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Anglican Women Novelists, edited by Judith Maltby and Alison Shell

23 August 2019

Richard Harries on 13 novelists who varied in their Anglicanism

THE editors of this book (Features, 5, 12, and 19 July) are to be congratulated on assembling an able team of scholars to focus on 13 Anglican women novelists, each of whom has a chapter to themselves.

Some of the novelists considered are well known, such as Charlotte Brontë, Dorothy L. Sayers, Rose Macaulay, Barbara Pym, Iris Murdoch, and P. D. James. Others were once well known, but are now largely forgotten, such as Charlotte Maria Tucker, Margaret Oliphant, Charlotte M. Yonge, Elizabeth Goudge, and Noel Streatfeild. Some are primarily known for other Christian writing, such as Evelyn Underhill and Monica Furlong. Only those no longer alive were considered.

The plots of the major novels are discussed together with something of the views of the novelists themselves. These novelists are considered not just because of their Anglican allegiance, but because in their books they depict something of the work of the Anglican Churches, in particular the Church of England. This is, in the first place, because for most of our history it has been part of the fabric of English life. (In this respect I think it is a pity that the editors chose to begin with Charlotte Brontë and leave out Jane Austen.)

It is not, however, just the presence of the Church of England in our national life which warrants this study, but what in the novels is understood as its raison d’être. For someone like Charlotte Maria Tucker, it was to promote a Protestant understanding of the faith. For Charlotte Yonge, inspired by John Keble, and in a less didactic manner, it was to serve an Anglo-Catholic vision. A sub-theme in the discussion of the novels is the role of woman at the time and, in particular, a rebuttal of the view that they were anti-feminist. One reflection of this is the independence of thought of the novelists. Both Charlotte Brontë and Margaret Oliphant, for example, expressed universalist opinions.

CHURCH TIMESCharlotte Yonge, aged 75 (photogravure by Walker & Cockerell, after Miss Anna Bramston)

The earlier novels considered are preoccupied with the form of Christian faith which should be followed. With the exception of Margaret Oliphant, they do not reflect what was, in fact, the crucial issue of the time, the rejection of the faith by so many on both intellectual and moral grounds. Later novels reflect both the decline in the standing of the Church of England in society and the move away from faith. So, although Iris Murdoch was a cultural Anglican and appeared in church occasionally, her personal position was a love of the good for its own sake, with a penumbra of Buddhism.

A key issue for this kind of writing emerges sharply in Judith Maltby’s chapter on Rose Macaulay, who was highly critical of Evelyn Waugh for Brideshead Revisited. She argued not only that it revealed a dogmatic and unattractive form of the faith, but that the plot and characters were too driven by the need to propagate his understanding of Catholicism, when an author should be more neutral.

In fact, there is no such thing as a neutral stance; or, rather, a pose of neutrality is just as much a stance as an atheist or Christian one. And, as Rose Macaulay later wrote about The Towers of Trebizond: “I was trying to put something across and many people received it.” The difference between this and didacticism or propaganda is that in a good novel the characters have a genuine life of their own, and can develop in unpredictable ways.

At a time when the Christian faith has become a foreign language and what goes on in church is strange, if not alien, novels from a Christian perspective, showing what the faith means in real life, with all its disappointments and ambiguities, is vital. This collection of essays will not only be enjoyed by many, but will, I hope, also encourage those now writing and those who might one day seek to do so.

The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford. He is the author of The Beauty and the Horror: Searching for God in a suffering world (SPCK, 2016).

Anglican Women Novelists: From Charlotte Brontë to P. D. James
Judith Maltby and Alison Shell, editors
T & T Clark £27.99
Church Times Bookshop special price £22.99

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