The Rector, the Village and the Aerodrome

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

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

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

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

The vicar and the ragged trousered philanthropists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iris Murdoch and the death of God

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

The blitzed church of St Dunstan in the East, now a public garden. Image: Peter Webster

The blitzed church of St Dunstan in the East, now a public garden.
Image: Peter Webster

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

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

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

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

John Fowles’ country parson

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

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

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

Punch (1841) (14780579884)

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

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

But I see it now as no more than an extreme example of the general case. My contemporaries were all brought up in some degree of the nineteenth century, since the twentieth did not begin until 1945. That is why we are on the rack, forced into one of the longest and most abrupt cultural stretches in the history of mankind.  Already what I was before the Second World War seems far more than four decades away; much more like the same number of centuries.

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

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

Three score years and ten

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.