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.
[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.
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.
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.
From time to time a quotation appears online, attributed to C.S. Lewis though in fact a bad paraphrase of him, that sums up the central tension between the churches and the arts in the last century: “The world does not need more Christian literature. What it needs is more Christians writing good literature”. This is a shortened version of an essay on one such case, which appeared a little while ago in Barber, Taylor and Sewell (eds), From the Reformation to the Permissive Society (Church of England Record Society). Read the full text here (PDF).
In the summer of 1943, William Temple, archbishop of Canterbury, wrote to the novelist and playwright Dorothy L. Sayers, with an offer of the honorary Lambeth doctorate of divinity. Sayers was to turn down the offer, but the exchange is revealing of the tensions in the relationship between the arts (and artists) and the Church of England.
1937 saw the production of Sayers’ first attempt at religious drama, The Zeal of Thy House. The play was successful, and marked a new phase. Despite her later protestation that she had never intended to become embroiled in apologetics, or to ‘bear witness for Christ’, Sayers’ correspondence gradually became swollen with invitations from clergy and laity to write or speak on religious matters.
Temple’s offer of the Lambeth D.D. was in recognition of two works in particular: the series of radio plays The Man Born to be King, and the earlier book The Mind of the Maker. Published in 1941, The Mind of the Maker is Sayers’ most enduring work of theology proper. Temple described it as ‘a really original approach to the doctrine of the Trinity, of great theological and apologetic value.’ It contains an extended analogy between the work of the Trinity and human creativity, and the highest possible doctrine of the status of work. Sayers also made some very trenchant claims for the independence of the artist and the importance of works of art in and of themselves; views which were in part behind her decision to refuse the Lambeth degree.
If The Mind of the Maker was quietly successful, The Man Born to be King was a sensation, as the plays were broadcast by the BBC at monthly intervals in 1941 and 1942. As James Welch, Director of Religious Broadcasting, put it ‘these plays have done more for the preaching of the Gospel to the unconverted than any other single effort of the churches or religious broadcasting since the last war’.
Sayers’s first reaction to Temple’s offer was non-committal. Whilst honoured, and recognizing that the degree was not a ‘certificate of sanctity’, she doubted whether she was enough of a ‘convincing Christian’, and not simply ‘in love with an intellectual pattern.’ As she told Temple’s own ‘Malvern Conference’ in 1941, her feelings on treating any question relating to the church were of embarrassment, since ‘I am never quite sure how to identify it or whether, in anything but a technical sense, I feel myself to belong to it.’ As she put it to Temple, part of her was perhaps trying to preserve a ‘bolt-hole’; an insurance against an irrevocable public step of personal commitment.
Sayers also made the point that as a mere ‘common novelist and playwright’, she could not guarantee in the future to abstain from writing ‘secular, frivolous or unbecoming’ work, full of the language of the ‘rude soldiery’ or descriptive of the less respectable passions; ‘I shouldn’t like your first woman D.D. to create scandal, or give reviewers cause to blaspheme.’ It seems probable, however, that behind the apparent levity was a fear, of which Temple could not have known, of the possible disclosure of details of Sayers’ private life. Sayers’ biographer James Brabazon has suggested that the one doctrine of the church with which Sayers was in emotional engagement was that of sin, and in her case, the consciousness of her marriage to a divorced man. Even more delicate was the matter, known only to her and a handful of others, of her illegitimate son, John Anthony, born in 1924 and being raised by Sayers’ cousin.
Temple was not however deterred, and after a request for more time, Sayers refused, making two main points which shed much light on the position of both the Christian apologist and the Christian artist in relation to the institution of the church in this period.
The first concerns the dangers of too close an association between the apologist and the Church. Almost from the beginning of Sayers involvement as an apologist, her letters show a persistent sense that both the amount and the profile of such involvement ought carefully to be controlled, lest its effectiveness be blunted. By December 1942, however, it had become clear to her that, despite her best efforts, she had already come to be viewed as ‘one of the old gang, whose voice can be heard from every missionary platform’; it was therefore time to withdraw somewhat. The status of outsider was necessary in the ‘present peculiar state of public opinion’, in order to avoid becoming, in the phrase of the Daily Herald, ‘“the pet of the bishops”’.
Sayers’s second point in this final letter – her fear of ‘a sort of interior inhibition in the handling of secular work’, here phrased very gently, was part of a much more robust view of the independence of the artist, and of the record of the church’s patronage of the arts up to that point. The Mind of the Maker contained a gentle insistence on the artist’s duty to protect, as it were, the interests of their creature. Writing about editorial intervention in The Man born to be King, she wrote:
… the writer’s duty to God is his duty to the work, and… he may not submit to any dictate of authority which he does not sincerely believe to be for the good of the work. He may not do it for money, or for reputation, or for edification… or for any consideration whatever. … The writer is about his Father’s business, and it does not matter who is inconvenienced or how much he has to hate his father and mother. To be false to his work is to be false to the truth: “All the truth of the craftsman is in his craft.”
Such a high view of the duty of the artist to God and to his or her work makes particular sense when considered alongside Sayers’ view of the current relationship between the church and the arts. The church was widely associated, in her view, with ‘artistic frivolity and intellectual dishonesty.’ It had seemed unable to grasp that ‘the divine Beauty is sovereign within His own dominion; and that if a statue is ill-carved or a play ill-written, the artist’s corruption is deeper than if the statue were obscene and the play blasphemous.’ What was necessary was ‘a decent humility before the artist’, and an absolute insistence that a work of art must be good in itself, before it could possibly be good religious art. Sayers, in common with several of her contemporaries in the arts, suspected the church of an inadequate understanding of the absolute necessity of beauty.
But what, exactly, did Temple think he was trying to honour? Welch’s initial suggestion was clearly that it was as the author of The Man Born to be King, a ‘work of Christian evangelism’ that Sayers might be offered the degree. Temple agreed that the plays were ‘one of the most powerful instruments in evangelism which the Church has had put into its hands for a long time past’; the ‘most effective piece of evangelistic work, in my judgment, done in our generation,’ Oliver Quick, regius professor of divinity at Oxford, had though that C.S. Lewis might also be offered a degree: ‘They are the two people who seem really able to put across to ordinary people a reasonably orthodox form of Christianity.’ Conspicuously absent was any broader sense of the plays being honoured as plays.
It was, however, precisely this (apparently) instrumental view of the arts that so exercised Sayers. The commissioning practice of ‘asking writers to produce stories and plays to illustrate certain doctrine or church activities’ showed how little such ‘pious officials’ understood of the mind of the artist. In these productions doctrine was not allowed to emerge spontaneously from the inherent dynamic of a story; instead, action and characters were inevitably distorted for the sake of the doctrine that was to be expounded, with disastrous consequences. As Sayers told the Malvern conference, the Church was thus guilty of fostering corruption ‘by condoning and approving a thing artistically vicious provided that it conforms to moral sentiment.’
Sayers’ view of the church was probably too negative. Both Temple and Quick held much more developed views on the relationship between theology, the church and the arts than the tone of their letters would suggest; George Bell, bishop of Chichester (who Sayers knew) was more than ready to defend the autonomy of the artist against others within the church when required. However, even if Sayers were aware of this, the accumulated record of the wider church in its actual patronage (as opposed to theological writing) meant that the balance was still negative. Temple’s desire was sincere, and his approach the only way in which, under the pressures of war-time, he could conceive to use the limited institutional tools at his disposal. The whole exchange remains an highly revealing episode in the relationship between the Church and the arts.
Next in my series on fictional clergy is Mr Keach from J.L. Carr’s 1980 novel A month in the country, who is dealt with only briefly but (as with much else in what is only a short book) Carr achieves much with economic means. Birkin, our principal character and narrator, arrives at a small Yorkshire village in the summer of 1920 with a job to do. In fulfilment of a will, he is to investigate and (if needed) uncover and restore a medieval mural painting in the village church. He is greeted by an unsympathetic Keach, a relatively young man of perhaps thirty, neat, but ‘pale-eyed, a cold, cooped-up look about him’. Keach fusses and quibbles about small things: expenses, Birkin’s living arrangements (he intends to sleep in the belfry); we see a cramped, fiddly, irritable man, without grace or hospitality. His offence in Birkin’s eyes is compounded to his indifference to the mural; Keach had asked the executors to agree to an alternative use for the 25 guineas but was rebuffed: Birkin’s presence is a burden he has no choice but to bear, along with the scaffolding that occupies his church. Clergy were often caricatured as culpably indifferent to the arts, and Carr’s priest is so shown here. Keach worries that a painting about the chancel arch will distract his congregation from their worship. Worse still, Birkin could, he supposed, fill in areas that had disappeared. ‘Incredible! I thought. Why are so many parsons like this! Must one excuse their defective sensibility towards their fellows because they are engrossed with God?’
But Carr’s vicar is a more sympathetic character than this, or rather, more pathetic, in need of our pity. One of the great tasks of the reforming Church of England after 1945 was the rationalisation of parsonage houses, and indeed of parishes themselves. Already by 1920 clergy were often in the wrong place, marooned by demographic change, and in houses built on a different scale for an earlier time, and Keach is one such. Carr draws the vicarage as dark and foreboding to the point at which one almost expects to encounter a ghost, and Alice, Keach’s wife is driven to nightmares by its encircling trees, out of control, and the air, pressing in as if in a compression chamber. Leaving the overtones of Gothic horror aside, the vicarage itself is of a not uncommon type. Keach shows Birkin the vast empty house, that could have accommodated a large family and its domestic staff, now scarcely furnished, with room after room left as empty as on the day on which he and his wife arrived. ‘In this wilderness of a house’, they ‘huddled together for the comfort of each other’s company. Neither cares to be alone in the awful place’. The Keaches struggle on in its enveloping shadow, with some small comforts: a card table, his violin, an altar made of a trunk covered with a bedspread: ‘they shouldn’t have been made to live in it’, Birkin decides.
Keach’s predicament goes beyond his vicarage, however. Alice wonders whether he should not have been happier in the south, Sussex perhaps, rather than in the rural north, with people more like themselves, but the crisis to which he gives voice is in reality not one of location. In the last scene in which we see him, as Birkin has finished his work, Keach’s sense of his own superfluity and failure emerges. ‘The English are not a deeply religious people’, he says; their observance is largely out of habit, that at Christmas or Harvest merely ‘a pagan salute to the passing seasons’. They have no need of Birkin save as a ‘removal contractor’ at the rites of passage of weddings and funerals. And Birkin has, unwittingly, twisted the knife. Keach had, it turns out, hoped to be of pastoral use to Birkin, a man returned wounded from the war: ‘you have come back from a place where you have seen things beyond belief, things which you cannot talk of yet can’t forget, but things which are at the heart of religion’. Yet Birkin, like all the others Keach has tried and failed to reach, has passed the time of day, spoken of the weather, ‘and you have hoped that I shall go away.’ Though there is no suggestion that Keach is himself in any crisis of faith, he is diminished, reduced to irritability and pettiness, by a sense of waste, of a vocation unfulfilled.
A slight digression in this post in my fictional clergy series, to take in Winifred Holtby’s fine South Riding. It was published posthumously in 1936, but is set in the years between 1932 and 1935 in the fictional South Riding of Yorkshire, which is inspired not by present-day South Yorkshire but rather the East Yorkshire coast and wolds.
It is well known that Alice Holtby, the author’s mother, disliked the novel intensely and opposed its publication. This was despite Winifred’s protestations that, though some of the details were clearly derived from her mother’s career, Alderman Beddows was not Alderman Holtby, the first female alderman on the East Riding County Council. Despite this, and despite the range of characters deployed, we are clearly invited to understand the headmistress Sarah Burton as the closest representative of Holtby’s own views, and this extends to Sarah’s religion, such as it is. Raised by her Methodist mother as an Anglican, as a means of social advantage, the girl grew into a young woman who was sceptical both of her mother’s faith and that into which she had raised. Her mother’s Methodism was both theologically complacent and (in its imaginative repertoire, of washing in the Blood of the Lamb), repellent. ‘Resignation, acceptance of avoidable suffering, timidity and indecision, she found contemptible. The world is what we make it, she would preach [to her pupils]. Take it – and pay for it.’ Her code was one of taking responsibility for one’s own decisions: ‘we must do it ourselves, she thought: we are our own redeemers.’ (Book 2, chapter 6)
South Riding is unusual amongst novels of its time in taking the inner experience of faith seriously, even if in the final instance it is not to faith that Holtby looks for the solutions for the social problems in need of solving. The nature of providence runs through the thoughts of several characters, as they grapple with unfolding events. Sarah has no place for providence, if all that is meant is a resignation to one’s lot in the face of circumstances that, with greater determination, could be changed: ‘through her mind passed a procession of generations submitting patiently to all the old evils of the world – to wars, poverty, disease, ugliness and disappointment, and calling their surrender submission to Providence.’ (Book 4, chapter 2) And it is in Alfred Ezekiel Huggins, Methodist lay preacher, haulage contractor and local councillor, in which we see the antitype to Sarah’s bracing faith.
In other novels in this series (as in the case of Robert Tressell), belief is made nothing but a smokescreen to hide self-interest or class conflict. Holtby’s craft is subtler that this. Huggins’ desire to serve his community is every bit as genuine as Sarah’s, and his distress at the hardship he sees is real. His piety is also not feigned; indeed, it is ever-present. But his belief in the guidance of the Lord at every turn is no admirable quality here, no marker of the completeness of his devotion. Instead it emerges as both frivolous – a trivialising of the action of God in the world – and as a much too convenient rationalisation of the petty materialism, corruption and snobbery which others, with clearer sight than Huggins, are able to exploit.
Yet, Sarah’s scepticism is of a gentle kind; in particular, there is room still to feel the imaginative force of some of the Christian images as expressed in the arts: the ‘superb tumult and affirmation’ of Handel’s Messiah shook ‘even so fierce an individualist, so sceptical an agnostic’ as she. ‘He was despised for our transgressions … with His stripes were are healed’ was the text, and ‘her senses were swayed by the image, but her mind could not accept its implication.’ (Book 2, chapter 6) And it is not only the great works of religious music that retain a power: for another character, the popular religious ballad The Lost Chord, largely disdained by professional musicians, is nonetheless evocative of a ‘queerly huddled group, the solemnity of Sabbath, the memory of good religious thoughts’ (Book 6, chapter 5). This openness to aesthetic experience is contrasted with Mr Drew, another Methodist, and self-appointed moral overseer of the public libraries on behalf of the Watch Committee. The novels of Aldous Huxley, Virgina Woolf and Naomi Mitchison attract his ire, but without his needing to quite read them all the way through. (Book 5, chapter 4)
Though the several Nonconformist characters emerge more or less badly from Holtby’s story, they are least present, a social reality in the South Riding. The contrast is with the established Church of England, which serves a largely ceremonial role, part of the order of things but with no purchase on life as it is lived. In the golden autumn of 1933, as the harvest is brought in, the parish church of Yarrold is an ‘exquisite height… a legacy of twelfth-century devotion, its delicate grey stone melting into the pale quivering summer sky.’ Land, church and town form a tableau in Holtby’s ‘English landscape’ (the book’s subtitle), ‘a gentle landscape of English rural life.’ (Book 5, chapter 6) But there are no characters for whom the parish churches play anything much more but an historic part. Miss Sigglesthwaite, impecunious daughter of a clergyman, dutifully attends church on Good Friday while she struggles with advancing age, domestic gloom and professional failure in Sarah’s school (Book 3, chapter 5). The farmer Robert Carne sits in the pew he owns, but his God is ‘the God of order who had created farmers lords of their labourers, the county and the gentry lords over the farmers, and the King lord above all his subjects under God.’ (Book 7, ch. 6) Meanwhile, of Mr Peckover, the rector, we learn little. He is a governor of the High School, of limited private means to send his own daughters anywhere better, and somewhat conscious of having a degree from Manchester, rather than Oxford or Cambridge. And of him there is little more. In the great struggle of local government to build a new Jerusalem, peopled by men and women of good will and initiative, the established Church counts for little. South Riding is a valuable corrective to the weight of novels set in the rural south of England, where the balance between church and chapel was quite the reverse.