Angela Thirkell, and the Church of England 

Geoffrey Cox presented “Angela Thirkell, the Church of England and God?” as a paper to the Angela Thirkell Society North American Branch [NAB, now ATSNA] Conference in St Louis, Missouri. Geoffrey is a past editor of the Journal of the Angela Thirkell Society, and a prolific and very welcome contributor to both UK and US societies. The article is reproduced here with Geoffrey’s kind permission.

Page numbers, where shown, refer to the first Hamish Hamilton editions.

My aim is very simple, to increase your enjoyment of the writings of Angela Thirkell, a lady for whose works I have the highest regard, and which has increased the more I have read her, by trying to illumine one area of her writings: actually, not so much an area as an ambience, an atmosphere: Angela Thirkell’s Church of England.

I consider Angela a fine writer, and in answer to those who say that she did not so consider herself I should reply, first, do not believe everything a creative artist says about their work: “My apparent eccentricities are deliberate” she said, and she was notorious for having her tongue not merely in her cheek, but occasionally protruding right through it. Again, a creative artist may not be the best judge of their own work. “The people who like me [such as Elizabeth Bowen] attribute to me virtues of which I am unconscious. I hope they are right.” Again, values may change and new qualities be seen after the death of an artist. I want to say very firmly that Angela is a highly accomplished writer, with overall a surprisingly high standard for so many novels, and one we entirely justly enjoy as we do. I want to increase your enjoyment by appreciating both her accuracy and skill in portraying what was, at that time, still a very real part of most people’s life in the middle of the twentieth century, the Church of England, and how that church was viewed both by herself in her “author’s comments” and by her characters.

So that you can have some idea of where we are going, that was the Introduction. For background we shall look briefly at the Church of England as Angela knew it, with an explanation as to why it was as it was, which Angela would not have known.

Background

Let me start with one of our North American members, Carol Stone, in a very perceptive conference paper of some years ago, Britannia insula est: “It is almost completely a women’s world (one should say, a lady’s world), the Anglican church figures prominently in the social interaction, but Christianity not at all. I hasten to add that the rectors and vicars are almost uniformly innocent, kind, generous men, and usually quite scholarly as well. They love the Church of England and are devoted to their jobs.” [Carol is actually too kind; there are more unpleasant than pleasant clergy, but she is right about the leading examples.] 

Perhaps I should add here my own credentials: an Anglican clergyman, of the generation of the Reverend Mr Parkinson, but with the education which he half-regretted, half-resented not having had, and I have ministered for nearly fifty years to survivors of this period, so l have, as it were, been there and lived through all this. Being half-English, half-German, I have the advantage of being able to examine each of my halves from the standpoint of the other, and can recognise in myself the German pomposity and verbosity which ally me to Mr Middleton and George Knox.

A brief refresher on the Church of England with particular reference to the matters Angela mentions, for many of these have changed very markedly even in my own lifetime. What we call the parochial system was apparently set up by Theodore of Tarsus in 680AD resulting in one man being appointed – in a variety of ways – to the sole charge of a parish church, usually a village. After the Reformation, from 1535, much ecclesiastical land was acquired by laymen, and with it came the “right of presentation” or patronage, which meant being able to appoint whom you wished to the “living” or parish. [You will remember this also figuring in Jane Austen.] 

Low and High Church

The Book of Common Prayer, introduced by Archbishop Cranmer in 1552 and revised slightly in 1662, after the Restoration of the Monarchy, continued unchanged until 1967, although the 1927-8 Deposited Book, rejected by Parliament but promoted by the Bishops, was widely used though not legalised until 1967, as Series 1.  Angela refers, as we shall see, to various attempts to shorten or “improve” parts, which practice she abhorred. Metrical Psalms had developed into hymns with the Evangelical Revival and the founding of Methodism. [You will remember the village band or orchestra in church in Thomas Hardy, so it is amusing to realize that there were in mid-Victorian England some hundred or so other hymn books, competing with Hymns Ancient and Modern, or “Hymns Plink and Plonk” as they were known to some, before Ancient and Modern became part of Angela’s “sacred social order”, which must never be changed. As to what is called churchmanship, High and Low were originally 18th century terms defining whether one held a “high” view of the Church, that it was God-given and its doctrine and ritual central to the faith, or “low”, that it was useful but not over-important.

In that sense the English church throughout the 18th and well into the 19th centuries was very “low” indeed. The Evangelical Revival of the 18th century, with its strong emphasis on the final authority of the Bible as the Word of God, and the need for individual conversion to a personal relationship with God through Christ, have more value to the Church. The Catholic Revival of the 19th century aimed to restore the beauty of Catholic worship, including the ritual that had been jettisoned at the Reformation, but ran into the prejudice against the Church of Rome that had been established by the burning of around three hundred martyrs by Queen Mary in the 1550s. It has been said that the English do not think logically – indeed that the average Englishman would rather die than think [and indeed usually achieves his desire!] – but they admire “sincerity”. “If you are sincere you must be all right”, so what were then illegal practices: candles and a cross on the Holy Table and calling it an altar, placing it at the east end of the church and railing it off, coloured vestments and such like, gained popularity in spite of riots, and became established by the early 20th century. To cut a long story short, apart from a middle group, many of whom called themselves Broad Church or Liberal, the two groups emerged as Evangelicals, who saw the Bible as final authority for life and belief, and Anglo-Catholics, who leave that authority to the Church, often the Church of Rome. For simple folk these were described as Low or Evangelical, and High, or Anglo-Catholic, and this is how Angela uses them without, I think, knowing why.

Church, and church services

Let us try to gather together what Angela does tell us of the churches, and church life as she sees it, and it is worth remembering that her main source of knowledge will be her memories as a child and before she left for Australia, for, on her return in 1930, so her son Lance Thirkell told us, neither she nor her parents, with whom she and Lance lived, went to church very often.

The first chapter of Wild Strawberries sets the scene for all that follows: “The Vicar of St.Mary’s, Rushwater, looked anxiously through the vestry window which commanded a view of the little gate in the churchyard wall. Through this gate, the Leslie family had come to church with varying degrees of unpunctuality ever since the vicar had been at Rushwater. It was a tribute to the personality of Lady Emily Leslie, the vicar reflected, that everyone who lived with her became a sharer in her unpunctuality, even to the weekend guests. When the vicar first came to St. Mary’s, the four Leslie children were still in the nursery. Every Sunday had been a nervous exasperation for him as the whole family poured in halfway through the General Confession, Lady Emily dropping prayer books and scarves and planning in loud whispers where everyone was to sit…” She then continues to do this in the present, organising those staying for communion – which was an added extra at that time, and had been since the nineteenth century – to be on the inside of their pews. The Lessons [Latin lectio “reading”] are read without any preparation, or even foreknowledge, by Mr Leslie. There is singing, and “when the vicar began his good and uninteresting sermon, James snuggled up to his grandmother. She put an arm round him and they sat comfortably together, thinking very different thoughts.” She follows these through for Lady Emily, for Mr Leslie, and for John. “Luckily the sermon came to an end at that moment… his mother said in an anxious voice, “This seems a good time to escape.” John leant over. “We can’t yet, mother,” he whispered, “we must stay for the collection you know”. “Only Agnes remained with her mother” for communion, and Lady Emily’s only comment afterwards is: “It is so inconvenient having to take one’s gloves off for communion, because I nearly always forget and it keeps Mr Bannister – the vicar – waiting” and finally, “one’s thoughts get so confused in church”.

Never too Late continues this view of the service – and the sermon – with Mr Choyce: “The service – apart from the everlasting beauty of the words – was excessively dull and as there were four hymns, not one of which Edith knew, she derived but little benefit from it, and indeed found herself thinking about the party the night before during the sermon and only got to her feet just in time, just as the prayers finished “through Jesus Christ our Lord..” [Never Too Late 63] “The service went on. Lady Graham, to whom the words and the feeling meant more than most people knew, became lost in the old, ever-new sequence and had almost forgotten her pew-guests till the little bustle of settling down for the sermon came, at which moment her ladyship began to apply her mind to what she would say afterwards to Caxton.” [Never Too Late 138] Elsewhere, Mr Choyce: “the Vicar preached a good uninspired adequate sermon, to which everyone listened according to his capacity, some wondering”. [Enter Sir Robert 105] The sermon figures: “my old Uncle Fitzherbert Marling . . . was a good preacher” says Mr Marling. “Never made his sermons more than twelve minutes.” [County Chronicle12] In Northbridge Rectory, “everyone said what a nice sermon the Rector had preached and went home to lunch,” [page 211].

Angela’s thoughts in Enter Sir Robert [page 102] are very revealing. “There is no need for us to describe the Morning Service in a village church for it is part of our life…The same words bind country and town. Mr Choyce had been sorely exercised by changes and shortenings in the service he loved. He loyally did his best to agree with them…but on one or two points he stood firm, especially the opening words, and read Dearly Beloved Brethren from start to finish in a way that did prepare the minds of his hearers for that act of contrition that is to follow. For truly one does need to get oneself into the right frame of mind to be conscious or even try to be conscious, of one’s manifold sins and wickednesses… for however good one has been, or tried to be, good, which is as much as most of us can do, we do really need to face the fact that when we are gathered together to thank, to praise, to hear the most holy Word, we shall hear it with a little more understanding if we first say what we are and then come to the throne of the heavenly grace which will accept us as what we should wish to be. Nor were the hymn books in the little church up to date. All those concerned liked the familiar hymns of their childhood. To ..[.some] the old book may appear dull and inadequate. To us it is memory, tradition, something even of tears, though not unhappy tears as we look back to our childhood.”

She had a strong and vehement dislike of those who interfered with the old service. While “An angry elderly clergyman [Canon Tempest] hustled them through the service with such vigour that they emerged breathless but glowing with virtue at five past twelve” [Growing Up 79] and later “Canon Tempest gets angrier every week, and last Sunday he positively barked the service at us…[page 237] and again “Canon Tempest then entered in an angry way, hurled a sentence about the wicked man at his congregation and launched into Dearly Beloved Brethren giving it the effect of an anathema, but not, we are glad to inform our readers, curtailing it as is the present reprehensible and lazy practice”. [Growing Up 254]. Somewhat similar in vein, Mr Choyce “had gradually evolved a kind of hunting mass which never lasted longer than the chime of a quarter after midday. Not that he in any way mutilated the services, but he had by long practice perfected a system of loud, clear and incredibly rapid speech, combined with a reverent celerity in kneeling, rising, and getting to and from the pulpit which was the envy of villages from miles around.” [Peace Breaks Out 75]

[On a personal note, I remember my then Bishop [of Gloucester] returning from a visit to NewYork in the sixties and being amazed at the verbal dexterity of a priest whom he heard say the Creed at a speed which made audible only: “I believe in God, Jesus, hell, the Holy Ghost Amen”. Dr Dale, the Old Town Rector of Halbury, “stuck to the old forms, so that everyone knew where they were. The Dearly Beloved Brethren was rehearsed at length; the Marriage Service said what it has always said, without mealy-mouth circumlocution; the proper psalms for the day were sung; and Hymns Ancient and Modern were used, from a reasonable-sized book, without the additions that have more than all the demerits of the older hymns and none their warm familiarity” [Miss Bunting]. Never Too Late has something similar: “The service began. The Vicar read well and spoke well and used the noble words set down for us just as they are in the prayer book. Under a former Vicar there had been considerable backsliding in the way of reading only the first and last sentences of certain prayers or exhortations; this manner of reading being considered by many, and they, alas, the most ready to be up and doing anything so long as it is something to make the service not only shorter, which it does, but better understood of the people, which it doesn’t..” [Never too Late 137]

The memorial service which dominates the start of Enter Sir Robert is priceless. Eventually “There was not a printed order of service. Mr Choyce had made a short service with some prayers the latter part of the thirty-first psalm and a hymn…,” I think it is the hymn that he feels it would have been most suitable to sing; for not all are and there are a great many newish ones that are not only works of supererogation, but set the teeth on edge, not to speak of their great dulness.” [Enter Sir Robert 50] And from Never too Late, “And so nice to have proper hymns” said her ladyship, “Not those dreadful ones up in the high numbers for all sorts of things one has never heard about like Zenana Missions and Trade Unions.” [Never Too Late 242] In the same way Mr Parkinson’s services as described to Mr Miller by Mrs Brandon must have had great novelty then: “Mr Parkinson has such peculiar services, though I can really only describe them as Free Love,” said Mrs Brandon, “although that isn’t exactly what I mean. He walks about the church and lets all sorts of odd people read the lessons and last Sunday he interrupted the service to bring all the Sunday School children in and they stood on the pews with their back to the altar and sang ‘There’s a Friend for little children’. And he uses the wrong service, I mean the one where they try to make the words more refined.” [County Chronicle 329] This is also one of her frequent complaints concerning the “new” [1928 Deposited Book] which softened some of the more earthy phrases of the marriage service, where marriage itself was “not to be taken in hand unadvisedly, lightly or wantonly to satisfy men’s carnal lusts and appetites, like brute beasts…” since marriage was ordained “for the procreation of children” and “for a remedy against sin and to avoid fornication” and so on. It recurs in a beautifully inconsistent and confused form in Private Enterprise where the School Chaplain “might have quoted embarrassingly from the Marriage Service, using, rightly, the very outspoken words consecrated by long usage, which by that long usage have attained a respectability in the best sense of the word that modern variants do not possess.” [The inconsistency, as you can see, lies in the desirable words having achieved respectability through long use, which, of course, the modern variants cannot possibly ever possess.]

Angela Thirkell’s Clergy

This leads on to an overview of the clergy she portrays. The Bishop we can disregard, very Low Church and looked upon by Dr Dale as the chief stumbling-block to the Christian religion, parsimonious and with a wife in the tradition of Mrs Proudie, “the sort of person who would cut the General Confession and the Creed out of the service and say it was because there was a war on” [Peace Breaks Out 35]. The Reverend Justin Morris (father of Miss Morris, in The Brandons) “seemed to have combined in himself all the less agreeable qualities of a fanatic” and “as selfish as they make them”. “in narrowness, bitterness and entire want of charity as near a Personal Devil as any man I have every known” [The Brandons 112,118, 340]. The angry Canon Tempest we have seen.There is the “awfully nice clergyman called Tommy Needham” and the less attractive and rather self-centred and selfish Dr Dale [Miss Bunting 91]. 

An interesting comment from Francis Brandon in Private Enterprise, “we had a pretty awful padre. Gosh, he was awful. Oh, I’m sorry, Mr. Miller, but I forgot you were a padre. I mean he was quite different. He would be human all the time, at least I don’t exactly mean that—but you understand, sir.”  And there is Mr Miller”s “justifiable pride” in being able to “swear longer and more foully than anyone in the regiment”, which “took the heart out of the most profane when the padre beat them at the job.” [Private Enterprise 39-40] 

Mr Horton appears twice as a “tall, elderly, bony clergyman with a kind of ecclesiastical grizzled side whiskers and rather stooping shoulders” and is described later as “that shatteringly awful man who was there with his aunt” [Jutland Cottage 297], while the School Chaplain, Holy Joe, is noted in Private Enterprise for his greed [pages 247-251]. Mr Choyce is subtly portrayed, through his inventions and his other activities, as a bumbling idiot, which leaves us with the Villarses, the Crofts, Tubby Fewling and Teddy Parkinson. These are the clergy who are prominent in the books and they are all, in Carol Stone’s words, “innocent, kind, and generous men… and usually scholarly as well” though not Parkinson. The last two particularly deserve fuller treatment, and we shall move towards this by next examining how Angela views the High and Low in the Church of England.

High and Low Church in Thirkell’s Barsetshire

Always in the background at this time is the bogey of the Church of Rome. “Mr Morris was horrified to find in him [Mr Miller] a strong tendency to the doctrines of Rome,” [The Brandons 112] while Mr Horton (vicar at Southbridge before Colonel Crofts) speaks more than once about “idolatrous or Ultramontane circles” which use “the English Mass or Marss” [Private Enterprise 74] and of the changes at Southbridge. [Jutland Cottage 124] The Misses Hopgood also speak of “a clergyman at Nutfield whose Practices were even more ultramontane than Father Fewling’s.” [Northbridge Rectory 182]

For the most part there is an ambivalence between the fact that on the one hand the average Englishman is not High Church, and does not trust this tendency, believing it to lead back to Rome, and on the other a general acceptance of what has been happening for over a hundred years which is now regarded as the traditional way. Angela’s people seem at heart middle of the road, but are willing to tolerate the High if the man is acceptable. What they do not realise, as is still the case, is how far the face of the Church of England has changed since the middle of the nineteenth century, but I will not spend time on this.

Picture of the dust cover of "County Chronicle"

As we have said, Angela confuses, as do many, Low and Evangelical. As to High: Mr Miller’s “cassock and biretta were the joy of his life” [The Brandons 29] so that “Not that Mr Miller is very high, but he has what I call the right kind of highness, and Peggy likes it too.” [Mrs Brandon in County Chronicle 234] Tubby, -Father- Canon, Fewling “at St Sycorax, where he was priest in charge, a title which gave him deep pleasure, he indulged in a perfect orgy of incense and vestments” and “genuflected in a way that made Miss Hopgood draw in her breath with a hissing sound” [Northbridge Rectory 58] Noel Merton is “put off by the ferocious smell of incense that came rushing out of St Sycorax!” [Private Enterprise 19]. Miss Hampton says to Colonel the Reverend Crofts, “I’m a staunch churchwoman. Can’t stand those monkey tricks, bells and what-not. I like your service.” [Private Enterprise 236] and Colin Keith sums it up when he says “Oh, Tubby Fewling. He is frightfully high church, but a very good sort. I went to St Sycorax once. It was like being abroad, only just all wrong, and nothing but women there, and I couldn’t make out what it was all about so I didn’t go again.” [Private Enterprise 234] and Mrs Arbuthnot agrees, “I think Father Fewling”s church is quite dreadful.” [Private Enterprise 334] John Leslie in answer to Mrs Green’s “Oh, isn’t he frightfully High?” answers “High but moderate” [Jutland Cottage 22] and Rose Fairweather, with her usual sensibility, says “I always think, when Tubby was at Northbridge he was frightfully High because the old ladies liked it, but when he came to Greshamsbury he most kindly got lower because they like it.” [Jutland Cottage 135]

At the other end – Low – Mr Parkinson gets off to a very bad start, and one can almost see the struggle within Angela. As Thirkell says elsewhere, and other writers testify, your characters will often take over, and so she warms to the unfortunate Theodore Parkinson, with his “thin, tired face” [Happy Returns 137] and later with his wife, the former Mavis Welk and their two skinny children. [County Chronicle 209] Teddy Parkinson appears at dinner at the Deanery, “a young man called Parkinson, one of those young men who had only been to a theological college and doubtless worthy…” “His name is Parkinson and he sounds horrid. Is he very Low?” “He was Awful” said Lydia,” he had an Adam’s apple and talked about people who went to posh schools, and he quoted the Bible all wrong, and Dr Crawley glared at him.” [County Chronicle 174] By the end of County Chronicle, Angela has warmed a little and when the Parkinsons unwittingly gatecrash the Millers’ farewell party, “Every single guest was rent by his feelings. The first that if the Parkinsons were all the Church of England could produce to replace Mr Miller, a scholar and a gentleman,… it was time something was done about it; the second and perhaps worthier thought that though Mr Parkinson was frankly no gentleman and Mrs Parkinson unplaceable socially, they had a disarming confidence and honesty and ought to be given every chance and encouragement in this new, and probably to them terrifying adventure.” [County Chronicle 223] Later, in Happy Returns (1952) “Mr Parkinson has improved a great deal since we first met him as a theological student at a dinner party in the Deanery in 1946. Partly owing to his determination to be worthy of his high calling… and a great deal because his wife … was so shiningly good that almost any man would have been the better for her company.” [Happy Returns 45]

Belief

Let me conclude the examination of Angela’s own views of the Church of England, as set out in her novels, by looking at how she records the experience and belief of her characters. Come with Mrs Brandon as: “she slipped into her pew, knelt for a moment and then emerged, apparently much refreshed. ‘What do you say, darling, when you do that?’ asked Francis: ‘I’ve often wondered.’ Mrs Brandon looked guilty. ‘I never quite know’ she said. ‘I try to concentrate, but the only way I can concentrate is to hold my breath very hard, and that stops me thinking. And when I shut my eyes I see all sorts of spokes and fireworks. And I always mean to be nicer and kinder, but ..things come into my mind at once. But I did have one good idea.’” [The Brandons 29] Robin Dale, in the evening service “admired his father’s appearance and voice, and thought of many things while his tongue said the accustomed words.” [Miss Bunting 226] Again, “It is almost impossible to keep one’s thoughts from straying in church, or indeed anywhere else. Perhaps these were not the thoughts for the Morning Service, but we think that most of the congregation while quite seriously desiring and meaning to concentrate on what they had come to hear and share, were engaged in very similar divagations. The service went on.” [Enter Sir Robert 105] Similarly “Mrs Crofts, whose thoughts, although she was a clergyman’s wife, were just as truant and rebellious as anyone else’s, the mere act of kneeling, the very sound of the noble English as the service came to its close, calmed her spirit and she prayed rather incoherently and very sincerely for Canon Fewling to be happy, though she did not feel equal to pointing out to her Maker any specific way of bringing this about.” [Jutland Cottage 52] The same Canon Fewling, “pausing for a moment, as he nearly always did, to visit his church and let its peace sink into him. He had never come away uncomforted.” [Close Quarters 35] And you will remember the beautiful end of Jutland Cottage: “He walked slowly toward the side and up the path to a House where there was comfort for all who sought it, and went in.” [Jutland Cottage 286]

And ‘non-belief’

Here are those who would not claim to be Christian:

Mrs Spender, who has just been shaken by visiting the bombed ruin of the hotel where she had planned to spend the night says, “I’m not what you would call a regular churchgoer, but I always say that there is Something, if you know what I mean that goes deeper than merely going to church… I’m funny that way but I always say I have a deep religious feeling and when I saw the hotel simply not there, I mean I could have killed someone.” [Northbridge Rectory 88]

Miss Hopgood’s aunt to Father Fewling: “‘I know you won’t mind my saying, Father Fewling, that I am an agnostic, though a deeply reverent one, but all the same Dunkirk did seem like a wonderful answer to the Day of Prayer.’ Father Fewling who privately felt that the Royal Navy was responsible, said, ‘Ah, yes.’” [Northbridge Rectory 151] His plan was “to catch boys from twelve upwards and collect them for classes in various handicrafts in the St Sycorax Church Room, in the hope that a certain amount of religious instruction would sink in” because – elsewhere – “he hated religious conversation in public.” [Northbridge Rectory 246-265] This is the English upper middle-class un-spoken and un-conscious religion. Mrs Brandon to Mr Miller: “It’s Mr Parkinson…| sometimes think I shall have to be an Agnostic because they don’t go to church but always tell you they are deeply religious.” [County Chronicle 328]

Mr Scatcherd – an avowed agnostic. “‘I was not in church this morning,’ said Mr Scatcherd with the proud fervour of those who know that England is, as far as church-going is concerned, still a free country, and that the vicar is only too anxious to be broadminded.” [Peace Breaks Out 83]

Lady Cora’s claim “I’m frightfully religious,” because she reads Proust non-stop, which rather throws Mrs Brandon. [County Chronicle 168] Then Nannie, that excellent woman who was chapel and only went to church in her official capacity, was occupied in disapproving silently of the whole service, item by item.” [Peace Breaks Out 78]

The attitude to prayer is very representative – you know the saying that the average Englishman believes that there is no God and that it is wise to pray to Him from time to time – and has some delightful examples. Father Fewling: “to ask me to pray for you in your present condition is no better than superstition. However I intend to pray for you, whether you know what you are doing or not, and for everyone concerned.” [Northbridge Rectory 288] In Miss Bunting, “No prayers had been offered for rain, for most people felt it was really safer not to interfere with Powers, who had obviously let things get out of their control.” [Miss Bunting 8-9] Mrs Brandon shares this view. “‘It is really most unsafe to pray for things,’ said Mrs Brandon earnestly, ‘because you never know if They mightn’t let you have them. And when I say They,’ she added, ‘I do not mean the present Government, but Higher Powers.’” [County Chronicle 213] “| always say a prayer when I come in or go out of a church” says Fewling. “It seems more polite in someone else’s house.” [Jutland Cottage 23]

Underlying all this is an indelible experience of the services of the Church of England which anyone not brought up in England in the first half of the 20th century may find difficult to grasp. “Heather [Adams] who was conversant with the order of the Church of England service owing to her attendance at Harefield Church with the Hosier’s Girls, was next to her father and guided him efficiently through the prayer book.” [Miss Bunting 132] Oliver Marling does not want to go to church, so that he can see Jessica Dean. He uses his bad eyes as an excuse, and is rebuked by Mrs Bill: “Now that”s naughty. I suppose you know the service by heart, and if you don’t you ought to. That is what it’s there for.” And, “You know quite well what I mean. If you take children while they’re young they get it all by heart. I mean the ordinary services, not the collects and all the bits and pieces, and then, there they are. I can say right through the morning and evening service without a book. The words are just in you. Turn the tap and out they all come, and one doesn’t even need to think,” [County Chronicle 30] This is authentic Angela Thirkell, as it was for many generations before her.

Conflicting views?

We come now to bring together different interpretations of Angela’s approach to the Church of England and God. We appear to have conflicting statements. In English jurisprudence there used to be a canon for evidence that if two witnesses appeared to disagree, it was your task to labour to reconcile them rather than dismiss either the one or the other. I want to do the same here.

Diana McFarlan talking with Lance Thirkell: “Perhaps you can explain to us how she came to love the Anglican service and had such faith, though her parents were not church-goers. Was it the influence of St Paul’s School [for Girls] or any other one person?” To which Lance replied, “Her attitude to religion and the Anglican Church was, as it were, inborn, and not acquired from her school or any particular person. Like my great-grandparents and grandparents, she was not much of a church-goer or outward observer. But both she and they knew the 1662 Prayer Book and Bible by heart and loved them, as do I, for the beauty, succinctness, clarity, directness, and honesty of their language. She would have abhorred such modern blasphemies as Series Three and Sung Eucharists.”

In her book Delicious Prose, Diana devotes a whole chapter to trawling for Angela’s Church of England and her religious beliefs, and achieves a very thin catch. The most she can say is that “Mrs Thirkell is steeped, as few of us are now, in the tremendous Jacobean phrases of the King James version of the Bible, and in the almost irreplaceable words of Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer, not to mention Hymns Ancient and Modern. She is also very familiar with English country parish life, and services in a village church.” Diana calls this British Christianity, and I would remind you of that quotation about the average Englishman.

How can we explain these comments, and are there others that will help? Kate Thirkell, who knew her mother-in-law well, describes her as, “An agnostic, who went to church out of kindness, kindness to the local clergy, that was.” Lance has no experience, naturally, of his mother’s life before she went to Australia. All he has seen is the life of a general agnostic in the thirties and onwards, and I can well believe that neither she nor her parents went to church much then. Her own comment to Margaret Bird: “Some day I shall be moved to write with venom about the mangling of the church services. But the way they ‘muck it up’ and have the wrong tunes, is literally driving me away from the fold” [but NOT into the Romish Error] should be given full weight. Then how did she acquire her BCP and Biblical knowledge? For me her own explanation, in the words of Mrs Bill, ring true. Before the 1914-1918 war everyone did go to church and you did absorb a tremendous amount just by osmosis, by hearing it again and again. At the brother school to Angela’s, and just the either side of Brook Green and the Hammersmith Road, St Paul’s School for Boys, being a foundation of Dean Colet in 1509, we had Latin prayers very morning. Seventy years later I can still remember all of the Lord’s Prayer in Latin, and that was only after daily morning prayers five days a week for just five years during term-time. To go to church Sunday by Sunday, having to sit there and be good, even reading all through the Prayer Book during boring sermons, meant that you did learn so much by heart, and it shows in the number of quotations of all levels, just as do all her other quotations, especially of Dickens.

Let me just say one thing about literary critics and criticism in general. Having been involved at one time in French literature, I observed that many comments told me much more about the critic than about the subject, and I gather that this is a principle of wide application. What you notice and say about the religious belief, even the relation with God, of other people tells me much more about you than about Him. It is our duty first to read the writer sympathetically, trying to enter in to what they proclaim they are trying to do. Only when we have judged them by that standard can we start to use other criteria. The positive judgements on Angela declare her writing to be of a very high standard. The negative criticisms are of the children of the Spirit of the Age. As someone wise said, “if you marry the Spirit of the Age, you will soon be a widower” and as in theology so in literature, fashions change most remarkably. But I must not digress.

Where is God?

Finally, one thing you will have noticed, that from Angela’s life and work compared with my title, there is a complete absence of the mention of God. English people do not like talking about God, especially a personal God. You may remember a film with Peter Sellers, many years ago, called “Heavens Above.” In this Sellers, as a vicar, talks with his Archdeacon and is rebuked: “Must you keep talking about God?” Sellers expresses surprise, “After all,” he says “we do work for Him”. Sadly that is not a frequent perception, even among clergy, and therefore even less surprisingly absent from Angela. However the fact remains. God as a personal being inviting a personal response does not get even a mention. There is nothing of God, nothing at all about Christ, let alone the centrality of the cross and resurrection. The Holy Communion is only mentioned once. Search for God and you will search long and fruitlessly.

Nevertheless, and leaving God on one side, Angela produces a perfect vision of England, an ideal picture based on her youth, but so skilfully transmuted by the application of the local colour of the year in which she is writing, that we can all recognise it, or believe we can. In closing I want to encourage us, her readers, by saying that I regard almost all her writings as very good, with some slightly uneven towards the end of her life when ill-health and a deteriorating society sapped her high spirits. She is actually an excellent observer and a brilliant caricaturist, with an exquisite sense of irony. Almost everything she writes is perfectly balanced, and just “over the top”. Because we have all met at least one or two of the caricatures of whom she writes, we may succumb to the temptation to call her an inadequate realist and so allow ourselves to be irritated by some clearly “over the top” characters. No, Angela is a pure idealist, looking back to the perfect times before the First War, when she was young, transplanting them into her own times with such skill that it is only after reflection that we recognise what she has done. Let us then be grateful and enjoy what Diana McFarlan calls her “Delicious Prose”.


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