Sabine Baring-Gould: The life and work of a complete Victorian
J. E. Thomas
Fonthill Media £30
Church Times Bookshop £27
SABINE BARING-GOULD’s general view was that the bishops of his day were less impressive than their predecessors, and that consequently the Church of England was going to the dogs. As the author of “Onward, Christian soldiers”, he retains the singular distinction, nearly a century after his death, of being able to annoy all the right people from well beyond the grave; and during his long life — he was born in the reign of William IV and died in that of George V — he achieved national prominence in a number of fields, despite his notorious forgetfulness.
Nourished by the spiritual and liturgical fruits of the Oxford Movement, Baring-Gould wrote dozens of books — including 35 popular novels — and was an accomplished archaeologist. His painstaking collection of English folksongs laid the foundations for serious musicological and anthropological scholarship, and he scandalised society by marrying a mill worker, Grace, 16 years his junior; but their marriage was happy, and she bore him 15 children.
After inheriting his ancestral estate at Lew Trenchard in Devon, Baring-Gould presented himself to the family living. There he worked to improve the spiritual lives of his parishioners, to restore the fabric of his church, and to prevent his own house from tumbling down. He also built model houses for his tenants, gave over a portion of each day to writing, and served as a magistrate. In short, he was the lynchpin of the parish: the epitome — apart from his “marrying down”, and not to riding to hounds — of the cultivated, lettered, and fertile Victorian country squarson.
Although Baring-Gould may well have been one of the most famous clergymen of his generation, there was much more to this colossus than his prodigious output. Out of an impressive array of sources — not least Baring-Gould’s own notebooks, and the reminiscences of some of his children and grandchildren — J. E. Thomas presents a very human story as his book progresses, with all the ups and downs that might reasonably be expected of such an intriguing personality.
Thomas also punctures a few myths. This, depending on one’s viewpoint, may be either satisfying or disappointing. Chief among these is the scotching, once and for all, of the rumour that Baring-Gould’s courting of Grace was the inspiration for George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, and by extension Alan Jay Lerner’s My Fair Lady.
Thomas’s occasional introduction of certain clergymen as “Reverend X” will grate with some of the readers of these pages, and the index is regrettably inexhaustive. Neither of these points, however, should detract too much from an otherwise thoroughly enjoyable and informative study of one of the Victorian Church’s most engaging characters.
Dr Serenhedd James is Director of the Cowley Project, and Hon. Research Fellow of St Stephen’s House, Oxford.