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.