Film and Book Reviews

Celebrating Trollope’s wit

BOOKWith stylish and witty writing, illustrations which perfectly catch the spirit of the text, and a perceptive and scholarly introduction, this is a book to savour in the 200th year since the birth of writer Anthony Trollope, writes Beryl Rule.

October 14 2015This is the 200th year since the birth of Anthony Trollope, the writer whose novels and essays so tellingly depicted the 19th century English Church.

Trollope’s Clergymen of the Church of England comprises 10 essays, originally published in the Pall Mall Gazette, with a brilliant introduction by the late Michael Mayne, Dean Emeritus of Westminster. Starting with “the modern English Archbishop”, the essays move down the clerical hierarchy, from deans, archdeacons, country parsons, town incumbents and curates, to “the Liberal… who has long since given up Biblical chronology, has given up many of the miracles and is venturing forward into questions the very asking of which would have made the hairs stand on end of the head of the broadest of the broad… 20 years hence.”

In the introduction Michael Mayne paints a picture of an antiquated Church, “its clergy underpaid, its laity much preached-at but largely uninformed, its bishops tending to withdraw defensively at the first sign of critical biblical scholarship.” It was beset with struggles involving English Catholics, Evangelicals and Liberals and confronted with the challenges posed by science to the Bible and accepted beliefs.

Mayne describes Trollope as “a Church of England man to his fingertips: brought up in an Anglican home, educated at an Anglican school, he admitted that when he got his postal clerkship he knew nothing of arithmetic but could name every bishop in the Church of England”. He was drawn to “tolerance within a broad spectrum of belief and interpretation; a high regard for an individual conscience; moderation in face of extremism; a recognition that sometimes the truth may lie in both extremes rather than somewhere in between.” Although attracted to the growing theological liberalism of his time, and passionate in deploring the poor payment of curates and the “heart-breaking disappointment” which “soured and injured” them as they struggled to support wives and families, Trollope’s ideal remained the cleric who was also “a gentleman”, urbane, genial and preferably educated at Oxford or Cambridge.

In his essay on archbishops (who were chosen by Ministers of the Crown), Trollope wrote, “In our Church, as it exists at present, we have ample latitude joined to much bigotry, and it is almost as impossible to control one side as the other. Such control is, in fact, on either side absolutely impossible; and therefore archbishops are wanted who shall make no attempt at controlling. And yet an archbishop must seem to control – or why else is he there?

“… Whatever else he may be, let the archbishop be a moderate man. Let him always be throwing oil on waters… Nothing should excite him, nothing make him angry. He should be a man able to preach well, but not inclined to preach often. In his preaching he should charm all hearers, but he should hardly venture to stir their pulses…

“Against every attack he must defend himself, and yet he must never commit himself. He must never be dumb, yet he must never speak out boldly. He must be always true to the Thirty-nine Articles, and yet never fight for any one of them.”

Though Trollope valued deans as an essential part of the English Church he loves, he treated them, too, with some irony, writing that their lines had fallen in very pleasant places.

A typical dean, has “done well at university”, has “written a book or two” and is able “to speak his thoughts more openly than bishops are allowed to do.”

 “… A certain amount of yearly residence is enjoined, and it is expected, of course, that a dean should show himself in his own cathedral. Let him reside and show himself, and the city which he graces by his presence will hardly demand from him any other services…. (He) is a gentleman who would probably not have taken orders unless the circumstances of his life had placed orders very firmly in his path…

“There is something charming to the English ear in the name of Dean and Chapter. None of us quite know what it means, and yet we love it. When we visit our ancient cathedrals, and are taken into a handsome but manifestly useless octagonal outhouse, we are delighted to find that the chapter-house is being repaired at the expense of, say, four thousand pounds, subscribed by the maidens of the diocese….”

Trollope was most appreciative when he wrote about the country parson, whose values and standards seemed very much in keeping with the novelist’s own, and who was part of that hospitable rural England Trollope loved so well. It seemed that even a certain parsonical worldliness could be accounted a virtue:

“How they (country parsons) delight in the pleasures of the table, sitting in unquestioned ease over a ruddy fire, while the bottle stands ready to the grasp, but not to be grasped too frequently or too quickly. Methinks the eye of no man beams so kindly on me as I fill my glass for the third time after dinner as does the eye of the parson of the parish.”

With such stylish and witty writing, illustrations by David Eccles which perfectly catch the spirit of the text, and Michael Mayne’s perceptive and scholarly introduction, Clergymen of the Church of England is a book to savour in this anniversary year.

Clergymen of the Church of England, by Anthony Trollope, with an introduction by Michael Mayne, (Darton, Longman and Todd, 2010, $16.94)