Stagger onward rejoicing

Tag: England (page 1 of 1)

cosplaying Kingship

In a much-celebrated essay on King Lear, Stephen Greenblatt writes about theatrical costumes: 

During the Reformation Catholic clerical garments – the copes and albs and amices and stoles that were the glories of medieval textile crafts – were sold to the players. An actor in a history play taking the part of an English bishop could conceivably have worn the actual robes of the character he was representing. Far more than thrift is involved here. The transmigration of a single ecclesiastical cloak from the vestry to the wardrobe may stand as an emblem of the more complex and elusive institutional exchanges that are my subject: a sacred sign, designed to be displayed before a crowd of men and women, is emptied, made negotiable, traded from one institution to another. Such exchanges are rarely so tangible; they are not usually registered in inventories, not often sealed with a cash payment. Nonetheless they occur constantly, for through institutional negotiation and exchange differentiated expressive systems, distinct cultural discourses, are fashioned.

What happens when the piece of cloth is passed from the Church to the playhouse? A consecrated object is reclassified, assigned a cash value, transferred from a sacred to a profane setting, deemed suitable for the stage. The theater company is willing to pay for the object not because it contributes to naturalistic representation but because it still bears a symbolic value, however attenuated. On the bare Elizabethan stage costumes were particularly important – companies were willing to pay more for a good costume than for a good play – and that importance in turn reflected the culture’s fetishistic obsession with clothes as a mark of status and degree. 

The coronation of Queen Elizabeth II was a genuinely sacral occasion; the coronation of her son will be a theatrical one. The regalia of sacred Christian kingship has been sold to the players — because they, and their international television audience, are the only ones interested. 

But perhaps, through the scrim of spectacle and costume, some observers will catch a glimpse of what the whole business once meant, a brief vision of something I’ve written about occasionally here: the deep human longing for a righteous anointed King. 

P.S. This “deep human longing for a righteous anointed King” is central to my argument for anarchism. But an explanation of that will have to wait for another day.

P.P.S. After the ceremony: Some of my English friends are telling me that I was too cynical in the above. I hereby repent. 

Ronald Blythe, age 100

Rowan Williams on Ronald Blythe at 100:

“He’s somebody who is very committed to the Christian tradition and he uses it to think with, he uses it as a structure – a Christian year, the round of festivals and commemorations, for him is woven into the round of the calendar year as it would have been for generations before him,” Williams says. “You can think more freely and you may be able to feel more deeply if you’re confident that there’s this steady backdrop. You don’t have to keep making things up. There’s a world you can inhabit, your feet are on the ground, and that means you can walk around, breathe deeply and look slowly. That’s faith.” 

Richard Mabey, in his introduction to the new collection of Blythe’s writings that Williams also contributes to, writes: 

Ronnie’s knowledge and practice of scripture are evident in many of his writings. But only in these Wormingford columns does he openly declare his quite unselfconscious, unquestioning, sometimes irreverent, and just occasionally pagan-tinged Christian faith. And as a friend but a non-believer I have to make a reckoning with this. By unspoken common consent we have never discussed religion. But at a dinner with village friends once, I betrayed my metropolitan prejudices by insisting that the church no longer had any influence on everyday social life. Ronnie turned to me and said, quietly, ‘Richard, you don’t know what you are talking about.’ And as far as Wormingford is concerned he was quite correct, as these pages abundantly show. It was the closest we have ever come to a row. 


My friend Adam Roberts has written extensively about this book, but because I knew I wanted to read it, I have avoided reading Adam’s account. I’ll now go back to see what he says, which may make me repent of everything I say here. But there’s value in just getting your thoughts down without too much editing. Also: many spoilers ahead. 

H. G. Wells’s Tono-Bungay is a powerful but oddly constructed novel. It’s a bit difficult to describe that structure but here are what I believe to be the key elements:

1) It is most famously a story about commerce, and especially commerce based in advertising. Tono-Bungay is a patent medicine that does no one any good and might do them a little bit of harm – though its inventor, Edward Ponderevo, thinks that it might have positive psychological benefits that would justify his selling it. (Placebo effect, etc.) So the part of the novel most often commented on, what many critics would describe as the story, is about how Tono-Bungay is manufactured, advertised, and distributed throughout the United Kingdom. The business is, of course, a house of cards that is bound to collapse and eventually does.

2) But this is also a story about a man who is repeatedly thwarted in love. George Ponderevo, the narrator and protagonist, has a failed marriage, some casual affairs, and an unrequited or at least unfulfilled love for a woman – named, ironically enough, Beatrice – whom he meets when they are children and whom he definitively loses when they are middle-aged. One of the first important scenes in the book concerns his initial infatuation with Beatrice and – except for a coda which I will describe later – the book concludes with his final sight of her. (Because they are mismatched socially, the whole situation is quite like that of like Pip and Estella, with the unhappy rather than the happy ending.) Because his love for Beatrice is so prominent at the beginning and at the end of the novel, and because the middle of the novel is so occupied by his failed marriage to a woman named Marion, if I had to say whether this book is a story about commerce in advertising or a story about failed love, I would choose the latter.

3) The third element of the story is a contrast between the fixed character of social life in the world of English countryside and its small towns — a world controlled by a declining and ossifying aristocracy — and the immense energy and mobility of life in London. After early chapters establishing the rigidity of life on a country estate where George’s mother is the housekeeper, and in a sleepy small town dominated by another aristocratic family, the scene moves to London. We’re then treated to an extended panoramic celebration of the city narrated by the awestruck young George. “I got London at last with an exceptional freshness of effect, as the sudden revelation of a whole unsuspected other side to life.” More:

I came to it on a dull and smoky day by the South Eastern Railway, and our train was half an hour late, stopping and going on and stopping again. I marked beyond Chiselhurst the growing multitude of villas, and so came stage by stage through multiplying houses and diminishing interspaces of market garden and dingy grass to regions of interlacing railway lines, big factories, gasometers and wide reeking swamps of dingy little homes, more of them and more and more. The number of these and their dinginess and poverty increased, and here rose a great public house and here a Board School and there a gaunt factory; and away to the east there loomed for a time a queer, incongruous forest of masts and spars. The congestion of houses intensified and piled up presently into tenements; I marveled more and more at this boundless world of dingy people; whiffs of industrial smell, of leather, of brewing, drifted into the carriage; the sky darkened, I rumbled thunderously over bridges, van-crowded streets, peered down on and crossed the Thames with an abrupt eclat of sound. I got an effect of tall warehouses, of grey water, barge crowded, of broad banks of indescribable mud, and then I was in Cannon Street Station — a monstrous dirty cavern with trains packed across its vast floor and more porters standing along the platform than I had ever been in my life before. I alighted with my portmanteau and struggled along, realising for the first time just how small and weak I could still upon occasion feel. In this world, I felt, an Honours medal in Electricity and magnetism counted for nothing at all.

Afterwards I drove in a cab down a canyon of rushing street between high warehouses, and peeped up astonished at the blackened greys of Saint Paul’s. The traffic of Cheapside — it was mostly in horse omnibuses in those days — seemed stupendous, its roar was stupendous; I wondered where the money came from to employ so many cabs, what industry could support the endless jostling stream of silk-hatted, frock-coated, hurrying men.

This contrast between country and city is really key to everything else: surely Tono-Bungay is one of the great London novels. When Edward Ponderevo, George’s uncle, lives in a small town, trying to eke out a living as a chemist, he continually complains about the impossibility of making anything happen in such a catatonic place, and only when he is forced by bankruptcy to move to London and take up a menial job does he actually have the opportunity to create Tono-Bungay – and more important, to create a market for Tono-Bungay. It is the concentration of people in London that enables his creation to go viral. London, the viral city, in multiple ways.

London also puts people in touch with one another who in the countryside or in small towns would either not meet at all or meet only in constrained circumstances. George marries Marion, whom he has little in common with – something he comes to understand even before their marriage – but it’s only because they both live in London that they ever encounter one another. They have certain trivial habits or quasi-interests in common; everything between them arose from a chance encounter of strangers, the kind that almost never happens in the countryside but happens a dozen times a day in London. Their marriage ends because George has an affair with a young woman who works as a typist for his company – again, a connection that only the energy, congestion, and economic drive of the city makes possible.

It is noteworthy that George’s failed relationship with Beatrice happens almost wholly in the countryside, while his failed marriage to Marion happens in the city. His love for Beatrice is doomed by a world that’s too inflexible; his attachment to Marion – which he sees as a “hunger,” not as genuine romantic love – is produced by a world that’s too unbounded.

So one of the things that Wells wants to talk about here is London as a kind of universal solvent, a force powerful enough to disintegrate the long-established social structures of British life, and while we know where Wells’s sympathies lie – he despises the old division of social classes – nevertheless he is quite aware that a universal solvent will occasionally end up dissolving things that shouldn’t be dissolved.

At the end of the book, we get an epilogue in which we’re treated to another vista of London, this time as it appears from the Thames:

To run down the Thames so is to run one’s hand over the pages in the book of England from end to end. One begins in Craven Reach and it is as if one were in the heart of old England. Behind us are Kew and Hampton Court with their memories of Kings and Cardinals, and one runs at first between Fulham’s episcopal garden parties and Hurlingham’s playground for the sporting instinct of our race. The whole effect is English. There is space, there are old trees and all the best qualities of the home-land in that upper reach. Putney, too, looks Anglican on a dwindling scale. And then for a stretch the newer developments slop over, one misses Bladesover [the country house in which the book begins] and there come first squalid stretches of mean homes right and left and then the dingy industrialism of the south side, and on the north bank the polite long front of nice houses, artistic, literary, administrative people’s residences, that stretches from Cheyne Walk nearly to Westminster and hides a wilderness of slums. What a long slow crescendo that is, mile after mile, with the houses crowding closelier, the multiplying succession of church towers, the architectural moments, the successive bridges, until you come out into the second movement of the piece with Lambeth’s old palace under your quarter and the houses of Parliament on your bow! Westminster Bridge is ahead of you then, and through it you flash, and in a moment the round-faced clock tower cranes up to peer at you again and New Scotland Yard squares at you, a fat beef-eater of a policeman disguised miraculously as a Bastille.

We are moving through time: from the ancient English countryside to the city whose function was, for a long time, to consolidate the power of the rural elite, and now into modernity:

And then the traditional and ostensible England falls from you altogether. The third movement begins, the last great movement in the London symphony, in which the trim scheme of the old order is altogether dwarfed and swallowed up. Comes London Bridge, and the great warehouses tower up about you, waving stupendous cranes, the gulls circle and scream in your ears, large ships lie among their lighters, and one is in the port of the world. Again and again in this book I have written of England as a feudal scheme overtaken by fatty degeneration and stupendous accidents of hypertrophy.

Somehow we have moved, in the course of one novel and about forty years, from social sclerosis to “fatty degeneration.” Varieties of poor health: one world in which, as Edward Ponderevo always said, “nothing happens,” and another in which too much is happening; atrophy and hypertrophy. “Amidst it all no plan appears, no intention, no comprehensive desire. That is the very key of it all. Each day one feels that the pressure of commerce and traffic grew, grew insensibly monstrous, and first this man made a wharf and that erected a crane, and then this company set to work and then that, and so they jostled together to make this unassimilable enormity of traffic.”

And from there out into the Sea – the strongest possible contrast. “The river passes — London passes, England passes…”

Wells tries at the end of the story to make an accounting of What It All Means, but I will set that aside. I think what he narrates tells a rather different story than what he means to tell, though in a way he knows that there is a key “symbol,” as he calls it, here. George Ponderevo is making this final passage through London on a warship, a “destroyer” that he has built. It’s worth noting that he had begun his career as an engineer in the immediate aftermath of his divorce from Marion; and has returned to it after his final goodbye to Beatrice. A classic case of sublimation: “Eros, builder of cities” – but in this case Eros, builder of warships. At this point George has seen the loss of some he loves and the deaths of others; indeed, he himself is a murderer; and after the failure of all his loves he motors down the Thames and through the great city of London as an avatar of Thanatos. And that, I think, is what this powerful and sad book is all about: not the manic energies of Commerce but rather the end of Eros and the triumph of Thanatos.


When Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (later to be known as Lewis Carroll) was a child, his father was the rector of the Church of St. Peter, Croft-on-Tees, North Yorkshire, so young Charles created The Rectory Magazine — a sample of which you see above. 

taverns and churches

Nicholas Orme:

Looking at the rows and rows of seats in an English church, some of them dating back to the 15th century, invites questions. Why so many? Were they ever all filled, apart from an occasional wedding or funeral? The assumption is that they were full on Sundays, at least up to 1689, while parish-church attendance was compulsory. We tend to visualise an age of faith, especially up to the Reformation: a “world we have lost.”

There were, indeed, larger medieval congregations than today. Churchgoing was a valued social occasion when, especially in the countryside, there were few others. But the rows of seats are also misleading. They were put in so that people would have their own seats rather than take whatever was available. The congregation was laid out in an order of social precedence: gentry or merchants in the chancel or side chapels, yeomanry or citizens in the front of the nave, and lesser folk behind them.

They were almost all there on Easter Day, which, up to 1549, was a compulsory day of attendance to receive one’s single annual communion. Christmas and Whit Sunday were also obligatory days, although their congregations seem to have been a little smaller.

Attendance on an ordinary Sunday in medieval England was another matter, however. Contemporaries were clear that many people were absent. A succession of archbishops and bishops raged about the fact. The poet Alexander Barclay wrote in 1508: “the stalls of the tavern are stuffed with drinkers when in the church stalls [you] shall see few or none.”

unknown unknowns

In the first printing of my biography of the Book of Common Prayer, I say that Thomas Cranmer was a Fellow of Jesus College, Oxford. This is incorrect. It was Jesus College, Cambridge

Now, I knew perfectly well that Cranmer was a Cambridge man. I just had a brain fart when I put him in Oxford. But the error has still nagged at me. I keep thinking: Would I have done that if I were English? That is, would the difference between Oxford and Cambridge be so vivid in an English person’s mind, especially an educated English person, that such a brain fart would be impossible? Or was it just a brain fart? Maybe in other circumstances I could with equal ease write that, say, Clarence Thomas’s J.D. is from Harvard or that FDR attended Yale.   

I can’t be sure. But the whole episode has made me more aware of all the things natives of a country know that foreigners, even affectionate and well-informed foreigners, have no clue about. My Cranmer error has had me musing about the fact that, while my academic speciality is 20th-century British literature, I may be completely, blissfully (or not so blissfully) ignorant about all sorts of matters concerning the world my writers grew up in that would be obvious to natives of their country.

Indeed I know I have such blanks in my knowledge. When I produced a critical edition of Auden’s long poem The Age of Anxiety, I annotated this passage: 

Listen courteously to us
Four reformers who have founded — why not? —
The Gung-Ho Group, the Ganymede Club
For homesick young angels, the Arctic League
Of Tropical Fish, the Tomboy Fund
For Blushing Brides and the Bide-a-wees
Of Sans-Souci, assembled again
For a Think-Fest … 

Here’s what I wrote: 

These titles are only partly explicable but are meant to suggest, ironically, that the four new acquaintances are the sort of people who would create social organizations devoted to good cheer and moral improvement. Ganymede was a beautiful young mortal who was abducted by Zeus to serve as the gods’ cupbearer; Auden may also have remembered the Junior Ganymede Club frequented by Jeeves and his fellow valets in the novels of P. G. Wodehouse. “Bide-a-wee” is a Scots phrase meaning “stay a while.” “Sans-souci” means “without care.” 

None of this is wrong … but: that excellent writer (and biographer of Auden) Richard Davenport-Hines wrote me to say that 

Sans Souci (in addition to being Frederick the Great’s summer palace at Potsdam) was together with Bide-a-Wee a common name, snobbishly mocked, given to cheap bungalows at down-market English seaside resorts to which lower-middle-class people might retire after a working life as a bank-teller, clerk in a town hall, supervisor in a small workshop, station-master on a small railroad, etc. This would be an immediate association to English readers of the 1940s, or to anyone of my generation. 

I wanted to smack myself for forgetting, or neglecting, Frederick’s summer palace, but that other stuff? I had no idea. And that is extremely distressing to me. 

Which leads me to my recently completed summer reading project: 

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Five thousand nine hundred and seventy-nine pages later, I know so much more than I did about the social history of postwar Britain: random people of brief notoriety, appliances, food products, radio and TV shows, catchphrases etc. etc. The dark question remaining, though, is: How much of it will I be able to remember?

Indeed: Will I even realize, when coming across an item unfamiliar to me, that I could look it up in these books? I am often haunted by a shrewd point C. S. Lewis makes in his Studies in Words: sometimes words change their meanings in ways that don’t call themselves to our attention. Using the current meanings of those words, we can make sense of old sentences — just not the sense that the authors intended, or that readers of their era would have readily identified. 

Still, I am making progress, and Sandbrook’s books, while perhaps less scholarly than Kynaston’s in some respects, are wonderfully well-written and perfectly paced. They were a joy to read. 

There’s one more problem, though. Sandbrook’s project is ongoing — he wants to keep drawing closer to the present day. But … 

  • The first book in the series appeared in 2005 and covers seven years in 892 pages; 
  • The second book in the series appeared in 2006 and covers six years in 954 pages;
  • The third book in the series appeared in 2010 and covers four years in 755 pages;
  • The fourth book in the series appeared in 2012 and covers five years in 970 pages;
  • The fifth book in the series appeared in 2019 and covers three years in 940 pages. 

At that rate of progression I will be long dead by the time Sandbrook gets to Tony Blair. 

a kind of parable

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In yesterday’s post I mentioned the upsurge in the British public’s interest in art during the Second World War. Exhibitions like the one advertised above were all over London — you see several of them in Out of Chaos — and the National Gallery could show the work of living artists because it had empty walls: all of the works of the dead ones had been packed up —

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— and moved to an unused mine, called the Manod Caves, in north Wales:  

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For certain staff members this was not the worst thing that could have happened. The two chief restorers, W.A. Holder and Helmut Ruhemann, now had the opportunity to attend to damaged or merely age-worn paintings in solitude and with all the time they needed. Here’s Holder with Sir Kenneth Clark — later to become world-famous thanks to Civilisation, but then the director of the National Gallery: 

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The windows in the background suggest that this photo was not taken in the Manod Caves but rather in one of above-ground locations in Wales where the pictures had originally been moved before Clark decided that they weren’t safe enough. (Many more excellent photos of the Great Removal may be found here.) 

Ruhemann didn’t stay in Wales long — he took other jobs during the war, though eventually he returned to the National Gallery — but Holder worked in the caves for the duration. I like to think of him there, laboring patiently, quietly, persistently to repair and restore beautiful objects — works born of insight, imagination, and craft but damaged by neglect and the relentless passage of time. Outside the world is convulsed, and God bless those who fight for all they’re worth against its evils, but some of us are called to protect and preserve and restore our inheritance, waiting and hoping for better days, days when we emerge bearing what we have repaired to announce our heartfelt invitation. 

Out of Chaos

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Jill Craigie (1911-1999) was an extraordinary and (in my country anyway) insufficiently well-known figure. Born in London to a Scottish father and Russian mother, she became an actress, a filmmaker, a feminist and historian of feminism, and spouse to the Labour Party giant Michael Foot. Marrying an exceptionally famous man eclipsed the rest of her varied career, alas.

In the midst of World War II she wrote, directed, and narrated a fascinating short documentary called Out of Chaos (1944). If you’re in the U.K. you can follow that link to watch the whole film, but elsewhere you’ll need a VPN. The topic of the film is the dramatic upsurge in the British public’s interest in art during the war, and the film covers a remarkable array of people and activities in its 27 minutes. Here’s a picture, taken during the making of the film, of Craigie and the great Stanley Spencer:

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That’s Spencer in the foreground (I don’t know who that is standing next to Craigie). Here they are again:

Stanley Spencer and Craigie

Craigie’s camera follows Spencer as he makes the first sketches for his magnificent  Shipbuilding on the Clyde paintings — and shows those sketches to the shipbuilders.

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The elfin quickness of Spencer contrasts wonderfully with the calm solidity of Henry Moore, whom we see making sketches for his later-to-be-famous drawings of Londoners during the Blitz sheltering in the Underground. (I think the image below, and most of the scenes of Moore in the film, are re-enactments. In later years he explained that he and his wife had seen these sleepers in the Tube and had been greatly struck by them — the long lines of sleepers reminded him of Africans crowded into slave ships — but out of respect he waited until he was well out of their presence before beginning his sketches.)


Perhaps the most extraordinary scene in the film shows Moore, first with a wax pencil and then with paint, making one of his drawings:


this one:

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There’s so much in this film — even with all this I have only scratched the surface. It’s a miracle of narrative complexity and compression.

Not long ago a film about Craigie’s life was made — I hope to see it. And to get to know more of her work.


All Saints Chapel

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John Piper, All Saints Chapel, Bath (1942); Tate Britain: “Piper already had a reputation as a painter of historic architecture, in particular of ruined buildings, when he was commissioned to record war damage. He had painted in Bristol and the Houses of Parliament when Bath was bombed on the nights of 25, 26 and 27 April 1942 in some of the first ‘Baedeker raids’, so called because the targets were cultural rather than strategic and said to be selected from the pre-war Baedeker guide books. Piper went quickly to Bath when, he recorded, the ‘ruins were still smouldering and bodies being dug out.’” 

Collett’s England

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One of Auden’s favorite books was Anthony Collett’s The Changing Face of England (1926), and it’s easy to see why — it’s absolutely delightful. Here’s a passage from the chapter seen above: 

It is curious to see how floods restore the ancient aspect of the valley landscape, by overflowing the modern chequer-work of fences and hedges, and showing where floods held the field before. Only new houses are flooded when Thames or Medway, or any stream of the populous half-urban valleys, breaks bounds. Bungalows become uninhabitable, swans cruise through rose-beds, but the old farmhouses stand securely dryshod, though scarcely fifty yards from the insurgent water, and perched on so slight a rise as to be invisible until the water came. Old farms and cottages were built with exact knowledge, from experience and tradition, of how far the flood would reach. New houses are plumped down into the channels by which the river disgorges, as though it would never return. 

And a luminous passage from another chapter, on Epping Forest

Yet even in England, woods with a touch of the terror of infinity still survive; and it is one of the strangest things about Epping Forest that, for all its nearness to the East End of London, and its permeation from end to end with the noise of traffic, it yields not only a hundred delightful pictures of the cheerful greenwood, but one or two of the more ancient and formidable type. From the hamlet of Baldwin’s Hill, near Loughton — red omnibuses run close behind it — there is a view across a narrow valley to a flank of the forest rising, beech beyond beech, hornbeam beyond hornbeam, pollarded and rounded, and innumerable as sheep streaming downhill to water, which is full of the true forest sense. Those who walk in the forest soon learn that the great road to Epping and the eastern counties is never a mile away, and that the air is seldom empty of its rumour. But while the ear tells continually of London, the eye carries us far back into Shakespeare’s age, and the old time beyond. Dull streets cease abruptly at the forest’s edge; the bell of the muffin-man echoes on autumn afternoons among the beech-boles hacked by spotted woodpeckers. Silence falls a moment, and we hear the deer belling in the glades; it is one step from Bethnal Green into Broceliande.

voting with the Sparrows

From the new issue of the Economist:

A recent study by the European Council on Foreign Relations, a think-tank, divides Europe’s voters into four groups named catchily, if not entirely convincingly, for factions from “Game of Thrones”, a television series about failures in governance. People confident in both their national governments and the EU sit in the stalwart House of Stark; those who think that their country is broken but that Europe works are Daeneryses. Both will tend towards incrementalism. Those confident in their national government but not the EU are the Free Folk: those who think both are broken are the millenarian Sparrows. Both those factions tend towards radical reform.

If I were English I’d definitely be a Sparrow.

Tim Larsen on John Stuart Mill

My friend Tim Larsen has written an absolutely fascinating brief biography of John Stuart Mill. (It appears in the Oxford Spiritual Lives series, of which Tim is also the editor.) Everyone knows that Mill had little time for or interest in religion, and that his father James Mill, aide-de-camp to that great enemy of faith Jeremy Bentham, was even more hostile than JSM himself. Given JSM’s secular and rationalist upbringing, it cannot be surprising that, as he put it, “I looked upon the modern exactly as I did upon the ancient religion, as something which in no way concerned me. It did not seem to me more strange that English people should believe what I did not, than that the men I read of in Herodotus should have done so.”

However, as Tim shows convincingly, this statement is seriously misleading to the point of being simply untrue. The same must be said for the familiar family story. James Mill was a licensed preacher and had turned to the life of a writer and public intellectual only after failing to get the kind of pastoral position he thought he was qualified for — a fact he carefully hid from his children — and probably didn’t become a complete unbeliever until he was in his mid-forties, by which point JSM was already a ten-year-old, or older, prodigy. James’s wife Harriet was a Christian, each of their nine children was baptized in the Church of England, and probably only two of them (JSM and his youngest sibling George Grote) departed in any significant way from standard-issue Victorian religion. JSM grew up learning not only the Bible but the worship of the Church of England. Nothing about that religion was strange to him.

Moreover, Tim also demonstrates that throughout the course of his life JSM held to a minimal but stable theology, which he summarizes thus:

Even from a scientific point of view and without any intuitive sense or direct experience of the divine, there is still sufficient evidence to warrant the conclusion that God probably exists; God is good, but not omnipotent; the life and sayings of Christ are admirable and deserve our reverence; the immortality of the soul or an afterlife are possible but not certain; humanity’s task is to co-labour with God to subdue evil and make the world a better place; the affirmations in the previous points such as that God exists and is good cannot be proven, but it is still a reasonable act to appropriate these religious convictions imaginatively not he basis of hope.

(One of the most interesting parts of Tim’s book is his exploration of the potent role “hope” played in Mill’s moral and intellectual lexicon.) There is much more than I might comment on, especially Mill’s alliances with evangelical Christians in his campaign for the rights of women — his rationalist friends were generally cold to this idea — and the interestingly varied religious beliefs of his family, but I will just strongly suggest that you read the book. Its subtitle is “A Secular Life,” and JSM’s life was indeed secular, but not in a modern sense. As Tim puts it, in the Victorian era, even for atheists “the sea of faith was full and all around.”

Oxford and Cambridge

It was very interesting next day to see Cambridge. In many ways it is a contrast: there is something, I can hardly say whether of colour or of atmosphere, which at once strikes a more northern, a bleaker and a harder note. Perhaps the flatness of the country, suggesting places seen from the railway beyond Crewe, has something to do with it. The streets are narrow and crowded: the non-university parts depressing enough. Some things – such as King’s College Chapel, in which I was prepared to be disappointed – are indeed beautiful beyond hope or belief: several little quadrangles I remember, with tiled gables, sun dials and tall chimnies like Tudor houses, were charming. One felt everywhere the touch of Puritanism, of something Whiggish, a little defiant perhaps. It has not so much Church and State in its veins as we. The stained windows in the Halls show figures like Erasmus and Cranmer. Oxford is more magnificent, Cambridge perhaps more intriguing. Our characteristic colour is the pale grey, almost the yellow of old stone: theirs the warm brown of old brick. A great many Cambridge buildings remind one of the Tower of London.

— C. S. Lewis, undergraduate at University College Oxford, writing to his father after making his first visit to Cambridge (8 December 1920).


We’re in a society that thinks entirely about faith, because of our sense of encroachment by Islam, and our defiance against that because we have our own way of being, which of course is based in Christianity. But no one is Christian. So we’re trying to defend an ideal which we can’t really define ourselves, which we almost entirely don’t believe in. And we’re coming up against something which is quite overwhelming and encroaching and dictatorial – some aspects of Islam – and yet at another level, there’s something so beautiful and glorious about it. And so I feel as if this conflict is entirely about faith, and yet the one thing no one wants to talk about is faith.

Nicola Barker