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]

An English priest in the beloved country

[Another post related to my occasional series on clergy in fiction. This time, not an English author, but an English character working overseas.]

I can think of no other novel in years that has struck me so forcefully as Cry, the beloved country, by Alan Paton. The book was first published in the UK in 1948 by Jonathan Cape; issued as a Penguin Modern Classic in 1958, and subsequently reprinted almost every year until at least 1982, the year in which my copy was printed. Paton was an educationalist, and campaigner for the rights of the native South African population. He was also a friend of Geoffrey Clayton, archbishop of Cape Town, whose biography he published in 1973.

Why am I so struck by it ? Fundamentally it is because the plot has an intense humanity, intertwining themes of place and home, familial loyalty and parental loss, individual moral responsibility and racial injustice. Part of its achievement is that the novel presents the full range of thought and feeling about the ‘native question’, but is not subsumed by it, as political novels sometimes are.

The Penguin Modern Classics edition, with a cover design by Germano Facetti from an original by Marianne Podlashuc.

The Penguin Modern Classics edition, with a cover design by Germano Facetti from an original by Marianne Podlashuc.

What is also surprising to a modern reader is the style. To readers accustomed to a prosodic palette of Orwellian plainness and the crispness of Evelyn Waugh, Paton’s elevation of style is reminiscent of the fiction of the nineteenth century and seems somehow marooned, out of time. Yet it achieves this heightened registration without pomposity; the elevation of the sentiment is always brought low by the brute tragedy of the matter at hand. And this height is achieved by means which are fast becoming inaccessible to modern readers, in that Paton draws freely not only on explicit Biblical images, but also on the rhythm of Biblical prose. In this, the narrator takes on the voice of the preacher, although this kind of preaching is in eclipse in the modern churches.

The plot centres on Kumalo, a black Anglican priest from the country who comes to Johannesburg in search of his son who (it transpires) has been involved in a botched burglary that resulted in the shooting dead of a white man. The dead man, Arthur Jarvis, was himself a vigorous supporter of change in the lot of the black majority, and an active and young Anglican layman. Kumalo is at the Mission House in Johannesburg when the news breaks, at which point it is not known that it is his son who is the culprit, only that Jarvis grew up in the same part of the country as Kumalo.

The reader is told very little of Father Vincent, ‘the rosy-cheeked priest’ of the Mission House who was also there, save for that he is from England. The two had been talking of their respective homes in the countryside: the white man of ‘the hedges and the fields, and Westminster Abbey, and the great cathedrals up and down the land.’ (p.65) After it becomes clear that Kumalo’s son is under arrest, Father Vincent promises whatever aid he can give. It is Father Vincent who marries Absalom Kumalo and the girl who carries his child in the chapel of his prison as he awaits execution, in order to secure the future of the girl and her child, the senior Kumalo’s grandchild. The words of the service are those of the Book of Common Prayer. In the hands of another novelist the scene might be desperate, even horrific; but in Paton’s handling it emerges as dignified, as the couple promise to be faithful for better, for worse, til death should part them.

It is also significant that it is the white priest, an Englishman, who is able to uphold Kumalo, the priest who is also the loser of a son, in a scene of great pastoral sensitivity between two men of the same calling, of which there can surely be very few in modern fiction (Book 1, chapter 15). Despite himself, Vincent manages to resist the temptation to offer facile words in the face of Kumalo’s desolation. Instead, he allows Kumalo to voice his bewilderment at his situation, in which God seems to have turned from him. He then leads Kumalo out of his focus on self to the need to see repentance on the part of his son. Finally he is able to send Kumalo away to prayer, again not for himself, or for some explanation as to why, or for his son alone, but for everyone else touched by the tragedy: for the bereaved family, for the girl soon to be left a single mother and for her child, for Vincent and his colleagues ‘who try to rebuild in a place of destruction, and ‘for all white people, those who do justice, and those who would do justice if they were not afraid.’ It is part of the priestly calling to remember, and to model to others, that ‘it is Christ in us, crying that men may be succoured and forgiven, even when He Himself is forsaken.’

The vicar and the Midwich Cuckoos

After an extended break, another post on the occasional series on Anglican clergy in modern British fiction. Today, it is the turn of John Wyndham, and The Midwich Cuckoos, first published in 1957.

The Penguin edition of 1960.

The Penguin edition of 1960.

The Reverend Hubert Leebody is one of the more substantial clerical characters in recent times, and the character functions as a foil to Gordon Zellaby, resident of Kyle Manor: gentleman sceptic, pragmatist, and the closest thing the novel has to a heroic character. Midwich is an archetypal English country village, in which nothing of note has seemingly occurred in a millennium. In Midwich, the old certainties about social leadership are embodied in Zellaby, Willers the doctor, and Leebody, resident of the Georgian vicarage and incumbent of the church: ‘mostly perp. and dec., but with a Norman west doorway and font.’ (chapter 1) And as the bizarre events unfold, Leebody continues to be the social glue that holds the community together. In chapter 6 the village flock to the church for the funeral of the first casualties, and it is Leebody who conducts them along with a service of thanksgiving for the sparing of the remainder. As the girls of the village discover their collective pregnancy, it is to Leebody that they come in their confusion. ‘He had baptized them when they were babies;he knew them, and their parents well.’ (ch.7) As the Children arrive, it is Leebody who baptises them in turn, in a faintly desperate attempt to normalise the hideous fact of their xenogenesis. (ch.12)

Ultimately, however, it is not Leebody who graps the depth of the moral crisis in which the village and the authorities find themselves, but Zellaby. Wyndham expounds much of the dilemma in dialogue between the two in chapter 17. How are humans to account for the existence in their midst of seemingly other beings, albeit in human form? How may they be fitted into a system of law that would allow a co-existence, and restrain the overwhelming coercive power that it is revealed that the Children have? Are they humans at all, or a dangerous other species, to wipe out which would be morally defensible in order to save humanity? Leebody confesses himself ‘in a morass’ about the matter, and the dialogue moves back and forth inconclusively until Leebody is called away to keep the peace as a lynch mob of villagers confronts the Children.

And this is the last the reader sees of the Reverend Leebody. In a manner reminiscent of H.G. Wells’s curate in The War of the Worlds, the reader is left with the impression that the vicar’s frame of reference can contribute no more to the situation. A good man, and socially important, when put under extreme pressure the vicar is found wanting. It is left to Zellaby to lead the village to the point at which a solution can be imagined; and it is the clear-sighted sceptic Zellaby – the only person in the village able and prepared to see the situation as it really is – who has the courage to act.

The curate and the faun

Another post in my occasional series on the Anglican clergy in British fiction: this time, from E.M. Forster. ‘The Curate’s Friend’, a short story, was written in the very early years of the century, and was first published in The Celestial Omnibus and Other Stories (1911). It was later published in the Collected Short Stories (Sidgwick and Jackson, 1947), which appeared as a Penguin title in 1954.

A Faun (detail), by  Pál Szinyei Merse, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A Faun (detail), by Pál Szinyei Merse, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It is one of the very few works in which the clergyman is also the narrator. To my knowledge, it also is the only such work of fiction that has an Anglican clergyman meet a faun on a Wiltshire hillside, and its exquisite construction and fantastic character (on first reading) obscure a rather radical message. The unnamed curate is discomfited by a faun during a picnic, shared with the object of his affections and her mother. His extreme reaction to his new friend, who none of the rest of the party can see, causes his companions to flee him. But his horror at his apparent disgrace ‘in the presence of ladies’ is soon overtaken by his new-found perception of the real nature of the natural world around him. The hill itself converses with the faun; the curate suddenly is able to hear ‘the chalk downs singing to each other across the valleys’, and the voice of the streams that never sleep.

And from this point on, the young curate who had hitherto been a fool, ‘facetious without humour and serious without conviction’, found himself happy. The epiphany that Forster presents is not one that causes doubt, or the evaporation of a vocation. Instead, by the end he is able to look down from his pulpit (for now he has a living of his own) on the better and the worse sort, and to try to impart something of the joy he has experienced. But, were he ever to disclose just how he came to know that joy, he should lose his living and the whole of his existence, so ‘profitable and agreeable.’ Forster’s religion of nature can be accommodated within the social structures of faith, but its true nature is available only to those to whom it is revealed.

Badalia Herodsfoot and the Curate

Another post in my occasional series on clergy in British fiction; this time from a short story by Rudyard Kipling, ‘The record of Badalia Herodsfoot‘, first published in his Many Inventions in 1893. Both posts in the series so far, from H.G.Wells and George Orwell, have featured clerical characters working in prosperous and settled areas of England. Kipling’s character, by contrast, is an example of a recognisable type in the later nineteenth and early twentieth century: the ‘slum priest’.

The Reverend Eustace Hanna is curate of an unnamed parish in London’s East End (it is always the East End). He works amongst the poor of Gunnison Street, dispensing aid as best he can, both material and spiritual, but mostly material. He works alongside the Little Sisters of the Red Diamond, a house of Anglican religious, as well as Brother Victor, of the (Roman Catholic) Order of Little Ease. He must also stay in the good books of Mrs Jessel, of the Tea Cup Board, who ‘had money to dispense, but hated Rome.’

What this group of do-gooders, partly co-operative, partly competitive, come to recognise is that they need help. While the residents of Gunnison Street need material help, they are considerably less interested in any religious attachment that might go with it; although some are not above feigning a conversion for a bite to eat. Hanna and the others are interlopers; not despised as such, but tolerated at best; separated by an insuperable barrier of class and outlook.

And so Hanna enlists the help of Badalia Herodsfoot, a deserted wife of indeterminate age, childless, who shifts for herself by ‘a mangle, some tending of babies, and an occasional sale of flowers’. Once a week Mrs Jessel subvents a sum of money for the poor, which Badalia dispenses, and records the details in a book which Hanna must sign. Mrs Jessel is concerned about Badalia’s godlessness of speech, but all recognise that her local knowledge is too useful a means that they should question her conduct.

It is important that Hanna is a curate. The rector of the parish is more concerned with altar-cloths and a new brass eagle lectern for the church, and (we are to understand) would rather the curate did not spend his time pauperizing the poor by dispensing charity to them. But Hanna is young, and still tender of heart. And his heart is particularly tender towards Sister Eva, ‘youngest and most impressionable’ of the Little Sisters, alongside whom he works and whom he would rather be able to protect. All of them work themselves hard, with a faintly desperate determination, ‘since time is precious and lives hang in the balance of five minutes.’

Hanna is a more sympathetic character than either Wells’ curate, or Orwell’s rector, but there is still moral complication. It is as a direct result of Badalia’s involvement with Hanna that she is beaten to death by her degenerate husband Tom, returning to her after a desertion of two years. This is partly because she will not hand over the money for him to spend on drink. But Tom is disposed to believe the gossip that Badalia is the subject of more than just the charity of this ‘aristocratic parson’. But Hanna and Brother Victor are able to put aside their differences, and the denominational demarcation of death, to both be at Badalia’s deathbed as she succumbs to her injuries. Kipling’s curate is a good man at work with limited success in an alien environment.