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.