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:

Or at Amazon US:




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

(2) ibid., p45.

(3) ibid., p46.

(4) ibid.

(5) ibid., p47.

(6) ibid.

C S Lewis on Truth and Originality

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C S Lewis on Truth and Originality

[A version of this article first appeared in the Christian Writer magazine for Spring 2015]

C S Lewis article in 'Christian Writer' magazine

C S Lewis article in ‘Christian Writer’ magazine

“Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.” (C S Lewis, Mere Christianity, IV, 11)

This is very good advice for anyone seeking to write, perhaps particularly on C S Lewis. There are so many books about him and his thought already in existence and new ones being created all the time, that it can feel foolhardy to attempt to say anything new about him or his circle, the Inklings. However, since this is true about virtually all subjects, what is the writer to do, particularly the writer committed to non-fiction?

Lewis (1898-1963) revelled in being a “dinosaur” in his field, one of the last surviving examples of Old Western Man who read medieval and renaissance texts as if they were native to him, as he declared in his inaugural address as Professor at Cambridge University in 1954. He had already parodied those who tried to be original and up-to-date for its own sake in Pilgrim’s Regress, his first novel of 1933. Here he portrayed the fashionable modernists of the time who pedalled godless philosophies for financial gain and a privileged status in society as the intelligentsia. Lewis showed how Freudianism, Marxism, and most other contemporary ‘-isms’ were frequently illogical and ridiculous if taken to their logical conclusions and were more effective in oppressing individuals rather than in liberating the true self. Once Lewis became a Christian he particularly disliked attempts by liberal theologians to import worldly philosophies into Christianity, resulting in a pseudo-form of the faith, even though he himself was quite happy with some forms of biblical criticism and evolutionary theory.

But for Lewis it was the task of re-educating his fellow citizens on the forgotten core beliefs of the Christian faith that was really crucial. In the Second World War he was to get the chance to do this, not just via the written word but via the most up-to-date technology available, the wireless. In these Broadcast Talks the last thing he wanted to be was original. Arresting, interesting, engaging, yes – in the way he put across the basics of the faith. But the main elements of Christian belief were not his to tinker with and he had found salvation for his soul and meaning for his life by submitting to the classic Christian creeds. He got into a spat with the liberal theologian Norman Pittenger in 1958 on this very issue. Pittenger, who taught Theology at a seminary in New York, accused Lewis, in effect, of dumbing down the faith. Lewis was perfectly aware that he was not a professional theologian and that he was bound to be essentially a populariser in this field, more a translator of the work of orthodox theologians that had gone before him than an innovator. And in his gift for making the distant and complex exciting and accessible lay his strength. In his rejoinder, Lewis rightly defends the necessity of this task:

“One thing at least is sure. If the real theologians had tackled this laborious work of translation about a hundred years ago, when they began to lose touch with the people (for whom Christ died), there would have been no place for me.”[1]

So for Lewis, writing about the Christian faith was much more than an academic exercise, it was an act of “translation” of what already existed, in a way suitable to communicate with a contemporary audience who desperately needed to hear it. More than that, he was obeying the Lord’s command to speak His truth to all people, not just playing around with concepts and ideologies with the intellectual elite. Lewis was not interested in the kind of fame that came from being ‘original’, especially as he was so well-versed in the philosophies and literary styles of the past that he knew how often these tended to just repeat themselves and be anything but ‘new’.

He was also not averse to repeating himself, for example on the topic of truth and originality: in Membership he wrote: “No man who values originality will ever be original. But try to tell the truth as you see it, try to do any bit of work as well as it can be done for the work’s sake, and what men call originality will come unsought.” [2] And in a letter from 1942 he wrote against the need for so-called originality in poetry, not just in content but also in style, concluding “The pother about ‘originality’ all comes from the people who have nothing to say: if they had they’d be original without noticing it.” [3]

God is more concerned with making us new people: “If anyone is in Christ he is a new creation…”, “…be transformed by the renewal of your mind…”, and God is the one who says: “Behold, I make all things new…”. [4] God has made each one of us unique and so the uniqueness of our writing will come from us being true to our real selves as God has made us, not by trying to be something else. In fact trying to be ‘original’ and different and therefore something other than what we are could be seen as an affront to God’s own creativity. We reflect back the divine glory because of who we become in Christ, not in spite of it. Becoming our true selves and achieving self-realisation, which is the story arc of practically every Hollywood story and TV drama, is a free gift to the Christian. We become truly authentic as individuals and therefore as writers when we give ourselves up to Christ and let Him lead us into new life by His Spirit. Then we will truly blossom and achieve what Carl Jung called ‘individuation’. Then, if we are speaking or writing authentically we will be original and different by definition, for no one else can speak as the real you or write as the real you, other than… you.

Lewis ended his broadcast talks during the war on this very point: that “our real selves are, so to speak, all waiting for us in Him…. the very first step towards getting a real self is to forget about the self. It will come only as you are looking for something else.” And that ‘something else’ is of course the Lord Jesus. Lewis then emphasises that the same principle applies in literature, art and all of life – you make a much better impression when you have forgotten about yourself and making a good impression. It is the divine principle of losing your life, one painful bit at a time if necessary, in order to gain true spiritual life. To try and gain a self for yourself and by yourself will bring you only to despair and ruin.

I can’t think of a better way of ending than to be entirely unoriginal and use Lewis’ own ending to his radio talks: “But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in” [5]… including originality.




[1] Lewis in ‘Rejoinder to Dr Pittenger’ in Undeceptions: Essays in Theology and Ethics, edited by Walter Hooper (Geoffrey Bless, London, 1971, p183).

[2] Available in The Weight of Glory, and Other Addresses, edited by Walter Hooper (Macmillan, New York, 1980).

[3] Letter of 23 April 1942 to Martyn Skinner about his poem Sir Elfadore and Mabyna. Lewis was here particularly citing the style of Alexander Pope as one that was still valid, even though held in contempt by many of their contemporaries (Collected Letters of C S Lewis, vol 2, ed. Walter Hooper, HarperCollins, London).

[4] 2 Cor. 5:17; Rom. 12:2; Rev. 21:5.

[5] Lewis, Mere Christianity (HarperCollins, London, 1952, Book 4, ch 11).

Carey’s Oxford: Encounters with the Inklings

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The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books by John Carey (Faber and Faber, 2014)

Professor John Carey

Professor John Carey

My holiday reading last week took an unexpected turn – it turned out to be yet another bout of Inklings Studies instead of a holiday. Not that I’m complaining. It was a fantastic surprise to find Prof John Carey’s new autobiography on the shelf in a friend’s loo and to see it contained accounts of encounters with C S Lewis, J R R Tolkien, Hugo Dyson, Neville Coghill, Helen Gardner, Lord David Cecil, and Austin and Katherine Farrer. True, they don’t all come out of it very well, but I’m as fascinated as the next fan of the Inklings by first hand reports of them and their friends. We all want to know ‘What was it like to meet Lewis or Tolkien? What did they look and sound like? How did they smile, laugh? Did they have any odd habits we don’t know about? And what was it like to study with them or be their college colleague?’ Carey, Emeritus Professor of English at Merton College, gives us some fascinating glimpses as he tells of his own experience in the Oxford of the 1950s onwards.

With it being an autobiography, obviously Carey tells us a great deal about his own life and background which is fascinating in itself. He was born in London in 1934 and can remember the Silver Jubilee celebrations for King George V in 1935 (an elephant in a street parade in particular) and the fiery glare in the sky of the destruction of the Crystal Palace in 1936. I was particularly interested in the time he spent as a boy in Nottingham, my own home town, where he was evacuated in the Second World War for safety. But I will confine myself to Oxford and the Inklings…

Winning a scholarship to study at Oxford meant that Carey experienced the English Faculty there in the 1950s. He is scathing about the archaic nature of the syllabus (“a scandal or a joke, depending on your sense of humour”) which of course Lewis and Tolkien had helped to design. It stopped at 1832, seeming to assume that everyone would read Victorian literature for pleasure anyway and that modern stuff wasn’t worth studying, or at the very least, the jury was out. The syllabus had been heavily weighted towards Anglo-Saxon and early Middle English (pre-1300), “on the grounds, I suppose, that since no one could conceivably read them for pleasure they suited the rigorous demands of an academic discipline.” [1] Carey was a fan of the Modernists and found delving back into Anglo-Saxon a great chore: “Apart from Beowulf only three or four poems are worth reading…” [2] But it was a tremendous luxury to be able to read all day and Carey loved the Oxford tutorial system with its one-on-one time each week with some of the greatest experts on the planet.  Lectures, he found, were sometimes a waste of time. “J. R. R. Tolkien, lecturing on Beowulf was mostly inaudible and, when audible, incomprehensible. He seemed immemorially aged, and green mildew grew on his gown, as if he had recently emerged from a wood.” [3]

Despite these seeming setbacks to his enjoyment, Carey achieved a First in his degree and set about applying for scholarships for postgraduate study. His interview at Merton for a Harmsworth Senior Scholarship was with Hugo Dyson, who had already examined him as an undergraduate: “…Dyson, an Oxford ‘character’, known for his wit. I always found him alarming. He was like a hyperactive gnome, and stumped around on a walking-stick which, when he was seized by one of his paroxysms of laughter, he would beat up and down as if trying to drive it through the floor. It brought to mind Rumpelstiltskin driving his leg into the ground in the fairy tale.” [4] Carey acknowledges that Dyson was one of the famous Inklings and had had a role with Tolkien in bringing C S Lewis to the Christian faith: “So he was, at least in part, responsible for the Narnia books.” [5] But Carey never asked him about it. He does quote the famous story, however, of Dyson cutting off the reading of The Lord of the Rings by Tolkien at the Inklings with his protest: “Oh, not another ******* elf!” [6] But Carey was certainly impressed with Dyson’s humour: “On a good day he was the funniest man I ever met…”, second only to Peter Ustinov who could do mimicry as well, although he always seemed more ‘rehearsed’, “whereas Dyson was famous for his spontaneity. It was said that, one evening in Merton when there was duck on the menu, and the bird served was not duck but pheasant, he remarked, ‘Ah, le mallard imaginaire.” [7]

But on the day of Carey’s interview for the scholarship at Merton he had the surprise of finding that, not only was he introduced to all the Fellows, he was expected to play bowls (called ‘woods’) with them on the lawn of the Fellows’ Quad after dinner, amongst whom was Prof Tolkien. (I too have a Tolkien-related memory of having dinner with the Fellows at Merton when I was a Curate at St Aldate’s church, unfortunately when the Professor himself was long gone. It was around 1994 and we had wandered on the Fellows’ Quad and seen the ruin of the many irises lining the medieval wall, apparently caused by the visit the day before of President Clinton whose helicopter landing in the field next door had whipped off all the flowers, spoiling what should have been a beautiful show. I then had post-prandial drinks in a Fellow’s rooms who casually mentioned that they were the rooms occupied by Tolkien. There was not much there other than bookshelves and a desk and my main memory is of everything painted white. In those days I didn’t have a camera on me, so that was that. The Merton Fellow seemed as nonchalant about it as all in Oxford are who are used to that sort of thing.)

One intriguing detail of what it was like to be a postgrad in English in the Oxford of the 1950s is that Carey had to take two introductory courses in order to specialise in 17th century literature – how to decipher 17th century handwriting, and how to set up a page of type and print on an old handpress in the Bodleian Library, just like a 17th century compositor. Apparently those on the course made authentic-looking 17th century Christmas cards that year!

The other major part of a postgrad’s life is of course Supervision. Carey is critical of the standard of supervision in Oxford in those days. He refers to Kingsley Amis’ description in his Memoirs of Lord David Cecil’s non-cooperation and unavailability for him. But he particularly singles out Dyson for his lackadaisical approach to his postgrads: “…Dyson would slam down a fistful of coin on the mantelpiece, explain derisively that this was all the university paid him for the supervision, and suggest he and [the student] go off and ‘drink it’ in a pub.” [8] (I’m sure there are a lot of us who would pay good money for the chance of a drink in a pub with Dyson, but anyway…)

Carey feels he was lucky to have Helen Gardner as his supervisor. She may have been scary at times, reducing some students to tears, and have knitted during supervisions, but she was brilliant and helpful. Most people at the time, apparently, thought she should have been given the Merton Professorship of English that went to Neville Coghill. Carey writes: “I met Coghill, a tall, twitchy, gentle man with a face full of care.” Coghill was so nervous about giving his inaugural address as Professor that he asked Carey to second for him and read his lecture in case on the day he couldn’t go through with it. Fortunately Coghill managed.

Carey doesn’t seem to have come across C S Lewis much apart from one main encounter at Keble College. The new Warden of Keble in 1960 was the philosopher and theologian Austin Farrer who had just moved there with his wife Katherine, the detective novelist. Carey had managed to get a job there and moved into the same building as the Farrers at the same time. He was hugely impressed with Farrer: “He was lean, quick and witty, and seemed to me – though he was well into middle age – like one of Jane Austen’s clergymen – Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey, say. His wife Kay was tiny, sharp and so neurotic you imagined she’d emit a shower of sparks if placed in a dark room… [She] talked in a series of rapid squeaks that were hard to interpret…. Farrer was the nearest thing to a saint I have met, but he was capable of asperity, as saints no doubt need to be.” [9] Farrer was always very considerate to the Careys and invited them one day to lunch to meet Lewis. Both Carey and his wife had Firsts in English and were in awe of Lewis’ “prodigiously learned” The Allegory of Love, “besides, he had a ferocious reputation as a tutor and was famed for having challenged an undergraduate who failed to share his passion for Matthew Arnold’s Sohrab and Rustum to a sword-fight. However, he was not at all intimidating that day. He had walked down across the University Parks from his home in Headington Quarry, and strode into the room, rubicund and tweedy, with a knapsack slung over his shoulder, like a farmer on holiday.” [10] There were only the Farrers, the Careys and Lewis at lunch that day in “mahoghany-and-damask splendour”, eating stuffed onions served by a housekeeper.

They spoke on literature, as one would expect, and Lewis quoted a line from a poem, “It was a little budding rose”, but couldn’t remember where it was from. Carey reports his ambivalence at saying the source in such august company and showing up their ignorance, as he just happened to have read the Emily Bronte poem that contained the line that week. But he needn’t have worried, as “both Lewis and Farrer were obviously delighted to be enlightened, and showed not the least trace of pique, so in character-test terms they won by an enormous margin….” [11]

Carey had been raised in a Christian context but had lapsed from the faith. However, he seems to have remained fascinated by faith in others, especially the devotional poets of the 17th century. He was also impressed by Farrer’s preaching at Keble chapel. “In the pulpit… Farrer’s personality changed. He would start very quietly, almost in a whisper, and gradually work himself up into a soaring climax, as if the Holy Spirit had entered him, as perhaps it had. I was not a regular chapel-goer but I tried not to miss his sermons because I was interested in the histrionics.” [12]

Another of Carey’s jobs in Oxford was that of Fellow at St John’s College in 1965, teaching medieval literature alongside Tom Shippey who was later to become such an authority on Tolkien. At this point Carey identifies Shippey as “a science fiction fanatic” [13]. Carey is now Emeritus Merton Professor of English, aged 80, having retired in 2011 after a distinguished career at his alma mater and as a writer and critic.

It is sad that he always felt like he was studying the Christian faith from the outside rather than entering into it. “…I came to feel that studying seventeenth century English Literature was really the same as studying Christianity. That was all they seriously cared about, and they cared enough, at a pinch, to kill or to be killed for their own particular brand of it. I was excited by this. As a lapsed Christian I felt I could imagine – just – how it would be to believe as they believed. At heart I knew this was a delusion. I was simply substituting aesthetic admiration for belief, and a real believer would probably tell me there was a special department in hell reserved for people who did that. All the same, it was the nearest I could get. When I read Henry Vaughan, for example, describing his experience of God:

“O joys! Infinite sweetness! With what flowers

And shoots of glory my soul breaks and buds!”

“It seemed to me that no one in the post-God era ever feels joy like that. The death of God has meant the death of joy – if joy means absolute certainty of eternal life. If a modern poet wrote those lines they would be about having sex, which doesn’t seem a very adequate substitute.” [14]

What a shame a man with such an opportunity of quizzing the Inklings and co didn’t discover the open secret of their inner life of joy for himself.



[1] John Carey, The Unexpected Professor, p102.

[2] ibid., p103.

[3] ibid., p122.

[4] ibid., p135.

[5] ibid.

[6] ibid.

[7] ibid., p136.

[8] ibid., p142f.

[9] ibid., p178.

[10] ibid.

[11] ibid.

[13] ibid., p239.

[14] ibid., p123f.

Chesterton Chuckling

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Chesterton Chuckling

G K Chesterton

G K Chesterton

I have a memory of hearing G K Chesterton’s laugh – a deep, rich, infectious chuckle, bursting out of him almost uncontrollably, as if he can’t keep it in. My memory of this is from a short clip – no more than a minute long – which I heard on YouTube a few years ago. I now can’t find this, only another sample of his laugh at an event in honour of Rudyard Kipling in Canada [1], but it’s not the clip I remember. Was I imagining it?! Perhaps someone will find it for me, meanwhile I’ll have to make do with this other sample. It’s also frustrating to know that there was a film made of a literary breakfast before the First World War attended by GKC and Rupert Brooke, amongst others, that’s now lost. What I’d give to see that! Could it be gathering the proverbial dust in someone’s attic somewhere and they don’t even know?

Listening to Chesterton’s speech at the event honouring Rudyard Kipling, all of GK’s wit and intelligence and self-deprecating humour is on display and it’s obvious from the laughter of the audience that this is appreciated. His voice has the posh clipped tones that one hears in old British movies and news reports and has the slow deliberateness of someone used to projecting their voice without amplification. But every so often towards the end of the speech he can’t resist laughing at his own jokes. And that’s what I really love! It’s as though a gush of boyish joy bursts through and punctures the pomposity of the public event, as though we get a glimpse of the real Gilbert, his essence. This is certainly the impression he made on others – that of an irrepressible joie-de-vivre and enthusiasm, of someone enjoying life to the full, as if he had a private spring of gurgling joy that he couldn’t, and wouldn’t, repress.

Here’s a first-hand impression from Holbrook Jackson’s description of him in 1908:

“Best is it to see him in his favourite habitat of Bohemian Soho. There in a certain obscure yet excellent French restaurant, with Hilaire Belloc and other writers and talkers, he may be seen, sitting behind a tall tankard of lager or a flagon of chianti, eternally unravelling the mysterious tangle of living ideas; now rising mountainously on his feet to overshadow the company with weighty argument, anon brandishing a wine-bottle as he insists upon defending some controversial point until ‘we break the furniture’; and always chuckling at his own wit and the sallies of others, as he fights the battle of ideas with indefatigable and unconquerable good-humour.” [2]

At first this doesn’t seem to have much in common with his much quieter creation, Father Brown. But one quality they seem to me to have in common is a mountainous confidence in God as the Creator of a good world that we are required to enjoy, and confidence in a universal church as the joyous servant and instrument of God in the world. Father Brown seems to see the world as his parish and everyone he comes across as his responsibility. He speaks the truth to them before God and hears their awful truth in confession. His God has a global reach and it’s actually quite silly of people not to believe. It reminds me of the astonished response of ‘Bridie’ in Evelyn Waugh’s ‘Brideshead Revisited’ that Charles Ryder is not a believer. How strange! It’s so different to the feeling of marginalisation that one has as a Christian now most of the time. God and His Church are the central truths and it’s the rest of the world that’s odd and out of kilter. Now, I know this theologically, but how often do I feel it ? I remember when re-reading the Father Brown stories several years ago being so impressed with this confidence that Father Brown has as a priest that I had a ‘Father Brown moment’ at the hairdresser’s. My hairdresser, who was not a believer, was saying how worried she was about her fiance who was serving in the army in Iraq – there were only two weeks left before he could come home and they were to be married. With all of Father Brown’s confidence in my mind I said, “I’ll pray that he returns safely and you can get married.” Normally I think I might have said I would pray for her peace of mind in this difficult situation. But the Father Brown (or Chesterton) effect raised my confidence levels and suddenly this stranger was my pastoral responsibility and it seemed obvious that God would hear me – He was Master of all these events in the world. Needless to say I had to return to the hairdresser’s two weeks later to find out what had happened, the confidence level generated by Father Brown having worn off a bit by then. What if her fiance had been injured or killed in that time and my offer to pray now sounded like a facile mockery? Well, I’m glad to be able to say that the hairdresser’s fiance had indeed returned home safely and they were reunited as planned. I suppose I shouldn’t have doubted that the Lord would respond to a heightened level of faith, that was His gift after all. And I’m sure GK would be thrilled at another example of his stories still inspiring people’s confidence in God and the Christian worldview.

And that’s what I hear in Chesterton’s chuckle – a whole worldview and a massive faith in God is communicated in that outburst of fun and joy. Life is so good, he can’t help himself! Let non-believers keep their doom and gloom – Christians have this world and eternal life to be delighted about and a loving Lord who cares and intervenes for good. How fantastic, to be able to communicate the gospel just by how you laugh! Here Chesterton reflects the same view as the great victorian novelist and preacher, George MacDonald. GK loved MacDonald and was influenced by his writing and on this subject they could agree, as MacDonald wrote:

“I wonder how many Christians there are who so thoroughly believe God made them that they can laugh in God’s name; who understand that God invented laughter and gave it to His children. The Lord of gladness delights in the laughter of a merry heart.” [3]

And it certainly wasn’t because MacDonald or Chesterton had easy lives. It wasn’t a laughter generated by having no troubles. When I was thinking how to describe Chesterton’s laugh, I certainly did not want to use the phrase ‘holy laughter’ as that now seems to have such negative connotations – a laugh that’s held back, puritanical, anally-retentive, anondyne – the opposite of Chesterton’s happy gurgling or stupendous roar. Where are the well-known Christian comedians (apart from Milton Jones – God bless him)? Sometimes stand-up comedians are the only ones speaking the truth about the world in our media. We need to listen to MacDonald again:

“It is the heart that is not yet sure of its God that is afraid to laugh in His presence.” [4]

When this world order is over, I’m looking forward to having a good long chuckle with Chesterton.

Meanwhile I think I need some more ‘WWFrBD’ moments…



1] YouTube clip of G K Chesterton at Rudyard Kipling event in Canada, the third excerpt of GKC speaking, at

2] Holbrook Jackson, ‘G K Chesterton’, 1908, quoted in A Booklover’s Companion, The Folio Society, London, 2006, p74.

3] George MacDonald, The Miracles of our Lord, Strahan and Co., London, 1870, p23.

4] George MacDonald, Sir Gibbie, J M Dent and Sons, London, 1911, p152.

Writing as Work and Vocation

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Writing as Work and Vocation

Writing as Work and Vocation

Writing as Work and Vocation

Writers often comment on how strange it is to be writing a new book each day whilst still having to promote their previous book that has only just come out. I certainly feel that way as I am working on my next book (a comic literary novel) at the same time as having to get A Murder in Michaelmas noticed and sold. There is also the next murder mystery to plan and ideas for that keep popping into my head when I’m supposed to be doing other things. And that’s apart from any non-fiction, articles, poetry, etc, that also keep demanding their own time slots. How I ever did a full-time job teaching in a college and get any writing done astounds me! Well, I suppose it was by getting up even earlier in the morning to try and fit in an hour a day, and doing the reading for each project on my ‘day off’.

There are several very good books on how to start up your own business while still in a regular job (eg. Working 5 to 9: How to Start a Successful Business in your Spare Time by Emma Jones) but the emphasis on working all your evenings and weekends as well as a normal job makes you realise that you’ve got to really love that hobby that you want to turn into your main earner. It’s the old truism about vocation – you know you’ve found it when you would do it for nothing and when you can’t believe you’re actually getting paid for doing the thing you love. I certainly felt like that a lot of the time when teaching in college as that is also part of my vocation and I loved being part of the college community. It was just frustrating not having enough time each day to do the rest of my calling, ie. writing. But now, as even my writing threatens to become my daily ‘work’ and multiple tasks clamour for my attention, it’s good to remember the words of Frederick Buechner: “Neither the hair shirt nor the soft berth will do. The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s hunger meet.” I feel very privileged to be able to work each day out of a place of deep gladness. As to how much the world is hungering for what I have to share, we shall see…

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.