Bloxham Festival of Faith and Literature, “a literary festival with a theological slant,” has been running since 2011, but this past weekend marked the first time I managed to attend a few Saturday sessions. It was held at Oxfordshire’s very posh Bloxham School (sample course schedule: Mandarin, riding, and Shakespeare on Film). The theme for this year being “All the World’s a Stage,” all the events were given Shakespeare lines as titles. Hey, even the free chocolate bars from the Meaningful Chocolate Company were tailored to the Shakespeare theme!
The morning began with an interview with Sarah Perry. Now, I have to admit that I didn’t really get on with her first novel, After Me Comes the Flood. Still, I was intrigued by how she incorporates biblical themes and her religious background in her fiction, so I thought I’d give it a go. Perry herself wasn’t at all as I expected her to be. I’d only ever seen one tiny press photo, in which she had a somewhat tomboyish haircut and had a demurely downcast gaze. So I was pleasantly surprised to find she was voluble, learned, and confident; in a black lacey dress and with loosely pinned hair, she resembled a modern Gibson Girl with a Gothic twist.
Interviewed by the editor of the Church Times newspaper, Perry spoke a bit about her upcoming novel, The Essex Serpent (to be published in the UK by Serpent’s Tail on June 18th), set in 1890s London and an invented village on the Essex marshes. In keeping with the talk’s title, “I would not wish any companion in the world but you,” the book is about friendship, specifically that between a vicar and a widowed amateur naturalist. Inspired by her own relationship with her (male) best friend and by intimate ‘love letters’ she found that passed between friends (like St. Paul to the Philippians and D.H. Lawrence to Jack Murray, or Montaigne writing about his best friend), the novel seeks the goodness in its characters.
The two readings Perry gave were lush, Dickensian descriptions of the City under rain and a drunken man going for a dip in the marsh and seeing what appears to be a sea creature. Perry was surprised when her debut novel was described as Gothic, but she’s embraced the label now: her third book, currently in progress, is full-on Gothic horror. What links all of her work, she thinks, is the Gothic notion of the thing lurking over the shoulder. For Perry, that ever-present threat is Reformation theology: the idea that man is born in sin and deserves damnation. During her Strict Baptist upbringing (which she, not coincidentally, describes as being like living in the 1890s), she was cut off from contemporary culture and influenced primarily by the King James Bible and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.
Perry spent a short time as a missionary in the Philippines and was a biblical fundamentalist until age 25, when she and her husband (whom she met at 13 and married at 20) left the church. Stepping outside of that limiting community was the impetus she needed to start writing; although she had had stories looping around her head since the age of four, she had rarely written anything down. She completed a creative writing MA and PhD, all while working full time at the Inns of Court.
After Me Comes the Flood was rejected by 14 publishers; even her viva examiners, who passed her without corrections, were “ungracious,” she remarked. What it comes down to, she thinks, is simply that no one liked the book or knew what to make of it. It seemed unmarketable because it didn’t fit into a particular genre. At this point I was sheepishly keeping my head down, glad that Perry couldn’t possibly know about my largely unfavorable review in Third Way magazine. I confess that my reaction was roughly similar to the general consensus: “Not quite an allegory, [the book] still suffers from that genre’s pitfalls, such as one-dimensional characters,” I wrote.
A glowing Guardian review from poet John Burnside was enough to give Perry confidence to keep going as a novelist, and – having taken forever over writing her first book, an experience she likens to like pulling teeth because she had no idea what she was doing and could rarely overcome her natural laziness – she went on to write The Essex Serpent within just 10 months. And I’m glad she did, because this new book sounds right up my alley.
It will be interesting to see how she imagines a platonic friendship between the sexes in a historical setting, and the Dickensian and Gothic touches, even from the little taster I got, were delicious. I was especially intrigued to learn about her research into the friendship ‘triangle’ (betrayal! early death! forgiveness!) between William Ewart Gladstone, Alfred Tennyson, and Arthur Henry Hallam. Perry said she thinks the tide may be turning, that friendships rather than romantic love could be starting to dominate fiction; perhaps Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life from last year would be a good example.
In the other sessions I attended, a group of clergy revealed the shortlist for the £10,000 Michael Ramsey Prize for theology (to my surprise, I’d read one of the nominees, Unapologetic by Francis Spufford) and panelists introduced a forthcoming anthology of essays on Anglican women novelists from Charlotte Brontë onwards (to be published by Bloomsbury in January 2018). Jane Williams, wife of former archbishop Rowan Williams, will contribute a chapter on Barbara Pym, who obviously loved the Church but also sits at an anthropological distance to poke gentle fun at it. Her novels sound like great fun. Judith Maltby, one of the editors, convinced me that I need to read Rose Macauley’s The Towers of Trebizond (1956), while co-editor Alison Shell made the case for P.D. James’s late inclusion.
Chaired by contemporary Anglican novelist Catherine Fox, the panel noted two common threads in many of the featured novelists: detective fiction and humor. The striking number of crime novelists (including Dorothy L. Sayers and Ellis Peters), Shell suggested, one might attribute to an Anglican license to moralize or a preoccupation with ‘last things’. Humor, meanwhile, seems to arise from the little hypocrisies inherent to religious life and to the fact that liturgical seriousness can often tilt into comedy. Other repeated themes include the sacraments, the role of the spinster, and class – the clergy are often educated but poor. I came away with a list of authors to try; many of their works are available through Virago reprints.
All in all, it was a terrific, thought-provoking experience for me – a perfect mixture of literature and theology, and a great way to spend a blustery February Saturday.