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.

A. S. Byatt’s faded church

My occasional series on the clergy in English fiction now runs to some seventeen posts in all, from H.G. Wells to John Fowles, from the clerical sleuths of Cyril Alington to the existential crisis of Iris Murdoch. By and large, these men have often played bit parts or been mere cyphers for the institution they represent (as in the case of Robert Tressell). Even when these characters have been allowed more space to breathe, the dilemmas and indeed anguish that they feel are wholly circumscribed by their status; these men have little life other than as clergy.

The four novels from A.S. Byatt that make up what is sometimes called the ‘Frederica Quartet’ are a different case. In them are many characters, some of whom are clergy, some of whom are not but aspire to a kind of religious leadership. Some are more fully drawn than others, in particular Daniel Orton who features in all four volumes, and who (unusually) transcends his ordination to be also a husband and a father. He will have his own post. Here I want to deal with the two who function most clearly as symbols of a lost, or at least moribund, Christianity which Byatt needs to place as a backdrop to her main concerns. They make their appearances in The Virgin in the Garden, the first of the quartet, first published in 1978, and are not seen again.

The first of these is the Bishop, we know not of quite where, who appears briefly in chapter 37. The scene is after the first performance in 1952 of Astraea, a play which became part of the celebrations of the accession of the new Queen. The first performance marked the beginnings of a new university; just the kind of local ceremonial to which bishops were accustomed to be invited, and were invited. Also there as a matter of course is Bill Potter, local teacher of English and father of the eponymous Frederica, and of Stephanie, engaged to be married to Daniel Orton. About this fact Bill is not happy, since his attitude to Christianity is not merely indifferent but implacably hostile, to the point of not attending the wedding. The bishop is tall, saturnine, ‘bland, wine-dark and hard’, and as Bill hops around like a flyweight boxer, awaiting the moment to land a rhetorical blow, he spreads ‘automatically flowing oil on the choppy waters.’ The vision he presents is of the play as a ‘true communion’ of shared cultural heritage, as church, school and community come together in a joint work of art. (The post-war period was a time of hope among some in the Church of England about the potential of the religious drama as a means of evangelism and as a symbol of the residual Christian nature of English culture.) Not so for Bill; the play had been one of nostalgia for a time that had never been. It was time for both the nostalgia and the church to die with dignity and make way for the new.

The rest of the argument that ensues, in barely controlled screaming, I shall not elaborate. It is a setpiece in which Byatt allows all of the intellectual, moral and imaginative objections to Christianity that have been voiced elsewhere in the novel to be aired. It is a cacophony of voices by which nothing is resolved: a rehearsal of old arguments by old men, part of an commonplace antagonism between secularism and national religion. These are not the new and disruptive forces in English religion that Byatt shows us in the later novels.

Also in The Virgin in the Garden, the foil to the national figure of the bishop is Mr Ellenby, the vicar. We never know his first name, neither do we hear his voice directly (just as we do not hear the Bishop except in the narrator’s paraphrase.) We are not invited to attribute moral blame to him – within his own frame of reference he is conscientious enough – but together with the bishop he is part of a faded old settlement of religion, socially convenient but without life. His study, which we see only in the dark as Mrs Ellenby is sparing with heat and light, has in it ‘the ghosts of riches’ (p. 61): heavy dark Victorian furniture, inkwells with silver lids, volumes of Shakespeare behind glass and thick with dust, a once luxurious carpet worn to sackcloth. It is brightened only by flowers from the Ellenby’s spinster lodger, (surely a nod to Barbara Pym).

Ellenby is puzzled, indeed actively discomfited, by his ‘grim curate’, the gruff, dark and fat Daniel Orton. Although he frets over her lack of faith, he harbours a hope that Stephanie might be the civilising of Daniel, and that she might also come to grasp the idea of his religion: in Daniel’s phrase, Ellenby sees nothing seriously wrong with ‘someone who likes George Herbert and has lovely manners.’ (ch. 24, p.294) One who can speak wisely of The Temple ‘had the essence of the matter in her, must have’, Ellenby thinks (p.344).

But Stephanie is drawn to Daniel for the very reason that Ellenby is alarmed by him: his fierce passion to help those who need help. Ellenby opposes the couple living on the council estate (ch.25, p.295). This was in part for fear that the social workers would resent an encroachment by the Church into a social sphere in which (as Ellenby sees it) it had no place. But this is a diversion from the real reason: the impression it might give if the curate was to live in such a place (there was ‘a position the church had to keep up’). At base a snob, and lazy with it, Ellenby’s main concern is ‘parish politics, precedence and prettiness of altar-piece and bazaar.’ (ch.17, p.224) Though Daniel later comes to miss Ellenby’s unthinking certainty (Still Life, p.166), in The Virgin in the Garden, he is the hollow shell of English social religion in its local form.

A vicar in the country

Next in my series on fictional clergy is Mr Keach from J.L. Carr’s 1980 novel A month in the country, who is dealt with only briefly but (as with much else in what is only a short book) Carr achieves much with economic means. Birkin, our principal character and narrator, arrives at a small Yorkshire village in the summer of 1920 with a job to do. In fulfilment of a will, he is to investigate and (if needed) uncover and restore a medieval mural painting in the village church. He is greeted by an unsympathetic Keach, a relatively young man of perhaps thirty, neat, but ‘pale-eyed, a cold, cooped-up look about him’. Keach fusses and quibbles about small things: expenses, Birkin’s living arrangements (he intends to sleep in the belfry); we see a cramped, fiddly, irritable man, without grace or hospitality. His offence in Birkin’s eyes is compounded to his indifference to the mural; Keach had asked the executors to agree to an alternative use for the 25 guineas but was rebuffed: Birkin’s presence is a burden he has no choice but to bear, along with the scaffolding that occupies his church. Clergy were often caricatured as culpably indifferent to the arts, and Carr’s priest is so shown here. Keach worries that a painting about the chancel arch will distract his congregation from their worship. Worse still, Birkin could, he supposed, fill in areas that had disappeared. ‘Incredible! I thought. Why are so many parsons like this! Must one excuse their defective sensibility towards their fellows because they are engrossed with God?’

The mural painting at St Mary’s church, Goring-by-Sea. Image: Peter Webster

But Carr’s vicar is a more sympathetic character than this, or rather, more pathetic, in need of our pity. One of the great tasks of the reforming Church of England after 1945 was the rationalisation of parsonage houses, and indeed of parishes themselves. Already by 1920 clergy were often in the wrong place, marooned by demographic change, and in houses built on a different scale for an earlier time, and Keach is one such. Carr draws the vicarage as dark and foreboding to the point at which one almost expects to encounter a ghost, and Alice, Keach’s wife is driven to nightmares by its encircling trees, out of control, and the air, pressing in as if in a compression chamber. Leaving the overtones of Gothic horror aside, the vicarage itself is of a not uncommon type. Keach shows Birkin the vast empty house, that could have accommodated a large family and its domestic staff, now scarcely furnished, with room after room left as empty as on the day on which he and his wife arrived. ‘In this wilderness of a house’, they ‘huddled together for the comfort of each other’s company. Neither cares to be alone in the awful place’. The Keaches struggle on in its enveloping shadow, with some small comforts: a card table, his violin, an altar made of a trunk covered with a bedspread: ‘they shouldn’t have been made to live in it’, Birkin decides.

Keach’s predicament goes beyond his vicarage, however. Alice wonders whether he should not have been happier in the south, Sussex perhaps, rather than in the rural north, with people more like themselves, but the crisis to which he gives voice is in reality not one of location. In the last scene in which we see him, as Birkin has finished his work, Keach’s sense of his own superfluity and failure emerges. ‘The English are not a deeply religious people’, he says; their observance is largely out of habit, that at Christmas or Harvest merely ‘a pagan salute to the passing seasons’. They have no need of Birkin save as a ‘removal contractor’ at the rites of passage of weddings and funerals. And Birkin has, unwittingly, twisted the knife. Keach had, it turns out, hoped to be of pastoral use to Birkin, a man returned wounded from the war: ‘you have come back from a place where you have seen things beyond belief, things which you cannot talk of yet can’t forget, but things which are at the heart of religion’. Yet Birkin, like all the others Keach has tried and failed to reach, has passed the time of day, spoken of the weather, ‘and you have hoped that I shall go away.’ Though there is no suggestion that Keach is himself in any crisis of faith, he is diminished, reduced to irritability and pettiness, by a sense of waste, of a vocation unfulfilled.

South Riding religion

A slight digression in this post in my fictional clergy series, to take in Winifred Holtby’s fine South Riding. It was published posthumously in 1936, but is set in the years between 1932 and 1935 in the fictional South Riding of Yorkshire, which is inspired not by present-day South Yorkshire but rather the East Yorkshire coast and wolds.

It is well known that Alice Holtby, the author’s mother, disliked the novel intensely and opposed its publication. This was despite Winifred’s protestations that, though some of the details were clearly derived from her mother’s career, Alderman Beddows was not Alderman Holtby, the first female alderman on the East Riding County Council. Despite this, and despite the range of characters deployed, we are clearly invited to understand the headmistress Sarah Burton as the closest representative of Holtby’s own views, and this extends to Sarah’s religion, such as it is. Raised by her Methodist mother as an Anglican, as a means of social advantage, the girl grew into a young woman who was sceptical both of her mother’s faith and that into which she had raised. Her mother’s Methodism was both theologically complacent and (in its imaginative repertoire, of washing in the Blood of the Lamb), repellent. ‘Resignation, acceptance of avoidable suffering, timidity and indecision, she found contemptible. The world is what we make it, she would preach [to her pupils]. Take it – and pay for it.’ Her code was one of taking responsibility for one’s own decisions: ‘we must do it ourselves, she thought: we are our own redeemers.’ (Book 2, chapter 6)

Flamborough. Photo by akademy, via Flickr: CC BY-NC-ND-2.0

South Riding is unusual amongst novels of its time in taking the inner experience of faith seriously, even if in the final instance it is not to faith that Holtby looks for the solutions for the social problems in need of solving. The nature of providence runs through the thoughts of several characters, as they grapple with unfolding events. Sarah has no place for providence, if all that is meant is a resignation to one’s lot in the face of circumstances that, with greater determination, could be changed: ‘through her mind passed a procession of generations submitting patiently to all the old evils of the world – to wars, poverty, disease, ugliness and disappointment, and calling their surrender submission to Providence.’ (Book 4, chapter 2) And it is in Alfred Ezekiel Huggins, Methodist lay preacher, haulage contractor and local councillor, in which we see the antitype to Sarah’s bracing faith.

In other novels in this series (as in the case of Robert Tressell), belief is made nothing but a smokescreen to hide self-interest or class conflict. Holtby’s craft is subtler that this. Huggins’ desire to serve his community is every bit as genuine as Sarah’s, and his distress at the hardship he sees is real. His piety is also not feigned; indeed, it is ever-present. But his belief in the guidance of the Lord at every turn is no admirable quality here, no marker of the completeness of his devotion. Instead it emerges as both frivolous – a trivialising of the action of God in the world – and as a much too convenient rationalisation of the petty materialism, corruption and snobbery which others, with clearer sight than Huggins, are able to exploit.

Yet, Sarah’s scepticism is of a gentle kind; in particular, there is room still to feel the imaginative force of some of the Christian images as expressed in the arts: the ‘superb tumult and affirmation’ of Handel’s Messiah shook ‘even so fierce an individualist, so sceptical an agnostic’ as she. ‘He was despised for our transgressions … with His stripes were are healed’ was the text, and ‘her senses were swayed by the image, but her mind could not accept its implication.’ (Book 2, chapter 6) And it is not only the great works of religious music that retain a power: for another character, the popular religious ballad The Lost Chord, largely disdained by professional musicians, is nonetheless evocative of a ‘queerly huddled group, the solemnity of Sabbath, the memory of good religious thoughts’ (Book 6, chapter 5). This openness to aesthetic experience is contrasted with Mr Drew, another Methodist, and self-appointed moral overseer of the public libraries on behalf of the Watch Committee. The novels of Aldous Huxley, Virgina Woolf and Naomi Mitchison attract his ire, but without his needing to quite read them all the way through. (Book 5, chapter 4)

Though the several Nonconformist characters emerge more or less badly from Holtby’s story, they are least present, a social reality in the South Riding. The contrast is with the established Church of England, which serves a largely ceremonial role, part of the order of things but with no purchase on life as it is lived. In the golden autumn of 1933, as the harvest is brought in, the parish church of Yarrold is an ‘exquisite height… a legacy of twelfth-century devotion, its delicate grey stone melting into the pale quivering summer sky.’ Land, church and town form a tableau in Holtby’s ‘English landscape’ (the book’s subtitle), ‘a gentle landscape of English rural life.’ (Book 5, chapter 6) But there are no characters for whom the parish churches play anything much more but an historic part. Miss Sigglesthwaite, impecunious daughter of a clergyman, dutifully attends church on Good Friday while she struggles with advancing age, domestic gloom and professional failure in Sarah’s school (Book 3, chapter 5). The farmer Robert Carne sits in the pew he owns, but his God is ‘the God of order who had created farmers lords of their labourers, the county and the gentry lords over the farmers, and the King lord above all his subjects under God.’ (Book 7, ch. 6) Meanwhile, of Mr Peckover, the rector, we learn little. He is a governor of the High School, of limited private means to send his own daughters anywhere better, and somewhat conscious of having a degree from Manchester, rather than Oxford or Cambridge. And of him there is little more. In the great struggle of local government to build a new Jerusalem, peopled by men and women of good will and initiative, the established Church counts for little. South Riding is a valuable corrective to the weight of novels set in the rural south of England, where the balance between church and chapel was quite the reverse.