘liturgical’, given where it is, behind the high altar? Here I turn to Hussey’s relationship to the Eucharist in particular.

Everything in Hussey’s background should have disposed Hussey to being more focussed on the Eucharist than was typical amongst Anglicans. St Matthew’s, in which Hussey’s father ministered, was founded as an Anglo-Catholic counter to the strength of the Nonconformist churches in Northampton. John Rowden Hussey had first instituted a Sunday Eucharist each week (not yet the almost universal practice that it is now), then a daily one; St Matthew’s also had reservation of the sacrament at a time when it was a highly controversial practice. In 1925 the church hosted the annual Eucharistic Congress of the English Church Union, a national celebration of Anglo-Catholic identity. Emphasis on the Eucharist was a badge of identity for a highly self-conscious movement. Nothing of this would Hussey then have unlearned when moving from Northampton to study first at Oxford and then for ordination at Cuddesdon College.

The Eucharist in progress at St Matthew’s, Northampton. 1940s-1950s. Image: Peter Webster

Once at Chichester, Hussey’s practice was to reserve the role of celebrant at the principal Sunday service to himself. This may have been a felt necessity, a measure of the centrality of the Eucharist to his thought and feeling. I suspect it is more likely that it was simply something he saw as central to the proper role of a dean. (It may also have been a means to avoid preaching, which was not a strength.)

In his musical commissioning for Chichester, Hussey was clearly thinking about the Eucharist, as evidenced by the commission of a mass from the American composer William Albright in 1975. There had previously been a scheme for a new setting of the communion service in English from Benjamin Britten. It was first mooted in 1967 by Britten and pursued for years by Hussey, but without success before Britten’s death in 1976.

Given all this, one might have expected Hussey, when he saw the opportunity to remake the area around the high altar at Chichester, to focus on the Eucharist in particular. I make no comment on Piper’s tapestry as a piece of work in and of itself, but a little thought experiment will make the point. If you were to take it and place it in some other place in the building, would its symbolism become unintelligible? That is, is the iconic scheme very closely tied to the altar and the work that goes on there? The answer is very clearly not, but if it was eucharistic in its content, it surely would.

The Piper tapestry at Chichester, viewed from beyond the Arundel screen.

(Members of my audience in Chichester made the point that the tapestry can be glossed in Eucharistic terms, which is true, particularly the figure of the cross, but the subject – the Trinity, to which the cathedral is dedicated – was suggested by Piper’s ally Moelwyn Merchant, and there is no evidence that Hussey tried to guide Piper towards a Eucharistic scheme. They also made the point that the remarkable glow of the tapestry that can be seen from the west doors draws the visitor into the building towards the altar where the most important work of the cathedral goes on. This is also quite true, but this is a much more recently recovered idea of sacred space – the notion of liturgy as pilgrimage – which was far from Hussey’s thinking.)

Fundamentally, Hussey did not start with the thought: “here is an opportunity to have a great artist respond to the fundamental liturgical act of my Church, around which my whole formation was orientated”. Instead, his first thought is: “here is a drab and dark space with an existing reredos that is of a poor standard and is out of proportion to its surroundings. Let’s make it look better.”

I argue then that though Hussey is a highly significant figure, but his patronage is centred on the artistic object itself, rather than on where it is located and to what use it might be put. His influence has been limited by the fact that, at a time when all the churches were thinking very hard about their worship – architecture, layout, words – Hussey (by and large) was not.

[My book on Walter Hussey is published by Palgrave Macmillan.]

Two priests in the wilderness

Unusually in this series on fictional clergy in twentieth century English fiction, I feature here both an Anglican in England and a Catholic priest in France. They both appear in Rose Macaulay’s The World My Wilderness, first published in 1950. Set in the period immediately after the end of the Second World War, it features three locations, two of which are counterparts in ruin. One, central London, is literally in ruins, as the young girl Barbary runs wild and free in the rubble of the City. (I’ve written elsewhere on the ruined church in fiction and Macaulay’s engagement with ruins.) The other, a fishing village on the Mediterranean coast of Provence, appears outwardly unchanged, but the Abbé Dinant sees societal ruin in prospect, and does what he can, in his compromised way, to avert it.

The abbé is compromised, as many were, by the recent history of Vichy government and German occupation. Faced with a choice between resistance and acquiescence, he chose the latter, as did his bishop; the two both rebuked the local curé for advocating resistance. Like other local notables, the abbé accommodated himself to the brute fact of German occupation, seeking to make the best of the situation while betraying no-one. A restraint on the violence of the Resistance during the war, he has saved many collaborators from vengeance since its end. ‘A man of good sense’ he is, according to a sympathetic, similarly compromised neighbour after 1945: ‘in these days, as before, his chief foe is Communism; he sees it as the devil, and as France’s first enemy, and he is right.’ (ch. 21) Though the Nazis were ‘barbarians and interlopers and the enemies of France, they were at least fighting the worst enemies of religion, civilisation and the true France, those impossible Bolsheviks.’ (ch. 2)

Part of the Communist threat the abbé thinks he sees is to the family, indeed to all the cultural markers of a Catholic France. The national vitality which had helped France recover before was now misdirected. ‘Work, country, family – those great ideals held before us by the old Marshal during the black years – are discredited by his disgrace, and held of little account now that those who always hated him are dominant. [But] they are great ideals, and always when we have turned our backs on them we have deserted our true role.’ Though he rarely expounds them as such, these values are religious ones; the true France – a Catholic France – is in graver danger in 1950 than ever it was in 1940. So, though he restrains himself from talking in explicitly religious terms to his worldly, unbelieving friends, the abbé tries (though without always succeeding) to preserve the outward face of a kind of consensual public morality, to keep all within the house of faith, however loose their attachment to it. ‘To sin in our Father’s house, that, though sacrilege, has its own blessedness. To stray in the wilderness outside, that is to be lost indeed.’ (ch. 20)

St Dunstan in the East.
Image: Peter Webster

While the abbé seeks to keep the roof on the house of faith, in London there is little left of it at all. Barbary and her friend have found in the ruins of a City church a place of play, of inversion and a kind of idle sacrilege; a transistor radio plays jazz, they decorate the walls, and sing distractedly from a torn hymn book (ch. 23). In their ritual they are joined by a thin and grey clergyman, with a ‘lost look in his deep-set eyes, and his mouth was set in lines of pain.’ He proceeds to celebrate communion and, standing where the pulpit once stood, proceeds to preach. But here was no message of reconstructive hope in the ruins, of Christian persistence in a time of trial. ‘We are in hell now’, his oration begins, and it spirals downward in despair and recrimination. ‘Fire creeps on me from all sides; I am trapped in the prison of my sins’. At last he sinks to his knees, shuddering, face in hands. ‘It was true, then’, thinks Barbary in tears, ‘about hell; there was no deliverance.’

Presently Father Roger is fetched by the young priest with whom he lives in a clergy house. We learn that the older man wanders the ruined churches of the city trying to find his own, in the burning rubble of which he was trapped for two days. ‘We all love him, but we can’t always save him from his nightmares.’ Between Father Roger’s derangement and his young brother’s charity, there is yet some small Christian life in the ruins of London and of Christian civilisation.

A. S. Byatt’s faded church

My occasional series on the clergy in English fiction now runs to some seventeen posts in all, from H.G. Wells to John Fowles, from the clerical sleuths of Cyril Alington to the existential crisis of Iris Murdoch. By and large, these men have often played bit parts or been mere cyphers for the institution they represent (as in the case of Robert Tressell). Even when these characters have been allowed more space to breathe, the dilemmas and indeed anguish that they feel are wholly circumscribed by their status; these men have little life other than as clergy.

The four novels from A.S. Byatt that make up what is sometimes called the ‘Frederica Quartet’ are a different case. In them are many characters, some of whom are clergy, some of whom are not but aspire to a kind of religious leadership. Some are more fully drawn than others, in particular Daniel Orton who features in all four volumes, and who (unusually) transcends his ordination to be also a husband and a father. He will have his own post. Here I want to deal with the two who function most clearly as symbols of a lost, or at least moribund, Christianity which Byatt needs to place as a backdrop to her main concerns. They make their appearances in The Virgin in the Garden, the first of the quartet, first published in 1978, and are not seen again.

The first of these is the Bishop, we know not of quite where, who appears briefly in chapter 37. The scene is after the first performance in 1952 of Astraea, a play which became part of the celebrations of the accession of the new Queen. The first performance marked the beginnings of a new university; just the kind of local ceremonial to which bishops were accustomed to be invited, and were invited. Also there as a matter of course is Bill Potter, local teacher of English and father of the eponymous Frederica, and of Stephanie, engaged to be married to Daniel Orton. About this fact Bill is not happy, since his attitude to Christianity is not merely indifferent but implacably hostile, to the point of not attending the wedding. The bishop is tall, saturnine, ‘bland, wine-dark and hard’, and as Bill hops around like a flyweight boxer, awaiting the moment to land a rhetorical blow, he spreads ‘automatically flowing oil on the choppy waters.’ The vision he presents is of the play as a ‘true communion’ of shared cultural heritage, as church, school and community come together in a joint work of art. (The post-war period was a time of hope among some in the Church of England about the potential of the religious drama as a means of evangelism and as a symbol of the residual Christian nature of English culture.) Not so for Bill; the play had been one of nostalgia for a time that had never been. It was time for both the nostalgia and the church to die with dignity and make way for the new.

The rest of the argument that ensues, in barely controlled screaming, I shall not elaborate. It is a setpiece in which Byatt allows all of the intellectual, moral and imaginative objections to Christianity that have been voiced elsewhere in the novel to be aired. It is a cacophony of voices by which nothing is resolved: a rehearsal of old arguments by old men, part of an commonplace antagonism between secularism and national religion. These are not the new and disruptive forces in English religion that Byatt shows us in the later novels.

Also in The Virgin in the Garden, the foil to the national figure of the bishop is Mr Ellenby, the vicar. We never know his first name, neither do we hear his voice directly (just as we do not hear the Bishop except in the narrator’s paraphrase.) We are not invited to attribute moral blame to him – within his own frame of reference he is conscientious enough – but together with the bishop he is part of a faded old settlement of religion, socially convenient but without life. His study, which we see only in the dark as Mrs Ellenby is sparing with heat and light, has in it ‘the ghosts of riches’ (p. 61): heavy dark Victorian furniture, inkwells with silver lids, volumes of Shakespeare behind glass and thick with dust, a once luxurious carpet worn to sackcloth. It is brightened only by flowers from the Ellenby’s spinster lodger, (surely a nod to Barbara Pym).

Ellenby is puzzled, indeed actively discomfited, by his ‘grim curate’, the gruff, dark and fat Daniel Orton. Although he frets over her lack of faith, he harbours a hope that Stephanie might be the civilising of Daniel, and that she might also come to grasp the idea of his religion: in Daniel’s phrase, Ellenby sees nothing seriously wrong with ‘someone who likes George Herbert and has lovely manners.’ (ch. 24, p.294) One who can speak wisely of The Temple ‘had the essence of the matter in her, must have’, Ellenby thinks (p.344).

But Stephanie is drawn to Daniel for the very reason that Ellenby is alarmed by him: his fierce passion to help those who need help. Ellenby opposes the couple living on the council estate (ch.25, p.295). This was in part for fear that the social workers would resent an encroachment by the Church into a social sphere in which (as Ellenby sees it) it had no place. But this is a diversion from the real reason: the impression it might give if the curate was to live in such a place (there was ‘a position the church had to keep up’). At base a snob, and lazy with it, Ellenby’s main concern is ‘parish politics, precedence and prettiness of altar-piece and bazaar.’ (ch.17, p.224) Though Daniel later comes to miss Ellenby’s unthinking certainty (Still Life, p.166), in The Virgin in the Garden, he is the hollow shell of English social religion in its local form.