A. S. Byatt’s church in Sixties London

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Perfectibility and grace in the New Town

The novel next in line in my series on fictional clergy, and the churches they work in, is a relative rarity. ‘Few indeed are the novels set in the new churches … built after 1945, or in warm and well-lit buildings with every chair full.’ My words, from a piece for the Church Times a couple of years ago, and these fictional churches are few indeed, but there are at least some. One such church appears in Angus Wilson’s 1964 novel Late Call.

Wilson’s novel is one of the tension between old and new, ‘progressive’ and traditional, dramatised through the mutual incomprehension of three generations of the same family. And the setting is important: Carshall, a fictional post-war New Town somewhere in England. The two churches in the novel, and the two clergymen found in them, are not at all central to the plot. But the two pairings, of oldness and newness in their different ways, are part of the framing of the novel’s central theme.

Take the two churches, one in the New Town centre, and the other in the historic old town. The church in Old Carshall sits serenely by the village green and the stone cross, the timbered houses and the preserved ducking stool. The only concession to the twentieth century is a window, showing the tommies and nurses of the First World War. It is in these village churches that one of the characters finds ‘such a real sense of order and tradition’ in their worship (chapter 5). Wilson tells us little more of it, and does not need to.

With time on her hands, the novel’s main character Sylvia shops and wanders in the New Town, taking in the self-conscious gestures of its architecture (chapter 4). The public library is well set out, clean, lit by large glass windows. And the church of St Saviour too, like the library and the bowling alley too, is light and simple inside, lit with a ‘lovely sky-blue light’ by its windows of thin slotted glass. In fact, apart from the long thin silver crucifix ‘you’d hardly know it for a church’ so much as a lecture hall, with wooden chairs with tie-on cushions in a jade green cloth. In the atrium there are racks of pamphlets with clever, eye-catching photographs on their covers.

Bush Fair shopping centre in Harlow. From the J. R. James Archive (Flickr), CC BY-NC 2.0

Outside in the town centure the gestures are more explicit. There is a fountain with mechanical metal arms; a twisted bronze sculpture called the ‘Watcher’, ‘difficult and modern’; a mural in pink and lilac, of the naked young in bucolic freedom, by some ‘name’ artist the Corporation had sought out. And St Saviour’s is quite a famous ‘modern’ church, she understands, with its ‘odd metal steeple more like a piece of children’s Meccano and the funny slots in the side of the building’; it is its strangeness that draws her inside into its simplicity and quiet.

We never meet the Reverend Mr Marchant, rector of St Saviour’s, though he is the kind of man that the pragmatic and progressive folk of the New Town appreciate (chapter 5). He is controversial, we are to understand, a preacher from whom one never hears ‘any of this dry-as-dust theological stuff’. His piety is much more this-worldly, upsetting the grammar school people with his sermon on the eleven-plus. And to the church on Easter Sunday come ‘women in smart hats and men in their best lounge suits… everyone was dressed up to the nines’; it looks even more like a meeting room than when empty.

But Mr Marchant has slipped a disc, and the parish must accept whoever the archdeacon can supply to preach at short notice. And the substitute, Mr Carpenter, is far from what the neat and ostentatious congregation expect. Very old, with a long red nose and a dirty-looking beard, he seems like ‘some bedraggled, mangy old goat’. And his voice is one that reduces the flighty young to fits of stifled giggles: first strange, trembling and drawn out, then ‘the refined squeak of an Edinburgh Judy in a Punch and Judy show’. But grotesque though he appears, it is his words that provoke consternation; no gospel of good works from this holy fool. To be a ‘bustling, hustling busybody – that’s not life, or no more life than the frugal ant or the hoppitty flea…. Good works’ll not save your soul alive… This Grace, Lord, impart!’

But this is no Calvinistic straitjacket; there is much one can do to meet God. ‘Go out to mind who you are. Go out, not into the busy clamour of getting and spending, not even into the soothing clamour of good works. No, go out into the dreadful silence, the dark nothingness… then indeed may the Lord send the light of his face to shine upon you, then indeed may you be visited by that Grace which will save your soul alive.’

While the busy headmaster is apoplectic at such ‘vicious nonsense’ – this ‘barbaric doctrine’ of grace – and resolves to inform the church authorities, it is his mother Sylvia who alone troubles to thank the old man: ‘I shan’t forget what you said.’ ‘Ah’ he replies; ‘it’s all old stuff, I’m afraid.’ Into the sleek project of human perfectibility that the New Town represents, Wilson intrudes an older, more troublesome, more exacting faith.

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The fame of C.S. Lewis: a review

Stephanie L. Derrick
The fame of C.S. Lewis. A controversialist’s reception in Britain and America
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018
978-0-19-881944-8

[A review to be published in Reading Religion.]

Readers might be forgiven for asking how much more there is to be known about C.S. Lewis. The biographical materials for Lewis’ life are relatively small in bulk, and well known, and the published writings are also easily accessible. And scholars have come at the canon itself – the apologetics and the fiction in particular – from every conceivable angle. (There were more than 160 books published on Lewis in the decade after 2000). Alister McGrath, in the final chapter of his 2013 biography (reviewed here), briefly indicated a new direction of travel for Lewis studies, that paid attention not so much to the man and to the works, but to their reception. Stephanie L. Derrick has now given us the first extended essay in the subject, which will shape work on Lewis for perhaps a generation. Her scope is the UK and the United States as two analytic units treated as whole, and the works of Lewis in question are the Narnia stories and the most well-known apologetic works (Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, and others).

The first chapter outlines Lewis’ conscious fashioning of his literary self as a kind of ‘Ulster contrarian’, a ‘Christian dinosaur’ with a vocation to reach popular audiences with his rejection of modernism in both literature and (in a wider sense) theology and society. Chapter 2 sets out Lewis’ reputation with his peers in the UK, and in particularly in Oxford. These two chapters will not surprise specialist readers in matters of detail to any great extent, but they frame the main burden of the book: that there were radically different trajectories in Lewis’ reception in the USA and in the UK, which are to be explained both by specific religious and cultural conditions, but also by the degree to which Lewis was known as an individual alongside his writings. In the UK, academic readers and others in the literary and journalistic fields knew, or thought they knew, a Lewis who was tricksy, unreliable, an invented literary persona; it was unclear where the posture ended and the man began. (Significantly, reference was often made to his Irishness, which meant different things to an English audience than it did in the USA).

Readers in the USA, by contrast, reacted rather more to what Derrick calls a ‘Platonic Lewis’, found in the writings alone, detached from the very specific literary and cultural context into which he intended to speak. Free to shape an idea of Lewis to their own purposes, American readers’ engagement with Lewis had a ubiquity and intensity that far outstripped that in the UK, where there remained a persistent unease with Lewis both as an apologist and as a writer of fiction. Derrick’s exposition of these contrasting national reactions is acute and convincing, although there of course remains room for further refinement within each story, both chronologically and sociologically.

In all this, Derrick’s reading of Lewis’ fame against the religious context in which he was read is fresh and invigorating. The most innovative aspect of the study, however, is in chapter 4, where Derrick examines Lewis and the ‘mechanisms of mass culture’. Religious historians of the twentieth century have not always paid sufficient attention to the means by which religious ideas are communicated. Derrick’s achievement is to direct attention not just away from the man to the reader, but also to the sheer contingency of his fame. Lewis’ reputation was shaped not so much by the intrinsic appeal of the work as the fact that it coincided with particular moments in technological history. Radio broadcasting in the UK during the 1940s; the peculiar liveliness of learned periodical culture after the war; the development of a market for paperback children’s fiction (and marketing devices such as the Puffin Club); patterns in library acquisition; the decisions of the Lewis estate; the control of his works as it passed from publisher to publisher; the internal dynamics of media conglomerates with interests in film as well as print: Lewis’ fame is inexplicable without considering the interactions of all these parts of the broad ecosystem of ideas.

Given this sensitivity to technological and economic context, one curious – and explicit – omission is the impact of Lewis online, especially as Derrick draws attention in her conclusion to the dependence of British evangelicals on American resources, which is surely in part a function of the Internet. This leaves open a significant gap to be filled by other scholars, as there is also for a history of Lewis’ books as designed objects, and of their illustrations in particular.

These cavils aside, Dr Derrick has given us a striking and important study. It should find a wide readership among historians of Christianity and of twentieth century literature, as well as those interested in the history of the media. Well written, generously produced and reasonably priced, it deserves an audience outside the academy.

A. S. Byatt’s ‘Grouper’

Among the several stereotypes of Anglican clergy in English fiction, there is one which appears relatively infrequently: that of the ‘Grouper’. Partly because of its lack of organisation, the Oxford Group movement has left relatively little trace in the self-understanding of the British churches, but for a time in the 1930s it seemed poised to disrupt and refresh British Christianity from its local roots.

The Reverend Gideon Farrar appears in A.S. Byatt’s Still Life (1985), the second part of the so-called ‘Frederica Quartet’. The novel is set in the mid-1950s, somewhat after the heyday of the Group, and though he is never identified directly with it, or indeed any larger organisation, the parallels are unmistakeable. Farrar’s gospel is one of relationship and mutual self-discovery, which has its intellectual roots in two soils: an understanding of Jesus that stressed his humanity at the expense of His divinity; and the findings of the ‘new sciences’ of psychology and sociology. Farrar’s curate at St Bartholomew’s, Daniel Orton, who distrusts much of it, sees that Farrar has an ‘almost anthropological vision of the source of morals in the life of the family’ (ch. 10).

A moorland hike. Image: bearpaw (Flickr.com), CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

His ministry starts with the ‘agape meal’ in which the rather reluctant parishioners of Blesford are to ‘discuss and discover’ each other. The Young People’s Group, which meets in the church hall for dancing, cider and earnest discussion, is much the same. The Grouper ‘house party’ is a weekend away in which the youth of the parish and others are to ‘experience each other’ as they walk briskly over the moors (ch. 17). In the evening, cosy and hot, the group sit and tell their life stories, an antidote to their English reserve and the repression of emotion that it is thought to entail. Farrar, while affecting to listen, in fact guides and shapes these stories into one larger archetypal narrative, of parental inadequacy, failure or absence; of damage that, once uncovered and owned, can be repaired in the wider ‘family’, the Church.

All these features of the Group – its emphasis on the personal, the spontaneous, the self-expressive; the influence of a kind of garbled depth psychology – all remained within the bounds of orthodoxy, and (as David Bebbington showed) anticipated much about the charismatic movement of the 1960s, and the related flirtation of the churches with the broader counter-culture. And Farrar appears briefly again in the third book in the quartet, Babel Tower (1996), now in the mid-1960s, as leader of the Children of Joy. The Children meet in large halls in London, and on country retreat weekends, where they ‘dance, sing, shout and encounter each other’s bodies in loving exploration, acting out infant joys and terrors, anger and tenderness, birth and death.’ (c.13) By now the distrust is widespread. But in the Blesford of the 1950s, Farrar’s religion seems to work: though the elderly members of the congregation are disorientated, the young are enthused, the sad held up, those ‘hungry for feeling’ fed (Still Life, ch.20).

The contrast between Farrar and his predecessor Mr Ellenby (who has his own post) is both theological and aesthetic. Ellenby represented the eternal givenness of the faith, and the awesome unknowable Father (ch.10). Now the sentimental Victorian crucifix is removed from the altar; Farrar’s religion is of the human Son as He dwelt among men. The heavy branching candlesticks make way for plain wooden ones; the closely embroidered altar cloth to ‘austere snowy linen’. All this recalls more than one artistically-orientated reordering of a church, as do the new vestments with ‘modern, abstract stitching’. In the vicarage, whole walls are gone, and new bright spaces opened up. It is emptied of its heavy useless things, the mahogany cabinets with glass fronts, the thick Turkish carpets; all is sleek, plain yet well-made, modern, European, young. Picasso, Miro and Chagall prints hang on the newly painted walls in lemon yellow and white (ch.10).

Where Byatt’s character parts company with the historical Group is in what Farrar does with his hold over his flock. There was certainly a kind of personality cult around Frank Buchman, the moving spirit of the Group, and a creeping authoritarianism under certain conditions. But Buchman’s appeal, rather like that of another American, Billy Graham, is exotic and foreign at a time when British culture was unusually susceptible to such things; Farrar’s is a similar handsome and clean charisma but transposed onto an unusual Englishman. Farrar is assertive, indeed intrusive, in his attempts to force an emotional intimacy with others which is not on offer. Stephanie, Daniel’s wife, who sees through Farrar sooner than most, recognised a combination of ‘personal conceit and intrusiveness’ which she had seen in other clergy (ch.10). But where in others it was a mask for shyness, for Farrar his directness is merely the outflow of a restless energy. He is a large man, ‘with a presence he enjoyed’; all is abundance, from his full beard flecked with gold, to his exuberant embraces as he gambols among his hikers on the moor (ch. 17). Daniel detects a compulsive need to both receive and give affection, warmth (ch .10).

Byatt shows us little of Farrar’s inner life, and so (though we are clearly invited to view him as culpable), it is not clear how calculated his manipulation of his young female flock is. But the picture that gradually unfolds – of late night ‘counselling’ in various states of undress, complaints from parents that their teenage girls are ‘interfered with’ – is an unsettling one, of which his wife is well aware. Though she is repelled by it, and by him, she nonetheless attributes it to his nature – to the inevitable inbuilt drives which the new psychology told her that no-one should be expected to regulate – and her own inadequacy in satisfying them (ch. 30). And in Babel Tower (ch. 18) we see the terms in which, after a decade of unregulated elaboration of his own myth, Farrar ends up justifying himself to his victims: ‘a horrible fantasy of sacrifice and communion’, created by Farrar’s exploitation of his own physical presence and clerical separateness. Real theological and social currents in the post-war English churches are eventually a means of sanctifying what Stephanie, the moral centre of the novel, knew immediately as a ‘crude version of the routine pass’.

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.