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.

Murder in the cathedral

When some months ago I read Barbara Pym’s Some Tame Gazelle for this series on clergy in fiction, I thought I had perhaps found the novel with the largest number of clerical characters (four in all.) I had not reckoned, however, with Holy Disorders, a detective novel by Edmund Crispin. It was first published in 1946 by Gollancz, and subsequently in an inexpensive Penguin Classic Crime edition in 1958. Featuring Crispin’s sleuth Gervase Fen, it is an entertaining tale of murder and black magic set around the south-west cathedral city of Tolnbridge. An attempt has been made on the life of the cathedral organist, and suspicion falls on the several clergy of the cathedral.

Cathedral at night (Salisbury).
Image: Lee Hughes (Flickr), CC BY-NC-ND-2.0

There are five clerical characters, all of them lightly drawn but with some deftness. Both bishop and dean are absent, for reasons we never know, and the cathedral is overseen by the precentor, Dr Butler. The precentor has the frame of a giant, and ‘the coldest eyes … ever seen in a human being.’ High-handed with clergy, organists and his family, Butler cuts a remote and unpopular figure. Canons Spitshuker and Garbin, one a Tractarian, the other a Low Churchman, busy themselves in furious and inconclusive disputes about doctrine: ‘unlike parallel lines, it was inconceivable that their views should ever meet, even at infinity.’ The two are also divided by class and wealth: Spitshuker, rotund and complacent, descends from a family long connected with the church; Garbin, a scholarship boy from a poor family, has a more personal, more earnest view of his vocation. A scholar, of the Albigensian heresy, Garbin suspected the precentor of plagiarising his work; an offence over which he almost resigned his canonry. The chancellor, Sir John Dallow, is the expert in the long and dark history of witchcraft in Tolnbridge: it is easy to become an expert when one has almost nothing to do and considerable wealth to support one in doing it. Finally, there is the young July Savernake, vicar of a nearby parish, who spends half the year living beyond his means as the curé bon viveur, and the other as the poor parson. He also has designs on the hand of Frances, the precentor’s daughter.

Crispin’s world owes a good deal to Trollope, and may well have been inspired by another murder in the cathedral, that written for Canterbury by T.S.Eliot a decade earlier. The cathedral provides a convenient setting for a complex plot: a group of people with relationships and rivalries of long standing, which live in close proximity in a small town, around a building with many doors, dim lighting and many secrets. But it is purely incidental that these characters are clergy. The plot never engages their conduct as religious professionals; there are no points of decision that are dramatic by reason of the faith of the person who must decide. At heart, Holy Disorders is a morally conventional tale in which a murderer is brought to book. Crispin has no design on the reader’s conscience; no desire to dramatise the place of the national church at the end of a world war. His purpose is simply to entertain, in which purpose he succeeds.

Archdeacons Afloat

So far in my occasional series on clergy in fiction, I have not engaged with detective fiction, and in particular the clergyman as sleuth. Most readers will, I imagine, think immediately of Chesterton’s Father Brown, but the clerical detective is in fact a numerous class of men. Rather smaller is the group of ordained sleuths who are themselves creations of clergy. Here, I deal with one (or rather, a pair) of them, the archdeacons of Thorp and Garminster, creations of Cyril Alington, dean of Durham.

The improbably titled Archdeacons Afloat, published in 1946, was in fact Alington’s 37th book, and his ninth work of fiction. Alington was prolific, in fact, in several genres: history, popular theology, poetry and memoir, little of which has had a permanent impact. However, this was no mere clerical hobbyist: the publishers of his fiction included Macmillan (his first novel in 1922) and (in this case) Faber and Faber, of which T.S. Eliot was a director. That said, it is hard to dissent from the verdict of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography that Alington’s fiction was ‘clever, witty, but quickly perishable’. William Temple, writing to Dorothy L. Sayers in 1943, noted that Alington ‘has several such [detective] stories to his credit – or discredit; frankly, I am not quite sure which because though they amused me, knowing him as I do, I don’t think they are very good!’

Simon McBurney as the fearsome archdeacon in the BBC’s series Rev. (Image from @ArchdeaconRob)

As literature, Alington’s fiction may well deserve the obscurity in which it now languishes: merely a part of the necessary but anonymous mulch of nondescript writing out of which better work grows. But the archdeacons are interesting for the light they shed on the ways in which the clergy feature as fictional characters. Archdeacons Afloat is particularly interesting in that it is set not in Blankshire, the English county in which three later novels involving the pair are set, but on a cruise ship in the Mediterranean. As such, we see the archdeacons transferred out of the social setting that gives clerical characters their significance in other works in this series (see for instance John Wyndham or John Fowles), and focusses our attention on their personal qualities as the mystery unfolds.

Though we are told that Craggs, archdeacon of Thorp, was ‘a name of terror to negligent clergy’, these men are not like the cantankerous Archdeacon Hoccleve (Barbara Pym), or Trollope’s worldly Archdeacon Grantly. Certainly, there is no sense here of the social tension of post-war England, under a Labour government and undergoing sweeping social reform. Our heroes are quite at ease with faded aristocrats, the wealthy wives of northern industrialists, and eminent lecturers. The only threats to this floating microcosm of stable and respectable English life are Greek brigands and the ruffian Blades, who ‘doesn’t look as if lectures were much in his line.’ (chapter 1) Alington is by this time an old man, and the novel is deeply nostalgic for a former time.

There are of course nods here to the ecclesiastical: in-jokes that must have been recondite even at a time when general knowledge about the Church of England and its doings was deeper and more widespread. The archdeacons relish their temporary escape from the dilapidations of parsonage houses or the recalcitrance of the Ecclesiastical Commissioners – the day-to-day lot of the archdeacon, along with vicars at war with their churchwardens, choirs that could not sing, and armies of plumbers, registrars and indeed bishops. Indeed, the whole plot turns on the old joke of John of Salisbury, ‘Num archidiaconus salvari possit’ (can an archdeacon be saved?), a neat trick that must have had Alington’s clerical readers chortling. However, the role the two play is more commonplace: the priest as confidant and go-between, and ultimately as a restorer of order. ‘Gentlemen’, remarks one character in the ship’s smoking room, ‘I give you the toast of the Archidiaconate of the Church of England’.

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.)