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Interview with author Michael Arditti

by
02 June 2023

His new novel compares church life in 1987 and now. Interview by Susan Gray

Michael Arditti

Michael Arditti

MICHAEL ARDITTI points to the swaying tree branches outside his living-room window, saying that they were one of the chief attractions when he bought the flat, near Regent’s Park, a few years ago.

We are meeting to speak about The Choice, Arditti’s 13th novel, which has a female priest, Clarissa Phipps, as a leading character. Its setting, the fictitious Cheshire village of Tapley, teems with life. “Since publishing Easter, in 2000, I want to show the significance of parish life, and for that you have to have a cross-section of characters. In The Choice, there are ten named members of the church, and additional odd people.”

Although Cheshire was his childhood family home, he says that Tapley was most influenced by the Hertfordshire village where his late mother lived.

Coming from a blended family, Arditti is guarded about personal details, “because there are still people alive who could be hurt”. He has a sister and a half-sister from his French father’s two marriages. During the war, Arditti’s father attended Rydal School, a Methodist boarding school, reasoning that north Wales was unlikely to be bombed, and had such a good time that he wanted his son to follow in his footsteps. Arditti says that he enjoyed the singing at Methodist services. “Most public school in the 1960s had chapels.”

After graduating from Jesus College, Cambridge, where he was a contemporary of the theatre director Nicholas Hytner, he wrote plays for the stage and Radio 4, and also reviewed drama. The Celibate, his first novel, was published in 1993, and Easter, his breakthrough fiction, which won a Waterstones award, followed seven years later.

 

ARDITTI worshipped at St Mark’s, Regent’s Park, for decades, and, in the 1990s, was a member of the PCC. Anybody who has served on a PCC will recognise the meeting scenes in The Choice, positions hardening as the clock ticks on, over matters that only an hour earlier appeared unassuming.

“There were definitely people like Daisy, Clarissa’s antagonist, when I served on the PCC. The longer things go on, the more entrenched people become in their views, and the more determined to have their say, having invested so much time.” Describing his church as liberal High Anglican, he says: “The higher you go, the more dramatic it is. And it’s important not to confuse the trappings with the essence.”

Faith and doubt have been longstanding preoccupations. “I enjoy writing about people who live their faith and people who only profess their faith. Having clerical characters pushes things up a notch.” Previous novels featuring priests include The Celibate, Easter, Enemy of the Good, and The Breath of Life. “I enjoyed writing Clarissa, the way she combined family life and priestly life.”

Several priests of the author’s acquaintance and “acquaintances of acquaintances” talked about what life was like for the pioneer women clergy. “Clarissa lives all aspects of her life within her ministry,” he says. “Responsibility for children, and the generation before, still falls on women. Clarissa saves the title ‘Mother’ for her son Xan, as she does not want her vocation to compromise their unique bond.”

Expectations from self and others are recast over time: “When you are the first of anything, you have to prove yourself more. But now women’s ministry is accepted except in the most diehard parishes, there’s no longer the pressure to be all things to all people.”

Dr Robert Runcie, then Archbishop of Canterbury, with the first women deacons in 1987

The Choice alternates between 2019 and 1987, the year of women’s ordination as deacons. In the present, Clarissa is a time-served parish priest, caring for a semi-rural parish, while raising her teenage son, Xan, with Marcus, a part-time husband, and also placating her critical, widowed mother.

Back in the late 1980s, Clarissa is a newly engaged radio producer in London, campaigning for the ordination of women and locking horns with her father, a traditionalist bishop. “I enjoyed writing the bishop. He is intellectually impressive, but has many faults. Despite their disagreements, Clarissa emulated him. The bishop is not a monster: he has strong views, but was brought up in a different era. People continue to love difficult parents.”

 

NARRATED in the first person, the past section of the novel glows with energy and joie de vivre. “We’re all freer when we’re younger. Looking back, even to times when you were unhappy, there was a sense of excitement. As we get older, for many the question of parenthood means accepting some sort of authority and responsibility, and the limitations of choice this brings. With power comes responsibility.” Accepting that we cannot change the world is another sobering facet of mature adulthood, he believes.

The Choice’s two time windows are overarched by the life and legacy of the aristocratic church painter Seward Wemlock. Clarissa’s ministry takes place against a backdrop of intergenerational damage caused by Wemlock’s unchecked libido. The author made him “the epitome of class” to create a different persona from the model for abusive religious painters, Eric Gill.

Arditti says: “As Marcus says to his wife, few artists would get the Good Housekeeping Institute seal of approval for their personal lives. Does Seward’s unhappy childhood in his grand family, and talent, justify his behaviour? He has a patriarchal attitude to the women in his life. Before returning to Wemlock Hall, he was celebrated as a man about town with a harem of lovers. Those appetites don’t go away when he becomes part of a community.”

Time is charted through the changes to Tapley, from close-knit village to dormitory town, and the conversion of Wemlock Hall to an old people’s home. Clarissa has also changed St Peter’s, the village church where she is now the Rector, from her Anglo-Catholic predecessor Fr Vincent. She has repositioned the altar, and introduced Open Saturdays and a Doubters’ Group to appeal to Tapley’s new commuting professional incomers.

Central to the novel are changes in attitudes to safeguarding children. In 1987, Wemlock, the celebrated artist, is painting St Peter’s interior with scenes from the creation story. Villagers model the biblical figures, including a teenager, Andrew, as Adam, and Wemlock’s daughter Laurel as Eve.

While making a radio feature on Wemlock’s church paintings, Clarissa hears that the artist has a sexual relationship with Laurel. At the time, she accepts the view that the story is a fantasy. . .

 

ARDITTI says: “In the 1980s, we were much less inclined to think about issues of child abuse; it was not so current. Seward is a plausible person. His fiancée reveres him. He is in a position of power, and Clarissa is a young producer, who does not want to think about what she has heard.”

Arditti believes that the current response to consensual under-age sexual activity tends towards the monolithic: “With blanket rules, people get hurt.” He continues that child abuse is now treated as the unforgivable sin, and there is no space for a varied response depending on “the degree of things”.

“The question I want readers to ask is, how would I respond?” Seward’s panels in the church, and the behaviour of a character in the novel, “make everybody look to their conscience”.

Exemplifying the unresolved tensions between artists’ blemished biographies and their contribution to spiritual life, Arditti points to the (so far unsuccessful) petition for the Metropolitan Museum, New York, to remove Balthus’s Thérèse Dreaming (1938); and Eric Gill’s Stations of the Cross (1914-18) remain in Westminster Cathedral. “The book ends with a question. It’s the choices we face, big or small, when faith is felt more acutely. It’s too easy to make moralistic judgements. I like fiction to run the spectrum of moral behaviour, moralistic behaviour, and immoral behaviour.”

Loud chimes from the grandfather clock in the corner mark the switching of the conversation to personal faith. Saying that he “rarely” reads theology, Arditti recently finished Richard Harries’s Hearing God in Poetry: Fifty poems for Lent and Easter. And he says that St Mark’s was packed for Easter Day, which is not always the case. For Arditti, in a fractured society, churches are unique as places where all different strands meet together.

“I go to church fairly regularly, and it’s a communal act as well a personal act. It’s a way of saying I am part of this community, and it’s important to make that statement. I have a strong faith, and reading, art, meditation, and prayer are all part of it. My understanding of the three Persons of the Trinity mirrors Bishop Phipps’s in The Choice: seeing God the Father as creativity, God the Son as love, the Holy Spirit as moral responsibility.”

Not believing all the creed is a sticking point, however. “I don’t believe in the resurrection of the dead, and I don’t want to be saying things I don’t believe.” The prayer before the eucharist is also thorny: “We are worthy to come to the communion table. Christ’s sacrifice wasn’t to redeem us: it was to show solidarity. Christ’s sacrifice makes us worthy.”
 

The Choice by Michael Arditti is published by Arcadia Books at £18.99 (Church Times Bookshop £17.09). Read a review here

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