The Incredible Crime

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A Review of The Incredible Crime by Lois Austen-Leigh

‘The Incredible Crime’ by Lois Austen-Leigh

As if I didn’t already love Golden Age murder mysteries enough, this one came with the added incentive of an author related to Jane Austen (1). Who could resist?

The Incredible Crime came out in 1931 and was penned by JA’s great-great niece – or should I say ‘neice’ as JA herself always misspelled it – Lois Austen-Leigh (1883 -1968). Apparently she wrote her books on Jane Austen’s desk, later donated by her ‘neice‘ to the British Library. (Mm, pity I don’t have any nieces, they’re starting to sound extremely useful.)

I was also attracted by the academic environment of much of the story. The Cambridge University setting is beautifully realised, as indeed it should be by someone who in real life was the neice, sorry, niece of the Provost of King’s College, Augustus Austen-Leigh and his wife Florence Lefroy Austen-Leigh (2). In case all of these Austens weren’t enough, there are even a couple of cheeky references to JA herself and Northanger Abbey.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the heroine of the novel, Prudence Pinsent, is the spinster daughter of the Master of the fictional Prince’s College (I particularly enjoyed this as I made up my own Oxford College for my first murder mystery) (3). Prudence herself is well over 30 but doesn’t look it, and although a clergy daughter and generally dignified, will swear like a trooper when provoked.  Her main ambition in life at first seems to be gaining as many months as possible in the countryside for fox-hunting.

One definitely is fed the inside scoop over port in the ‘Senior Combination Room’ and the cosiness of afternoon tea and college gossip at a don’s fireside. Reminiscences of the eccentricities of past academics and students add authenticity and spice to the atmosphere. For example, join me in a Professor’s rooms:

“His man came in with a bright copper kettle which he put on the fire; it started to sing at once. He then drew the curtains and brought in an ample tea, putting a plate of hot cakes in the fender. Nothing more comfortable could be imagined.” (4)

‘The Nine Tailors’ by Dorothy L Sayers

The other very authentic aspect of the setting is the author’s descriptions of the Fenland country around Cambridge and Ely and stretching towards the east coast, which was very reminiscent of Dorothy Leigh Sayers’ 1934 mystery The Nine Tailors. Austen-Leigh writes:

“They turned into the flat fen country and drove at a reasonable pace. On a bridge over a broadish bit of water they pulled up for a moment. ‘This is very fascinating,’ said Prudence, ‘is it a ‘drain’, the Ouse, or the Cam, I wonder?’ ‘I think,’ said Thomas, ‘that this is what you might call a drain – it’s the New Bedford Cut. It was made I don’t know how long ago by some Duke of Bedford, and cuts off a long bend in the Ouse; we shall pass the depleted bit of river farther on.’ ‘Is this how you get from Cambridge by water to the sea?’ ‘No, you do that by going down the Cam into the Ouse by Ely, by Denver Sluice into the Wash.’ (5) (I chose that quote because I thought Sayers’ fans would enjoy talk of Dukes and Denver!)

The descriptions of the Suffolk coast are also splendid, as are the wonderful meals and rooms enjoyed by Prudence stopping off at Ipswich at the ‘Great White Horse’ Inn (1518 with a Georgian facade). It was also used by Dickens and by his creation Pickwick, and it made me want to go there immediately. How disappointing to look it up online and find that it closed as an inn in 2008, is now part-Starbucks and is to be made into a business centre by the local council. Apparently the 16th century builders failed to take into account the 21st century desire for en suite.

As with many of the books of this period, it can be hard to visualise the characters accurately as to their age – everyone is so tweedy and old fogeyish and smokes a pipe if male. And one doesn’t necessarily pick up on the hints about the women from their appearance and habits either. I was continually astounded that everyone was about 20 years younger that I had first assumed. The way an “independent” woman is described is very different to how we would describe a single woman today, much of which we might find laughable. This also applies to the attempt at ‘romance’ in the story – if you’re a single woman who values her independence, be prepared to choke at the ending! Again, I can’t help but compare this to Dorothy L Sayers’ far superior attempt at romance in a detective novel set in the academic world in the glorious Gaudy Night.

If I am taking my time getting round to the plot itself, perhaps it is because this was the least compelling part of the book for me. Suspected drug smuggling and chemical experiments at the university are the substance, but unfortunately much of the searching for smugglers in underground tunnels reminded me of Famous Five novels, no doubt unfairly as Austen-Leigh’s book preceded Enid Blyton’s by about ten years. (I think it was the unscrewing of a window seat to discover a tunnel that really did it, although no doubt such things existed aplenty in ancient coastal country houses!)

Crime Novel Reviews of Dorothy L Sayers

In view of the many reminders of Sayers’ work that this book sparked off in me, I thought I would consult the new collection of Sayers’ crime reviews from the early thirties (6) to see if she had anything definitive to say on her contemporary and part-namesake. But sadly neither this book nor the other three by Lois Austen-Leigh were among them. However, I did open the book at another review (7) to see that I had underlined Dorothy’s succinct criticism of what apparently had already become a cliché by 1933: “rather too much secret passage and dopery”. I couldn’t have put it better, Dorothy! I, for one, will now be forever wary of what people are really up to at night when they claim to have been out “duck-shooting”.

But I can’t resist finishing by returning to the Jane Austen references. A tobacco-smoking don in Cambridge is horrified at the thought of possible drug-smuggling at the university and has to go to a service at King’s College Chapel to “take the nasty taste out of my mouth and make me feel clean again.” I am pleased to report that after listening to Scripture and the singing of hymns “he left the place feeling like a different man.” (8) And he was the one who felt he had the courage to quote Jane Austen at a CID officer, using the words of Henry Tilney to Catherine Moreland in Northanger Abbey:

“If I understand you rightly, you have formed a surmise of such horror as I have hardly words to… Consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians.” (9)

I would give The Incredible Crime by Lois Austen-Leigh 5/5 for Setting, 4/5 for Characters, and 3.5/5 for Plot.

For my latest novel Murder and Mr Rochester, see: www.jeanettesears.com/wp/?p_id=789

My latest novel ‘Murder and Mr Rochester’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

NOTES

(1) Lois Austen-Leigh, The Incredible Crime, British Library, London, 2017, edited by Martin Edwards. A reprint of the 1931 edition published by Herbert Jenkins.  Available from Amazon at https://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_2?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=lois+austen-leigh

(2) See Introduction to the novel by Prof Kirsten T Saxton.

(3) Jeanette Sears, A Murder in Michaelmas, Piquant Editions, Carlisle, 2012. See www.jeanettesears.com/wp/?page_id=27

(4)Lois Austen-Leigh, op.cit., 65%, loc.1979 of 3092 in e-version.

(5) Lois Austen-Leigh, op.cit., 10%, loc.294 of 3092 in e-version.

(6) Martin Edwards (ed), Taking Detective Stories Seriously: the Collected Crime Reviews of Dorothy L Sayers, Tippermuir Books, Perth, 2017.

(7) ibid., p108, in her review of Watch the Wall by Laurence W Meynell (1933).

(8) Lois Austen-Leigh, op.cit., 54%, loc.1646 of 3092 in e-version.

(9) ibid., 53%, loc.1620 of 3092 in e-version.


Charlotte Brontë and the Strange Companion

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Charlotte Brontë and the Strange Companion

Charlotte Brontë’s ‘Shirley’

In ‘Shirley’ (1849), Charlotte Bronte describes a Mr Yorke who is devoid of imagination and empathy.  Chapter Four begins: “A Yorkshire gentleman he was, par excellence, in every point.” (1), which in itself perhaps shows a lack of imagination on Bronte’s part in choosing his name!

Apparently Mr Yorke lacks the “organ of Veneration” and can’t look up to anybody, even God. “He believed in God and heaven; but his God and heaven were those of a man in whom awe, imagination, and tenderness lack.” (2). She then goes on to list so many other inadequacies of his personality that one starts to think ‘Why should I care about this character at all?’ There are several pages of Brontë telling us about Mr Yorke rather than showing us what he’s like, acceptable in a novel written in the 1840s but which wouldn’t get past an editor today. But this does allow her to speak about the importance of the imagination as a “gift of the mind” and the error of those who dismiss it:

“…who cares for imagination? Who does not think it a rather dangerous, senseless attribute – akin to weakness – perhaps partaking of frenzy – a disease rather than a gift of the mind?”

It’s very easy for me as a writer at the beginning of the twenty first century to look back to the beginning of the nineteenth and to imagine that it was a period when writers and those living by the products of their imagination were in a privileged position compared to my own time.  What would it be like to be an artist or poet in the Romantic era, or a novelist in the glory days of the Brontës, Gaskell, Dickens, Thackeray, Eliot?

But this section of Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Shirley’ makes me think that it was just as hard then to be taken seriously if one took the imagination seriously and viewed it as an essential of life. She states that probably all people think the imagination is more of a disadvantage in life or even more like a “disease”, unless you actually possess it. Those who think they have strong imaginations speak very differently about it:

“To hear them speak you would imagine that their hearts would be cold if that elixir did not flow about them; that their eyes would be dim if that flame did not refine their vision; that they would be lonely if this strange companion abandoned them. You would suppose that it imparted some glad hope to spring, some fine charm to summer, some tranquil joy to autumn, some consolation to winter, which you do not feel.” (3)

Here Brontë seems to be claiming some sort of aristocracy of the Imaginative, and is depicting how the claims of the Imaginative can look like a superiority complex to others.  She gives Mr Yorke’s view: “An illusion, of course; but the fanatics cling to their dream, and would not give it up for gold.” (4).  Mr Yorke, we are told, did not consider a poetic imagination a necessity of life.  He could “tolerate” the results of it as works of art in the form of a good picture or music, but could not tolerate all the talk of the struggles of a quiet poet, who “might have lived despised, and died scorned, under the eyes of Hiram Yorke.” (5).

Bronte then gives a fascinating description of the character of the imaginative artist, “the true poet”, who has to somehow survive the fact that “there are many Hiram Yorkes in this world”:

“… it is well that the true poet, quiet externally though he may be, had often a truculent spirit under his placidity, and is full of shrewdness in his meekness, and can measure the whole stature of those who look down on him, and correctly ascertain the weight and value of the pursuits they disdain him for not having followed. It is happy that he can have his own bliss, his own society with his great friend and goddess, Nature, quite independent of those who find little pleasure in him and in whom he finds no pleasure at all. It is just that while the world and circumstances often turn a dark, cold, careless side to them – he should be able to maintain a festal brightness and cherishing glow in his bosom, which makes all bright and genial for him; while strangers, perhaps, deem his existence a Polar winter never gladdened by a sun. The true poet is not one whit to be pitied; and he is apt to laugh in his sleeve, when any misguided sympathizer whines over his wrongs. Even when utilitarians sit in judgement on him, and pronounce him and his art useless, he hears the sentence with such a hard derision, such a broad, deep, comprehensive, and merciless contempt of the unhappy Pharisees who pronounce it, that he is rather to be chidden than consoled with.”

Perhaps Charlotte realises she is getting a bit carried away here and so comes back with: “These, however, are not Mr Yorke’s reflections; and it is with Mr Yorke we have at present to do.” (6).

Charlotte Brontë

But perhaps these words do stand as a rebuke to all those who mainly emphasise the outward “bleakness” of the Brontës’ lives and don’t look further into these glowing recesses of inner creativity and hope.  Bronte’s own images for the imagination here – comparing it to an elixir, a flame, a refiner of vision, an imparter of hope and charm, joy and consolation, bliss, a festal brightness and cherishing glow that can make all things bright and genial – these images inspire our imaginations too. And we are convinced by her conviction that true imagination is utterly necessary for tenderness and awe and veneration to exist in us, even for a truer appreciation of God and heaven. Who wouldn’t want more of imagination by her definition, this “strange companion” ?

 

To enjoy more of Charlotte Brontë’s imagination in the form of her most famous novel ‘Jane Eyre’, you can read my latest novel ‘Murder and Mr Rochester’ which intertwines a contemporary murder mystery with the experience of a reading group studying her great classic.

My latest novel ‘Murder and Mr Rochester’

You can buy this at Amazon UK:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Murder-Mr-Rochester-Jeanette-Sears-ebook/dp/B01M28IXFD/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1477392333&sr=1-3&keywords=jeanette+sears

Or at Amazon US:

https://www.amazon.com/Murder-Mr-Rochester-Jeanette-Sears-ebook/dp/B01M28IXFD/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1478345205&sr=1-1&keywords=jeanette+sears

 

 

NOTES

(1) Charlotte Brontë, ‘Shirley’, Penguin Classics edition, London, 1994, p44.

(2) ibid., p45.

(3) ibid., p46.

(4) ibid.

(5) ibid., p47.

(6) ibid.


The Kilns – What Was and Could Have Been

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The Kilns – What Was and Could Have Been

As a fan of C S Lewis, I love it when bits of Narnia or other elements from the life of Lewis weave their way into my everyday life.

Recently a friend gave me a special treat. It was a lunch out in the countryside nearby to celebrate finishing the final draft of my latest novel. It was to be at the Bottle Kiln in West Hallam, an unexpectedly beautiful place in a small Derbyshire village [1].

The Bottle Kiln

The Bottle Kiln

It was also unexpectedly crowded. No doubt the school holidays contributed to some extent, but in retrospect I can see that the quality of the place drew people like the proverbial magnet and we were lucky to get the last parking space at lunch time. Plus the weather couldn’t have been more gorgeous or the sky more blue.

Bottle Kiln and garden

Bottle Kiln and garden

This meant that my first view of the old kiln was doubly delightful as it rose above the surrounding brick buildings that now house a café and the sort of shops that translate me into retail heaven.

But, of course, the kiln itself was bound to remind me of C S Lewis’ home, the Kilns, in Oxfordshire, so I was hoping to find interesting resonances. At the Bottle Kiln there is an intimate garden at the back where people can eat their food and chat to friends but that is also quiet enough for contemplation.

photo 27

It is called a Japanese tea garden and I was immediately struck by the effort taken to make a tranquil space that was both friendly but that encouraged people to just stop and be quiet for a while.

Bottle Kiln Garden

Bottle Kiln Garden

We certainly couldn’t ignore the fact that this kiln had once produced bricks. They were everywhere, not just in the construction of the kiln itself and the outbuildings but also beautifully laid out in systematic patterns for paths. Even the tabletops in the restaurant were made of bricks and mortar. The whole place has been rescued and renovated with very creative and artistic touches.

Garden tiles

Garden tiles

The various chambers around the central kiln are now four selling areas for Gifts, Home and Accessories, Handmade items, and the Card Room, with the restaurant on the other side.

Central chamber of kiln

Central chamber of kiln

The design motif throughout was one of my favourites – Orla Kiely’s iconic leaf pattern. The predominant colour of green blended well with the brickwork and reflects the green ethos of so many organic and recycled items on sale, all of which were laid out with the precision and good taste of a magazine shoot.

Orla Keily wallpaper

Orla Kiely wallpaper

My friend knew I would love this, and I did!

Contemporary pots on sale

Contemporary pots on sale

It was also interesting to stand in the middle of the building and look up – to see right through to the sky above through the narrow outlet of the kiln’s original chimney.

Bottle Kiln Chimney

Bottle Kiln Chimney

It formed such a contrast to the vibrant life and colour all around me. For the brick flue was huge, dark, bleak and silent with the longest cobwebs I’ve ever seen draped from the top, like a spider’s dusty version of the hanging gardens of Babylon. Looking up at the sky, I felt as though I was in a tunnel again – the feeling I’d had for the last few months while writing my novel – head down, prioritising work, not seeing people, utterly concentrated and largely isolated. That’s not to say it’s been a negative experience – I’m an introvert and I love it! But one can’t do everything in life, and when I’m concentrating on a book, other parts of my life (like going out to restaurants with friends) just tend not to happen (like my blogging too, for that matter)!

The Tunnel in Nottingham

The Tunnel in Nottingham

This time there’s the added factor that a massive tunnel in the centre of Nottingham – just called ‘The Tunnel’ – features at the beginning and end of my novel (which is called ‘Murder and Mr Rochester’ in case you were beginning to wonder). The Nottingham Tunnel is a huge Victorian construction blasted out of sandstone. This has often been in my mind as an image for the writing process – one enters the darkness of the imagination to construct an alternative reality in prose, which can feel like blasting one’s way through rock to find what’s on the other side. Then one day it’s all over and you emerge blinking into the daylight of normal life again. And friends take you out to lunch…

The light at the end of the Bottle Kiln’s towering chimney reminded me of this – I’m at least out of the tunnel of the final draft of my novel at any rate. I couldn’t help remarking to my friend how marvellous it would have been if the Kilns that used to be next to C S Lewis’ house of the same name had survived and could have been refurbished just like the Bottle Kiln here.

Original plan of Bottle Kiln

Original plan of Bottle Kiln

The home that Lewis bought with his brother and Mrs Moore in 1930 that is now a study centre would be enhanced by such a development next door, especially if still surrounded by the fields and wild countryside that so attracted the Lewis brothers. The original kilns in Headington in Oxfordshire could have become a similar visitor centre with beautiful shops, a café (or pub!), and a garden next to the lake and part of the nature reserve that’s still there. What a ‘go to’ spot that would have been for visitors to the area, and an even greater pull for The Kilns’ and the C S Lewis Foundation’s attempt to stimulate further interest in this great author and teacher. Instead of a small house in the middle of a modern housing estate, my mind’s eye could now see a much larger enterprise, with the chimneys of the old kilns visible for miles, like a sign, like the towers of a cathedral calling out to visitors to come and find.

Original Bottle Kiln

Original Bottle Kiln

I can imagine Lewis would have approved of a refurbished set of Kilns in the countryside next to his house where people could come and eat and drink with friends, talk about art and literature, contemplate nature, de-stress, and generally have good fellowship together or mediate on their own in God’s good creation. That was exactly what I was able to do with my friend. I could just imagine the Inklings having a drink and a meal here together, discussing their latest work in the restaurant or garden, as we were able to do.

Bottle Kiln restaurant

Bottle Kiln restaurant

Even the retail side of my experience was a blessing. I was delighted to find the very things I needed to buy – some kilner storage jars for the kitchen (plus they were about half the price of shops in the centre of town)!

Glassware

Glassware

But to go back to the very centre of the building, not only did the opening at the top of the kiln itself remind me of a tunnel, it brought to mind the experience of Jill Pole in C S Lewis’ ‘The Silver Chair’ when she and Puddleglum and Eustace have been in the dark Underland for what seems like ages. Then at last Jill sees a glimpse of light up above and can now emerge, with the help of friends pulling her out, into the heart of Narnia again. Then, what should I see in the restaurant at the Bottle Kiln after our meal, but a little bit of Narnia in the form of a children’s book on the newspaper and magazine stand. There, along with the Tatler and the Times, were a couple of picture books on the bottom shelf within the reach of children. I must admit I hadn’t seen this version of a Narnia story before, but there on the cover were none other than Puddleglum and Jill Pole in a version of part of Lewis’ The Silver Chair! [2]

Version of 'The Silver Chair'

Version of ‘The Silver Chair’

I love it when this sort of Lewisian synchronicity/serendipity happens. It seemed to affirm my experience of the light at the end of my own personal tunnel-cum-kiln.

And this linking of tunnels and kilns is not as fanciful as it might sound. Yesterday I looked at kilns on the web to see if there was anything else of interest. Well, there is even a ‘Tunnel Kiln’, apparently! And both the kilns next to Lewis’ house and the Bottle Kiln I visited this week were both built in the 1920s. There were two brick kilns and a brick drying barn about 100 yards away from Lewis’ house which was built in 1922. The area used to be known as the Clay Hills when the brick industry flourished there in the late 19th century.

But a glance at the Ashmolean Museum’s website revealed a much more ancient heritage for this area of Oxfordshire in its Archaeology section. Here we’re told that “large numbers of pottery kilns have been excavated in south and east Oxford. The numbers have suggested to some archaeologists an “industrial zone”, coincidentally but interestingly centred on the modern industrial zone around Cowley, but also stretching to Headington, Rose Hill, Littlemore, Sandford and as far south as Betinsfield. The kilns cluster around the Roman road…’ [3]. These were developed in the early 2nd century AD to provide good quality domestic ware, mostly for dining and kitchen storage, using the pure white clay of Shotover Hill.

However, these early kilns fell into disuse when the Romans withdrew from Britain in the early 5th century and it was only in the Victorian era that serious pottery and brick production began in this area again. But we can still see some of that early Roman homeware from the Oxford Potteries in the Rome gallery on the ground floor of the Ashmolean Museum.

Roman pots in the Ashmolean

Roman pots in the Ashmolean

Did Lewis ever look at any of these old pots and reflect that they could have been made just a few yards from his home 1600 years before? And how interesting that Lewis is buried at Holy Trinity Church, Headington Quarry – named after the stone quarry there that provided some of the stone for the building of the Oxford colleges.

So, two of the main places most associated with C S Lewis are named, not after any high-flown literary or romantic themes, but after two of Oxfordshire’s oldest and most down to earth industries – the Kilns and a Quarry.

Model of bottle kiln

Model of bottle kiln

Perhaps my own envisionings of the imaginative process of writing as hewing through rock, or journeying through a dark tunnel, or trying to find the sky through a dusty and cobwebby chimney of clay bricks, are also sufficiently down to earth images and experience on which to build a creative literary life.  The kiln can become a model for how I think of my work.

Inside model of bottle kiln

Inside model of bottle kiln

And if that’s whetted your appetite to read the novel I’ve been mentioning – yes, it’s published now and you can find it on Amazon at https://www.amazon.co.uk/Murder-Mr-Rochester-Jeanette-Sears-ebook/dp/B01M28IXFD/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1477392333&sr=1-3&keywords=jeanette+sears

My latest novel 'Murder and Mr Rochester'

My latest novel ‘Murder and Mr Rochester’

NOTES

1] You can see more at www.bottlekiln.co.uk.

2] Hiawyn Oram, The Giant Surprise: a Narnia Story (HarperCollins, London, 2005) based on C S Lewis, The Silver Chair  (Geoffrey Bles, London, 1953).

3] From www.ashmolean.org/ash/britarch/roman-oxon/oxon-pottery.html, written by Susan Walker, 15 Dec 2011.


The Dragon-defeating Saint of Sark

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The Dragon-defeating Saint of Sark

On a walk round the island of Sark last week I saw a dragon.

This was most unexpected. It was red and huge, as opposed to great and green (Tolkien fans will know what I mean) and made of metal and was standing, rather incongruously, outside a bicycle repair shop. Of course I had to take its photo.

Sark Dragon

Sark Dragon

What was it doing there? Was the bicycle repair man a Tolkien fan or was there some other reason for its presence?

Perhaps I should be used to meeting dragons on my holidays by now. Last year it was seeing the Tatzelwurm at Aare Gorge in Switzerland and the story of St Beatus defeating the dragon at Interlaken that took me by surprise (see my blog ‘In Tolkien’s Footsteps in Switzerland’ for the details and pictures). This year I was touring the Channel Islands off the coast of France. After exploring Jersey and Guernsey I was now to spend a day on the tiny island of Sark which I had longed to see for years.

Arriving on Sark

Arriving on Sark

Its otherworldly reputation – a feudal society with no cars or planes allowed – had made it fascinating to me. Plus there had been the TV series called ‘An Island Parish’ about the churches on Sark, that showed the small tight-knit community there all year round, which seemed quaint and charming, and to have preserved traditions and a neighbourliness that we have lost on the mainland.

Sark Methodist church

Sark Methodist church

It all seemed to promise a trip back in time. So I was perhaps expecting saints, but not dragons.

A few minutes in the tiny building housing the Societe Sercquaise put me right.

La Societe Sercquaise Heritage Centre

La Societe Sercquaise Heritage Centre

Here was a pamphlet with a dragon on the cover – a dragon with a bearded monk standing next to it who was holding it on a leash made from his priest’s stole, embellished with a cross. Apparently this was Saint Magloire, none other than the patron saint of Sark. Like England’s St George, he too had slain a dragon, though in his role as a monk rather than a knight. And as with St George, the legends about him are varied and historically confused, but exciting. According to this short history by Martin Remphry [1], Saint Magloire (or Maglorius) came to Sark around 565 AD to establish a Christian monastic community. He had been given half of the island by Loyesco of Neutstrie in Brittany, in return for curing him from leprosy. The half of the island belonging to the saint was so blessed in the fertility of its crops and fishing and animal life that it began to cause trouble with the natives on the other half of the island who were not so blessed! Magloire, who may have been Welsh or Breton, seems to have that closeness to the natural world typical of the Celtic saints, and is even called a nephew of King Arthur. He performed many miracles, such as healings and saving people from drowning. He began schools for the islanders and became the Bishop of Dol.

But where does the dragon come in? Cue a photo of the dragon from another angle, looking almost cute next to a matching basket of flowers…

Sark dragon again

Sark dragon again

Apparently Magliore had already slain a dragon on Jersey before he even came to Sark! The locals were so pleased they gave him land (he seems to have had a way with real estate) and he established an oratory there. Remphry says there there are few details but speculates that Magliore might have used the same method of dragon-slaying as another Breton saint – St Paul Aurelian. He defeated a 60 foot serpent on the island of Batz by tying his stole round its neck and luring it off a cliff and into the sea. And Magliore’s cousin, St Sampson, did the same thing in Cornwall.

A section of the medieval monastery on Sark still exists next to the Seigneurie, the home of the ruler of Sark. Unfortunately I did not get to see this as collapsing over an ice-cold lemonade in the 90 degree heat in the cafe there took precedence instead.

Seigneurie gardens cafe

Seigneurie gardens cafe

Taken around the island on the back of a horse-drawn cart under a blazing sun

Transport on Sark

Transport on Sark

is probably the hottest and most sunburnt I’ve ever been, and the nearest I got to meeting a fire-breathing dragon. Probably a good thing, as I didn’t have my stole on me at the time…

 

NOTES

[1] Martin Remphry, ‘Saint Magliore, Patron Saint of Sark’, La Societe Sercquaise, Sark, 2010.


C S Lewis, Brideshead, and the Earls of Beauchamp

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C S Lewis, Brideshead, and the Earls of Beauchamp

'Madresfield: the Real Brideshead' by Jane Mulvagh

‘Madresfield: the Real Brideshead’ by Jane Mulvagh

My breakfast time reading for the last few days has been Madresfield: the Real Brideshead by Jane Mulvagh [1]. It is an account of the history of the Lygon family and their country home, told via a series of objects found in and around the house (eg. The Nursery, The Ditch, The Portrait, the Red Heels, The Tuning Fork, The Tree of Life). As with any aristocratic British family whose ancestors ‘go back’ to the Norman Invasion, the family was active and involved in most of the major events of our island’s history and politics and frequently pioneers in the arts and exploration.

But why take a special interest in this family and their country pile rather than another? The clue is in the title of the book – Brideshead. Even though Castle Howard in Yorkshire was used to represent the Brideshead revisited in the TV and film versions of Evelyn Waugh’s novel of 1945, it was really Madresfield Court in Worcestershire owned by the Lygon family that was the beautiful old house in Waugh’s mind as he wrote.

Madresfield Court

Madresfield Court

And it was the (beautiful? you judge) son of the house, Hugh Lygon (1904-36), who was a model for the beautiful and doomed Sebastian Flyte.

Hugh Lygon

Hugh Lygon

The first chapter of Mulvagh’s book on ‘The Nursery‘ is actually about Waugh as it was in the nursery of Madresfield where Waugh wrote on his frequent visits.

Evelyn Waugh with two Lygon sisters

Evelyn Waugh with two Lygon sisters and a friend

And what does all this have to do with C S Lewis? I certainly didn’t begin to read this book with Lewis in mind, but as always seems to happen, there were connections that seemed to jump out of the pages. Lygon (pronounced ‘Liggon’) is the family name of the Earls of Beauchamp (pronounced ‘Beecham’) who own Madresfield and it is the sixth Earl of Beauchamp who was the main founder and financial supporter of both Malvern College where Lewis went to school (for one year in 1913/14)

Malvern College

Malvern College

and Keble College Oxford where Lewis received his military training before going to fight in France in 1917.

Keble College Oxford

Keble College Oxford

As I read more about the sixth Earl and his family, there were unavoidable resonances between his emotional history and spirituality (which expressed itself in architecture, literature, and good works) and Lewis the writer and Christian apologist.

The sixth Earl Beauchamp

Frederick Lygon, 6th Earl Beauchamp

Frederick Lygon, 6th Earl Beauchamp

The chapter of ‘Madresfield’ that concerns Frederick, the sixth Earl, is entitled ‘The Breviary’. This is because he was a “highminded High Churchman” who was fascinated by liturgy and wrote a much-researched book of prayers and services now in Madresfield’s library [2]. Frederick had been a younger brother in the family who was not expecting to inherit the title – in fact, early on he looked more likely to ‘go over to’ Rome and become a priest. The young Frederick’s mother had died when he was only five and his father withdrew emotionally, so the small boy was largely raised by a stern anglo-catholic governess, with chapel at the beginning and end of every day and church seven times on Sunday [3]. Even as a schoolboy at Eton, Frederick Lygon began collecting medieval religious texts. He went on to read Greats at Christ Church Oxford and became a follower there of Edward Pusey, one of the leaders of the Oxford Movement in the Church of England, a Tractarian or ‘ritualist’. Frederick even made a pilgrimage to Rome in 1856 in order to decide once and for all between the Anglican Church and the Roman but, after a severe struggle, remained Anglican, although praying for the reunion someday of the Anglican and Roman branches of the Church.

According to Mulvagh, “his Christian mission continued in his political career” [4] and he had considerable success in various government posts. The future Archbishop of Canterbury, E. W. Benson, described him as “a very smart, bright man, a little chimerical, gaily dressed and brushed, and beneath a most loving son of the church.” [5] In the House of Commons he earned himself the nickname “the Ecclesiastical Layman” and wrote all of Disraeli’s speeches on religious matters [6].

Meanwhile at Madresfield, Frederick’s older brother Henry Lygon, the fifth Earl, was transforming the house from a medium-sized squire’s manor house into a 160-roomed Victorian neo-gothic stately home [7].

Madresfield Court

Madresfield Court

But in 1866 Henry died of TB and Frederick succeeded to the title and the task of finishing the building works. This had happy results, as Mulvagh points out:

“Frederick’s devotion to God was bound up in the Gothic rebuild. Though in ecclesiastical matters he was nit-picking and academic, his architectural instincts were sentimental and idealized. The Gothic was the Tractarians’ preferred architectural style. Their romantic imagination associated it with the medieval: the chivalric knight, the medieval monk, the artisan. Inspired by nostalgia, these modern crusaders turned their backs on classicism, a style they associated with the decadence of Ancient Rome, the godlessness of Georgian England and, worst of all, the barbarity of French Republicanism. Gothic Revivalism – conveniently rinsed of all its violent associations – suggested to them high-minded poetry, an undivided and true church, Plantagenet nationalism and, for those so inclined, ancient lineage.” [8]

Malvern College

Frederick built almshouses, estate workers’ houses, several gothic churches, and donated to the restoration of the Priory at Great Malvern [9]. As a substantial landowner in Worcestershire, he helped found Malvern College and a nearby girls’ school. I picked up a copy of A History of Malvern College 1865-1965 by Ralph Blumenau [10] for only a £1 at my favourite shop in Oxford (‘Arcadia’ on St Michael’s Street – oh, another coincidence: the first chapter of Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited about being an undergrad at Oxford is called ‘Et in Arcadia Ego’, I should imagine the source of the name of the shop). Frederick Lygon became the Chairman of the College Council, built the headmaster’s house, and was one of the main investors in the Building Company which was formed to develop the school. He was the biggest sharehloder, along with John Wheeley Lea, and Blumenau concludes: “it is no exaggeration to think of these two men as the principal founding benefactors of Malvern College.” [11] Frederick’s heir, William, the seventh Earl Beauchamp, was only a minor when Frederick died but in turn also became Chairman of Malvern College’s Council in 1905.

William, 7th Earl Beauchamp

William, 7th Earl Beauchamp

While still just a member of the Coucil, the seventh Earl was instrumental in getting one of his old masters from Eton, S R James, to be Malvern’s headmaster. S R James was headmaster from 1897 to 1914 and therefore during the time Lewis and his brother attended the school (the college called ‘Wyvern’ in Lewis’ autobiography Surprised by Joy). Blumenau makes several references to C S Lewis in his history of Malvern College, noting some of his positive and negative reactions to the teaching and regime there (I’ll deal with this in a later blog).

Keble College

John Keble himself died in 1866 and his supporters were determined to build an Oxford college in his memory (as well as to “counteract Rugby and Balliol” in spirituality) [12]. It was to be High Anglican, frugal, and for those training for ordination in the Church of England. Donors included Gladstone, Samuel Wilberforce the Bishop of Oxford, and of course Frederick Lygon who gave £5,000 at first and more anonymously later. William Butterfield, a neo-gothic architect, was chosen as designer. The foundation stone was laid on 25 April, Keble’s birthday. “Not surprisingly, in its Gothic style, Keble bore a remarkable resemblance to the rebuilt Madresfield and some rooms in college were named after the Earls Beauchamp.” [13]

Coincidences

So it was to be the architectural preference of the 6th Earl of Beauchamp and the deep spirituality that it sought to express that was to be the backdrop for some of the formative years of C S Lewis at school and university. Both lost their mothers at a young age, had fathers who withdrew from them emotionally, and had formative training by a nanny/governess. Ironically, even though Lewis pretty much hated his time at Malvern and his military training at Keble, he grew up to share the deepest aesthetic and spiritual interests and instincts of Frederick Lygon’s heart – the medieval romantic imagination, nostalgia for the chivalric knight and medieval monk, a hatred of the idolatry of Reason, and a desire for the universal Church to be united once more.

Any other serendipitous connections? Well, while I’ve been writing this blog everything’s come full circle. I’ve been listening to the TV music of composer Geoffrey Burgon, a CD which just happens to start with Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia,

Geoffrey Burgon CD

Geoffrey Burgon CD

continues with Testament of Youth about young people at Oxford affected by the First World War, and which ends with – you’ve guessed it – the mellifluous beauty of Brideshead Revisited.

Lygon family at Madresfield Court

Lygon family at Madresfield Court

NOTES

[1] Jane Mulvagh, Madresfield: the Real Brideshead, Black Swan, London, 2008.

[2] Day Hours of the Church of England, 1858 – it was actually a translation of the Roman Breviary and the Earl published it anonymously.

[3] Mulvagh, ibid., p199.

[4] ibid., p203.

[5] ibid.

[6] ibid.

[7] ibid., p206.

[8] ibid.

[9] ibid., p213.

[10] Ralph Blumenau, A History of Malvern College 1865-1965, Macmillan, London, 1965.

[11] ibid., p10.

[12] Mulvagh, op.cit., p215.

[13] ibid., p217.


The Jackdaw Richard the Third

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The Jackdaw Richard III

1970 orange and purple Scrapbbook and Josephine Tey novel

1970 orange and purple Scrapbbook and Josephine Tey novel

When all the fuss about the discovery of Richard III’s body erupted recently, one of my first thoughts was: “Oh, if only I still had my Jackdaw folder about him!” Then last year when clearing out old boxes from my parents’ garage, I found it again, albeit in the form of a scrapbook from 1970 containing pared down papers from the Jackdaw that I’d carefully trimmed to fit the pages and sellotaped into the album when I was eleven years old. Why do children love scrapbooks so much? What’s so appealing about cutting out pictures and sticking them in albums? I certainly had several scrapbooks when I was growing up, usually devoted to my favourite pop stars. But when I was eleven I developed this much more unlikely craze for a dead king, prompted by reading the classic detective story ‘The Daughter of Time’ by Josephine Tey.

It featured her main detective Inspector Grant who was holed up in hospital with a broken leg and was itching to do some detecting regardless. A friend suggests one of the great mysteries of history and so he settles on who murdered the Princes in the Tower – was it their “evil uncle” King Richard the Third, or his successor Henry the Seventh, the first of the Tudors? The evidence presented in this brilliantly told reconstruction of the crime convinced me forever of Richard’s innocence and Henry’s guilt. I then read everything about Richard I could lay my hands on back in 1970, including this wonderful Jackdaw folder.

Jackdaw 24: Richard III and the Princes in the Tower

Jackdaw 24: Richard III and the Princes in the Tower

It was first published by Jonathan Cape in 1965 but my copy is by from the Paragon Press in 1970. It was edited and compiled by J. Langdon-Davies, an interesting character in himself.  I can still remember the metal carousel in W H Smith’s that contained the Jackdaw folders and the feeling of adventure that they generated as I span it round – which person or event from history shall I find out about next? These Jackdaw folders were bulging with fascimiles of historical documents to fascinate schoolchildren with the feel of handling primary sources. There were reproductions of oil paintings, family trees, the stories of famous people, and beautiful calligraphy in bold black Latin on thick brown paper. It really did make you feel like a detective handling original documents in the excitement of solving one of the greatest mysteries of all time. Plus there was the Justice angle – my eleven year old heart swelled with indignation at the thought of this poor wounded king who had been so maligned by history. I became a (no doubt very annoying) apologist for King Richard to anyone who would listen, wrote a long essay on him for school (which never got marked – it was so long it was overdue and handed in too late) and carried on collecting for my scrapbook, now entitled ‘HISTORY and other things eg. books, News-paper cuttings, Drawings etc. Jeanette Sears VOLUME ONE’. I can also see from my copy of ‘The Daughter of Time’ that this coincided with being given a Dymo label writer for Christmas which meant I labelled all my possessions with my name embossed on red plastic tape. It’s also evident that the fashionable colours for 1970 were orange and purple, judging from the cover of the novel and my scrapbook. I seem to remember my bedroom was painted orange then purple too (or was it purple then orange?)

Since the reburying of King Richard III this week in Leicester Cathedral has generated so much interest worldwide, I thought I would share the contents of my old Jackdaw folder for any of you interested who now can’t get hold of a copy easily. As I said, I cut up the papers it contained and stuck them in a scrapbook with sellotape that’s now brown with age, so they won’t look pristine but I think still of interest. It begins with the well-known portrait of Ricardus III Ang. Rex. by an unknown artist and a fascimile of part of Thomas More’s ‘History of Richard III’ [not shown here] written in 1557.

 

Rous Roll and portrait of Richard III

Rous Roll and portrait of Richard III

I can still remember the fury of Josephine Tey’s detective every time he came across the ‘backstairs’ gossip’ of More’s account in any so-called ‘evidence’. Above are also  drawings of Richard and his wife and son with their coats of arms from the Rous Roll.

'Richard through contemporary eyes' and 'Richard Crookback'

‘Richard through contemporary eyes’ and ‘Richard Crookback’

On large sheets of pink paper there are accounts of ‘Richard through contemporary eyes’ and ‘Richard ‘Crookback’’, featuring the notorious performance of Shakespeare’s play by Laurence Olivier and how the Tudors attacked Richard’s reputation and physical image. This sheet ends with: “One of the most exciting uncertainties of Richard’s reign is the story of the little princes, supposed to have been murdered by their wicked uncle in the Tower of London. Today historians admit that they do not know who the criminal was – it is not even certain that there was a crime. There is no certain evidence on which a jury would convict Richard; it would even be possible to make out some sort of a case that the real criminal, if there was one, was Henry VII.”

'Did Richard murder the primes?' and an account of his acts as king

‘Did Richard murder the primes?’ and an account of his acts as king

Then on orange paper an article entitled ‘Did Richard murder the princes in the Tower?’, containing a brief review of the evidence and concluding that we only hear about Richard’s guilt from his enemies whose accounts can’t be trusted. On the contrary Richard seemed like a good and just king from his other actions and  no court could convict him of the crime on the evidence available. Opposite on pink paper is ‘What do we know of Richard’s acts?’ asking “Was Richard a hypocrite or was he sincere?” when he passed good laws, was merciful to his subjects, etc. There is a list of just and righteous actions done by the king that make him sound the ideal Christian monarch. The conclusion is: “In short, as far as we can see from the documents which have been preserved, Richard’s rule was just and progressive. Indeed, there is a possibility that his unpopularity with some of the rich and aristocratic classes was due to a tendency to stand up for the underdog and undermine some of their privileges.” Reading through these actions of Richard again, I must say it is a very convincing case that he helped the poor and oppressed wherever possible and deprived the fat cats of their unjust gain. Did his spine condition give him an empathy for the oppressed and downtrodden? It makes Philippa Gregory’s description of him as “the People’s Plantagenet” seem very appropriate. It does look as though, when we lost Richard, we lost a very good king. There is even evidence of kindness to his rivals and enemies that makes it look very unlikely that he would have killed his nephews.

Facsimile document and pamphlet on the Battle of Bosworth

Facsimile document and pamphlet on the Battle of Bosworth

On the next pages lie a fascimile, on thick brown paper, of an extract from the Act of Parliament Rolls for the first year of Richard’s reign with a typed transliteration (almost as hard to read as the original but giving even a youngster a feel of medieval English).

Typed transliteration of medieval document

Typed transliteration of medieval document

There is an account of the Battle of Bosworth of 1485 where Richard lost his crown.

Next is a copy of a letter from Richard to the keeper of his wardrobe, Piers Curteys, from 31 August 1483.

 

Richard's letter to Master of Wardrobe

Richard’s letter to Master of Wardrobe

He is requesting clothes such as “one doublet of tawney sattayn lyned with Holand cloth and enterlyned with Buske”, as well as banners and “trumpet bands of sarcenet”. The transcription underneath meant that it was possible even for an 11 year old in 1970 to read the handwriting of 1483. The accompanying notes say that even experts on medieval costume don’t know what “spurves” and “guynysans” were!

The pamphlet ‘Edward V and Richard Duke of York: the Princes in the Tower of London’ gives photos of the Tower areas where the princes were kept and possibly buried, plus diagrams and rather gruesome photos of skeletons of children from the period.

 

Leaflet on Princes in the Tower

Leaflet on Princes in the Tower

The next page has a copy of a letter from Richard to his Lord Chancellor from 12 October 1483 with a transcription on the opposite page. I think the handwriting round the edge is Richard’s own.

Richard's letter to Lord Chancellor with own handwriting round the edge

Richard’s letter to Lord Chancellor with own handwriting round the edge

The guide to the Jackdaw documents assures children that “with a little patience… you will become quite an expert in reading fifteenth century handwriting” !!

I was then intrigued to see that I had a leaflet for a performance of Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III’ at Nottingham Playhouse from Oct-Dec 1971, starring the comic actor Leonard Rossiter.

Nottingham Playhouse producing Shakespeare's 'Richard III' in 1971

Nottingham Playhouse producing Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III’ in 1971

This amazed me as I had completely forgotten this. It is described in the leaflet as “a vividly macabre performance”. Since Robert Lindsay has also played Richard, there must have been a trend for a while of having him played by comedians. And gosh, the prices of tickets – 50p for the stalls, 25p for the balcony, and travel subsidies were available if you were coming from elsewhere in the Midlands! They were certainly keen to get people into the theatres in those days and more willing to subsidise it with public money.

The next page shows ‘How Richard became King’.

'How Richard became King'

‘How Richard became King’

In my scrapbook this is juxtaposed with Holbein’s portrait of Thomas More.

IMG_7162 copy

This is because the only other Jackdaw folder I owned was about him. I also have a hard time not saying “Boo!” after his name, as it was his propagandised account of Richard which Shakespeare used for his play. As an all-or-nothing 11 year old, to me this made Thomas More a baddie.

There was a general introductory booklet to the Jackdaw folder which for some reason I pasted at the end of my display rather than the beginning. It gives a run down of all the ‘Exhibits’ and questions for you to ‘Think for Yourself’, which begins: “This ‘Jackdaw’ shows how the story of Richard III may have been distorted by later historians to make a better case for the kingship of the Tudors. Can you think of any other well-known instances of history being rewritten?” Another question is “What do you think would have happened if Richard had won the Battle of Bosworth?”, then “How would you persuade anyone living in about 1500 that a crippled body does not necessarily mean a wicked soul?”, and lastly “Suppose the little princes were alive in 1485, what do you imagine they thought about it all? Perhaps we never heard of them again because they thought “Anything for a quiet life” and preferred to remain “lost”?” Hmm – rather a loaded question. There is then a list of ‘Books to Read’, including Josephine Tey’s novel of 1954 and the biography of Richard by Paul Murray Kendall (1955) which I can remember devouring in the school library on rainy lunchtimes.

I had then cut out the photos from a paperback on the Plantagenets by John Harvey (1967).

Portrait of Richard III

Portrait of Richard III

The portrait of Richard has him looking worried and placing a ring on his own finger (was this a symbol of usurping the throne?) as with the more well-known picture. He still looked preferable in my childish eyes to Henry VII who reminded me of a weasel.

Next to this in my scrapbook was a surprise. I had completely forgotten about the magazine version of Winston Churchill’s ‘History of the English Speaking People’ and that I owned No. 30 of the 112 issues (which apparently came out every Thursday) and was edited by Sir Mortimer Wheeler, Hugh Trevor-Roper and A J P Taylor (BPC Publishing 1970).

Magazine cover: 'The Princes in the Tower'

Magazine cover: ‘The Princes in the Tower’

The cover shows the portrait of the Princes in the Tower by the Victorian artist Millais, the boys looking very much like Bubbles dressed as Hamlet.

Contributors to the magazine

Contributors to the magazine

It contains articles by H M Colvin, A R Myers, John Gillingham, and G D Ramsay, most of whom were Oxford dons.

Winston Churchill on Richard III

Winston Churchill on Richard III

Churchill’s own account follows Thomas More’s and so was anathema to me as a stout little Ricardian. There was also an article on the Tower of London plans of the Battle of Bosworth

 

Battle lines at Bosworth

Battle lines at Bosworth

and a taste of the arguments against Richard as the murderer of the princes, but this is pretty half-hearted. Perhaps no one felt they could come out too strongly against Churchill’s view when the whole magazine was supposed to be honouring his version of history.

Image of 'evil' Richard III and the princes

Image of ‘evil’ Richard III and the princes

I am intrigued now as to why I was such a ‘fan’ of King Richard III at such a young age. I think it was the injustice done to a young king that touched me, plus the fact that it was wrapped in one of the greatest mysteries in history. The Jackdaw folder gave me a ‘hands on’ experience in learning about it and the feeling that I was in touch with the historical characters concerned. The Josephine Tey novel brought the story to life in a way that completely gripped my imagination. It has only just occurred to me as I write this blog that the first murder mystery that I have written concerns students who like re-enacting scenes from the late fifteenth century from Malory’s ‘Morte D’Arthur’ – exactly Richard III’s lifetime. Perhaps I have Richard III to thank for my own first murder mystery!

My novel 'A Murder in Michaelmas'

My novel ‘A Murder in Michaelmas’

I also think that it is no coincidence that shortly after my fascination with Kind Richard as an 11 year old I became a Christian – it was possible to also see Jesus of Nazareth of the first century as a young King who had had great evil and injustice done to him, who had suffered a cruel death and whose truth needed to be defended. From the wounded king of medieval chivalry to the wounded King on a cross wasn’t too great a leap. Now that we know more of King Richard’s own Christian faith and his desire to live as a chivalric Christian knight, this is perhaps not surprising. I was particularly struck by this aspect of Richard’s life when hearing Philippa Langley speak in 2013, the amazing woman who led the discovery of Richard’s body in the Leicester car park.

 

Meeting Philippa Langley in Southwell Library, Nov 2013

Meeting Philippa Langley in Southwell Library, Nov 2013

I was determined to shake her hand and thank her, as I believe many have done this week. It was also very moving to see a young girl putting the crown on Richard’s coffin during the reinterment service at Leicester Cathedral, a girl about the same as as me when I ‘discovered’ him, in a sense reinstating him as a good Christian king.  Who would have thought that the supposed ‘evil child-killer’ King Richard III would have become a type of Christ for me as a young child?

Little girl 're-crowning' Richard III

Little girl ‘re-crowning’ Richard III in Leicester Cathedral in March 2015


Before Blogging: the Journals and Papers of Major Christian Leaders

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Before Blogging: the Journals and Papers of Major Christian Leaders

Manchester's great Victorian library

Manchester’s great Victorian library

As bloggers and users of the internet, we are sometimes faced with the unpleasant fact that much of what we write in a digital format may well be lost for ever while older written sources ironically may survive. So if you were the Victorian vicar the Reverend Joseph Bloggs, your communications with your people and the world beyond your church in your sermons and letters might still be around in two hundred years while this blog might not. Even the Revd Bloggs’ self-communication via a journal or a diary might well last longer, especially if you were deemed worthy of being made Bishop and then Lord Bloggs of Blogginton Wells – all your most private and delicate thoughts on paper will probably continue to be diligently preserved over the years by rabidly-dedicated librarians, whether you wanted them to be or not.

Recently I was having to clear out old books I’d had for 30 yrs and never read. Some of these were lists of archival sources and bibliographies that one needed as a researcher before the internet. One of these was Papers of British Churchmen, 1780 – 1940, produced by the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts, and published, no doubt to a panting and impatient audience, in 1987.  It was one of their Guides to Sources for British History, and probably back in the 1980s I thought I ought to know where to get my hands on the letters of John Nelson Darby, amongst others, as my PhD research featured him quite strongly (they were in the John Rylands Library in Manchester, which is fortunately where I had begun my research).

John Rylands Library, Manchester

John Rylands Library, Manchester

This grey-covered boring-looking book – in fact, the most boring-looking book I have ever owned, so boring I hadn’t even been able to open it in 30 years – seemed like an obvious one to cast aside into the Tesco bag marked ‘THEOLOGY – Give away, to a College’. But, as usually happens when I allow myself a few seconds to open any book, I soon found myself fascinated and was reminded of the old truism to not judge a book by its cover.

It turned out to be a long list of famous and forgotten names, of men once able to charm thousands from the pulpit, who could help decide the fate of churches and nations, lift up the poor, write poetry more famous than any of their sermons, pen hymns sung by millions, cause scandals and give prophetic warnings that made the front of the daily newspapers, and encourage queens and kings. Just the names were fascinating for a start. In alphabetical order, they run from:

“ACTON, Charles Januarius (1803-1847), Cardinal 1842”,

through to:

“ZOUCH, Thomas (1737-1815), Rector of Wycliffe 1770-93, of Scravingham 1793-5; prebendary of Durham 1805-15.”

How appropriate that the first one should be named after January, the first month! And a reminder of how Latin was second-nature to the educated men of that era (although perhaps later as a Cardinal he would know that it was also the name of the patron saint of Naples – I looked that up on the internet). Pity Thomas Zouch’s parents hadn’t felt it necessary to call their son ‘Decemberius’ to finish off the alphabetical list neatly, although to be fair, perhaps he wasn’t born in December and it would have just confused everyone as Decemberius doesn’t seem to be a name (at least I couldn’t find any on the web).

The fact that the book listed ‘Churchmen’ of course had not escaped my notice but I genuinely expected not to find any women in there anyway, as I assumed it was mainly clergy. But then my eye fell on:

“SOUTHCOTT, Joanna (1750-1814) Religious fanatic.”

Ah. Not too good for the women, then.

Joanna Southcott

Joanna Southcott

I certainly remembered Joanna Southcott as there had been a veritable obsession with her in the circles of my research just prior to my PhD. She was the latest thing for people interested in Adventism and Millenarianism and… the decidedly delusional. She had claimed to be a prophetess, calling herself the woman clothed with the sun of Revelation 12. And what papers of hers remain? We can rest easy knowing that her correspondence and accounts of her visions, scrolls, seals, and poems, are neatly divided between the Blockley Antiquarian Society and the University of Texas. But her most important papers were said to be in a mysterious box that should only be opened in the presence of the assembled bishops of the Church of England and at a time of great crisis for the country. Some people clamoured for this to happen in the Crimean War and the First World War apparently. Probably it wasn’t deemed an ideal item for the agenda of General Synod whilst debating women bishops, however.

But what of the famous churchmen?

Archbp Frederick Temple

Archbp Frederick Temple

Frederick Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury 1896-1902 and father of William, another Archbishop of Canterbury back when it ran in the family – the usual letters and family stuff, but also his “diary of self-examination 1843-9 (1 vol)”. Wouldn’t mind reading that! Confessions of feeling fed up with Queen Victoria? The young William being a pain? Then again, only one volume for 6 yrs implies either a very large volume or not much self-examination. And did he know it would one day be made public? That could cramp one’s style.

 

 

 

 

Archbp William Temple

Archbp William Temple

The next entry relates to his son William Temple – the usual church and family and business letters and the vital ‘Notes for Lent and Garter Day Addresses 1942’, but, alas, no diary of self-examination.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And one great name I could hardly ignore:

“WESLEY, John.”

John Wesley

John Wesley

My PhD supervisor, Dr Henry Rack, was and is the world expert on Wesley but because he was on sabbatical at the crucial time, I never did the relevant course with him as an undergraduate and so had a shamefully sketchy knowledge of the great leader’s life, despite being converted by Methodists back in 1971. Here there’s the usual list of letters and sermon notes and diaries, plus Holy Club Notes, kept at the “Methodist Archives in Manchester”. This made my researcher’s nose twitch again. Hmm. Must look it up on the internet. Ah, and there they are, digital reproductions in Wesley’s own handwriting, kept by – guess who – the John Rylands Library.

Perhaps, then, it’s best to hedge your bets and keep your blogs and diaries and sermons in hard copy as well as digital – just in case you get famous and the JRL starts to take an interest…

The John Rylands Library, Manchester

The John Rylands Library, Manchester


Dante and C S Lewis on Heaven as an Acquired Taste

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Dante and C S Lewis on Heaven as an Acquired Taste

Botticelli's Dante and Beatrice

Botticelli’s Dante and Beatrice

I’ve been so close for so long to finally finishing John Sinclair’s translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy (it’s only taken me thirty years to get this far) that I thought to aim to finish at the end of 2014 might be an incentive. So I’ve been reading a couple of Cantos a day to try and get it done. I’d read Dorothy L Sayers’ translation in my twenties and loved it, then started on this version, in the (forlorn) hope that I’d learn Italian at the same time, as Sinclair’s translation lies next to the original text. I whizzed through the Inferno, then went a bit more slowly through the Purgatorio, and then ground to a halt on the Paradiso around 1992. No doubt life on this earth took over. I can remember going to a display of Botticelli’s illustrations of The Divine Comedy at, I think, the Royal Academy in the late 90s. The first room was full of luridly coloured drawings of Hell and its inhabitants and the room itself was hot and heaving with people. There were about half the number of people in the next room, devoted to the drawings of Purgatory. These illustrations were less highly coloured and more unfinished than those in the previous room. We then battled our way to the room devoted to Paradise to find that it was cool and serene with hardly anyone there – a very useful sermon or blog illustration in itself.

That of course was not Dante’s experience. In his story there were continual challenges to his vocabulary to describe just how many saved souls and angels he was seeing at the final stage, how many living examples of those kept alive by God’s grace – if he had known the word “gazzillions” he would probably have used it, since he was so fond of the vernacular. He is also finding it hard to describe the increasing beauty and holiness of the sights and sounds and is frequently blinded by the light as he gets closer to God. For many years I had a poster from the exhibition above my desks at home and at work – of Botticelli’s drawing of Dante next to Beatrice in mid-air, surrounded by the flames of the apostles and saints, with God just out of sight at the top of the picture. Dante has his hand up to his eyes as if he can’t take any more, even though Beatrice, his love, is pointing higher. Dante, even now, needs healing and his eyes strengthening if he is to see more.

Today I was as far as Canto XXX of the XXXIII. And it’s happened again! Dante again is overwhelmed by what he’s seeing: “Like sudden lightening that scatters the visual spirits and deprives the eye of the action of the clearest objects, a vivid light shone round about me and left me so swathed in the veil of its effulgence that nothing was visible to me.” [1]. Dante is using the language of St Paul’s experience of the divine light on the road to Damascus that left him blinded for 3 days [2]. But for Dante help is virtually instant: “…I was conscious of rising beyond my own powers, and such new vision was kindled in me that there is no light so bright my eyes would not have borne it. And I saw light in the form of a river pouring in its splendour between two banks…”

He sees angels like “living sparks” and the saved souls as jewel-like flowers set in gold that kept plunging into the water, as if drunk with wonderful smells, and laughing. Dante is instructed to drink of this water too so that he can see what’s actually going on, and when he does he no longer sees mere sparks and flowers but these changed into “a greater festival, so that I saw both the courts of heaven made plain.” [3].

This whole process of needing to be acclimatized before one can receive the beatific vision reminded me of the end of C S Lewis’ children’s novel The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which is probably what Lewis intended. How great, to sneak Dante into a kid’s book! As Lucy, Edmund, Eustace, King Caspian, Reepicheep and the others are at the final point of sailing to the end of the known Narnian world, they too need to drink the now sweet water in order to be acclimatized to the staggeringly intense light that is the prelude to meeting with Aslan at the edge of the world and the beginning of Aslan’s own country. They too are about to see their hearts’ desire and need to be made strong enough to bear it.

Reepicheep is the first to hurl himself overboard and drink the water, which he says is like “drinkable light”:

“And one by one everybody on board drank. And for a long time they were silent. They felt almost too well and too strong to bear it…” [4].

They now notice that they are reacting differently to the light which had been getting stronger around them everyday since Ramandu’s Island. “Now, the light grew no less – if anything, it increased – but they could bear it. They could look straight up at the sun without blinking. They could see more light than they had ever seen before…” [5]. The sweet water of “that last sea” makes the older ones on the voyage feel younger and fills everyone with joy and excitement and… stillness. It even enables them to see past the sun, beyond the End of the World and into Aslan’s Country – sights and smells and sounds that would break your heart with longing [6]. We know this because of one of the most extraordinary things in the whole of the Narnia Chronicles, that is, that Lucy herself spoke to C S Lewis and told him about it! He must have been curious, we assume, at her saying this most wonderful sight could break your heart. “ “Why,” said I, “was it so sad?” “Sad!! No,” said Lucy.”[7] But she does not elaborate further, and neither does Lewis, with the obvious implication that the experience is beyond words and we are in the realm of the apophatic. We are often treated to Lewis speaking to us as the author in his children’s stories but this is the only place where he tells us one of the characters has spoken to him and he is giving us their first-hand account, as if Lucy is a real person. It is as if Lucy (whose name means ‘light’) is Lewis’ Beatrice, telling him the glories of the heaven that he has not yet seen, the communicator of the ultimate sehnsucht.

Apparently I wasn’t the only one to be reminded of Lewis by this Canto of Dante. John Sinclair back in 1939, before the Narnia Chronicles were written, wrote in the commentary on his translation of Canto XXX:

“From such vision springs the love of true good, and from such love joy surpassing every sweetness. (The suggestion of Mr. C. S. Lewis, made in another connection, is relevant here: ‘The joys of heaven are for most of us, in our present condition, an acquired taste.’)” [8].

Once Dante’s sight is strengthened, everything changes from mere “shadowy forecasts” to “their truth”. And Sinclair quotes Aquinas to support this, that “grace and glory are the same in kind, since grace is nothing but a certain beginning of glory in us.” Wow!! That God’s grace working in us now is the same ‘thing’ as his glory revealed to and in us later – what an amazing thought! And Sinclair adds that this section is Dante’s version of what is referred to in the 36th Psalm: ‘Thou shalt make them drink of the river of thy pleasures. For with thee is the fountain of life: in thy light we shall see light.”

What a great end to Dante’s great work – and my own year – anticipating the soul’s final enlightenment. And huge thanks too to Lewis for writing about this in a form children can understand – who, like me, might take another thirty or more years to get round to Dante – his characters literally acquiring the taste for heaven.

Come to think of it, my eyes have been very sore recently and sensitive to light. Mmm, now where is that sweet water…?

NOTES

[1] John Sinclair (trans.), The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri, with translation and Commentary by John D Sinclair, III, Paradiso, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1939/1961, Canto XXX, lines 46-51.

[2] Acts 9:9.

[3] ibid., lines 94-96.

[4] C S Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, HarperCollins, London, 2002 edn, p174.

[5] ibid., p175.

[6] ibid., p185.

[7] ibid.

[8] Sinclair, ibid., p442. This is a quote from Lewis’ 1940 book The Problem of Pain, so presumably Sinclair added this quote in the later edition of his translation.


A Narnian Christmas at Chatsworth House – Part Three

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A Narnian Christmas at Chatsworth House – Part Three

Stairway

Stairway

The next staircase contained a hint that a great battle had been fought between good and evil in Narnia, all revolving around the death of Aslan. There began to be military pennants and flags, knights in armour and more small lion toys as clues.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Narnian victory banquet

Narnian victory banquet

But the Great Dining Room was spread for a phenomenal banquet, with beautiful Christmas trees.

Van Dyck painting

Van Dyck painting

There were displays of fruit and candles on every table beneath old master paintings.

Side table display

Side table display

It was set to celebrate the victory of Aslan and the Narnian army over the White Witch and her evil hordes.

High King Peter's chair

High King Peter’s chair

Each chair at the table had a name tag showing which guest was to sit there. Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy (now called Kings and Queens of Narnia) had a chair with their names plus the gifts they had been given by Father Christmas that had helped them win the battle (except Edmund who had not been there to meet him). What could top this?

Aslan

Aslan

Meeting Aslan himself, of course. This was surprisingly low key. As you can see from the photo, the lighting was not good nor the setting. Anyway, it was great to see small children (and adults) getting their photos taken with him and not seeming to mind. I suppose there was something appropriate about even the resurrected Aslan being humble and approachable, as opposed to the White Witch posing with her throne under a disco glitter ball.

Sculpture Gallery

Sculpture Gallery

Those of you familiar with the Kiera Knightley ‘Pride and Prejudice’ can perhaps remember the Sculpture gallery at Chatsworth that she walked through contemplating the statues supposedly at Pemberley. The gallery is now transformed into Cair Paravel with striped tents and banners with lions rampant.

Children's requests to Santa

Children’s requests to Santa

There were smaller Christmas trees made of paper tags on which children had written their requests to Father Christmas.

Thrones at Cair Paravel

Thrones at Cair Paravel

And children were able to sit on thrones on a dais and be crowned as High King Peter, King Edmund, Queen Susan and Queen Lucy. When I was there it was lovely to see a boy in a wheelchair crowned with his brothers.

Marble lion

Marble lion

Of course it was hardly necessary to add a figure of a great lion to the Sculpture Gallery at Chatsworth as the room finishes with two enormous lions like bookends

Marble lion

Marble lion

on either side of the huge doorway as one leaves.

Chatsworth shop

Chatsworth shop

It was rather strange to suddenly be in the shop, even if there were C S Lewis’ Narnia books on sale. There were some toys for children too to help them play out the story at home. I heard a small boy requesting some pieces of plastic armour from his mother but she replied: “You can have a sword or a shield but we can’t afford both!” That must have been a let-down after all the excitement so far! I already had the Narnia books of course, so I contented myself with a book on the grand houses used in Jane Austen film and TV adaptations – oh, and some chocolate.

Tea rooms and Orangery

Tea rooms and Orangery

After that I went with my family to the tea rooms

Stable block

Stable block

and we managed to stagger around a few more shops in the stable block and down to the magnificent Emperor fountain, blowing into thousands of droplets in the strong cold wind.

Chatsworth House

Chatsworth House

Looking at the house itself from the garden we were able to see that the window frames had been painted gold since our last visit. This apparently weathers better than ordinary paint and is cheaper for them in the long run – just a little household tip for you there! It was also noticeable as we left how many of the trees were leaning to one side because of the high winds on the peaks. We left before it got dark and there didn’t seem to be any flaming torches this time anyway. But the whole trip had been exhilarating and even joyful. I was glad to be able to share it with some of my family and I wish I could have taken all my family and friends.

Goodbye to Chatsworth

Goodbye to Chatsworth

I hope these photos and commentary give you a taste of what it was like and a desire to experience again the excitement of C S Lewis’ Narnia this Christmas and the glory of the victory over evil and the salvation of humankind as depicted in the story of Aslan and Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy.

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Merry Christmas!

Have a very blessed Christmas!


A Narnian Christmas at Chatsworth House – Part Two

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A Narnian Christmas at Chatsworth House – Part Two

One of the most amazing things about visiting Chatsworth House this week was just the fact that we were allowed to take photos. Anyone who has been round the great stately homes of England will know that this is very unusual, so it felt like a triple privilege being able to take photos of such marvellous architecture and works of art, along with the staggering amount of special Christmas decor plus the magical Narnian theme.

Painted Hall

Painted Hall

A glory of Chatsworth even under normal conditions is the enormous Painted Hall with the main staircase. Virtually every inch is covered with murals and carving and sculpture. Those of us walking around the house had already begun to gasp as we entered each room, but this next one really took our breath away.

White Witch

White Witch

The White Witch had certainly commandeered the best spot, looking magnificent at the top of the main stairs with a cloak flowing down,

Turkish Delight

Turkish Delight

with the addition of a few cheeky boxes of turkish delight.

White Witch

White Witch

She was standing next to a very impressive throne that looked suspiciously like the silver chair.

Turkish Delight

Turkish Delight

Turkish delight was definitely a theme here, even nestling under glass domes on side tables.

View from balcony

View from balcony

It was possible to view the whole scene from a balcony on the upper floor and get an even more amazing perspective.

Tops of trees

Tops of trees

Here one could see the top of the gigantic Christmas trees.

Detail of decorations

Detail of decorations

Apparently it took the staff a week of solid work to decorate the house. I’m surprised it didn’t take a lot longer.

Aslan on the Stone Table

Aslan on the Stone Table

Even though the scene with the White Witch was impressive, the next scene, though on a smaller scale, was even more astonishing. We were suddenly confronted with a life-size Aslan on the Stone Table. He was bound with ropes in the classic pose and there were small white mice moving around on him as if helping to free him. They were animatronic of course but it looked surprisingly realistic. But the most surprising thing was that Aslan’s chest was moving up and down gently as if he had begun to breathe again and was returning to life. I don’t know if they didn’t want to present him as dead so as not to upset children or if this was a genuine theological statement! Of course Aslan, the true King, has given his life in exchange for Edmund, to rescue him from the White Witch.  I could have stared at this for ages but of course one has to keep moving and let other people see. The scene fitted remarkably well with the backdrop of the room chosen and felt august and solemn.

Veiled lady

Veiled lady

Next a statue of a veiled lady reminded me of the women weeping at the tomb of Jesus, and Susan and Lucy mourning Aslan, before they know of his victory over death.

Tiny lion clues

Tiny lion clues

All the way round the house were small lion toys to give the children clues to various questions for them for the quiz on the guide.

Lion Christmas tree

Lion Christmas tree

Now a whole tree decorated with lots of lion toys seemed to be giving the hint as well that perhaps the witch was not about to have everything her way and Aslan was on the move again…

 

Part Three concerns the victory of Aslan and the enthronement of the four children at Cair Paravel.


A Narnian Christmas at Chatsworth House – Part One

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A Narnian Christmas at Chatsworth House – Part One

Chatsworth House

Chatsworth House

A few years ago I had such a marvellous time at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire seeing their Christmas decorations and nativity that I vowed to go again someday. Not only is the house one of the most beautiful in Britain, the huge Christmas trees in every room, the vintage swags on the staircases and fireplaces, and the nativity with real animals in the stableyard, meant that it had been an unforgettable treat, plus flaming torches lighting our way as we drove away in the dark. The house is the home of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire and dates back to the sixteenth century, but it has also posed as Darcy’s Pemberley for ‘Pride and Prejudice’ in both the Keira Knightley/Matthew MacFadyen film version and now the TV adaptation of P D James’ ‘Death Comes to Pemberley’, so catnip for Jane Austen fans. And when they announced that this year the Christmas decorations would be themed around C S Lewis’ ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’, it was obvious that this was the year to go to Chatsworth again. I have spoken on Lewis and Narnia at various venues and have seen several excellent and creative attempts to decorate places to give a Narnia ‘experience’, so what would such an immense house with so many resources be able to offer?

Chatsworth House So this week we made the hour’s drive from Nottingham to Bakewell in the Derbyshire Peak District. There was the obligatory ‘Brideshead’ moment as we approached the enormous building from the edge of the estate and saw the building’s magnificence at a distance. As you enter the Chatsworth itself you are greeted by an Air Raid Warden and scenes and music from the Second World War. This is because ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ of course is set at the beginning of the War and, as I’m sure you know, concerns the four Pevensie children who were evacuated to the countryside to avoid the bombing – very appropriate for Chatsworth as apparently a girls’ school called Penrhos College was evacuated here at that time too in reality, although sometimes it was so cold that their hot water bottles froze at night!

Christmas tree with London buses The first two Christmas trees that greet you in the entrance way are decorated with little London buses and there is a desk with 1940s items such as an old phone and newspaper which reminded me of Lewis’ desk at the Kilns. But then one walks through a doorway and into a short passage lined with fur coats and then… into Narnia!

Narnian Winter

Narnian Winter

A long corridor with spectacular white and silver and frosty trees and baubles, all leading up to –

The Lamp post

The Lamp post

what else – the lamp post. Small white furry woodland creatures are hiding in the undergrowth and one is lulled into a false sense of security when suddenly…

Maugrim the Wolf

Maugrim the Wolf

several enormous menacing wolves appear, one being Maugrim himself with the notice of the arrest of Mr Tumnus on the orders of the ‘Queen’.

Stone fountain

Stone fountain

There was an area for children to dress up in long dresses and furs and cloaks as characters from the story. This overlooked an inner courtyard with a fountain and animals that had been ‘turned’ into stone to show the witch’s power in Narnia at that point.

Trees in Chapel

Trees in Chapel

We then walked into the chapel, in itself a stunning place for worship filled with magnificent murals and statues and two of the biggest Christmas trees I’ve ever seen indoors. Christmas carols were playing in the background and people were standing around in awe at the sight.

Chairs in chapel

Chairs in chapel

The tapestry chairs on either side reminded me of the thrones for the kings and queens of Charn, waiting to be awoken by Digory striking the bell – not perhaps a happy recollection but by this point even the ‘ordinary’ furnishings and carvings in Chatsworth were taking on a Narnian significance.

 

 

 

 

Tea with Mr Tumnus

Tea with Mr Tumnus

We then turned left into the Oak Room, renamed Tumnus Towers, and found ourselves in Mr Tumnus’ living room all set out for tea. His kettle was whistling on the fire and a book entitled ‘Is Man a Myth?’ lay on the table, the cover photo looking suspiciously like the Duke of Devonshire! The man playing Mr Tumnus was probably rather old for the part, if he’ll forgive me saying, but did have magnificent furry trousers. But having tea with Mr Tumnus here was very appropriate as it was the Duchess of Devonshire in the 18th century who invented the habit of taking afternoon tea as a stop gap to tide one over as dinners were so late in the evening.  There were two trees in his room, both decorated with gingerbread men. I had read a newspaper account beforehand of what would be in this Narnian experience so I had been expecting Mr Tumnus, but not what we could see from the next room –

 

Mr and Mrs Beaver

Mr and Mrs Beaver

– right into the living room of Mr and Mrs Beaver! She is at her sewing machine and he is scrubbing his back in a bath in front of the fire (not sure where they got this from, but it was funny)! The walls made of logs was a nice touch and there were packets on a table such as wood chips for them to chew on and ‘incisor paste’ for cleaning their teeth, the old-fashioned packaging adding to a 1940s feel.

Father Christmas' sleigh

Father Christmas’ sleigh

One then walked out into the Chapel Corridor and was confronted by Father Christmas’ sleigh. Unfortunately he was not there in person (I probably would have fainted by this point) –

Father Christmas' reindeer

Father Christmas’ reindeer

– but the two reindeer were animatronic and moving as if they were about to eat the carrot and mince pie left out for them by children. Apparently each year, for over a hundred years, Chatsworth has a held Christmas party for the children of their estate workers during which Father Christmas really does come down the chimney! If we hadn’t realised it already, it was now obvious that here they can do things on a much bigger scale than the rest of us. And we were only at the beginning of our Narnian Christmas journey…

 

Part Two concerns Aslan, the White Witch and Turkish Delight.

Part Three concerns the victory of Aslan and the enthronement of the children at Cair Paravel.


The Domestic Servants of the King of Heaven

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The Domestic Servants of the King of Heaven

The Works of George Herbert

The Works of George Herbert

Have you ever worried that you were choosing the wrong career path? Have you ever had friends and relatives trying to put you off your chosen path because they think it’s a waste of your talents? This can be particularly the case for those who feel called to serve God in some way. A call to ordination, for example, can feel like financial doom for those expected to earn high salaries in high-flying professions. Even though money is often the last thing on the minds of those with a vocation, it can still be an issue for loved ones and dependants. And the social standing of a church minister today can seem very low indeed compared to past centuries. At least, that’s what I had assumed. But reading the life of the great poet and priest George Herbert, I was amazed to find him with exactly the same problems – in 1625!

I picked up a beautiful copy of The Works of George Herbert for just a few pence, published by Frederick Warne and Co as one of their ‘Chandos Classics’ range. There’s no date, but it looks around 1880s to me. Now, I love looking in the back of old books to see the lists of the publishers’ other publications, many long forgotten. Along with the names of the great and the good that we are familiar with, there are often amusing names and eccentric titles, plus many examples that show how much we have changed in our interests and habits, as individuals and as a society. In this book, for example, the publisher’s list in the back advertises Manners and Tone of Good Society; or Solecisms to be Avoided, Society Small Talk; or, What to Say, and When to Say It, as well as Party Giving on Every Scale; or, The Cost of Entertainments, and The Management of Servants: a Practical Guide to the Routine of Domestic Service, all written by ‘A Member of the Aristocracy’.

All of these subjects would have been very familiar to the subject of the book itself, George Herbert, although three centuries earlier. He came from a wealthy, aristocratic background, gained a top job at Cambridge University, became a Member of Parliament, and was feted at the Court of King James I for his brilliance. He seemed cut out to be the highest of high flyers at a very young age. But then disaster. Two of his most powerful friends and supporters at Court died, then King James I himself, “and with them all Mr Herbert’s Court hopes”, so Izaak Walton tells us in this biography. So Herbert went to a friend’s house in Kent to retreat for a while and seek God about his future – whether to try again the “painted pleasures of Court life, or betake himself to a study of divinity, and enter into sacred orders.” He was at first very conflicted. A friend at Court advised him not to go in for such a low-status job – Izaak Walton tells us that all his friends considered it “too mean an employment, and too much below his birth and the excellent abilities and endowments of his mind.”

But George Herbert was able to reply:

“It hath been formerly adjudged that the domestic servants of the King of heaven should be of the noblest families on earth; and though the iniquity of the late times have made clergymen meanly valued, and the sacred name of priest contemptible, yet I will labour to make it honourable by consecrating all my learning, and all my poor abilities, to advance the glory of that God that gave them; knowing that I can never do too much for Him that hath done so much for me as to make me a Christian. And I will labour to be like my Saviour, by making humility lovely in the eyes of all men, and by following the merciful and the meek example of my dear Jesus.”

He was deaconed then made prebendary of Layton Ecclesia, a village near Spaldon in Huntingdonshire, in the diocese of Lincoln in 1626, and priested and made Rector of Bemerton, Wiltshire, in 1630. Though opting for that ‘smaller‘ life that many of his contemporaries despised, Herbert’s writings and example of the love and service of God and his fellow humans have inspired millions. Deo Gloria.