There have been more Anglican women novelists than you might think. 13 of them feature in Anglican Women Novelists – from Charlotte Brontë to PD James, edited by Judith Maltby and Alison Shell, and published only this year. Two of the ninevoices were at its launch in the magnificent setting of Lambeth Palace Library in July.
The editors explain that to keep the book of manageable size they restricted it to writers who were British and deceased. But questions of selection are inevitable. Iris Murdoch is here? Yes, because although she lost her faith in Christ’s divinity, and was drawn towards Buddhism, her world was still infused by Anglicanism and she still attended Anglican services. The author of the Iris Murdoch essay (Peter S Hawkins) entitles it “Anglican Atheist”.
And why no Jane Austen, in whose novels the C of E features so much, when Charlotte Brontë gets in? Because between the two lie Catholic Emancipation and the repeals of the Test and Corporation Acts, meaning that other denominations could now take their place freely on the national stage: Anglicanism had lost its ‘default’ position as the nation’s faith and was becoming more of a denomination that you made a positive choice to join.
The essay on Charlotte Brontë (by Sara L Pearson) argues how much her life was rooted in the C of E and how much of her work does too. Shirley, we read, shows her “longing for the Church of England’s preservation and reformation”. In Jane Eyre the male representatives of the Church, Mr Brocklehurst and St John Rivers, are hardly role models, and their failings are compared with (and perhaps compensated for by) the qualities of female characters around them. Also, “the Book of Common Prayer haunts the pages of Jane Eyre … not only for its contents but also as a physical object”: it will have formed such an ever-present part of her childhood.
‘Dorothy L Sayers – God and the Detective’ is the title of Jessica Martin’s piece. She speaks of the role justice and punishment play in her detective novels. She makes the important point that Golden Age detective novels were written in the time when the hangman awaited the unmasked murderer: in that sense the stakes were higher, the ultimate retribution is always in the background. Sayers had trouble with this, we read: she had “increasing unease with narrative arcs which must privilege orderly acts of justice over the wilder power of mercy”. She sees the limitations of this, and justice must come from elsewhere: “her plots have an invisible protagonist, and his name is Jehovah”. The essay then analyses Murder Must Advertise, The Nine Tailors, Unnatural Death and Gaudy Night in this light.
The final essay is ‘PD James – “Lighten our Darkness”’ by Alison Shell. She compares PD James to other Golden Age detective writers, principally Agatha Christie, concluding, “For all her own homage to Christie, her novels are far more violent and desolate than her predecessor’s; if Christie is the quintessential Golden Age detective novelist, James’ fallen world locates her within an Iron Age of crime fiction.” Evil is a reality: and the essay speculates on the degree to which PD James saw evil as a force in its own right. Her novels are steeped in the Anglican Church and its tradition. Churches (in a bleak East Anglia) provide the settings for many key events. PD James herself was a lover of the beauty of its traditional language and was a great supporter of the Prayer Book Society, set up to keep alive the glorious heritage of the Book of Common Prayer. Quotations from it recur in her work.
The other authors covered in the book are Charlotte Maria Tucker, Margaret Oliphant, Charlotte M Yonge, Evelyn Underhill, Rose Macaulay, Barbara Pym, Elizabeth Goudge, Noel Streatfeild and Monica Furlong.
Published by t&tclark, ISBN 978-0-567-68676-3 RRP £27-99