This book, published in 1920, is dedicated to Arnold Bennett whose reputation amongst the literati was damaged by the negative attentions of Virginia Woolf. Birds of a winged feather it seems.
The epigraph is by William James:
"I confess that I do not see why the very existence of an invisible world may not in part depend on the personal response which any of us may make to the religious appeal. God Himself, in short, may draw vital strength and increase of very being from our fidelity. For my own part I do not know what the sweat and blood and tragedy of this life mean, if they mean anything short of this. If this life be not a real fight, in which something is eternally gained for the universe by success, it is no better than a game of private theatricals from which one may withdraw at will. But it feels like a real fight—as if there were something really wild in the universe which we, with all our idealities and faithlessness, are needed to redeem; and first of all to redeem our own hearts from atheisms and fears ..."(from The Will to Believe)
If God’s power waxes and wanes according to the strivings of pilgrims here below much of the faith that is adhered to by the characters of this novel does not encourage him. That may be to the advantage of this man:
Death leapt upon the Rev. Charles Cardinal, Rector of St. Dreots in South Glebeshire, at the moment that he bent down towards the second long drawer of his washhand-stand; he bent down to find a clean collar. It is in its way a symbol of his whole life, that death claimed him before he could find one.
At one moment his mind was intent upon his collar; at the next he was stricken with a wild surmise, a terror that even at that instant he would persuade himself was exaggerated. He saw before his clouding eyes a black pit. A strong hand striking him in the middle of his back flung him contemptuously forward into it; a gasping cry of protest and all was over. Had time been permitted him he would have stretched out a hand towards the shabby black box that, true to all miserly convention, occupied the space beneath his bed. Time was not allowed him. He might take with him into the darkness neither money nor clean clothing.
He had been told on many occasions about his heart, that he must not excite nor strain it. He allowed that to pass as he allowed many other things because his imagination was fixed upon one ambition, and one alone. He had made, upon this last and fatal occasion, haste to find his collar because the bell had begun its Evensong clatter and he did not wish to-night to be late. The bell continued to ring and he lay his broad widespread length upon the floor. He was a large and dirty man.
There are many excellent passages in this novel which draw on the ecclesiastical insider knowledge of Walpole whose father finished his career in the Church of England as Bishop of Edinburgh. It has that attitude towards the Nonconformist chapel folk which the Established Church fostered. They disdained the whiff of tent. When Walpole considers the Church of England and the life of the vicarage a similar antipathy is expressed.
However between the ‘good bits’ there are narrative stretches when you long to give the authorial victrola a vigorous wind. Maggie Cardinal is the daughter of the late vicar of St.Dreot’s who goes to live with her aunts Ann and Elizabeth in London. They are prominent members of a Methodist Sect whose ‘prophet’ is Mr. Warlock. Their house is round the corner from the chapel:
They turned out of their own street into a thin, grey one in which the puddles sprang and danced against isolated milk-cans and a desolate pillar-box. The little bell was now loud and strident, and when they passed into a passage which led into a square, rather grimy yard, Maggie saw that they had arrived. Before her was a hideous building, the colour of beef badly cooked, with grey stone streaks in it here and there and thin, narrow windows of grey glass with stiff, iron divisions between the glass. The porch to the door was of the ugliest grey stone with "The Lord Cometh" in big black letters across the top of it. Just inside the door was a muddy red mat, and near the mat stood a gentleman in a faded frock-coat and brown boots, an official apparently.
It is a complex novel, ambitious in scope written from the point of view of Maggie Cardinal and it reflects the reticence of that era. The theme of captivity and liberation from theology is well sketched in many set pieces which relieve the occasional narrative drag.
To balance the picture of the ugly clear-light chapel Walpole, a man of refined artistic sense who amassed a wonderful collection of modern art which he left to the public, introduces us to the new and gaudy Anglican Church:
Early on that first afternoon she was taken to see the Church. For a desperate moment her spirits failed her as she stood at the end of the Lane and looked. This was a Church of the newest red brick, and every seat was of the most shining wood. The East End window was flaming purple, with a crimson Christ ascending and yellow and blue disciples amazed together on the ground. Paul stood flushed with pride and pleasure, his hand through Maggie's arm.
"That's a Partright window," he said with that inflection that Maggie was already beginning to think of as "his public voice."
"I'm afraid, Paul dear," said Maggie, "I'm very ignorant."
"Don't know Partright? Oh, he's the great man of the last thirty years—did the great East window of St. Martin's, Pontefract. We had a job to get him I can tell you. Just look at that purple."