The Challenge to Sirius
Where the early pre-war novels of Kaye-Smith explore ideas of faith “The Challenge to Sirius”, written during the First World War, begins to establish particular concerns with religious belief that were to become the central focus in later novels. This novel is a Bildungsroman with the emphasis on the spiritual and religious development of the protagonist. The narrative is the ‘life’ story of Frank Ranger from childhood in the 1830s to old age in the 1880s. Frank’s childhood is spent living with his father and the Coalbran family on a farm in Sussex. Educated by the local clergyman, Frank has a childhood sweetheart, Maggie Coalbran, and begins his adult life working on the farm. When his father commits suicide he decides to go to London to work as a writer. His failure as a writer, a failed love affair and his love of the countryside bring him back to the farm but, with Maggie married, he decides to join her brother as a soldier fighting for the Confederates in the American Civil War. During his escape from the Union forces he is washed up on the shores of Yucatan and is rescued by a Roman Catholic priest. After many years acting as a servant to the priest, and after the priest’s death, Frank decides to return home. In old age he marries the widowed Maggie.
Frank’s journey to a contented life is beset by difficulty. Frank’s education from the village clergyman, Bellack, whose name suggests that he is ‘lacking’, is portrayed as sufficient in his knowledge of secular matters, but in religious concerns is perceived to be lacking any heartfelt or strongly held convictions. Unsure of his own direction, Bellack explores, in his writing, concerns over the direction of his religious belief in a series of unpublished articles that reflect and echo the very same questions that Kaye-Smith had highlighted in her early novels: ” ‘Is a Return to Nature Desirable?’ . . . ‘Is Religion a Diversion of the Sex Instinct?’ . . . ‘A Hundred Good Reasons for Going over to Rome and a Hundred Equally Good Ones for staying where I am’ “(CS 8). After the suicide of Frank’s father his search for a meaning and direction in life leads him to seek guidance from Bellack. The inadequacy and vacillating nature of the clergyman in his reply to Frank as he suggests ” ‘The great question of all choosers and adventurers is ‘Was it worth while?’ – and whatever else you may expect of life, don’t expect an answer to that’ ” (CS 46) begins to portray Anglicanism as a faith that lacks direction. Building on this initial impression, Frank’s move to London and his job as a journalist on a religious paper entitled ‘Dr Protestant’, an anti- Tractarian ( The Oxford Movement, also known as the Tractarian Movement, was a form of High Church Anglicanism that began in the 1830s in Oxford, and later became known as Anglo-Catholicism. Its founders included John Henry Newman and Edward Bouvrie Pusey.) publication, is used to contrast ‘low’ church Anglicanism with that of the Tractarians or Puseyites. ‘Mainstream’ Anglicanism is characterised as full of “spite and calumny” (CS 85) and set in stark contrast to the Anglo-Catholic church where Frank is able to find peace and contentment. Stress is placed on the sensual quality of the worship in the Puseyite churches. In this environment Frank found
“a kind of peace in those dark interiors, with their crooning organs, and the etiolated voices of their faithful. There was beauty, too, in the lights that shifted and swayed round the altar, glowing on marble and cloth of gold, while the blue smeeth of the incense rocked up from the censers, and young boys in scarlet and white grouped themselves against the shadowy backgrounds” (CS 84).The whole experience is related in terms of a spirituality that “at once enticed and disturbed him” (CS 84).
In the search for a philosophy that gives some meaning to ‘life’ through religious conviction, Frank is convinced that “it was beauty and colour which were good in life”, that “the only beauty and brightness in his London life would be found in [an Anglo-Catholic] church” and that the alternative provided by ‘low’ church Anglicanism was a “dinginess and repression” that was “mistaken and evil” (CS 87). To reinforce the case for Anglo-Catholicism and to demonstrate the lack of individual religious conviction in the ‘low’ church, Bellack feels that the ultra Protestant leanings of Anglicanism are “fast driving me to join the Puseyites” but he is unlikely to make such a commitment “until my Bishop does likewise” (CS 115).
In this novel Kaye-Smith begins to develop a more holistic religious philosophy in which she tentatively starts to combine her approbation for the Catholic form of Anglicanism with her belief that God can be experienced through the natural world. Using the stars as representative of creation, their remoteness in the heavens enables God the creator to be presented as the wrathful, uncaring, indifferent God of the Old Testament. God’s distance from man is seen in “the stars [that] had no part in earth or in him [Frank], they belonged to a consciousness which stood above and beyond his pain” (CS 188); heavenly judgement appears to be dispensed by a greater than human power when “A meteor fell slowly among the stars; he [Frank] saw it drop into the woods, cleaving the sky like a fiery sword” (CS 201). The indifference of God, to the fate of humanity, is symbolised by the Dog star, Sirius; the star “they call Orion’s Dog, and though it is the brightest of all stars it bodes no good” (Homer 397-8). When he is in America, while waiting for the attack on Look Out Mountain,
(The Battle of Lookout Mountain was a skirmish in a much bigger campaign for control of the Tennessee River and was fought on November 24th 1863 as part of the Chattanoga Campaign. The Confederate army was forced to retreat from Lookout Mountain by the Union forces.) Frank recognises this star as “Sirius, symbol of the Divine Indifference. That huge remoteness, that vast Unknown and Unknowing, had never disappeared in all the latitudes of his wandering. The Divine Indifference hung as surely over that Isle of Oxney as over the mountains of Tennessee” (CS 281-2).
However if the remoteness of the heavens is indicative of God’s detachment from the fate of humanity, closeness to the earth can provide comfort in the alien world of America. Frank finds that the “close scent of the earth was the same as at home – soil, leaf-mould and violets . . . perhaps it was this homely fragrance which kept him asleep” (CS 219). Not until Frank is rescued by Father Cristobal, in Yucatan, is an explicit link made between Christianity and the natural world. The simple Catholic faith that is encountered by Frank in the Mexican forest “was not a moral system, it was a natural religion; and perhaps this was why for the first time he felt religious instincts and cravings stir in his heart” (CS 384). Here the spiritualism of Anglo-Catholicism and the concept of a God of creation takes on a universality that, in its simplicity, allows Frank to understand ” the secret of the mystical union which he had felt existing between the Church and the forest” (CS 384). Not distanced from the worshippers, but part of their everyday life, the crucified Christ is horrific in His realism, not “the peaceful, almost elegant death it was represented in [the] ecclesiastical art” (CS 373) of Anglicanism. The immediacy and relevance of the Crucifixion rests, not only in its brutal realism but also in its depiction of an Indian Christ so that “It ceased to be an unapproachable mystery, but became a common spectacle” (CS 374) and therefore spoke clearly to all.
Frank’s ‘conversion’ to faith is almost imperceptible but once he has discovered “the secret of the mystical union . . . between the Church and the forest” (CS 384) the universality, through time and space, of this manifestation of Catholicism is recognized as being “as old as man’s first knowledge of himself as victim and priest” (CS 383). Through this realisation and his contemplative kneeling “for hours before the Indian Christ on the north wall” (CS 384), Frank comes to realise that he now
“saw a God who did not merely absorb experience through him but shared it with him. There was not one pang of his lonely wandering life, no throb or ache or groan of his, up to that moment when the light of his eyes and the desire of his heart were taken from him at a stroke, that had not been shared by God. For if man has known the stars, so God has known the dust” (CS 384).
In this depiction of Catholicism in action the universality and tolerance of the faith is highlighted in Father Christobal’s arduous journey to answer the summons of a dying brigand who “as a true son of the Church asked for Unction and Viaticum” (CS 385 ). (Unction and Viaticum along with the sacrament of Penance make up the three sacraments that constitute the Last Rites for the dying.) The Rites are administered without question or judgement of the man who is dying. This non-judgemental attitude is in stark contrast to the stance that is adopted by the Parson in Sussex, on Frank’s return. The Parson is narrow and judgemental in his faith and labels Frank a heathen because he doesn’t “think much of his [Frank’s] churchmanship” (CS 420). The Parson has no conception of a God of creation or of tolerance for those who come to faith by differing routes.
Frank’s decision to return to England and Sussex after the death of the priest is motivated by a simple philosophy in which he believed that “however scientific and complicated life might be it must inevitably return at last to the simple primitive things from which it came” (CS 393). This referencing of creation and the inference that those ‘simple primitive things’ are the uncomplicated world of nature, foreshadows the belief that Frank comes to adopt once he is back in Sussex. The attraction of the Catholic church was its timelessness, inclusivity, and a route to God through nature. These qualities of faith are shown in Frank’s longing for the natural world of home in which he finds comfort and peace. The changelessness and tranquillity of the countryside along with a “communion with the soil of the Isle of Oxney” (CS 414) provides the focus for a belief in which humanity can establish a relationship with the God of creation. In the final chapter, Kaye-Smith describes this almost mystical communion with the countryside when Frank and Maggie sit
” on the bench against the house, their nostrils full of the evening scents of the garden – Lent lilies, soil, and mist – looking down at the marsh that spread all vague and grey to the foot of Tenterden Hill” (CS 416-7). Throughout “The Challenge to Sirius”, Kaye-Smith has begun to develop and refine the relationship between humanity, the Divine and the natural world. The evolution of this belief is inspired by the perceived universality of Catholicism and that faith’s ability to accommodate a variety of routes to an understanding of the meaning of life. Kaye-Smith professed to have no particular religious faith during the War but also admitted later that on re-reading “The Challenge to Sirius” she could see that “there are signs in the book that I was already on the way back to Him . . . I had turned round – I was looking in His direction, even though I saw Him as nothing more but a far-off, indifferent star” (TWH 121). The religious philosophy that dominates the end of the novel; that through contemplation of the natural world humanity can attain direct communion with God, becomes central to the religious ideology of Kaye-Smith’s “Green Apple Harvest”.
The Challenge to Sirius