The View From the Parsonage was Sheila Kaye-Smith’s last published novel. Her untimely death in January 1956 brought an end to the publication of her fiction. There is some indication that she had been working on a number of works but these have never seen the light of day and were quite possibly only at an ideas stage of planning.
The View From the Parsonage is a “study in nostalgia”, presented as a first-person narrative that spans fifty years from the 1890s to the outbreak of the Second World War. Narrated by a village parson but not presented in diary form, The View From the Parsonage is in the tradition of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth-century diary of a clergyman, such as Parson Woodforde’s Diary of a Country Parson, or John Galt’s novel, The Annals of the Parish, that purports to be the diary of a Presbyterian Minister. It comments on national affairs but with a concentration on the personal and parochial affairs of a small rural parish. The narrator is Parson Harry Chamberlin, whose view from the Parsonage is twofold. There is the actual view from his window on to the farm and the land beyond that forms the setting for the novel. However, there is also the metaphorical “view back over the rough country” of the past, that his generation and Kaye-Smith’s had travelled across to reach the present “firm and tranquil ground”. As well as providing a recollection of the social changes that have affected rural life in England throughout those fifty years, this novel returns to Kaye-Smith’s early works in having a rural and regional setting located on the edge of Romney Marsh, and with religion at the centre of the narrative. In the course of the novel Kaye-Smith brings together many of the foci and features of her extensive oeuvre. This novel returns to the lyrical description of the countryside of the Kent/Sussex borders that had established her reputation as a regional, rural writer. She continues to emphasise the differences between town and country as, through Chamberlin, she leaves the reader in no doubt of her conviction that the rural environment is by far superior to the urban. As with the other novel considered in this chapter, this work is concerned with an exploration of time and memory and addresses questions raised by social change. However, the central thesis of the novel is the nature of religious belief. Kaye-Smith uses her characters to scrutinise the “manifestation of God in the world and each individual’s response to it” (Walker 112). She compares the relative merits of mainstream Anglicanism, as seen in the narrator, with Roman Catholicism, exemplified by Edward Boutflower and more especially Blanche Cryall, and with the atheism espoused by Adam Cryall after his rejection of the Christian ministry.
She asserted in the late 1930s that once she wrote from imagination or her “unconscious mind”, but now “the cupboard of this internal Mother Hubbard is bare, and I must take my imagination out into the highways” (TWH 255). The setting of this novel lacks the imaginative re-arrangement of landscape that had featured in her early novels. Kaye-Smith has been faithful to her chosen topographical and geographical setting and her village of Palster-in-Ebony is an amalgam of Stone-cum-Ebony and Stone-in-Oxney. In earlier novels she had introduced her characters and setting in time and place with a looking back at the history of the community, but this technique is used sparingly here. In a few sentences Kaye-Smith establishes a sense of the physical change that has affected Ebony throughout the fifty years of the narrative, and this subsequently becomes a metaphor for the social and religious changes that have affected the lives of the inhabitants. In 1892 “the ferry was still working. The lower reaches of Wet Level were seldom clear of water between November and May, and the old black tub would glide across the shallows, at hours of its own choosing, from the wharf below Mockbeggar to the toll-house” (VFP 7). In contrast, in the present of the late 1930s, Ebony “has a gentle shore-green meadow [that] becomes green marsh” (VFP 6) but “in winter even now the sea is back, salting the overflow of the dykes and the swollen river and lying in sullen floods upon Wet Level” (VFP 7).
There is less cohesion between the natural world, the seasons and human activity than in previous works. In this novel depictions of the landscape are used to reflect the relationship that those who live in Ebony have with their surroundings – sometimes these are used to enhance the pathos of a situation or more frequently to set the scene for some incident of human interaction, or as a framework within which the human drama is played out. Central to all of Kaye-Smith’s philosophy of the land is the strength of the bond between the individual human being and the countryside. This attachment to place is illustrated most fully in the realisation of Adam Cryall. In his own eyes, Cryall is defined by his umbilical connection to the land and in particular the landscape of Ebony. When faced with estrangement from this environment he experiences a “nausea of craving” in realising that he
might never again see that view from the Parsonage field – or the red sun hanging in winter above the woods over there by the river’s bend at Methersham – or that sharp white corner of Potmanskiln Lane . . . [that] shines in the moonlight above Barrow’s Land. (VFP 19).
Cryall accepts “death as a part of Nature” (VFP 216). Like the changing of the seasons, it is “one of her [nature’s] processes for cleansing and remaking the world” (VFP 216). This attitude towards the cycle of life and death makes reference to the myth that those who live their lives close to the earth have an acceptance of death as part of the natural order, and also to Kaye-Smith’s often re-iterated belief in the unique relationship between the country dweller and the natural world. An instance was the death of Sam Holman, “a good old man” whose “painless, peaceful end had been in true affinity with the fields where the wheat slumbered and with the trees that revealed their beauty in their leafless boughs” (VFP 56). This reinforces the fantasy of a countryside that is constantly stable, unchanging and able to withstand the increasingly mechanised and technological influences that affect Kaye-Smith’s urban readership. Throughout the text Kaye-Smith has conjured up an idyllic imagined countryside in which the seasons are characterised by a perpetual immutability. A summer day ends when the “motionless air thickened at dusk into crimson bars at the western edges of the sky” (VFP 74), the early autumn is a time when “the misty gold of the hedges had become clear splashes of yellow, red and brown” (VFP 99), and winter is “bringing cold winds from the marsh and fogs which lay around the isle like another sea” (VFP 102). The rural environment in this novel is no longer the harsh landscape of Sussex Gorse, nor is it the working countryside of Romney Marsh seen in Joanna Godden. For the vast majority of her readership, who were living in the cities and urban areas of Britain, Kaye-Smith has provided the fictional equivalent of the Shell petrol company posters or the railway tourist posters that were used in the 1950s to promote travel to the countryside. The narrator, Harry Chamberlin, is town-born like Kaye-Smith and the majority of her readership, and his perceptions of the countryside speak directly to the nostalgic dream of England as a green and pleasant land. Ebony and the surrounding area is “a world of green pastures and shallow waters and long dreaming days” (VFP 10). There is nothing the same as “sitting by the White Kemp Sewer through all the long, hot, drowsy afternoon, with the marsh sun-hazed behind me and the hawthorn brakes like ghosts beyond the buttercups” (VFP 267).
Reviews of The View From the Parsonage made little mention of the setting or the depictions of the countryside, and were critical of the slow pace of the narrative that made the novel appear out-dated and old-fashioned, much as her early work had been recognised as reminiscent of Victorian fiction by some critics. This last novel had an “air of indirection” so that the “exterior tale moves like an English village fete”. In the handling of religion reviewer Robert Bowen feels that “there is no suggestion of a statement of faith”. There was no reason to believe that “Kaye-Smith felt that Catholicism was intrinsically different from any other religion or . . . that religion was ultimately different from any other basis for human behaviour”.
In this novel Kaye-Smith is not proselytising as she had been in The End of the House of Alard, or preaching her own religious message as she had in Green Apple Harvest. Rather, she is presenting the reader with a philosophical exploration, through her depiction of a number of characters, of what makes a good Christian soul content with life. To conduct this theoretical fictionalised experiment, Kaye-Smith must contrast the beliefs of her three main characters. The narrator is suspicious of Roman Catholicism. He is “innocent, good, kind, and safe” (Walker 121) in his ‘view from the parsonage’. He is assiduous in carrying out his duties as “a loyal, devoted son” (VFP 249) of the church who, each Sunday, holds “an early service besides Morning and Evening Prayer” and delivers “two sermons” (VFP 265-266). Chamberlin, with his prejudices and limitations of vision and faith represents the culmination of Kaye-Smith’s fictional portrayals of the Anglican clergy. The first person narrative allows for a gentle self-critical appraisal of Chamberlin’s short-comings in his worldliness and lack of spirituality. This gossipy all-too-human priest acknowledges that he enjoys the ‘good things’ and sometimes fears that “I appreciate them too much” (VFP 27). His spirituality and the need for faith to influence everyday life and actions he learns through observation, experience and from those around him – most notably Adam Cryall and Blanche Cryall. By the end of the text he is portrayed as an innocent good man. He is happy to be an ‘old shepherd’ to his flock, but he finds his joy in appreciating the worldly things of life. He has, however, learnt that selfless acts of charity and a closeness to nature bring a certain contentment. His greatest joy is his love for “Ebony and the men of the Marsh, who are still [his] men” (VFP 267-268).
Kaye-Smith’s investigation of faith places Chamberlin as the observer/informer in the narrative, and as such he is in a central, pivotal position between Adam Cryall, an atheist, and his daughter, Blanche Cryall, who eventually becomes a Roman Catholic nun. The complex characterisation of Adam Cryall is necessitated by Kaye-Smith’s desire to promote the same fundamental views that had inspired her other religious novels – that God is “in all things, no matter how simple and seemingly insufficient” (TWH 139). As a young man Adam represents the ideal clergyman. Borne out of a social conscience to help those in need, his work in the London slums involves him in visiting the homes of the poor in “courts and alleys that were shunned by the police” (VFP 13). He made a rash decision to “clean up Jute Street and Sody Street” by tackling the “lucrative vice” that was “not only harlots but all perversions for hire” (VFP 16). Applying the same contrived manipulation of the plotting that she had used in previous works, Kaye-Smith introduces a series of co-incidental but unrealistic twists to her narrative so that she can change Adam from the perfect clergyman to an atheist “Lord of the Manor” at Palster Manor. In line with Kaye-Smith’s view that God works through those who acknowledge his existence and those who do not, Adam continues to be an honest, just individual who extends the hand of charity to those in need, and is true to his own creed.
His paternalistic attitude to those around him means that he serves the community by providing the Village Hall and a playing field, and in secret acts of charity he “saved poor men from debt and old folk from the workhouse” (VFP 145). Defined by ‘goodness’, ‘charity’, the “sunshine of his humanism” (VFP 144), “a good life” that has been “mostly summer” (VFP 222), and a belief in ‘mankind’, like Reuben Backfield in Sussex Gorse, at the end of his life he is content. To illustrate the naturalness of death and Adam as a humanist countryman, Kaye-Smith utilises a metaphor of autumn trees. Adam is “ready to go”, he is no more than a “leaf that must fall”, and “it’s the tree, not the leaf that matters” (VFP 222). In an extension of this metaphor, Adam’s belief in the intrinsic goodness and progress of mankind as “a tree that grows taller and stronger with every generation” speaks to Kaye-Smith’s own belief in the existence of a unique bond between the natural world, humanity and a religious faith. This is echoed at Adam’s humanist funeral when Chamberlin states of him that “he himself did not believe in God. But he was much better than many of us – than any of us – who do. God did his work in him without his knowing it. All that you loved in Adam Cryall was God’s work” (VFP 227). In Kaye-Smith’s theoretical investigation of religious faith, her placement of him as a good man who has lived a Christian life without acknowledging this fact, means that he is able to reap “his Maker’s reward for a good life lived without Him”. Adam is saved from witnessing the horror of the First World War because he was taken “from this world six months before that shot was fired at Sarajevo” (VFP 223).
Figured throughout the text as the countryman, Adam Cryall is rendered in the same terms of nostalgia and idealism that characterise Kaye-Smith’s countryside. He is a shadowy heir to the protagonists of her earlier fiction. Where Reuben Backfield, Bob Fuller, Mr Sumption or Fred Sinden were portrayed as men who worked the land, understood nature’s harshness as well as its beauty, had an affinity with the natural world, and who found God in their communion with the soil, Adam Cryall is shown as a gentle man who is distanced from direct contact with the actuality of nature. Kaye-Smith has attempted to make him her country philosopher who lives his life in tune with the seasons and the world of nature but in her positioning of him firstly as an educated clergyman, and latterly the “Lord of the Manor”, she has made him less than convincing in this role.
In contrast to both Chamberlin and Adam Cryall, Blanche Cryall is presented as the perfect Christian, an exemplar of the hard road that must be trodden to attain true faith. In an imitation of Christian from Pilgrim’s Progress, Blanche must travel a hard road to faith with many difficulties along the way. Her journey is fraught with doubt, and becomes a “slow-motion progress, with endless set-backs and false starts” (VFP 250). Although she “kept on falling back and having to start again” (VFP 251) the journey eventually led Blanche to her religious life. From an initial position as an atheist, her eventual coming to faith is characterised by her fervency as a convert. Overwhelmed by the spiritual joy of her baptism, she felt that she was like
a new born babe [when she] entered the Church, though unlike a newborn babe, [she] had the unparalleled joy of knowing what was being done to [her] . . . [she] stood there at the font absolutely pure and sinless after all [her] sins. It wasn’t just the scrubbed cleanness of absolution, but the perfect whiteness of a new creature (VFP 250).
In a continued engineering of the plot to prove her theory that Catholicism is the only true and satisfactory form of Christianity, Kaye-Smith figures this baptismal start to Blanche’s new life as a Roman Catholic as offering the greatest of rewards. Blanche is the only one of Kaye-Smith’s central characters whose Catholic faith comes to define who she is and she is the only one who by the end of the novel has devoted her life to faith. She is, however, the last in a long line of characters who reflect, like Rose Deeprose, the mysterious workings of divine grace.
Where Chamberlin sees the risks of life as a Poor Clare to be ‘repugnant’, ‘inhuman’, ‘vile’ and something to “thoroughly disapprove of” (VFP 260), Blanche sees her decision in a much more positive light. She will no longer be “thoroughly selfish” (VFP 260), but will be fulfilling her understanding of God’s will in that He “wants me to give myself to him more completely” (VFP 261). Kaye-Smith uses the symbolism of the rose that Chamberlin has bred and cultivated to emphasise the perfection and purity of Blanche’s faith.
In a complex referencing of the iconography of the Rosary, the medieval and renaissance depictions of the Virgin Mary in a rose garden, the white rose as a symbol of purity, and the use of the imagery of the rose in the liturgy of the Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Kaye-Smith equates the new rose that has been produced by Chamberlin with Blanche and her faith. Characterised by perfection, based on sight and smell, the rose is white as a reflection of Blanche’s name, it has ” a golden shadow at its heart” (VFP 230), and therefore incorporates the two hues that make up the Papal colours. Its scent is “a gust of sweetness – the sweetness of tea and honey” (VFP 231), and it is a symbolic image of the life that Blanche will live as a Christian, that should be blameless and golden at its heart. As well as her sense of a religious vocation, Blanche’s version of a perfect Christianity involves not just faith but also selfless good works. On a visit to New York she worked with those in need and saw it as “wonderful work – to help the people at the bottom not from above them, but from the bottom too, as one of themselves” (VFP 258-259). In the conclusion of Kaye-Smith’s survey of what makes a good Christian soul, Blanche’s life reflects the goodness of her father combined with the author’s ideal of religious belief. The story of Blanche’s religious life contains fictionalised and exaggerated aspects of Kaye-Smith’s own. She had at one time considered herself an atheist and like Blanche she had come to an adult religious faith as a result of her experience of the First World War. The descriptions of Blanche’s conversion and subsequent baptism are rendered with the emotionalism of one who has experienced the same spiritual awakening. Blanche’s reception into the Poor Clares reflects Kaye-Smith’s own strong faith that was reflected in her membership of the tertiary order of the Dominicans. It was endorsed by the stipulation in her Will that she should be buried “clothed in the religious habit of the Dominican Order in which habit I am entitled to be buried as a member of the Secular Third Order of Saint Dominic”. While Blanche most closely reflects Kaye-Smith’s religious views, it is through the voice of the narrator, Chamberlin, that the reader hears her nostalgia for, and remembrances of, the past. The years before the First World War are written about with the sentimental wistfulness of one who chooses to forget the unpleasant times, overlaying that which is recalled with a patina of “elegiac love of the past that makes it all seem so beautiful” (VFP 144). Those times are like a “distant hill-top on which the sun still shines” (VFP 144). Voicing the view of many of Kaye-Smith’s generation, Chamberlin looks back on the First World War as a significant turning point in which the world as it had been “had come to an end in 1914”; by the 1920s “the old order had passed away” (VFP 240). In looking back to the more recent past, the late 1930s, i.e. the time at which the novel ends, Kaye-Smith does not portray the Second World War as a climactic time in the lives of those who experienced it. In contrast to the descriptions of the air raids and bombing raids that feature in Tambourine, Trumpet and Drum, the narrative that focuses on the Second World War underplays the possible effects of an airborne war. Writing with the benefit of hindsight but couching her narrative in the guise of foresight, Kaye-Smith has Chamberlin adjudging that this will be a different kind of war, in which the Navy will play a lesser part. The Germans will bring the war to the civilian rural population of Kent but only in the form of “a certain number of bombs [that] will be jettisoned by fighting or escaping aircraft, and there may well be some civilian casualties” (VFP 268). The considerations of the past are not merely concerned with war. Kaye-Smith also utilises the panoramic viewpoint she has ascribed to her narrator to document and comment upon the changes in societal attitudes and behaviour.
The focus of these changes is Blanche Cryall, who is used particularly as a vehicle to highlight the changing attitudes to women. As with the handling of religion in this text, the author offers no “particular way which she feels the materials she handles should be viewed” and she “withholds her judgement in sectarian matters”. While greater freedoms were attained by women between the end of the nineteenth century and the end of the 1930s, Kaye-Smith is careful to show that the ramifications of these would not always be positive. The issue of women’s education is the focus of Blanche’s early years. Her “scholastic and specialized education” (VFP 69) is seen as divisive and sets her apart from those around her, most notably her yeoman farmer husband. His reverence for education makes him determined, against her wishes, that she should not be “looking and behaving like any ordinary farmer’s wife” (VFP 69). Throughout the novel, education is portrayed as a mixed blessing. It becomes the key to a greater autonomy for Blanche as an individual, but is the source of much of the heartache and joy in her life. Her education takes her away from the countryside to teach in a London girls’ school where she is able to enjoy a “pleasant change . . . among people of her own type and education” (VFP 150). In a rather contrived plotting, however, Blanche’s subsequent meeting and love affair with Anthony Boutflower is used to illustrate the author’s belief that marriage is for life and that divorce can be destructive for all involved. The consequences of Blanche’s divorce are far reaching: Boutflower, as a Catholic cannot marry her and his struggle with his conscience eventually leads to his death in the First World War; her divorced husband cannot cope without her and commits suicide, and her father, although a free-thinker in many ways had “failed to prepare him[self] for his daughter’s marriage ending in the divorce court” (VFP 170). For Blanche the divorce is shown to be part of her wider religious education and part of the life journey to her conversion. It leads her to devote her time and efforts towards the care of others by “training as a V.A.D. nurse . . . then driving an ambulance in France” where she is “slightly wounded by a piece of shrapnel” (VFP 242). As with the portrayal of religion, Kaye-Smith’s handling of the secular change that affected society is apparently even-handed. With the contrivances of plotting, however, she has left her readership with the Catholic message that the life of faith and selfless giving, exemplified in Blanche, is the only satisfactory way to find contentment and peace.
Although it was never Kaye-Smith’s intention to make The View From the Parsonage her final novel, it is a fitting valedictory work. In her memoir, Three Ways Home, she had stated that throughout her life there had been three things which mattered most to her: the country, her writing and her religion which made up the “the third strand in the shining cord” (TWH 5). In this final novel, Kaye-Smith uses her writing to portray the countryside she loved, and to pursue a philosophical exploration of the nature of a good Christian life while focusing on some of those social issues that had become important to her in her later years. By 1954 Kaye-Smith was seen as an old-fashioned writer with a limited appeal to the reading public. While her old friend Gladys Stern saw “humour and shrewdness” in The View From the Parsonage. Others saw the novel as “a long, dull, sentimental, pretentious, Victorian tale”. While the reviewer for The Saturday Review maintained it was “hard to be sure what a book’s message is”. Damning and overly harsh though this criticism is, it highlights the fact that Kaye-Smith’s fiction of the 1950s could not compete with the plethora of reading matter available. Fiction with an emphasis on the rural, and religion, held little interest for a generation of readers who could choose the exciting and fast moving James Bond novels, the fantasy works of J.R.R. Tolkien, or the literary novels of William Golding. By choosing a first-person narrative and a cleric as her central character, Kaye-Smith had returned to the format she had used in her first novel, The Tramping Methodist. Similarly, although more carefully crafted, her descriptions of the natural world have an idyllic quality that speaks to a nostalgic view of the countryside rather than the realism that had characterised her work of the late 1910s and 1920s. Nostalgia and selective remembrances of a past long gone and of a countryside that is not mechanised were the features of the novel that the publishers chose to highlight in their sales blurb. They described The View From the Parsonage as a “story of times now fading into the past. . . while the seasons moving over Ebony soothe us who live in less comfortable days with glimpses of a beauty that does not change”. However, at the centre of this novel lies Kaye-Smith’s concern with religion. Under the guise of her supposed even-handedness and the comparisons of different ways of leading a Christian life she subtly demonstrates, in her depiction of Blanche, that she believes that the only true faith is Roman Catholicism. Never overtly propagandist or proselytising, the novel states clearly Kaye-Smith’s position with regard to the relative merits of Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism. She believed that opposition to, or a lack of adherents for, the Catholic faith in Britain was because of prejudice: “the inherited prejudice of three hundred years” (VFP 262).
Kaye-Smith’s writing from the Forties and Fifties, as exemplified by the two novels considered in this chapter, continues her concern with those issues that had begun to emerge in her writing of the Thirties. The consideration, exploration and development of differences in generational attitudes to life, the place of women in society, the continuing and ever present menace of war and its effects on everyday lives are all seen through her created microcosmic rural and provincial environments. In using the rhetoric of nostalgia, Kaye-Smith has added to those concerns that have featured in earlier works, by making time and memory central to the novels considered in this chapter. Her scrutiny of the effects of time is conducted through her own memories that in turn inform those that she gives to her characters. These novels are unique in her oeuvre in that they each have a structure that accommodates this consideration of time and is far removed from the linear and chronological structure of all of her previous novels.
The 1940s and 1950s saw a reduction in the number of works of fiction that Kaye-Smith produced. Her fiction of these years was not greeted with a great deal of enthusiasm and commanded no more than a small but loyal following of readers. Nevertheless her reputation was sufficient for her to be able to have a number of other works published. These were two volumes on Jane Austen, written jointly by her and Gladys Stern, along with a travel guide to the Weald, a biographical work on four female saints, and two volumes of memoir. Considered alongside the reliance in these later novels on her past life for her subject matter, there may well be an indication that both her desire and inspiration for writing fiction were coming to an end. Her sudden death in January 1956 meant that The View From the Parsonage was to be her last published novel.