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Intimate outsiders: Anglican women novelists

05 July 2019

Judith Maltby and Francis Spufford introduce a new series on Anglican women novelists


“A darkened credal seriousness”: P. D. James

“A darkened credal seriousness”: P. D. James

AFTER the popular and critical success of her last novel, The Towers of Trebizond (1956), Rose Macaulay reflected on the problematic place occupied by Anglican writers and intellectuals in post-war Britain, particularly in comparison with their Roman Catholic counterparts.

She wrote to her close friend, the novelist and librettist William Plomer, of the hostile correspondence and reviews that she had received from some Roman Catholics in response to her most Anglican of novels. “I think they feel it arrogant to exalt the despised . . . severed branch of the tree into a real Church, with sacraments and grace,” she wrote. “It seems to vex them.”

In the world of the 20th-century British intelligentsia, Macaulay had come to believe that, in the minds of many, the only plausible form of Christianity for an intellectual, writer, or artist was Roman Catholicism. She told Plomer that some mutual friends accepted it as a “kind of mania that they know and allow for in their friends, but Anglicanism, in this apparently sane and civilized friend, is more difficult to swallow.”

Macaulay’s observations are striking, given that Anglican Christianity has long enjoyed a privileged position among Britain’s Churches. In the process of drawing together a volume of essays on Anglican women novelists, however, my co-editor, Alison Shell, and I began to realise that we were challenging some contemporary assumptions not far removed from those observed by Macaulay in the 1950s.

The scholarly field is rich in studies of “the Catholic novel” and “the Nonconformist novel”: categories familiar as well to avid readers of fiction outside the academy.

None the less, in the early stages of this project, we experienced surprise — sometimes bafflement, or even hostility — from a few interlocutors that there was such a thing as an “Anglican woman novelist”. Like Macaulay, we found that “it seem[ed] to vex them”.

It is hard to see why this should be so. The 13 authors explored were well-known in their time: most for their fiction, a few as commentators on theological, cultural, and ethical issues. Anglicans are much given to writing about themselves, but this has seldom been undertaken so entertainingly as in the fiction covered in this book.

Francis Spufford speaks of the way in which the novelist can tap into the “muddled and complicated soul of a nation”. Perhaps, then, it is appropriate that the Church of England, begotten in scandal, should have been so good at producing writers who can give us insight into human flaws and limitations; perhaps it is understandable that this has not been more widely celebrated as a strength.

In their lives and works, one can often see the novelists in this volume as presenting muddled and complicated souls for our inspection. But this is why they give us so many ways of explaining what Anglicanism and Christianity have to offer — to the bemused and dismissive, and also to the sympathetic.

As academics, we have found this project even more intellectually rewarding than we had imagined at the outset. As Anglicans, we have come to appreciate what a rich resource these writers are for understanding, developing, and deepening our religious tradition.

Francis Spufford writes:

THE Church of England — at least until its loss of cultural legitimacy over the past 40 years — has always been hopelessly respectable. It was part of the definition of what respectable England was. It couldn’t offer writers the counter-cultural take on English society and institutions which was available to, for example, Roman Catholics, mostly conservative, sometimes radical, but always at an oblique angle to the settled grain of things.

For most of the three centuries since the novel in its modern form was invented, the Church of England has been a social Church, a societal Church, embedded in English power structures and social relationships, and tending to reproduce them at prayer, unrolling a vision of the city of God which closely mapped the city of humanity, down to the questions who sat where, and who got to talk, and who got to listen.

camera pressElizabeth Goudge

Ideally, and sometimes even actually, Anglicanism aimed to sanctify its England, to tilt all those familiar relationships that made it up away from their this-worldly ends, and towards redemption and resurrection. In practice, though, it was hard for novelists who consciously wrote as Anglicans during the years of the Church’s prestige to have access to completely visionary rhetoric, any more than they could reach easily for wholly corrosive satire, or entirely bitter humour.

These Anglicans were exploring a fabric of which they were part, testing it for its ironies and its hypocrisies, for the always nuanced, never quite total wandering of practice away from theory. They were writing the almost constant failure of Barking to behave like Jerusalem the golden, and the occasional instants when it did. They had the great advantage of reach, but they had the corresponding disadvantage, too, of complicity.

Yet a critical gap was reopened when it was a woman writing the Anglican novel. The Church of England has been dependent on lay female piety and lay female labour ever since the Reformation, and, in that sense, it has always had women’s experience at its centre. But, until 1994, Anglican women in England could not be priests, and therefore could not participate in the visible, official, explicit processes by which the Church taught, worked, celebrated the sacraments, and defined its public being.

They could be priests’ daughters, sisters, wives, mothers, and deacons. In tension with the undoubted class and cultural privilege of many of them, there was always the intersectional complication of their gender, limiting the perspectives from which in life, as opposed to fiction, they were ever able to witness the life of their Church.

church timesDorothy L. Sayers

There was always the complicating truth that their loyalty to the institution was, in this respect, one-way. They maintained the Church, they nourished it, they supported it, but they did not decide for it. They interpreted it from the position of the acted-for and the acted-upon, not of the actors. They viewed it, if not from below, then at least sidelong: at an angle to the grain of power in the Church, even if the Church was not, like Roman Catholicism, angled obliquely in relation to the surrounding society. Novel-writing Anglican women were their Church’s intimate outsiders, its observant and vitally necessary second-class citizens.

At the beginning of the period covered by Anglican Women Novelists, even a writer as determinedly propagandistic as Charlotte Tucker was doing something a little radical in claiming to speak for the nationalistic Tractarianism that her books advocated. And a much larger space for female subjectivity was claimed in Charlotte Brontë’s portrait of Evangelical men as reefs on which a voyaging young woman might wreck herself if she were unwary.

charlotte mitchellCharlotte M. Yonge

Turning from survival to vocation, Charlotte M. Yonge found a case for the dignity and moral significance of women’s idealism which was so persuasive that idealistic young men read The Daisy Chain and The Heir of Redclyffe in search of lessons for themselves: the reverse of the usual Victorian pattern.

Margaret Oliphant, freed by her Presbyterianism to find Anglicanism a trifle exotic, an object of curiosity rather than an automatic affiliation, saw in its cultural breadth a doorway through which a non-sectarian grace might flow.

Daughters of the vicarage in the early 20th century, Noel Streatfeild, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Elizabeth Goudge (Features, 18 March 2016), testified in very different ways in popular fiction to its potent peculiarity as a human environment. Streatfeild drew out the emotional costs, and threadbare flipside, of its compulsory high-mindedness.

Goudge, reimagining male spiritual-authority figures on her own terms, made them sacrificial heroes able to recognise the spiritual stature of women. Sayers used the micro-worlds of church and congregation as domains for the insatiable human curiosity of the detective story, and looked beyond them, and beyond the play of roles, to the ineffable.

In a later generation, P. D. James took onward the use of the Church as criminal setting, adding a darkened credal seriousness about what crime was and meant. Meanwhile, Macaulay’s fiction danced around the ironies of Anglican history and Anglican subcultures, denying itself a secure arrival in the metropolis of faith yet unwilling to be without “the City of God you can enter every day” in the eucharist.

Mayotte Magnus © Barbara Pym SocietyBarbara Pym

Barbara Pym’s career spanned the sudden death of Anglican churches as “the natural conduit for all social relations”, meaning that she preserved as observational comedy what turned out to be the last era in which a male clergy served as unwitting objects of female entertainment, observation, and fantasy (Features, 24 May 2013). But even for those who intended to replace Anglicanism with a post-religious philosophy could find, like Iris Murdoch, that the Good did not quite banish the affective pull of remembered liturgy, remembered church, remembered God.

From now on — we hope — women need no longer write the Church of England from the angle of disadvantage. But the result, for the Anglican women novelists of the present and the future, cannot be a comfortable fiction of Establishment, because the drastic dwindling of the Church’s share in English attention and cultural assent means that Christianity as such, in its Anglican and all its other forms, has now receded into strangeness for most readers.

One angle of estrangement closes; another yawns open. All Christian Churches are counter-cultural now. All are unrespectable.

Time will tell whether this creates an Anglican fiction with a Roman Catholic adversarial bite to it; or whether it will require writers who want the social reach of the old C of E, the access to the muddled and complicated soul of the nation, to do quiet and implicit apologetics in their work, educating the reader again to see what Christians see.

Canon Judith Maltby is Reader in Church History in the University of Oxford, and Chaplain, Fellow, and Dean of Welfare of Corpus Christi College.

Francis Spufford is Professor of Creative Writing at Goldsmiths University, and the author of Golden Hill (Faber & Faber, 2016), winner of the Costa first novel award.

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