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.

Anglo-Saxon attitudes

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.

Sutton Hoo, Suffolk. (Image: Amitchell125 at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0]

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’.

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.

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.

The disappearing church in English fiction

[A feature piece commissioned by the Church Times, and first published in the edition of 27 July 2018. It is republished here by kind permission of the Editor.]

BY DEFINITION, writers of fiction must take the raw materials of life as they observe it, and modify, disguise, distort, invert and amplify those materials as they create new stories. But when interviewed, most authors try to resist any simple reading of this or that character as based on a real person.

Buildings, too, take on new lives in the stories we read. Outside the particular genre of science fiction, the buildings we are invited to see, and into which we can step, must necessarily be a fusion of aspects of real buildings in particular places. They would be unintelligible if not.

Sometimes the author sets their story in a real building, such as the ruins of St Giles-without-Cripplegate in The World my Wilderness by Rose Macaulay (1950). The author Penelope Fitzgerald has recalled being with Macaulay as she clambered over the rubble of the City of London in the years after the war; St Giles was not rebuilt until a few years later.

The blitzed church of St Dunstan in the East, now a public garden.
Image: Peter Webster

More often, however, the fictional church is more carefully disguised, and so there is another game that readers can play: the hunt for the models for places and buildings, as well as characters. The church of Fenchurch St Paul, the centre of the village community in The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers (1934) incorporates particular features from more than one church from her Fenland childhood. Sayers credited the architect W.J. Redhead with having “designed” it for her, and with providing a line drawing of the imagined exterior.

George Orwell alarmed his publisher with his habit of disguising living people in his fiction only very thinly. His biographer D.J. Taylor has identified the model for the decrepit Miss Mayfill in A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935) from Orwell’s time spent teaching in west London. St Athelstan’s, Knype Hill, in which the titular daughter Dorothy labours in unpaid and unrecognised service of her father, is not based on any one building, but is most likely a composite of the Suffolk churches Orwell knew from time spent with his parents in Southwold.

Churches, real or otherwise, and Anglican churches in particular, play several different roles in English fiction, which I would like to explore here in some of the novels from the 70 years or so from 1914.

CHRISTIANS have for a very long time produced edifying stories for their own pleasure and instruction. Valuable and entertaining though these often are, these novels tell us most about the ways in which Christians understand and address themselves and each other. As an historian, I want instead to explore those novels that made a claim for general attention among readers at large, whether Christian or not. What might they tell us about the changing position of the Church in the national imagination in a secularising age?

Some churches we enter but never see; the author asks the reader to supply whatever details they need to follow the action. The Aerodrome, Rex Warner’s much-neglected allegory of authoritarian government (1941) is set in the Village, a pure archetype of rural England, and this abstraction is vital as Warner works out his plot. Though the pivotal scene in which the Village is annexed by the Aerodrome is set in the parish church, we are told only that it contains pews, and choir stalls.

John Wyndham’s village of Midwich, afflicted by a strange and horrifying inversion of nature (The Midwich Cuckoos, 1957), is another archetype, and of its church we learn only that it is “mostly perp. and dec., but with a Norman west doorway and font”, in the manner of a Pevsner guide. Others we see from outside but never enter, as they form part of a landscape. One of the parish churches in Winifred Holtby’s South Riding (1936) is “a legacy of twelfth-century devotion, its delicate grey stone melting into the pale quivering summer sky of nineteen thirty three”. Surrounded by fields of corn ripe for harvest and the buildings of the town, the tableau is complete: “corn, brick and stone, food, housing, worship composed themselves into a gentle landscape of English rural life.” Though the English countryside was hardly so unchanging as this suggests, the parish church often did duty as a symbol of stability and continuity.

One of the effects of the Second World War was to supply the English imagination with a new symbol: the ruin, and not the picturesque ruin of Fountains Abbey, but of homes,factories, churches, blackened and strewn with the debris of their former lives. More than one novelist made symbolic play with ruined churches, as the Church first struggled to secure the sites and make them safe, and then to decide whether to rebuild them, demolish those which were redundant, or leave some as memorials of the war and as spaces for the public. One of Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women (1952) attends a lunchtime Eucharist in a bombed Belgravia church, of which only one aisle can still be used. In austerity London the congregation carries on nonetheless, singing to a harmonium while surrounded by small neat heaps of wall tablets and cherub heads; a lady serves coffee from a Primus stove.

Some ruins are made to carry much greater symbolic weight. Iris Murdoch’s 1966 novel The Time of the Angels features the fictional Wren church of St Eustace Watergate in the London Docklands. With only its tower left standing after the war, St Eustace and its rectory are the only surviving buildings in the midst of a vast building site. But there is no building on this building site, stymied by the withdrawal of planning permission. St Eustace is both symbol and backdrop against which Murdoch develops her theme of the loss of faith and the directionless search for something with which to replace it. Isolated on the peninsula of the Isle of Dogs, St Eustace is shrouded by the London fog that makes day night; all is becalmed, frozen in the half-light of the fog and carpeted in snow. Stranded amidst the debris of an old order, it is an empty shell which looms in the gloom, the only thing yet to be cleared before rebuilding may begin.

EVEN when a church is still intact, there is in the fiction of the mid-century a persistent whiff of decay and decline. Few indeed are the novels set in the new churches in the New Housing Areas built after 1945, or in warm and well-lit buildings with every chair full. Through the mist on Knype Hill the spire of St Athelstan’s “loomed dimly, like a leaden sphinx, its single bell tolling funereally boom! boom! boom!”. Inside, Orwell’s church is “very cold, with a scent of candle-wax and ancient dust”; the pews stretch barely halfway down the nave, leaving “great wastes of bare stone floor”. The money that should have been spent on repairing the belfry floor has been squandered on a new organ, and now the bells, which there is no money to rehang, threaten to crash down through the splintering floor onto the handful of worshippers below.

Llandinorwic church in Deiniolen. Image by Hefin Owen via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0.

Even so, both Orwell’s and Barbara Pym’s churches are inhabited by real people, to whom the buildings are places in which significant things still happen. Amid the dust and cold, Orwell’s Dorothy catches a glimpse through the open door of the sunlight and trees outside, illuminated by the sun, as if by a flash of a “jewel of unimaginable splendour”; a moment that restores to her the power to pray. Miss Mildred Lathbury attends the church of St Mary in an area of London which Pym very precisely identifies as a “shabby part of London, so very much the ‘wrong’ side of Victoria station, so definitely not Belgravia”. Mildred thinks the church “prickly, Victorian-gothic, hideous inside, I suppose, but very dear to me”.

St Mary’s has none of the marks left by centuries of devotion: “it seemed so bright and new and there were no canopied tombs of great families, no weeping cherubs, no urns, no worn inscriptions on the floor”, only brass tablets to past vicars and ugly glass in the east window. But it is to St Mary’s that she comes in search of consolation; it is this building that she helps dress for Whitsun, finding peace amid the incense and flowers. Whatever doubts these characters may harbour, however insistent their creeping sense of irrelevance to the society around them, their faith remains.

The presence of people was the last thing lost from the churches of 20th-century English fiction, as the crisis of the 1960s settled into a new pattern of decline and marginalisation. This retreat was by no means complete, as readers of Susan Howatch or James Runcie will know. The popularity of Father Brown continues. However, as the century wore on there was a gradual withdrawal of both character and narrator from the active life of these buildings, and eventually a retreat from their doors to view them only from the outside.

The narrator of Daniel Martin by John Fowles (1977) recalls his childhood before the war but as if from behind the veil of his own loss of faith: “My contemporaries were all brought up in some degree of the nineteenth century, since the twentieth did not begin until 1945. That is why we are on the rack, forced into one of the longest and most abrupt cultural stretches in the history of mankind. Already what I was before the Second World War seems far more than four decades away; much more like the same number of centuries.” The two churches in which his father ministered are now aesthetic objects, which he now views with the eyes of the connoisseur: “One church was magnificent stone prose, but the other a folk poem”; neither of them remains a place of worship.

PERHAPS the novel in which a church plays the greatest part is A Month in the Country by J.L.Carr, first published in 1980. Though the novel is set in Yorkshire, the church is unidentified (and indeed unnamed), and in a Foreword, Carr revealed that its model was in fact in Northamptonshire, with “its churchyard in Norfolk, its vicarage London”. The narrator, Birkin, is hired to spend a month uncovering a medieval mural painting, and camps out in the belfry. By the novel’s conclusion he has, through a sustained act of patience — indeed of devotion, of a sort — uncovered and restored the painting.

In the process, he achieves a kind of imaginative communion with the original artist across the distance of centuries, and confronts his own loss of faith in comparison with that of the community for which the mural was made. (This kind of retrospective imagining of the mind of the church-builders of an earlier age was not unique to Carr; two contrasting examples are William Golding’s The Spire, and (on the stage) Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Zeal of Thy house.) Yet for Carr the parishioners of Oxgodby are largely invisible as a worshipping community. Birkin is woken by the tolling of the bell that calls them to church, and he catches a glimpse of them as he peers down from the belfry. But Carr’s church is barely a place of present worship; as for John Fowles, it is solely a repository of meaning and the memory of those long dead.

The last and latest of my subjects here is City of the Mind by Penelope Lively (1991), in which the the gradual withdrawal of the novelist from the church building is complete. The novel is a meditation on the buildings of London, invested and reinvested with meaning by the successive generations of people who encounter them. It features several churches, all of them real buildings and named as such.

One character sees Wren’s St Bride’s Fleet Street on fire in December 1940, its spire “lit from within like a lantern”. In the Spitalfields of the late 1980s, all demolition and redevelopment, the spire of Hawksmoor’s Christ Church fights for the skyline with cranes and new office blocks. Round the corner is the former Huguenot church on Fournier Street, an immigrant church itself already overwhelmed by waves of later immigration: subsequently a Methodist church, next a synagogue, now a mosque.The churchyard of St Anne’s Soho is being redeveloped as a paved shopping precinct.

There is particular play with St Paul’s Cathedral, a church of the mind in a city of the mind; when Lively’s Elizabethan explorer encounters the massive ice floes of the North-West Passage, it is in the shape of St Paul’s that he sees them, a “cathedral in the ice” as “time and space collide” in the imagination. The novel’s main protagonist, Matthew Halland, stands mesmerized in a Charing Cross Road bookshop by the famous photograph, taken by Herbert Mason on the same night that St Bride’s was gutted by fire, of the dome of St Paul’s framed by black smoke but intact.

Lively’s characters encounter these and other London buildings, and project onto them whatever significance they will. What these churches never are, however, is alive: places in which real breathing Londoners meet and worship. In Lively’s London, the churches are bearers of meanings, objects for the imagination, but without present or future. This is a thoroughly secular city of the mind.