A. S. Byatt’s church in Sixties London

[The latest post in my series on clergy and churches in twentieth century English fiction. Here, in the third of four posts, I look at the third novel in the ‘Frederica Quartet’ by A.S. Byatt].

If we know nothing else about the religious life of the early Sixties, we know it to have been a time of experiment. It is possible to overstress the uniqueness of the time, to misremember nostalgically, or (on the other hand) to trace all our current ills back to it. But though the roots of the intellectual turmoil went deep into the past, there was clearly a sense that many things in doctrine, morality and church life that had been thought immutable were in flux all at once; a general sense of unsettlement. One reaction to this imagined crisis was to experiment: with new forms of ministry outside the traditional parish; with new secular ideas; with new ways of communicating. A.S. Byatt’s 1996 novel Babel Tower, which begins in London in the autumn of 1964, dwells on all of these.

In the crypt of the church of St Simeon, not far from King’s Cross, there is an experiment in new ministry. Like so many of London’s churches, St Simeon’s was damaged by German bombing during the Blitz. Some of these churches were rebuilt, others demolished, a few left in ruins as memorials. Some, though intact, were no longer needed as the populations they used to serve had left the city, and became homes for alternative ministries. The originally vast space of St Simeon’s was rebuilt on a rather smaller scale within its original walls. Its surviving Victorian glass is not so much reconstructed as remixed, ‘abstract, yet suggestive’, with storks and doves, giraffes and leopards, in ‘rivers of grass-green and blood-red, and hummocks of burned amber’; planks of the Ark; Christ’s hand breaking bread at Emmaus (chapter 1). The simple gaudy piety of the old glass is transformed, a bricolage now of the blackened shards deposited in the aisles; the symbolism is hard to avoid. (It is one of several ruined churches in English fiction, some of which I wrote about before.)

Image: Flickr (https://www.flickr.com/photos/nreijmersdal/), CC BY 2.0

No longer a parish church, St Simeon’s is home to the Listeners, the model for which is clearly the Samaritans, set up in the crypt of St Stephen’s Walbrook (in the City of London) in 1953. In a plywood booth the Listeners take phone calls from the desperate and the vexatious. One of them is Daniel Orton, no longer a parish priest in Yorkshire after suffering a breakdown following the death of his wife (in Still Life, the second of the quartet). Daniel (who shall have his own post in this series) simply listens, and coaxes his callers to talk; there is suggestion, but little direction. In the ruins of the old, a newer, humbler church listens and does not pontificate.

One of the other Listeners – their director, in fact – is Adelbert Holly, canon of St Paul’s, writer on theology and psychology, counsellor and ‘sexual therapist’, described by his publisher as ‘a daring and a subtle theologian’. His first book, Within God Without God has made his publisher a good deal of money, arguing in its ‘riddling and witty way’ that Christians must abandon their idea of God as the ‘Old Man Up There’. Instead, God may be found in every cell of the body, ‘the inherent Intelligence in the first protozoa clinging together in the primal broth.’ Canon Holly has much in common with the bishop of Woolwich and his Honest to God (1963) and has appeared on the television supporting it, and him. Daniel is not sure what separates such ideas from pantheism, and wonders whether the ‘Canon would shrivel if he were obliged to follow his own reasoning, his own metaphors, outside the walls, so to speak, of the Church, the singing, the ritual, the imposed duties.’ (chapter 1)

But Holly’s panentheism (which is perhaps what it is closest to, or perhaps the thought of Teilhard de Chardin) is not abstract, but very immediate to him, bodily and sensual, a matter of sex and of death. He is a founder member of a group called Psychoanalysts in Christ, and author of another, even more controversial book, Our Passions Christ’s Passion. One of the Listeners suggests that the ‘modern Church’ gives the impression that the subject of sex is what bothers it most. (The Church of England did indeed spend a good deal of time in the Sixties thinking, and disagreeing, about sex, heterosexual and homosexual. It was also a period of Christian flirtation with psychology, and the two movements were connected, although historians have not yet explored the connection all that much) ‘The Church has always been about sex, dear’ Holly replies, gleefully: ‘that’s what the problem is.’ In denying the sexual impulse and trying to eradicate it, people become obsessed with it, he thinks. ‘That’s why current moves to be more accepting and celebratory about our sexuality are so exciting’.

But is religion not really about God, and the prospect of death, he is asked? Yes indeed, Holly continues: ‘the germ cell is immortal but the sexually divided individual is doomed, it is sex that brought death into the world.’ And suffering too – to inflict and to bear it – is at the heart of Holly’s gospel, of a cruel God who tortured His Son and of a suffering Christ, battered body and blood spilt, pain and degradation. It is on these lines that Holly speaks for the defence in the obscenity trial that forms the centrepiece of the novel. But the subtlety that his publisher values is a liability in the court room. ‘You have lost me, Canon, I fear’, says the judge; ‘I can understand your individual sentences, but your general drift I find hard to follow.’ Holly’s flights into obscurity try the patience of both judge and jury (chapter 20).

For all the attention that has been paid to the religious ideas of the 1960s, historians have neglected the means by which those ideas spread – the history of religious publishing. And there was certainly a market for economical editions of religious writing in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Letters and Papers from Prison, through which most English readers first encountered the martyred Dietrich Bonhoeffer, appeared in the Fontanta paperback series in 1959, and went through an impression a year for some years; John Robinson’s Honest to God was in the similar series from the SCM Press. In chapter 4, we see the office of Rupert Parrott, Canon Holly’s editor, and his books are on display, with Op Art covers, spirals, in black and white or blood-red and orange; they are ‘elegant, and evidence of energy’. (And self-consciously modern, as I’ve observed elsewhere). The firm of Bowers and Eden is run by an ‘old-style socialist’ who thinks religion nonsensical, unworthy of attention. But Parrott – and Honest to God – has persuaded him that there is a market in the ferment: ‘much more extreme stuff than [Honest to God], much sexier, literally, sex and religion’, the new youth cultures, studies of ‘charisma’, the death of God. The conventional ways in which people were prepared to live even without believing are no longer available, Parrott observes. ‘We’re moving into a period of moral ferment, moral realignment, fruitful chaos, people want to know what’s going on.’

Part of that moral realignment was in the relationship of creativity and the law; the 1959 Obscene Publications Act, the ‘trial’ of Lady Chatterley, and the ending of theatre censorship in 1968. The established Church played important parts in all these developments, since it was on Christian foundations that the whole justification of censorship had rested. Holly is present at the meeting of solicitors and barristers to plan the defence of Bowers and Eden and of Babbletower. John Robinson had appeared at the Chatterley trial in 1960 for the defence, making him ‘a stumbling-block and a cause of offence’ in the eyes of the archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher. ‘There was a bishop in the Chatterley case’ says the silk representing Bowers and Eden; ‘Got rather mangled. Said the book promulgated marriage. Got himself reprimanded by the Archbish, I hear… … Not a good precedent on balance.’ Holly thinks he can find a better bishop for the job, ‘a radio Bishop with a large following’, but it is decided against (chapter 18).

But at least one bishop does appear in the trial of Babbletower, but for the prosecution. Though the episode is not often noted (overshadowed at it is by Robinson and Chatterley), David Sheppard, later bishop of Liverpool, but at the time a priest-cum-social worker in east London, appeared as a witness in the 1967 trial of Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr. And it is words very much like Sheppard’s that Byatt gives to the bishop Humphrey Swan, ‘thin and sad and bespectacled and insubstantial’, suffragan of a ‘difficult’ part of Birmingham. Had the bishop been depraved and corrupted by Babbletower, (the test in the law)? ‘I must answer yes. I am a worse man, a sicker soul, for having read that book. I shall take time, I shall need effort, to recover from the experience.’

As with the earlier novels in the series (see earlier posts on The Virgin in the Garden, and Still Life), Babel Tower teems with religious themes and with clergy through which they are examined. All of them are faced with the challenge of the new: intellectually, pastorally, aesthetically. In Holly and Swan, Byatt shows us some of the paths out of the predicament.

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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 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.

Christopher Wren in the wasteland

Iris Murdoch’s The Time of the Angels (1966) is a dramatisation of the crisis of belief of the 1960s, and her two clerical characters deserve their own blog posts. But here,  I want to dwell on the setting of the novel in London and the atmosphere it creates.

A little while ago I wrote about Penelope Lively’s London churches of the mind: how the churches of Lively’s late 1980s are bearers of meanings imprinted by the past, but with no present life, and no future. As the redevelopment of parts of London is in full spate, these buildings are stranded, mute islands of memory in a sea of forgetting and obliteration. Murdoch’s London is of the mid 1960s, when pockets of land still remained uncleared of the rubble of the Blitz twenty years before. London’s population continued to fall, and it was only town planners that thought parts of the city had any future.

St Dunstan in the East. Image: Peter Webster
St Dunstan-in-the-East.
Image: Peter Webster

Although an invention of Murdoch’s, St Eustace Watergate is (or was) a Christopher Wren church, only the tower of which survived the bombing. The tower, and the nearby rectory are the only remaining buildings in the midst of a building site on which there is no building, shrouded by the London fog that makes day night, cut off from the city that surrounds it. The scene is the London docklands, close to the City but yet at the same time isolated on the peninsula of the Isle of Dogs, hemmed in on three sides by the river.

There were many blitzed churches, several of them of Wren, but by the 1960s the Church of England had more or less found ways of dealing with them, a cluster of fine buildings without parishioners to serve. Some were abandoned, their demolition completed and the sites sold. Some that could be rebuilt were rebuilt; others such as St Dunstan-in-the-East were left in ruins and converted into public gardens, both war memorial and public utility. Even those that were intact were no longer typical parish churches, but lived only during the working week: ‘lectures and concerts and shut on Sundays’ (p.13).

Murdoch’s St Eustace, neither rebuilt nor demolished, is ‘a niche for problem children’ (p.13): clergy whom the bishop can neither make use nor be rid of. There is half-hearted talk of an appeal to wealthy Americans for funds with which to rebuild, but we hear little of it. St Eustace is half a church: stranded amidst the debris of an old order, an empty shell which looms in the gloom, the only thing yet to be cleared before rebuilding may begin. But that rebuilding is itself stalled, stymied, by the withdrawal of planning permission for a skyscraper. All is becalmed, frozen in the half-light of the fog and carpeted in snow. It 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.

London’s churches of the mind

Twentieth century British fiction features a good few fictional clergy of the established Church of England, and some (if fewer) accounts of religious life itself. Rather fewer again are the number of church buildings. And those that there are tend to be anonymous and stylised if set in a real town or village. Penelope Lively’s novel City of the Mind (1991) is a rather beautiful meditation on London, and its architecture in particular; its buildings invested and reinvested with meaning by the successive generations of people who encounter them over time. Unusually, the novel is populated with several churches, and although none of them are integral to the plot, they are all but one of them named; all of them real buildings rather than merely symbols.

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

Most iconic of all London’s churches is of course St Paul’s cathedral, and although part of the novel is set during the Blitz, Lively avoids using St Paul’s as other novels have, although her character, an air raid patrol volunteer, is at work in the same area. Instead, it is Christopher Wren’s church of St Bride Fleet Street that he sees, largely destroyed in December 1940, its spire ‘lit from within like a lantern’ (p.10). St Paul’s is a church of the mind in a city of the mind; when her 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 (pp.48-9). The novel’s main protagonist, Matthew Halland, stands mesmerized in a Charing Cross Road bookshop by a photograph, taken by Herbert Mason on the same night as St Bride’s was gutted by fire, 29th December, of the dome of St Paul’s framed by black smoke but intact.

Halland’s London is that of the late 1980s, as the processes of demolition, redevelopment and gentrification are in spate; Halland is an architect rather reluctantly engaged with a tower of glass in the Docklands. Elsewhere, Spitalfields is the shoreline of the tide of change where ‘a reconstructed past and an inexorable future are fighting it out amid the estate agents’ signs and the cement mixers’ (p.92) Here 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 Soho is being redeveloped as a paved shopping precinct, the bodies of generations exhumed and deported to a cemetery further out of the city. Nothing may obstruct the progress of redevelopment (p.36).

Lively’s churches point always to the change that surrounds them, rather than drawing any attention to themselves. The caryatids on the north side of St Pancras’ church on Euston Road are to Halland redolent of the classicism he understands; to his daughter they are nothing so much as ‘ladies wearing bath towels with books on their heads’ (p.87) What these churches never are is alive; places in which real breathing Londoners meet and worship. There is an implicit contrast between the rural, where such things may well continue, and the ghostly Christianity of the city. The German immigrant Eva Burden, who undertakes an engraving in glass for Halland’s tower, was first inspired to work in glass by the west screen in Coventry cathedral by John Hutton: a declaration in the early sixties that the urban church was not dead; the ‘Phoenix at Coventry’ (the phrase is of Basil Spence) could rise from the ashes of the blitzed city. In the late eighties, her only church commissions are of saints and angels for country churches; in the metropolis her work is mere decoration, decanters for the corporate boardroom. 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.