ON 20 February, four prominent women theologians and thinkers will be discussing women Anglican novelists through the ages, in the event “By Her Own Words, Which Makes Her Story True”, at the Bloxham Festival of Faith and Literature. As a woman writer and Anglican myself, I am intrigued by the subject of this discussion. It made me consider the many illustrious names that are part of this lineage of women novelists, and how their faith may have informed their writing in an ever-changing culture.
Jane Austen was the daughter and sister of Anglican clergymen, and was known to have ministered to the people of her father’s parish. At least one prayer she wrote survives: “Thou art everywhere present, from thee no secret can be hid. May the knowledge of this teach us to fix our thoughts on thee, with reverence and devotion that we pray not in vain.”
Austen’s characterisation also seems imbued with her belief in the moral and spiritual growth that faith encourages. As the writer Beth Pattillo says, her characters “are good people who become better ones”: from Elizabeth Bennett’s conquering of prejudice, and Emma Woodhouse’s overcoming her own sense of grandeur, to Marianne Dashwood’s realisation of what makes a man great.
THEN there are the Brontë sisters — their lives dogged by tragedy, their novels dark and dramatic. Charlotte Brontë, the eldest to survive into adulthood, was the daughter of a vicar and the wife of a curate. She was also, briefly, a pupil at the unhappy Clergy Daughters’ School, in Cowan Bridge, which is thought to have inspired Lowood School in Jane Eyre. Two of the Brontë sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, died of tuberculosis at the school, thought to be caused by the dampness and the poor living conditions.
In Jane Eyre, Jane has a discussion of faith with her saintly friend Helen Burns: “But where are you going to, Helen? Can you see? Do you know?”
“I believe; I have faith: I am going to God.”
“Where is God? What is God?”
“My Maker and yours, who will never destroy what he created. I rely implicitly on his power, and confide wholly in his goodness: I count the hours till that eventful one arrives which shall restore me to him, reveal him to me.”
As Jane Eyre is considered to be semi-autobiographical, perhaps this earnest spiritual questioning was Brontë’s own. One might wonder how Brontë’s faith helped her to weather the many tragedies and disappointments in her life, from the death of her mother and siblings to the failed school and volumes of poetry she and her sisters worked on, and her illness during pregnancy, which led to her death at 38 years old.
DOROTHY SAYERS is another daughter of a clergyman whose faith informed her work. Writing in the 1920s, Sayers had to contend with the dwindling reach and influence of the Church, as well as the scepticism of many of her academic peers.
Sayers was a renowned novelist and essayist: she wrote about theology, education, and the integration of Christian doctrine with human creation. In her book The Mind of The Maker, she presents the idea that any human creation of significance must include the Idea, the Energy, and the Power, and related these concepts to the Trinity. Her essay The Lost Tools of Learning is a fundamental text for the revival of the Classical-education movement.
Sayers’s personal life had its own sorrows: a doomed love affair with the Russian émigré and poet John Cournos, and an illegitimate child who was cared for by her aunt and cousin. And yet, amid personal difficulties, she emerged as an eminent lay theologian alongside contemporaries and friends such as C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. She famously wrote that God was “a fact, a thing like a tiger, a reason for changing one’s conduct”.
Some might see her most celebrated work, the Lord Peter Wimsey detective novels, as incongruous with her Christian faith, and yet Sayers argued that the detective mystery — a quest for truth — aligned quite closely with the great Christian mystery.
ELIZABETH GOUDGE is yet another daughter of a clergyman: her father, Henry Leighton Goudge, was a professor of divinity at Oxford University. Goudge’s writing for adults and children has, perhaps of all these women, the most obvious and explicit Christian themes of sacrifice, healing, and endurance.
Her novel The Rosemary Tree is, arguably, about the transforming power of the Holy Spirit: “Beauty awakened such intolerable longing that people often shut their eyes to it,” she wrote, “unaware that the longing was the greatest treasure that they had, their very lifeline, uniting the country of their lost innocence with the heavenly country for which their sails were set.”
Goudge’s most famous novel for children, The Little White Horse, won the Carnegie Medal, and was cited by J. K. Rowling as one of her greatest sources of inspiration. It is a fantasy quest story, set in Victorian England; the protagonist, Maria, is an orphan who goes to live with her cousin, and must right the wrongs of the past. Christian imagery and symbolism abound, as in this passage: “Nothing is ever finished and done with in this world. You may think a seed was finished and done with when it falls like a dead thing into the earth; but when it puts forth leaves and flowers next spring, you see your mistake.”
ANOTHER Anglican woman novelist is the creator of Inspector Adam Dalgliesh, the crime novelist P. D. James. James’s father was a tax inspector, and her mother suffered from mental illness, causing her to be institutionalised later in life. Because of this, James started work at 16, and, even once married, she continued to work in hospital administration for the NHS. Her husband, Ernest White, suffered from schizophrenia. After the Second World War, he was unable to work, and had to be frequently hospitalised until his death in 1964.
James was a devout Anglican, and a patron of the Prayer Book Society. She has been compared to Sayers, as they were both Christians who wrote detective mysteries, and lived in a world where the part played by the Church, and its influence, was changing. In an interview in 1997, she said of her mystery writing: “The greatest mystery of all is the human heart; and that is the mystery with which all good novelists, I think, are concerned. I’m always interested in what makes people the sort of people they are.”
Her novel Children of Men, set in a dystopian future in which women have become infertile, is perhaps the most overtly Christian of her works. In its haunting world, the Church is struggling to remain relevant to a dying culture, baptising dolls and pets in the absence of any real children. The last lines of the book convey the hope of the Christian message in a struggling world: “It was with a thumb wet with his own tears and stained with her blood that he made on the child’s forehead the sign of the cross.”
THE contemporary novelist Susan Howatch is well-known for her Starbridge series of novels, set in the Church of England. Howatch came to faith later in life, after she had established her career as a writer and had separated from her husband. Feeling a spiritual emptiness, she began to investigate Anglicanism, and became determined to write novels that “set forth my discoveries in the light of faith, no matter how feeble and inadequate my beginner’s faith was”.
Howatch’s novels depict people, including clergy, in all their human weakness and moral frailty. Her novels have been praised for addressing issues of faith with both seriousness and compassion. Howatch has funded a position at Cambridge, the Starbridge Lecturer in Theology and Natural Science, which is devoted to exploring issues of faith and science. As she wrote in Mystical Paths, “Science destroys only the false ideas about religion; the true ideas it complements and explores.”
There are, of course, many other women Anglican novelists: Charlotte Yonge, Barbara Pym, Michele Guinness, and, of course, Catherine Fox, who is chairing the discussion at Bloxham. Fox writes about the Church of England today with poignant and hard-hitting accuracy. What she has said in an interview about being an Anglican writer could apply to all of the women mentioned here: “The novel can be a very hospitable space. It says ‘Welcome to my world.’ Fiction is low-budget virtual reality: here’s what it feels like to be an Anglican.”
Katharine Swartz is an American expatriate and novelist.
”By Her Own Words, Which Makes Her Story True” will take place at 2.30 p.m. on 20 February, as part of the Bloxham Festival of Faith and Literature. For tickets, visit https://bloxhamfaithandliterature.hymnsam.co.uk/tickets.aspx