Temples of the mind: churches in 20th-century fiction

by
27 July 2018

Peter Webster traces the shifting place of churches in a secularising age

ALAMY  

St Mary-le-Bow, in 1941

St Mary-le-Bow, in 1941

BY DEFINITION, writers of fiction must take the raw materials of life as they observe it, and modify, disguise, distort, invert, and amplify those materials as they create new stories. But, when interviewed, most authors try to resist any simple reading of this or that character as based on a real person.

Buildings, too, take on new lives in the stories that we read. Outside the particular genre of science fiction, the buildings we are invited to see, and into which we can step, must necessarily be a fusion of aspects of real buildings in particular places. They would be unintelligible if not.

Sometimes, the author sets his or her story in a real building, such as the ruins of St Giles-without-Cripplegate in The World My Wilderness, by Rose Macaulay (1950). The author Penelope Fitzgerald has recalled being with Macaulay as she clambered over the rubble of the City of London in the years after the war; St Giles was not rebuilt until a few years later.

More often, however, the fictional church is more carefully disguised; so there is another game that readers can play: the hunt for the models for places and buildings, as well as characters. The church of Fenchurch St Paul, the centre of the village community in The Nine Tailors, by Dorothy L. Sayers (1934), incorporates particular features from more than one church from her Fenland childhood. Sayers credited the architect W. J. Redhead with having “designed” it for her, and with providing a line drawing of the imagined exterior.

George Orwell alarmed his publisher with his habit of disguising living people in his fiction only very thinly. His biographer D. J. Taylor has identified the model for the decrepit Miss Mayfill in A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935), from Orwell’s time spent teaching in west London. St Athelstan’s, Knype Hill, in which the titular daughter Dorothy labours in unpaid and unrecognised service of her father, is not based on any one building, but is most likely a composite of the Suffolk churches that Orwell knew from time spent with his parents in Southwold.

Churches, real or otherwise, and Anglican churches in particular, play several different parts in English fiction. I explore here some of the novels from the 70 years or so from 1914.

 

CHRISTIANS have, for a very long time, produced edifying stories for their own pleasure and instruction. Valuable and entertaining though these often are, these novels tell us most about the ways in which Christians understand and address themselves and each other. As a historian, I want, instead, to explore those novels that made a claim for general attention among readers at large, whether Christian or not. What might they tell us about the changing position of the Church in the national imagination in a secularising age?

Some churches we enter but never see: the author asks the reader to supply whatever details they need to follow the action. The Aerodrome, Rex Warner’s much-neglected allegory of authoritarian government (1941), is set in the Village, a pure archetype of rural England, and this abstraction is vital as Warner works out his plot. Although the pivotal scene in which the Village is annexed by the Aerodrome is set in the parish church, we are told only that it contains pews, and choir stalls.

John Wyndham’s village of Midwich, afflicted by a strange and horrifying inversion of nature (The Midwich Cuckoos, 1957), is another archetype, and of its church we learn only that it is “mostly perp. and dec., but with a Norman west doorway and font”, in the manner of a Pevsner guide. Others we see from outside but never enter, as they form part of a landscape.

One of the parish churches in Winifred Holtby’s South Riding (1936) is “a legacy of twelfth-century devotion, its delicate grey stone melting into the pale quivering summer sky of nineteen thirty three”. Surrounded by fields of corn ripe for harvest and the buildings of the town, the tableau is complete: “corn, brick and stone, food, housing, worship composed themselves into a gentle landscape of English rural life.” Although the English countryside was hardly so unchanging as this suggests, the parish church often did duty as a symbol of stability and continuity.

One of the effects of the Second World War was to supply the English imagination with a new symbol — the ruin; not the picturesque ruin of Fountains Abbey, but homes and factories, churches blackened and strewn with the debris of their former lives. More than one novelist made symbolic play with ruined churches, as the Church first struggled to secure the sites and make them safe, and then to decide whether to rebuild them, demolish those that were redundant, or leave some as memorials of the war and as spaces for the public.

One of Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women (1952) attends a lunchtime eucharist in a bombed Belgravia church, of which only one aisle can still be used. In austerity London, the congregation carries on none the less, singing to a harmonium while surrounded by small neat heaps of wall tablets and cherub heads. A lady serves coffee from a Primus stove.

Some ruins are made to carry much greater symbolic weight. Iris Murdoch’s 1966 novel The Time of the Angels features the fictional Wren church of St Eustace Watergate, in the London Docklands. With only its tower left standing after the war, St Eustace and its rectory are the only surviving buildings in the midst of a vast building site. But there is no building on this building site: it has been stymied by the withdrawal of planning permission.

St Eustace is both symbol and backdrop against which Murdoch develops her theme of the loss of faith and the directionless search for something with which to replace it. Isolated on the peninsula of the Isle of Dogs, St Eustace is shrouded by the London fog that makes day night; all is becalmed, frozen in the half-light of the fog, and carpeted in snow. Stranded amid the debris of an old order, it is an empty shell that looms in the gloom, the only thing yet to be cleared before rebuilding may begin.

ALAMY Christchurch parish church, Cambridgeshire, where the father of Dorothy L. Sayers was the Rector from 1917 to 1928

EVEN when a church is still intact, there is, in the fiction of the mid-century, a persistent whiff of decay and decline. Few indeed are the novels set in the new churches in the new housing areas built after 1945, or in warm and well-lit buildings with every chair full. Through the mist on Knype Hill, the spire of Orwell’s St Athelstan’s “loomed dimly, like a leaden sphinx, its single bell tolling funereally boom! boom! boom!”.

Inside, the church is “very cold, with a scent of candle-wax and ancient dust”; the pews stretch barely halfway down the nave, leaving “great wastes of bare stone floor”. The money that should have been spent on repairing the belfry floor has been squandered on a new organ, and now the bells, which there is no money to rehang, threaten to crash down through the splintering floor on to the handful of worshippers below.

Even so, both Orwell’s and Pym’s churches are inhabited by real people, to whom the buildings are places in which significant things still happen. Amid the dust and cold, Orwell’s Dorothy catches a glimpse through the open door of the sunlight and trees outside, illuminated by the sun, as if by a flash of a “jewel of unimaginable splendour” — a moment that restores to her the power to pray.

Miss Mildred Lathbury attends the church of St Mary in an area of London which Pym very precisely identifies as a “shabby part of London, so very much the ‘wrong’ side of Victoria station, so definitely not Belgravia”. Mildred thinks the church “prickly, Victorian-gothic, hideous inside, I suppose, but very dear to me”.

Topical PressSt Giles’s, Cripplegate, during its restoration in the early 1950s

St Mary’s has none of the marks left by centuries of devotion: “It seemed so bright and new and there were no canopied tombs of great families, no weeping cherubs, no urns, no worn inscriptions on the floor,” only brass tablets to past vicars and ugly glass in the east window. But it is to St Mary’s that she comes in search of consolation; it is this building that she helps to dress for Whitsun, finding peace amid the incense and flowers. Whatever doubts these characters may harbour, however insistent their creeping sense of irrelevance to the society around them, their faith remains.

The presence of people was the last thing lost from the churches of 20th-century English fiction, as the crisis of the 1960s settled into a new pattern of decline and marginalisation. This retreat was by no means complete, as readers of Susan Howatch or James Runcie will know. And the popularity of Father Brown continues. As the century wore on, however, there was a gradual withdrawal of both character and narrator from the active life of these buildings, and, eventually, a retreat from their doors to view them only from the outside.

The narrator of Daniel Martin, by John Fowles (1977), recalls his childhood before the war, but as if from behind the veil of his own loss of faith: “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.”

The two churches in which his father ministered are now aesthetic objects, which he views with the eyes of the connoisseur: “One church was magnificent stone prose, but the other a folk poem”; neither of them remained a place of worship.

CREATIVE COMMONSSt Mary’s, Radnage, where much of the film A Month in the Country, starring Colin Firth and Kenneth Branagh, was filmed

PERHAPS the novel in which a church plays the greatest part is A Month in the Country, by J. L. Carr, first published in 1980. Although the novel is set in Yorkshire, the church is unidentified (and indeed unnamed), and, in a foreword, Carr revealed that its model was in fact in Northamptonshire, with “its churchyard in Norfolk, its vicarage London”. The narrator, Birkin, is hired to spend a month uncovering a medieval mural painting, and camps out in the belfry. By the novel’s conclusion he has, through a sustained act of patience — indeed, of devotion, of a sort — uncovered and restored the painting.

In the process, he achieves a kind of imaginative communion with the original artist across the distance of centuries, and confronts his own loss of faith in comparison with that of the community for which the mural was made. (This kind of retrospective imagining of the mind of the church-builders of an earlier age was not unique to Carr: two contrasting examples are William Golding’s The Spire, and (on the stage) Dorothy L. Sayers’s The Zeal of Thy House.)

And yet, for Carr, the parishioners of Oxgodby are largely invisible as a worshipping community. Birkin is woken by the tolling of the bell that calls them to church, and he catches a glimpse of them as he peers down from the belfry. But Carr’s church is barely a place of present worship; as for Fowles, it is solely a repository of meaning and the memory of those long dead.

The last and latest of my subjects is City of the Mind, by Penelope Lively (1991), in which the gradual withdrawal of the novelist from the church building is complete. The novel is a meditation on the buildings of London, invested and reinvested with meaning by the successive generations of people who encounter them. It features several churches, all of them real buildings and named as such.

One character sees Wren’s St Bride’s, Fleet Street, on fire in December 1940, its spire “lit from within like a lantern”. In the Spitalfields of the late 1980s, all demolition and redevelopment, the spire of Hawksmoor’s Christ Church fights for the skyline with cranes and new office blocks. Round the corner is the former Huguenot church on Fournier Street, an immigrant church itself already overwhelmed by waves of later immigration: subsequently a Methodist church, next a synagogue, now a mosque. The churchyard of St Anne’s, Soho, is being redeveloped as a paved shopping precinct.

There is particular play with St Paul’s Cathedral, a church of the mind in a city of the mind; when Lively’s Elizabethan explorer encounters the massive ice floes of the North-West Passage, it is in the shape of St Paul’s that he sees them, a “cathedral in the ice” as “time and space collide” in the imagination. The novel’s main protagonist, Matthew Halland, stands mesmerised, in a bookshop in Charing Cross Road, by the famous photograph, taken by Herbert Mason on the same night that St Bride’s was gutted by fire, of the dome of St Paul’s framed by black smoke but intact.

Lively’s characters encounter these and other London buildings, and project on to them whatever significance they will. What these churches never are, however, is alive: places in which real breathing Londoners meet and worship. In Lively’s London, the churches are bearers of meanings, objects for the imagination, but without present or future. This is a thoroughly secular city of the mind.

Dr Peter Webster is a historian of contemporary British Christianity, with a particular interest in the religious arts. His study of Walter Hussey, Anglican patron of the arts, was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2017.

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