Barbara Pym’s priests

So far in my series on the Anglican clergy in British fiction, we have encountered just one clergyman in each novel, or two at the most; in Barbara Pym’s Some Tame Gazelle (published in 1950 but substantially complete by 1936), there are no fewer than four, two of which at least take a substantial part in the narrative as a whole. Set in an unnamed English village, it is the Archdeacon, Henry Hoccleve who features most prominently. The Archdeacon in different hands could have been an entirely unsympathetic character: cantankerous, vain, condescending and inhospitable to guests and parishioners alike. Like many clergy a devotee of poetry, he was susceptible to a literary allusion ‘and was delighted, in the way children and scholars sometimes are, if it was one that the majority of his parishioners did not understand.’ He is only saved from monstrosity by the subtle puncturing of his pomposity that Pym administers at every turn, and the unrequited devotion of years of Miss Belinda Bede, the spinster who, with her sister Harriet, are the heart of the book. (More than one writer has suggested that Belinda and Harriet are Pym’s imagining of her sister and herself in later life.) Even then, Belinda in a moment of reflection notes that ‘he had very few of the obvious virtues that one somehow expected of one’s parish priest’ (chapter 1) There is, however, more to dear Henry than mere social conformity and protectiveness of his status, as we see him contemplating mortality amongst the gravestones in the churchyard. For all its subtle criticism of the gap between expectation and reality in Hoccleve’s ministry, Pym’s portrayal has none of the hostility of that of Robert Tressell. .

The three other clergymen have less fictive work to do but are still better developed than many stock characters. Mr Donne the new curate is blank and pale and, though often present, makes little impression. Father Edward Plowman is the rather ‘Romish’ rector of the neighbouring parish: he wears a biretta, uses incense, and dislikes the Archdeacon as much as he is disliked in turn. Harriet, though, would rather like to attend his church if it were not so far to walk, since he preaches sermons that people can understand, and is ‘such a fine-looking man too, like Cardinal Newman’ (chapter 2) This competitive churchmanship recalls Orwell’s A Clergyman’s Daughter, written at a similar time.

Rather more of a rarity is Theo Grote, the colonial archbishop of Mbawawa, no longer the beautiful willowy curate that Belinda had known as a student, who is accommodated at the vicarage in as uncomfortable a fashion as the archdeacon can decently arrange. The novel predates both the growing to independence of the Anglican provinces in Africa and the growth of any real knowledge of the colonial churches amongst lay Anglicans in England, and so the bishop regales the parish with lantern slides of his flock and their curious dress and customs (chapter 16). Also rather rare in English fiction is the set piece in chapter 18 where all four men are at supper at the vicarage, in which one of Pym’s most devastating criticisms is delivered in characteristically oblique way.

‘Miss Aspinall was radiant .. glittering with beads and chains and agreeing rapturously with everything that everybody said. This was rather difficult with four clergymen present, as with the exception of the curate who hardly ventured an opinion on anything, they tended to disagree with each other wherever they could…. It was such a pity, Belinda reflected, that clergymen were so apt to bring out the worst in each other… as a species they did not get on, and being in a small country village made things even more difficult. These embarrassments would not arise in London where the clergy kept themselves to themselves in their own little sets, High, Broad and Low, as it were.’

A neater skewering of the partisan spirit in the inter-war Church of England I have yet to find.

After having tried several publishers, Pym succeeded in having this, her first novel, published by Jonathan Cape in 1950. It was the first of six in a similar vein before she was unceremoniously cut adrift by Cape, after which she could find no publisher until the late 1970s. The ODNB puts this abrupt descent into obscurity down to an increased appetite for fashionability (and thus profitability) at Cape under editor Tom Maschler. It may be that part of this unfashionability was the volatile mood of English Christianity in the early 1960s, in which such delicate miniatures, celebrations of the stasis of English village life, were increasingly out of place. Iris Murdoch’s atheist priest in The Time of the Angels was perhaps a closer reflection of the crisis of confidence into which the Church of England had talked itself. Pym’s portrait is also from the inside, a portrait of the Church of England by one who loved it as Belinda loved the Archdeacon. A reception history of Pym might well show that over time, fewer and fewer writers and readers could receive a book like Some Tame Gazelle, imaginatively complete in the 1930s, as a reflection of their own social reality; the vogue that Pym belatedly experienced after 1977 was surely in a different, more distanced mode. (For just such a recovery of the rural religion of the 1930s and 1940s as emblematic of a lost world, see John Fowles’ Daniel Martin.)

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Evelyn Waugh’s modern churchman

Mr Prendergast, the hapless protagonist of Evely Waugh’s Decline and Fall (1928), is one of the more unusual clerical characters in this series. The majority of the men we have met so far are either country parsons or urban priests; they have also all been incumbent when we meet them. Prendy, by contrast, we encounter in two quite different contexts: the undistinguished public school Llanabba Castle, staffed by the shady and variously disgraced, and then prison. Prendy, you see, had Doubts, of which we learn in his own words. Newly installed as rector in the genteel obscurity of Worthing, Prendy had a neat, well-decorated church, and local society enough to entertain his mother, when she was not busily making new chintz curtains for the drawing room. Most pleasant it all was, until Prendy was all of a sudden assailed by doubt. Not about the more familiar matters of which religious controversy were then made, such as the miracles of the Bible or the consecration of Archbishop Parker: ‘no, it was something deeper than all that. I couldn’t understand why God had made the world at all…. I’ve not known an hour’s real happiness since.’ (part 1, chapter 4)

Vincent Franklin as Prendy in the 2017 BBC adaptation

As often the case with Waugh, the funniest lines are only asides, as Prendy asks his bishop for help: ‘he said he didn’t think the point really arose as far as my practical duties as a parish priest were concerned.’ The questions of ultimate purpose were an indulgence when set beside the practical need to keep the Church running as a social reality. But the passage, only a few paragraphs long, is a poignant dramatisation of the crisis of faith, and occurs early enough in the novel that it is not overwhelmed by the grotesqueries that are to come. But Prendy continues to teach, if that be the right word, while the boys mercilessly mock his wig, and he continues to maintain an interest in ecclesiastical obscurities. ‘Are you sure he is right in the head?’ asks the local vicar at Sports Day after discussing with Prendy the apostolic claims of the church of Abyssinia. ‘I have noticed again and again since I have been in the Church that lay interest in ecclesiastical matters is often a prelude to insanity.’

Readers who know the novel will know of the grisly and senseless end with which Prendy meets. But the path which brings him and Paul Pennyfeather (the novel’s main character) together again in prison is a neat satire on a certain trend in the Church of England. Much to the irritation of Dr Fagan the headmaster, Prendy resigns from Llanabba as ‘he has been reading a series of articles by a popular bishop and has discovered that there is a species of person called a “Modern Churchman” who draws the full salary of a beneficed clergyman and need not commit himself to any religious belief.’ (part 2, ch.4) Prendy cut a rather pathetic figure at Llanabba, but not unsympathetic. He is a victim of a sudden and inexplicable collapse in faith to which he responded honourably by resigning his living; a misfortune which parallels that which landed Pennyfeather at Llanabba. The reader is, I think, invited to share Dr Fagan’s incredulity that it should be possible to be such a ‘Modern Churchman’; it smacks of disingenuousness, intellectual evasion. Of course, jobs in parishes are hard to come by for men who commit to no belief, and so Prendy ends up as prison chaplain to Pennyfeather. Waugh invites us to read Prendy’s modern churchmanship in parallel with the modern and enlightened methods of the prison governor, Lucas-Dockery; methods so blind to human nature that they lead directly to Prendy’s death. In Decline and Fall Waugh shows the reader the predicament of a secularised generation, but the ‘Modern Churchman’ is no answer.

The Rector, the Village and the Aerodrome

Previously in this series on the clergy in British fiction, I looked at the Reverend Habbakkuk Bosher in Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, possibly the most one-dimensional and least sympathetic of all such characters. Bosher is pure cypher, a blank canvas onto which Tressell can project his condemnation of the complicity of the established Church in the oppression of the proletariat. Where Tressell is crude, several other authors are more subtle; but relatively rare is the clerical character who is allowed room to be more than a mouthpiece for the attitudes of his profession and class. One particularly interesting example of the clerical character as pure symbol is in The Aerodrome by Rex Warner, first published in 1941.

The contemporary reputation of George Orwell’s 1984 is so weighty that it has tended to obscure other attempts to understand the phenomenon of authoritarian politics by means of the novel. As Anthony Burgess observed in the introduction to the 1982 edition from Oxford University Press, The Aerodrome preceded 1984 and in many ways is more complex and more interesting in its avoidance of overt brutality and the shades of grey that it reveals. Warner opposes two different visions of society, the Village and the Aerodrome. The former is sensual, muddled, corrupt, uncontrolled; it is in thrall both to its natural environment and to its history. The latter is a model of order, efficiency, cleanliness; it exists to subdue nature and to transcend the past. Warner’s achievement is showing the appeal of the Aerodrome to Roy, the principal character, and the degree of ambivalence it provokes; there is no such doubt for Winston Smith, no reluctant attraction.

There is no theology proper in Warner’s novel, no reflection on the nature of the claims to truth that the Rector’s church makes; indeed, they are not mentioned. The church, as represented by the Rector, is nothing but a social fact; part of the fabric of the Village as is the pub. (The character of the Squire, also never named, serves a similar function). The casual murder of the Rector, his replacement in the pulpit by the Flight Lieutenant and its annexation as a propaganda channel shows the degree to which authoritarian regimes recognise the threat that unrestrained religion might pose.

Although we see little of him, the Rector is broadly a sympathetic character: kindly, an affectionate father to Roy and both respected and loved in the Village.  While his confession of past guilt in chapter 2 may well be the most baroquely unrealistic portrayal of prayer ever set to paper, it shows a sensitive conscience in dialogue with its God, a fallen sinful man trying to live rightly. But it is perhaps this very weakness, the degree to which the Rector (and by implication the Church) is embroiled in, indeed sullied by the imperfect world in which it must minister, that explains the brutal appeal of the Aerodrome. Roy, who had been brought up as the Rector’s son now gradually transfers his obedience and his admiration to the Air Vice-Marshal, commander of the Aerodrome and a new father figure; a symbolic replacement of one kind of moral leadership with another. Religion had for centuries had an ‘ennobling, if a misleading effect’, said the Air Vice-Marshal; now that had come to an end, and so it was for the Aerodrome to discipline the Village, to raise it from its torpor: ‘earthbound … incapable of envisaging a distant objective, tied up forever in their miserable and unimportant histories’ (chapter 15). The Rector is a symbol of the English and indeed European society that fascism sought to refashion.

The vicar and the ragged trousered philanthropists

To a greater or lesser extent, all the fictional clergymen in my series so far are caricatures: characters written into a novel as a means of signifying something about their office. Sometimes these characters are given greater room to breathe: an opportunity to reflect on the nature of their position and the tensions and ambiguities it entails; a chance to be human. Rarely can a character been made to serve so obvious a polemical purpose as the Reverend Habbakuk Bosher, in Robert Tressell’s The ragged trousered philanthropists (first published in 1914).

Tristram Hunt rightly called attention to the profoundly religious nature of the socialism that the firebrand Frank Owen wants to urge on the proletariat of Mugsborough (1). His calling is to take the gospel of this religion of humanity into the deepest, darkest places of working class sensuousness and weakness. It is the difficulty of the task, the recalcitrance of people in seeing the light, that gives the novel its pessimistic air. Chapter 15 contains one of the most striking set-piece rehearsals in British fiction of working-class religiosity, its muddled scepticism and mild anti-clericalism.

Banner made for the Robert Tressell Society in Hastings, 2005. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The opposition of true socialism and false religion is first worked out in chapter 6, in a dialogue between a young boy and his mother. The Christianity of the respectable is a hypocrisy: a naked attempt, consciously made, to clothe the economic interest of one social class in cosmic significance.

‘Well, [says the mother] the vicar goes about telling the idlers that it’s quite right for them to do nothing, and that God meant them to have nearly everything that is made by those who work. In fact, he tells them that God made the poor for the use of the rich. Then he goes to the workers and tells them that God meant them to work very hard and to give all the good things they make to those who do nothing, and that they should be very thankful to God and to the idlers for being allowed to have even the very worst food and the rags, and broken boots to wear. He also tells them that they mustn’t grumble, or be discontented because they’re poor in this world, but that they must wait till they’re dead, and then God will reward them by letting them go to a place called heaven.’

More culpable still is the fact that (we are to believe) Mr Bosher does not truly believe any of it. If he really read the Bible, as he professes to do, then he could not possibly teach as he does: all men are brothers and sisters, but the vicar preaches of masters and servants; no-one should try to store up wealth for themselves on earth, but the vicar justifies the inequality of the society around him; Christians should not meet violence with violence, but instead he advocates prison at home and warfare abroad. Why does Mr Bosher act so, asks the child? ‘Because he wishes to live without working himself, my dear’; and the idlers give him money in return for him fostering their interests. His annual income of six hundred pounds is so insufficient that the proletariat are asked in chapter 41 to contribute to an Easter offering ‘as a token of affection and regard’, the least likely emotions to be felt for him among the labouring men and their families. Even the charitable ventures of the Church of the Whited Sepulchre, such as the distribution of worn-out second-hand boots to the poor, or the scheme to employ local men in the supply of firewood, are at once condescending, ineffective and a benefit both to Bosher and to others among the idlers (chapter 35).

The reader never meets Mr Bosher; he appears only in the dialogue of others, and in the almost comically partial voice of the narrator; never do we hear his voice. While Orwell’s clergyman is hardly a sympathetic portrait, there is nonetheless a real sense of duty, some engagement with his own personal history and feeling; the social action of Rudyard Kipling’s slum priest is sincerely meant, even if ineffective. Tressell’s caricature is crude and one-dimensional, but this is I think quite intentional. Owen himself is drawn with considerable subtlety, as are some of the other working-class characters; they are the ones worthy of our attention. Bosher is not afforded any such respect; he and the rest of the idlers, the ‘gang of swindlers, slave-drivers and petty tyrants’, are simply external forces that hold the proletariat in their grip (ch. 54). If the working class do engage with the churches at all, it is not Bosher’s church. The religious men among Owen’s fellow workers are not part of Bosher’s flock, but Baptists and other Nonconformists. It is not the Church of the Whited Sepulchre inside which we see in chapter 17, but the Shining Light Chapel. In Tressell’s Mugsborough, the established church is both irrelevant and malevolent.

(1) In his introduction to the Penguin Modern Classics edition of 2004.

Iris Murdoch and the death of God

Iris Murdoch’s The Time of the Angels (1966) features not one but two clerical characters, both of the Church of England, and amongst the principal characters to boot. A little while ago I introduced the physical setting in which Murdoch’s drama is played out: the vicarage of a ruined church in a London wasteland, blanketed in snow and shrouded in the twilight of a London fog. It is against this backdrop of isolation and purposelessness that Murdoch is able to dramatise the impact of the ‘Death of God’ theology of the 1960s.

The blitzed 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

There are two Fisher brothers: Marcus, and his elder brother Carel, the rector of St Eustace Watergate. Marcus has become concerned about his brother, living as a recluse in the rectory and refusing all callers, including Marcus. He is concerned not only for Carel, but also for Carel’s daughter Muriel, and for Elizabeth, to whom Marcus and Carel are guardians. He is also concerned on his own account. Marcus, a schoolteacher, is writing a book, Morality in a World without God (chapter 7), which will ‘rescue the idea of an Absolute in morals by showing it to be implied in the most unavoidable human activity of moral evaluation’. Thus armed, no longer would either theological metaphor or crude existentialism be necessary in order to society to function. But somehow he is distracted by the thought of his brother.

Marcus’ friend Norah has her doubts about the book, and Marcus’ intentions in writing it (chapter 2). Despite his apparent wish to start afresh, Marcus’ favourite reading is still works of theology; for Norah, Marcus is ‘just a Christian fellow-traveller. It’s better not to tinker with a dying mythology.’ The sooner the West would pass through its current twilight of the gods, the better, Norah thought. Her aim, characteristic of ‘the brisk sensibleness of an old Fabian radical’ was to get all that out of the system.

Concerned about Carel’s state of mind, Norah and Marcus consult with his bishop (chapter 9). Murdoch does not name him, but the parallel is very clearly with John Robinson, bishop of Woolwich, whose 1963 book Honest to God was perhaps the last theological bestseller in British history, for which he was censured by Michael Ramsey, archbishop of Canterbury. Both Norah and Marcus press the bishop on Carel’s apparent lack of belief, while he tucks into their treacle tart, washing it down with their claret. ‘It is a time’ he says ‘when, as one might put it, mankind is growing up. … Much of the symbolism of theology … is, in this scientific age, simply a barrier to belief. Our symbolism must change.’ As for Carel, the key is not his beliefs, but ‘passion, Kierkegaard said, didn’t he, passion. That’s the necessary truth.’ For the so-called ‘South Bank Religion’, what one believed was not so important as the earnestness with which one believed it. Despite his confession of atheism, the bishop regards Carel as ‘a profoundly religious man’.

I don’t want to write too much here about Carel himself, since to do so could very easily spoil the plot for anyone who has not read the book. But his character, and his actions, are the dark counterpart to both Marcus and the bishop. Marcus is superficially sure that his project of morality without the supernatural can be achieved. The bishop seems content enough that the church can survive the kind of testing and purification that the current ‘interregnum’ (Norah’s twilight of the gods) will entail. Carel, and the suffocating darkness that seems to emanate from him and damage those around him, is the side of their argument that neither can contemplate. Murdoch shows us the abyss of meaninglessness that may be glimpsed but cannot be faced.

John Fowles’ country parson

Most of the fictional Anglican clergymen in my little mini-series so far have been contemporary; that is, they are characters in stories set notionally in the present in which they were published. Daniel Martin, written by John Fowles and first published in 1977, has an extended vignette on the character of Daniel’s father, a parish priest in rural Devon in the 1930s and 1940s.

The Reverend Mr Martin owes something to Trollope, but bears a much greater symbolic weight. There is the enthusiasm for his garden, and for his collection of controversial religious writings of the seventeenth century, with which he regales his young son. He might have been a collector of butterflies or fossils or the detritus of dead languages: fictional clergy seem often to be antiquarians of one sort or another.

Not unlike Orwell’s Suffolk vicar in A Clergyman’s Daughter, he also disdains what earlier would have been known as ‘enthusiasm’, which he terms ‘demonstration’. ‘If only the good man would rely less on the demonstrative’ he would say of a visiting preacher; a visiting African-American preacher from the nearby US airbase was ‘over-enthusiastic’. In the Reverend Martin’s ‘Platonic notion of the perfect human soul’, any manifestation whatever of strong feeling was wholly absent. This was in part to do with where his real belief lies. Not uncommonly at a time when a clerical career was a predictably secure option for one of the right social stamp, the Reverend Mr Martin was ‘not truly religious’ but a good parish man. ‘His real faith was in order; and his mildly privileged place in it.’

Punch (1841) (14780579884)

A country parson and a pauper (Punch, 1841, via Wikimedia Commons)

Fowles’ portrait of a rural parson bears some similarities with Orwell’s, but its fictive function is quite different. Orwell’s clergyman is a contemporary; Fowles’ Mr Martin is part of a world, the dramatic loss of which is the subject of the whole novel. ‘I disowned all this world for so long simply because I saw it as freakishly abnormal’ Daniel tells us, as narrator:

But I see it now as no more than an extreme example of the general case. 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.

If as historians we are to see the 1939-45 conflict and the period afterwards until the early 1970s as the key period in the secularisation of Britain (and the 1950s as an Indian summer of Christian observance) then the Reverend Mr Martin is to be read across that divide, a fictive emblem of a lost world.

[‘The umbrella’, in Fowles, Daniel Martin (London: Triad, 1978), pp.82-98.]

Three score years and ten

An oblique contribution to my occasional series on the Anglican clergy in twentieth century British fiction, and another from John Wyndham. This time, it’s from his Trouble with Lichen, first published in 1960.

Diana Brackley has discovered the secret of living for hundreds of years: it’s all to do with a kind of lichen. She’s kept it quiet, but now, seemingly all of British society has caught wind of the reason her beauty clinic seems to have such remarkable results. Insurance shares are in freefall on the London Stock Exchange, and the press are at the door. In the midst of this, a voice from the wireless one Sunday.

Image by LeoLondon (Flickr), CC BY-NC-ND

Image by LeoLondon (Flickr), CC BY-NC-ND

‘… To the other sins of science , which are many, are now added those of pride, and arrogant opposition to the expressed will of God. Let me read you the passage again: “The days of our age are three score years and ten; and though men be so strong that they come to fourscore years…” That is the law of God, for it is the law of the form he gave us…. Now science, in its impious vanity, challenges the designs of the Architect of the Universe. It sets itself up against God’s plan for man, and says it can do better…. It is unthinkable that the laws of this Christian land should countenance this flagrant attack upon the nature of man as he was created by God…’

‘Good stirring stuff’ thought Diana. ‘Makes one wonder whether healing the sick, and travelling faster than one can on foot, are sinful interferences with the nature of man, too, doesn’t it?’

We do not learn who the speaker on the Home Service is, though we are expected to understand that it is a clergyman, most likely from the established Church of England. As well as an intriguing device to introduce a religious voice, the passage captures a key issue in Christian medical ethics at the time and since.

[John Wyndham, Trouble with Lichen (London: Penguin), pp.149-50]