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]

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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.