A. S. Byatt’s ‘Grouper’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holy Deadlock

This latest post in my series on fictional clergy is an unusual one, in that it connects very directly with some of the stuff of more traditional ecclesiastical history: the law on divorce (in England and Wales), and a novel by A.P. (Alan) Herbert. Called to the Bar in 1918 (though he did not in fact practice as a barrister), Herbert made his name as a writer, for Punch and elsewhere, before entering Parliament in 1935 as an independent member for Oxford University. Perhaps chief among his achievements as a parliamentarian was the introduction of what became the Matrimonial Causes Act 1937, which is directly connected with his 1935 novel Holy Deadlock. Writing later, Herbert credited the book with having influenced public opinion and thus providing cover for MPs to support reform that might before have been very politically risky indeed.

The Penguin edition of Holy Deadlock (1955)

The depiction in Holy Deadlock of the procedure for divorce was so full and so accurate that Herbert knew of cases when, being advised by their solicitor, a young thing in trouble would produce a battered copy from handbag or coat pocket. Still highly readable, the novel irresistibly shows the results when a gap opens up between the law and the common sense of the public. The Adams – Mary and John – were married very young and still are young (she is not yet 30). Their marriage has broken down and they wish to divorce, but cannot without convincing a court both that John has committed adultery (which he has not) and that Mary has not (when in fact she has, but only subsequently to their separation). The absurd, almost farcical unfolding of their case, with its carefully staged trysts in seaside hotels and pursuits by weary private detectives, showed the impossibility, without deceit, of achieving what Herbert plainly wishes the reader to see as a just end. The chasm is vast between (on the one hand) the high-flown rhetoric about the law and the absolute respect it demands, and (on the other) bewilderment – even ribald amusement – among the public, and quiet connivance and circumlocution among the lawyers.

The law prior to the 1937 Act allowed only one ground for divorce – the ‘matrimonial offence’ that John’s trips to Brighton and elsewhere are designed to imply – and this was, of course, a traditional understanding of Christian morality as translated into law. The Bill proposed additional grounds, including desertion (with a minimum period), and cruelty. That Christian opinion was, in fact, divided on the need for reform may be seen in the Hansard record of debates on the Bill. The Bishop of St Albans, Michael Furse, opposed the Bill, believing it to be ‘against the most fundamental law of God with regard to the procreation of the human race, its upbringing and its education in the ultimate problem of life, which is how to live together.’ Henson of Durham, by contrast, supported it; Cosmo Lang, archbishop of Canterbury, thought it probably now ‘impossible for the State to impose Christian principles by law upon a mixed community when many of its members have neither the religious faith nor the assisting grace to enable them to live up to the Christian standard’, and so abstained at third reading.

There is more to say on the religious sentiment of the novel than I shall include here. That said, Herbert allows his characters only rather limited editorialising, and there is little of what one might call anti-clerical sentiment in the novel. (Indeed, the enforcers of the old consensus are more likely to be ‘good churchmen’ rather than the clergy.) But there is one clerical character, who stands both for a particular theology and as one side of a generational conflict. That character is Mary Eve’s father, about whom we learn rather little and meet only once.

John and Mary meet for the second and crucial time while both are working in 1919 in the East End of London – he at the Oxford House settlement, an outpost of a certain kind of Christian social concern, she at St Hilda’s Mission – and John notes that the father of this ‘golden girl’ is a ‘rector in Sussex’. But the Revd Eve, rector of Chatham Parva, was to be sorely disappointed at the couple’s decision not to marry in church (he must have expected to solemnise his daughter’s marriage himself). Mary was ‘repelled and puzzled’ by the words of the Book of Common Prayer. She could not accept that procreation was the first end of matrimony, and neither could she in conscience vow to remain married ‘til death us do part’. One had to be sensible, and prepared for divorce, she thought; her father’s idea of marriage was ‘an ideal – but it could not be a positive rule, much less a clause in a contract.’ The Reverend Eve was realistic enough to know that to withhold his consent would be futile, and so after a unhappy weekend of discussion and examination of texts, he gave up the struggle, consoling himself with the thought ‘that it was honesty of mind that made her say such dreadful things.’

Ten years later, Mary and John have indeed failed to reach the ideal, and she has not yet screwed up the courage to visit her father and let him know that divorce proceedings have begun. She, still not yet 29, had made a silly mistake at 19, and he was now an old man, 68 perhaps, and (we are to understand) a widower, ‘pottering about the lawn with a mower in his hands and a sermon in his mind – watering his roses and reciting the Old Testament – old, feeble and ineffective and, she thought sometimes, a little mad.’ Though his age looms large in her thoughts, and is associated with all things that are outdated, still he was her father, and she must either avoid him (which would cause hurt), or ‘confess her wickedness…. which, she thought, would kill him.’

In time, however, her father comes to hear gossip, and so the issue is forced. He writes in a shaky hand, disbelieving but upset; might she come and see him? Instead she writes, putting her whole case. She has read the report of the Royal Commission, and the Biblical texts and others: she was ‘quite clear that Christ never meant to lay down laws, only ideals and principles, or, as Dean Inge, said, “a counsel of perfection”’. Distracted and distressed, Mary sends the letter, which swings from pleading to peevish defensiveness and back. The reply arrives, and it is to be the last we hear of the Reverend Eve: ‘I can be glad of your honesty, at least. But it grieves me most, my dear daughter, to know that there is still, in thought, so great a gulf between us, a gulf which not even the Word of God can bridge.’ He should dearly love to see her, but under the circumstances it is best not to meet, though he will pray for a better understanding for her: ‘I am too old and tired for disputation, and will say no more.’ It is ‘the whimper of a hurt dog’ (the narrator’s words); Mary is ‘so miserable that she could not even cry’.

It is Herbert’s achievement that none of his main characters become mere ciphers for the ideas they represent. Mary is an unhappy woman under great pressure, and not merely the mouthpiece of a small-l liberal, non-rigorist ethical Christianity. The Reverend Eve is a stout defender of a particular interpretation of the Bible and of the church-state relationship, but also an old and broken man who cannot understand his daughter, and now fears he has lost her.

Anglo-Saxon attitudes

I was first introduced to Angus Wilson’s 1956 novel Anglo-Saxon Attitudes by a fellow graduate student, a medieval historian, and, were this a series on fictional historians (rather than fictional clergy), its main character, Gerald Middleton, professor emeritus, would be prominent in it. And the book is populated by a great many scholars of early medieval England, but of interest here is the late Reverend Reginald Portway, in later career a canon residentiary of Norwich, antiquary, pursuer of progressive causes, patron of the promising but disadvantaged.

It is on his land on the east coast that there is discovered (in 1912) the lost tomb of Eorpwald, missionary bishop to the East Folk in the seventh century. As well as being the lord of Melpham Hall, Portway is also rector of the parish, and secretary of the East Coast Antiquarian Association. As a leisured pursuer of the local and obscure, Portway evokes a literary type stretching back deep into the nineteenth century and beyond, which we have encountered before in this series, from John Fowles and George Orwell.

Sutton Hoo, Suffolk. (Image: Amitchell125 at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0]

But the novel is set in the 1950s, by which time Portway is dead, and Middleton, now an old man, is attempting to get to the bottom of the mystery of the Melpham burial, namely, how it came apparently to contain a carving of a pagan fertility god, otherwise unprecedented in England. And we only meet Portway in the first person once, and that only in Gerald’s daydream recollection of meeting him as a young man during the excavation. The rest of the time we encounter him, as does Gerald, in the self-interested and contradictory recollections of others. At the distance of forty years, and two world wars, we are shown Portway at a remove, the nexus of local religion and society that he represented almost as remote as the world of Eorpwald.

For his elderly sister, living in reduced and faintly desperate obscurity in a Tyrolean spa town, the canon lived on as The Times had described him: ‘moral leader, outstanding antiquarian, lover of beauty, fearless fighter, great Churchman.’ To his grateful parishioners he had restored ancient English ceremonies, ‘age-old services of beauty and dignity’; in her drawing room, a ‘centrally-heated mausoleum’, is a photograph of him with his flock in their costumes for a revived Coventry Mystery Play. Another character remembered being adopted as a clever youth of limited means, with Portway intending to send him to Oxford though the war intervened. In Lilian Portway’s pomp as an actress and friend of Shaw and Wells, her brother had stood alongside her and argued the cause of women’s suffrage. But here was no angry revolutionary, but one with a reputation for promoting ‘advanced’ causes with a lightness of touch, committing no offence against the good manners of his class.

A young friend of Middleton’s took a more jaundiced view: the Portways were ‘rich cultural snobs’ desperate to have their unprofitable estates made interesting by some historic find. All the maypoles and dancing and plays were a ‘peculiarly mischievous and foolish sort of egalitarianism based on some romantic notion of medieval society – in short, the cloven hoof of William Morris.’ But the local ladies swooned at Portway’s theatrical good looks, and as a ‘Modern Churchman’ a canonry was in the offing, though to be ‘progressive’ seemed only to entail ‘an attachment to any and every belief save the dogmas of his own religion.’ (There are overtones here of Evelyn Waugh’s hapless Mr Prendergast.)

The solution to the mystery at which Gerald eventually arrives I shall not elaborate, as its unravelling is one of the great pleasures of the novel. But the plot turns on the invidious moral choice (which Portway, it turns out, was forced to make under great pressure) between the absolute scrupulousness of the scholar (on the one hand) and his own interests (and those of others) and his sense of the interests of the discipline of history as a whole, on the other. In the end Middleton’s final act is a compassionate one; despite Portway’s failings, Gerald spares at least some of his reputation. But time is called nonetheless on the clerical amateur: in the words of a fellow member of the Historical Association of Medievalists, ‘all these local parsons ought to be stopped by their bishops from meddling in things they don’t understand’.

The vicar and the excellent women

[Another post in my series on clergy in English fiction: this time, Excellent Women (1952) by Barbara Pym.]

Mildred Lathbury’s London is small and grey, ‘so very much the wrong side of Victoria station, so definitely not Belgravia’ (ch.1). It is a constrained world, of rationed food that is bland when it comes, of shapeless and moth-eaten clothes retrieved from trestle tables in the church jumble sale. And, like some of Pym’s other novels, it is a world full of clergy. A young clergyman, a curate ‘just out of the egg’ looks out from a donated picture frame. In the bombed church of St Ermin, its vicar gamely conducts services in the one undamaged aisle, amid piles of wall tablets and the occasional cherub’s head. There is also a brief appearance by Archdeacon Hoccleve, a visiting preacher up from the country and Pym’s earlier novel Some Tame Gazelle.

And there are clergy in Mildred’s memory too, of her childhood in her father’s country rectory, ‘large, inconvenient … with stone passages, oil lamps and far too many rooms’. There are curates, whose names we do not learn, on whom Mildred had placed her teenage hopes without success; there was a visiting canon who knew much, and talked much, about Stonehenge. And there was her father, whose battered panama hat was the epitome of ‘the wisdom of an old country clergyman’. And Mildred now has made an existence for herself rather like that of her youth, with a small income and a flat full of her parents’ furniture with a shared bathroom. Aside from her work in the relief of distressed gentlewomen, that existence is centred around St Mary’s, ‘prickly, Victorian Gothic, hideous inside, I suppose, but very dear to me’. It is ‘High’, and it is with the vicar, with his biretta, that we are most concerned.

There are others much better placed than me to expound the subtle feminism in Pym’s work. But it seems clear to me that the moral centre of gravity of Excellent Women is female, around which the various male characters orbit. These men are casually dismissive of the women around them, but ultimately dependent on them in a way that is almost childlike. It is among this group of men – complacent, frivolous, ineffective – that we must read the vicar, Julian Malory, and it is largely through Mildred’s eyes that we see him.

Father Malory is not, Mildred thinks, a good looking man. Aged around forty, he is ‘tall, thin and angular’, which gives him ‘a suitable ascetic distinction’. But his manner is forbidding, such that only his smile serves to soften the ‘bleakness’ of his face. Not for him then the fluttering attention of the single women in the parish: ‘I am not even sure whether anyone has ever knitted him a scarf or a pullover.’ But the excellent women of St Mary’s are between them quite sure that, though he has not said as much, he is not for marrying. ‘Perhaps it is more suitable’, Mildred thinks, ‘that a High Church clergyman should remain unmarried, that there should be a biretta in the hall rather than a perambulator’ (ch. 2)

Malory is conventionally serious as his parishioners expect. Mildred is expected to ‘say a word’ to her new neighbours, the intellectual and worldly Napiers, and when she initially takes against Helena Napier, she is brought up short by the recollection of a sermon. But there is evidence too in Malory of a degree of introspection: when in chapter 5 we find him ineptly trying to paint a wall in the vicarage, his failure prompts the reflection that ‘it must be such a satisfying feeling, to do good work with one’s hands. I’m sure I’ve preached about it often enough.’ (Pym here captures an aspect in some of the more romanticised Anglo-Catholic theology of work at the time.) But even that satisfaction is to be denied him: ‘”I’ve certainly learnt humility this afternoon, so the exercise will have served some purpose. It looked so easy, too” he added sadly.’ ‘I suppose I am not to be considered a normal man’ he adds, ‘ and yet I do have these manly feelings.’

Image: Trojan_Llama via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

To say much more about the plot would risk spoiling the rich pleasures to be had from the novel by readers who do not yet know it. But it seems that Father Malory is, after all, the marrying kind, and it is in his handling of this, and of Mildred, that his culpable frivolity is clearest. Having lacked either the sensitivity to notice Mildred’s feelings for him before he reveals his engagement, he becomes guiltily solicitous for them at the precise time when he ought not to (ch.15). To compound the error, it is to her of all people that he returns when the plan collapses, and his clumsy attempt to return to a time in which their friendship had within it the unspoken potential of something more is gently sidestepped with a line of Keats (The wistful poetic clergyman is another familiar fictive type, and the use of verse as a substitute for saying what needs to be said) (ch. 22).

It is a measure of Pym’s art that this is not the only available reading; it might well be argued that, far from being particularly culpable, Malory is only as emotionally inarticulate as Mildred, and that their mutual discomfort is merely a product of culture. But he is direct to the point of embarrassment when attempting to save the marriage of someone else, or in the interest of his spinster sister, while vague to the point of irresponsibility on his own behalf. Pym gives us a character who has escaped the narrow fictive confines of his vocation, a well-intentioned but weak man in the company of excellent women.

Two priests in the wilderness

Unusually in this series on fictional clergy in twentieth century English fiction, I feature here both an Anglican in England and a Catholic priest in France. They both appear in Rose Macaulay’s The World My Wilderness, first published in 1950. Set in the period immediately after the end of the Second World War, it features three locations, two of which are counterparts in ruin. One, central London, is literally in ruins, as the young girl Barbary runs wild and free in the rubble of the City. (I’ve written elsewhere on the ruined church in fiction and Macaulay’s engagement with ruins.) The other, a fishing village on the Mediterranean coast of Provence, appears outwardly unchanged, but the Abbé Dinant sees societal ruin in prospect, and does what he can, in his compromised way, to avert it.

The abbé is compromised, as many were, by the recent history of Vichy government and German occupation. Faced with a choice between resistance and acquiescence, he chose the latter, as did his bishop; the two both rebuked the local curé for advocating resistance. Like other local notables, the abbé accommodated himself to the brute fact of German occupation, seeking to make the best of the situation while betraying no-one. A restraint on the violence of the Resistance during the war, he has saved many collaborators from vengeance since its end. ‘A man of good sense’ he is, according to a sympathetic, similarly compromised neighbour after 1945: ‘in these days, as before, his chief foe is Communism; he sees it as the devil, and as France’s first enemy, and he is right.’ (ch. 21) Though the Nazis were ‘barbarians and interlopers and the enemies of France, they were at least fighting the worst enemies of religion, civilisation and the true France, those impossible Bolsheviks.’ (ch. 2)

Part of the Communist threat the abbé thinks he sees is to the family, indeed to all the cultural markers of a Catholic France. The national vitality which had helped France recover before was now misdirected. ‘Work, country, family – those great ideals held before us by the old Marshal during the black years – are discredited by his disgrace, and held of little account now that those who always hated him are dominant. [But] they are great ideals, and always when we have turned our backs on them we have deserted our true role.’ Though he rarely expounds them as such, these values are religious ones; the true France – a Catholic France – is in graver danger in 1950 than ever it was in 1940. So, though he restrains himself from talking in explicitly religious terms to his worldly, unbelieving friends, the abbé tries (though without always succeeding) to preserve the outward face of a kind of consensual public morality, to keep all within the house of faith, however loose their attachment to it. ‘To sin in our Father’s house, that, though sacrilege, has its own blessedness. To stray in the wilderness outside, that is to be lost indeed.’ (ch. 20)

St Dunstan in the East.
Image: Peter Webster

While the abbé seeks to keep the roof on the house of faith, in London there is little left of it at all. Barbary and her friend have found in the ruins of a City church a place of play, of inversion and a kind of idle sacrilege; a transistor radio plays jazz, they decorate the walls, and sing distractedly from a torn hymn book (ch. 23). In their ritual they are joined by a thin and grey clergyman, with a ‘lost look in his deep-set eyes, and his mouth was set in lines of pain.’ He proceeds to celebrate communion and, standing where the pulpit once stood, proceeds to preach. But here was no message of reconstructive hope in the ruins, of Christian persistence in a time of trial. ‘We are in hell now’, his oration begins, and it spirals downward in despair and recrimination. ‘Fire creeps on me from all sides; I am trapped in the prison of my sins’. At last he sinks to his knees, shuddering, face in hands. ‘It was true, then’, thinks Barbary in tears, ‘about hell; there was no deliverance.’

Presently Father Roger is fetched by the young priest with whom he lives in a clergy house. We learn that the older man wanders the ruined churches of the city trying to find his own, in the burning rubble of which he was trapped for two days. ‘We all love him, but we can’t always save him from his nightmares.’ Between Father Roger’s derangement and his young brother’s charity, there is yet some small Christian life in the ruins of London and of Christian civilisation.