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Saturday 9 March 2024

Review: Peter Ackroyd The English Soul Faith of a Nation



Reading this book was like working through a cut and paste job. Peter Ackroyd acknowledges the help of two research assistants (Thomas Wright and Murrough O’Brien) and I guess they provided the cuts pasted into the potted Wikipedia-style biographies of divines and theologians which comprise the bulk of the book. Those biographies record births, marriages and death-bed scenes – in that order - though in contrast to Wikipedia nothing is footnoted. As far as I can tell, not a single new fact is reported; everything derives from secondary sources of which some are listed as Further Reading. It’s rather dull and there’s no humour at all – perhaps to reflect the fact that Jesus never laughed (the internet has long since gone viral on the subject). Occasionally, the book is coy: was John Wesley a philanderer or not? The book suggests it but doesn’t provide a clear answer. 

I found myself contrasting Ackroyd’s book with two recent works which are thoroughly researched and lively and which light up English religious cultures: Anna Keay’s study of Cromwellian England, The Restless Republic (2022) and Daisy Hays’ Dinner with Jospeh Johnson which treats of late eighteenth century radical and sceptical cultures in which William Blake figures (he gets a chapter in Ackroyd’s book).

Some discursive and slightly better essays appear later in the book but the last chapter reverts to mini-biography, presenting CVs for three twentieth century academic theologians with no attempt to discriminate. John Hick’s important Evil and the God of Love is not elevated above lesser works and there is no recognition of its core concern with solving the intractable theodicy problem: Since there is unmerited suffering in the world then either God is not all good or not all powerful.  Solve that one if you can. I am surprised that no editor was to hand to veto the inclusion of this worse-than-weak last chapter.

From time to time the biographies are interrupted or concluded by strange one-liners about “the English soul”. I quote a selection:

On Julian of Norwich: “The English soul was mediated through homely images.” (page 31)

On Thomas More: “The fight for the English soul had become earnest.” (70)

And again, “The burnings [of heretics] continued, shedding fitful light on the English soul.” (73)

On Henry Barrow: “But his witness survived, and became a significant aspect of the English soul.” (107)

On the Authorized Version: “It might even act as a mirror of Englishness itself, and by extension the English soul” (140)

On George Herbert: “Little Gidding became, for Herbert, a vision of spirituality in the world. It became a corner of the English soul.” (147)

On William Blake: “Yet in truth his vision has never been lost. It is integral to the English soul.” (240)

As a response to Samuel Butler: “it is certainly true that the established religion rested on what was comfortable and what was familiar. That has always been the default position of the English soul.” (261)

And so it continues. Wrap up all your expositions with the same phrase and it reveals itself as either trite or vacuous. Ackroyd nowhere tries to place the notion of soul in relation to, say, heart or spirit. There are those who are kind-hearted and those who are mean-spirited; we use such terms to describe characters and make moral assessments.  Is a soul in contrast something which can only be evaluated from a theological standpoint as saved or damned? But then it would be rather odd to have a theology which had a category of English soul as if there might be French ones or Russian ones or Japanese ones requiring  separate theologies. And would those theologies acknowledge that there is more than one path to salvation? It hasn't really been part of the spirit of theologies to allow that.

Regardless of who is responsible for what, this miscellany is in no sense an enlightening history of Christianity in England or a successful evocation of the varied ways it has infused the experience of some generic English soul. To have achieved anything approaching such lofty ambitions would have required some informing sense of history and structure. Should one be thinking of a Great Tradition (Leavis-style) of lives and works or of a Simultaneous Order (T S Eliot-style) of cultural monuments?

Or should one be looking for the reflection of social changes in the way Christianity has been expressed and lived (in the style of R H Tawney, Christopher Hill and the Hammonds)? The English soul would then take different forms in different contexts:  changing configurations and strategies of state power; the distribution of literacy and access to knowledge; and, most obviously, the changing ways in which the worlds of the rich and the poor have been conjoined (“The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate; God made them high and lowly and ordered their estate” – second verse, All Things Bright and Beautiful).


Peter Ackroyd was a scholarship boy who studied at Clare College, Cambridge re-endowed (as Clare Hall) in the fourteenth century by Lady Elizabeth de Clare. Part of her endowment comprised land and the church benefice in the nearby village of Litlington. Fellows of Clare regularly took the church living and then employed a curate to do the actual work, making the usual profit on the deal. But the Rev Dr William Webb, Master of Clare from 1815 to 1856 and vicar of Litlington from 1816 to 1856 actually lived much of the time in its rectory and indeed died there. This apparent devotion to clerical duty allowed him to pursue a lifelong passion for agricultural improvement; he brought Enclosure to Litlington in 1830. The consequences followed as they did everywhere. My Pateman ancestors, for centuries Litlington agricultural labourers, were scattered – some as far away as Australia by transportation or assisted passage. Some remained but suffered again from the mid-Victorian agricultural depression. Despite that depression, promptly after his death Dr Webb’s executors auctioned his crops growing at Litlington  for £405. 

Webb's  successor the Reverend Joseph Power (vicar from 1856 to 1866) may or may not have known much about his parish. His interests lay elsewhere; he was University Librarian and also looked after the wine cellar at Clare ( the records are archived); as a mathematician he had successfully explained the mechanical cause of one of the first fatal train accidents in England. But in August 1864 he was able to sell the barley growing on his  four Litlington acres for £23. The year is significant for my history.

In December 1863 my great great grandfather James Pateman stole a bushel of beans from his master, a local landowner, because his pregnant wife Susan was ill and their family hungry; he paid the price with 14 days hard labour in January 1864. A daughter, a little Emily, was born at the beginning of February but died before the month was out after a private baptism at home – anyone could perform such an act but it was probably done by a local dissenter; the Patemans had married in an independent Meeting House in nearby Royston, a centre of lively dissent from the time of the Civil War. In the 1870s after the early death of Susan who had no more children, her teenage son John - my great grandfather – became another of those who left the stricken village; he made his way to Brick Lane in London’s East End and found work in the giant Truman Hanbury and Buxton brewery which offered effective competition to the other opium of the people. By this time it’s probable that the Patemans were no longer dissenters but simply godless, which is how I experienced my Pateman grandparents. But none of them transmitted orally or left anything in writing to reveal how they experienced their lives;  they can only appear to me as if bereav'd of light. As the Hammonds put it in The Village Labourer, “this lost world has no Member of Parliament, no press, it does not make literature or write history; no diary or memoirs have kept alive for us the thoughts and cares of the passing day” Their take on the English soul has to be guessed at.



After a  prefatory warning  that you will find nothing here about Judaism or Islam or … but don’t be offended etc…. Ackroyd’s book starts with Bede when I would have expected Augustine, sent to re-christianise an island abandoned by the Romans and Rome. Arriving at the head of a large expedition funded by Pope Gregory and heading straight to the Canterbury capital of the local secular power, Augustine’s first task was to get Aethelberht on side and that he achieved. He got the protection and resources in cash and kind without which no religious mission can put down roots, outspend and defeat competitors   Aethelberht had his reward in this world: renewed church power and old state power were going to march arm in arm and have done so ever since. But I guess Augustine doesn’t make the cut because he wasn’t English and, to boot, the agent of a foreign power. (And, yes I agree, that’s an old English trope).

As for lived experience which touches the soul there is in Ackroyd’s book precious little about country churchyards, church bells tolling for thee or me, organs belting out the tunes which all the faithful come to sing. There is surprisingly little about parsons, benefices, tithes, the Victorian clerical novel, Sunday and National schools, Nativity plays (were you Mary or a donkey?), the cost of keeping up bishops’ palaces, cloister intrigues, schoolboys beaten, choristers interfered with. Nor is it pressed upon us that the lives of our ancestors since Augustine arrived have, for the very most part, been nasty, brutish and very short, Christ or no risen Christ. We too easily forget both infant mortality and how that experience affected husband, wife and siblings. It is not surprising that we encounter so much evidence of melancholia in those who did record their lives. The money spent on understanding the perils of childbirth and on laying-in wards was a minute fraction of that spent on steeples and spires. 

Ackroyd sketches the outer lives and inner struggles of his cast of mostly male characters. Some of the choices are obvious ones, some less so. A chapter on three Atheists (Charles Bradlaugh, Annie Besant, Richard Dawkins) included, as it were, to represent the Other Side, simply ignores such details as the distinctness of not believing in the existence of a God or any gods and not believing in any kind of personal immortality (which I suppose knocks out one version of the Soul, English or not). It does not treat secularism as a distinct belief cluster which could be adhered to by theists and quite often is outside of a Church of England which still clings fiercely to the secular privileges without which it would now die.  Ackroyd is silent on agnosticism as distinct from indifference. He does not allow for those who rather awkwardly feel that some form of unbelief is a moral obligation imposed by the record of terrible crimes committed – and across millenia - in the names of organised monotheisms. It’s for much the same reason that many have felt obliged to renounce the more recent ideals of Communism.


I do share the hope that everyone who lives long enough will come to feel that there is some Quest or other that they must undertake before it is too late. Some discover very young, some never. The English soul? This is Rudyard Kipling in Kim:

“…we must find that River; it is so verree valuable to us”

“But this is gross blasphemy!” cried the Church of England.





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