Saturday, 28 December 2013

Review : “And Now to God the Father” by Daphne du Maurier

Daphne du Maurier, when interviewed strongly denied that she was a romantic novelist, in spite of writing “Rebecca” and “Frenchman’s Creek”. I would agree with her evidenced by her powerful short stories. In fact, she had a deep psychological insight into human passion, guilt and sin.

A number of her earliest stories are collected in “The Doll” published by Virago (2011). Du Maurier inherited the lampooning spirit of her French paternal grandfather, the cartoonist of Punch Magazine but she was certainly no caricaturist. For me, one story stands out in this collection, written in her early twenties.

It is an unpolished masterpiece of some depth. “And Now to God the Father” is a pen portrait of a vicar, Revd James Hollaway, whose name sums up his superficiality. The story opens with the vicar admiring his own good looks in a mirror. It quickly moves to the adoring women in his congregation, whom he sees as “tools of his ambition”. They are only too willing to believe in his inner goodness. It soon becomes clear that what he is really is, is an actor with a very sonorous voice. His strong appeal to females is his single status which, together with his role, enables him to mix freely with the people of his choice, who are famous actresses and titled women, in theatrical high society.

This characterization could appear, at first, to be just anti-clerical and feminist, a devastating analysis of the Establishment's networks of amoral power, fed by “little" people, such as the adoring often unattached women who psychologically "latch on" to vicars.

Rev James Hollaway is Anglo Catholic, an Anglican vicar of Catholic tastes, who leads the imaginary St Swithen’s in Upper Chesham Street. His church sounds rather like an Anglo Catholic high society church, probably in Chelsea during the 1920s. Du Maurier describes its “drugged atmosphere” created by “heavy-scented flowers and waves of incense”, by the organ with its “deep, sensuous throbs”, by vestments and by boys “in red”.

The Mass is “a drama” in which the Vicar is “the main actor”. She writes “The choir and organ serve only as complements to his own voice”. The vicar is “tall and broad shouldered" with "a straight nose and magnificent iron grey hair”. His added appeal is that he does not talk religion, except with “the intense” (on Thursday evening). Like the rich, he attends the theatre in the company of wealthy ladies of leisure. He is a very worldly man. Of course, her scathing portrait could apply to any other strands (liberal, evangelical, charismatic) in the Anglican, or any other church, today. It could indeed still apply in some churches in London. There have been London vicars with a following who will “probably be a Bishop”, who when they disrobe, go out to celebrity parties or home to a multi-million pound London mansion. This phenomenon was certainly in existence before post-modernism undermined class and snobbery, but it still exists, no doubt in other forms, whenever the flock become “tools of ambition”, manipulated by religious leaders for their own ends. It is a phenomenon of cults.

Du Maurier brilliantly goes deeper and further. A titled young man privately asks Rev Hollaway to intervene with a young, innocent woman without money whom he has got pregnant and who is asking him to marry her. Rev Hollaway does this, but with naked sadism, entirely without concern for the woman. He brands the pregnancy as her fault (for having anything to do without someone not in her class). Then he suggests that she got pregnant merely to snare a wealthy man. He offers to arrange to have the baby adopted and to send her to India, to work alongside a female missionary. In fact, looking back, in the 1920s when pregnant women were put away in psychiatric homes for life, this was not the worst that could have happened to her! When he reads in the newspaper the next day about her suicide, he is more concerned about another article, attacking society women who “do nothing”.

Rev Hollaway is a dangerous sham, since, due to his clerical role, he gains the trust of those who should look elsewhere for genuine help. This could be a feminist story, but Du Maurier instinctively pierces to the heart of the problem, which is Rev Hollaway’s inadequate understanding of sin. WE are told that after 'solving' the issue of the pregnant woman, Rev Hollaway kneels at his bedside to acknowledge to God his sins of the day. Clearly, his handling of the vulnerable woman is not one of them, since he has no guilt or conscience when he reads about her death.

The dark du Maurier vision is that of a vain man, brought up to say his prayers and confess sins at a superficial level, tended by gullible women, whom he manipulates for his own ends, who uses religion as his medium for a comfortable income, and his own pleasure. However, in feeding his own vanity (the flesh) his kills his soul, the soul in which his conscience resides. He becomes an agent of evil, in spite of his external respectability rather like the New Testament Pharisees who sought to kill Jesus.

This story is an insight into what the Bible teaches about God “hardening the heart” as his punishment on habitual sin. It is also a parable about gaining the whole world and losing one’s soul. Young Du Maurier strongly condemns both the complacent rich and the silliness of adoring and gullible women which helps to create men of vanity.

From my viewpoint, the ultimate evil is the quenching of true Christianity in the church and elsewhere.

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