WHILE nowadays the idea of a cleric with an independent literary life sends shivers down the spines of archdeacons and area bishops, it wasn’t always thus. At one point, it was no overstatement to say that English literature’s brightest lights burned in deaneries, rectories and vicarages. Rarely, though, in bishops’ palaces. That, at least, remains true today.
Yet, for every Swift or Sterne, there was a Jermyn Pratt. Indeed, Pratt himself compares his comic essay The Zgubbs to both Tristram Shandy and Gulliver. This amusing mockery of philosophy, which shackles concepts of the Platonic forms to a Norfolk mispronunciation of “grub”, is part of his collected Literary Papers. Until now, his literary contribution was largely a forgotten one. The excellent and scholarly introduction to the piece by Ema Vyroubalová and James Robert Wood reveals that we know the dating of the essay only through its reference to the work of another member of the forgotten clerical literati, Vicesimus Knox.
The introduction to the whole collection constitutes a beautifully crafted account of a life and a world. Pratt was pluralist rector of a handful of Norfolk fen villages — poor, isolated, and beautiful in their plain sort of way. The images drawn from nature are sublime: his play The Grange has a character exclaim “There is no more life in him than there is in a dried weasel!” Perhaps more guttural, but just as amusing, is Grunnelia or The Sow in the Dumps: one can picture the cleric barely able to suppress his chuckles as he wrote “turds”.
Nature served as an analogy for Pratt as well as an inspiration. The poem “Political Duck Hunting” uses the device of a shoot gone awry to pick apart British foreign policy in the 1770s, and Pratt’s skill as a satirist shines through the centuries. The Coal-Heavers, his mock-heroic dedicated to the citizens of King’s Lynn after a civil disturbance, is headed with a line from the French poet de Santeul — “castigat ridendo mores” — “one corrects customs by laughing at them”. That is true, and to try and do so is as noble a vocation as any.
The rectory may no longer be the engine room of English literary life, but some things don’t change: bitchy literary sparring in various publications between Pratt and the Revd Robert Potter reads all too familiarly to students of intra-clerical bickering. Lord have mercy on whichever academic of the future has to pore over Twitter.
The Revd Fergus Butler-Gallie is a priest and a writer.
The Literary Papers of the Reverend Jermyn Pratt (1723-1791)
Ema Vyroubalová and James Robert Wood, editors
Norfolk Record Society £25*