Friday, 1 March 2013

Penguin no. 269: Canon in Residence
by V. L. Whitechurch

When we erect a building nowadays to the glory of the Supreme Being, we generally employ an architect who has done something in town halls or other objects of utility. We limit his imagination, because imagination is often expensive, and then we invite tenders for the execution of his plans. The cheapest contract is signed, and up goes a structure of red and yellow brick, and the Bishop of the Diocese opens it with a sermon on worshipping God 'in the beauty of holiness,' and afterwards, at the public luncheon, expresses his gratitude to the local millionaire - who has previously done great things in pork, or shipping, or something - for so nobly heading the list of subscribers 'with his munificent donation of five hundred pounds.'

Victor Lorenzo Whitechurch was a vicar who wrote many works of fiction, although this seems to be the only one which was published as a vintage Penguin. The only copy I have is in such poor condition that I doubt I would have been tempted to read it, for fear it would disintegrate in my hands, if I hadn't received a message from Simon last year telling me that he thought it was brilliant, and having now read it I have to agree with his assessment. Whitechurch offers a delightful and mildly farcical story which gently promotes the virtues of tolerance and charity. Although it seems largely forgotten now, it was clearly popular once, for it went through 15 impressions between its original publication in 1903 and the Penguin paperback version issued in 1940.

Reverend John Smith is a rather conventional middle-aged vicar who writes books on ecclesiastical history in his spare time. After undertaking some research in Zurich, he is intent on a few days relaxation in St Moritz, and is delighted to learn while en route that he is to be the next Canon of Frattenbury, a (fictional) cathedral town in the south of England. But Rev. Smith is on the cusp of an adventure which will radically alter his views on his vocation, so that the man who arrives at Frattenbury Cathedral to take up the post of Canon is fairly changed from the restrained and scholarly vicar who had left for the continent only a few weeks earlier.

His transformation begins with a late night conversation with a fellow hotel guest. The stranger had suggested that the clergy were precluded from ever understanding human nature by having consciously set themselves apart, partly by the sanctimonious disposition they were inclined to adopt, but also by the uniform they chose to wear. In insulating themselves they had ensured that all they would ever experience were the masks people donned in their presence. The stranger proposes an experiment: Rev. Smith should continue on to St Moritz incognito and see for himself if he is treated differently when he goes about without his clerical collar. But the thoughts of the Canon-elect were for his new appointment, and he barely heeds the stranger's suggestion.

It is a different story the following morning when he awakes to find the brightly-clad stranger has decamped by the earliest train, but not before switching their clothes. The Rev. Smith's clerical garments were now on their way to Paris, and he had been left with the stranger's unthinkably garish check knickerbocker suit and turn-over stockings. At first he worries about scandal and impropriety, and the probable condemnation of his superiors should they learn of what has befallen him, but then something of an adventurous spirit stirs within him, and he dons the showy apparel and heads off on his holiday anyway. There he is surprised to find evidence which supports the stranger's assertions, particularly when he learns of the disdain his fellow holidaymakers feel for another censorious vicar holidaying in their midst. As time goes on he not only observes this disdain, but begins to feel it himself. The most important outcome of the week is his realisation that in affecting moral superiority, the clergy alienate the very people they seek to influence. But also, for the first time in years, he finds that he is having fun.

He arrives in Frattenbury with a new conception of his mission, and the determination to energetically embrace his new role. His reception is mixed, with some residents of Frattenbury unexpectedly delighted with their new Canon, and others look forward eagerly to the day he will depart.

It read to me like an example of benevolent propaganda. The residents of Cathedral Close are without exception small-minded, prejudiced, concerned with trivialities, and inclined to rely on old notions of propriety to control the behaviour of others; the younger adults in the town are free-thinking, effective, and determined to make a difference. Whether society ever really partitions into good and bad quite so neatly is probably doubtful, but Whitechurch has fashioned his characters to facilitate his argument.  His case appears to be that a change in thinking was required, and that such a change could simultaneously serve the interests of the church and the poorer members of the community. The clergy needed to be less concerned with being respected, and more intent on delivering to the community what they needed. And along the way he questions the appropriateness of the Church as landlord of the poor, and contemporary approaches to church architecture. With this story, he creates a very appealing character to help sway his readers to his point of view.

Links:
Read the ebook: Canon in Residence
Brief review at Stuck in a Book

6 comments:

  1. I'm so glad there's a proper review of this up somewhere now, Karyn! And even more glad that it's here, of course.

    I thought Whitechurch did well to make a didactic book very amusing. And you've answered my other question - about whether the book would hold up today for someone who wasn't in a vicarage family! It was very clear to me that Whitechurch was a vicar himself, and I empathised with so much of what he said about the way society treats vicars and expects them to behave.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks, Simon - and thanks for the recommendation.

      Of course, I'm not only not of a vicarage family, but also not English and not Anglican - it was never clear to me exactly what the differences were between vicar, verger, canon, and dean. I loved it anyway.

      He is perhaps harshest in his portrayal of the Dean's wife, and a little more sympathetic with the unworldly spinsters, but still very critical. Given that he was a vicar, I would love to know how that was received at the time.

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  2. Thank you for the review and ebook link - sounds great, have downloaded to my kindle.

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  3. I wonder whether it had any bearing on the Father Brown stories of G K Chesterton? There's definite hints of Father Brown playing with his identity, how others perceive him and what he's there *for* in a lot of the stories and they were published just a few years after Whitechurch's original publication date... Interesting review, I can see myself buying this if I ever come across it.

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  4. I have two V.L Whitechurches, both in good condition, both found at car bootsales, and both of which I confess I've still to read. One is the vintage Penguin edition of Canon in Residence, the other is the 1977 RKP reprint of Stories of the Railroad, originally published in 1912. The latter consists entirely of detective stories and is remembered by crime buffs as featuring the first ever 'specialist' detective, railway sleuth Hazell Thorpe. So, to respond to Alex in Leeds, there may well be some bearing on Chesterton's Father Brown.

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