The Wry Romance of the Literary Rectory


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The property pages of Country Life invariably feature an old rectory or two, probably graceful 18th-century, of honeyed Cotswold stone, and if you plan to move in you will need a deep pocket. This is Aga Saga country, Joanna Trollope territory.

Wry Romance of the Literary Rectory by Deborah Alun-Jones -

They are substantial, elegant, they propose permanence and stability and some sort of evocative past, and today they will be tricked out with central heating, en suite bathrooms and, of course, that Aga. It was not always thus. Nobody was comfortable in the ecclesiastical plant, time was. Rupert Brooke does indeed appear to have found in the Old Vicarage at Grant-chester some kind of lyrical inspiration, an arcadia convenient for Cambridge and for plunging naked into the Cam in fits of neo-paganism.

And Vikram Seth in the house where George Herbert lived and wrote, has found inspiration and resonances in the connection with his great predecessor.

The Bohemian family were bohemianly impoverished and uncomfortable in the old rectory at Farnborough in the late forties — no mains water, drainage or electricity — with visitors such as Maurice Bowra and Osbert Lancaster roped in to join a village concert. And only Evelyn Waugh complaining — reasonably enough, it would seem — that the house was cold, dark and poky.

Deborah Alun-Jones has homed in on the literary associations of eight houses; a ballast of research, and some nice robust accounts of what it was like to be the young Dorothy Sayers in a huge, isolated Fenland rectory, or the young Bensons in the ancient Chancellery at Lincoln. The Bensons were an odd lot: their father, E. Benson, eventually became Archbishop of Canterbury, and the four children all grew up to be writers of one kind or another, including E.

Benson of the Mapp and Lucia novels. A century later, Edmund de Waal, ceramicist and author of The Hare with Amber Eyes , grew up there with his brothers, children of a later Chancellor, and these, like the Bensons, revelled in the space and resources of what sounds like the most engaging of the houses concerned, a jumble of assorted periods and internal complexity. Then there is Tennyson at Somersby, the chaotic and unconventional family life of the future Poet Laureate and his ten siblings, and a portrait of him as a young man with ravishing good looks.

The pleasure of the book, indeed, is in the wealth of detail — what it was like to live in those places in those times — and the way in which it focuses on a particular point in particular lives. Most readers will probably know a little — or a lot — about Tennyson or Rupert Brooke, but there will be something unfamiliar or intriguing here. You may wish to give a copy to a friend now basking in an up-to-date old rectory as food for thought.

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Romance in Classic Literature

Deborah Levy. Charles Darwin, the man most responsible for the Victorian crisis of faith, was not immune to the attractions of living in such a building; he was nurtured by the silence and serenity of Down House, the old rectory at Downe in rural Kent, where he moved in Here, in the same study that had inspired countless clerical compositions, he struggled with his own faith while writing On the Origin of Species , the book that would shake the foundations of the Church of England. Great Expectations was written in its book-lined study. This genre of building has provided the genius loci for many writers and artists, the bricks and mortar offering a level of protection against the sense of dislocation often experienced beyond the rectory walls.

This was true for Anglican and atheist alike. The poet Rupert Brooke, although in very different For the two poets, writing in the second decade of the twentieth century, the simplicity of English village life with rural certainties at its core represented an image of England that would stand firm, untouched by the horrors of the war. The literary legacy of the rectory continued on in the twentieth century despite the decline of the twin parish pillars of Church and State.

Many writers responded by seeking inspiration within the peaceable enclosure of the parish and a clerical abode. Dorothy L. Sayers used the trope of the safe, ordered parish and turned it on its head to make it the place of malevolent imaginings in one of her detective stories.

Other Titles by Deborah Alun-Jones

John Betjeman appropriated the consoling construct of parish living at Farnborough Old Rectory after the Second World War and in the same period, in the depths of Wales, the poet-rector R. Thomas pursued his quest for an authentic poetic voice while striding the hills above his clerical home.

This is exemplified by the old rectory at Bemerton, near Salisbury, where a contemporary novelist and Life in the present is necessarily informed and enhanced by the lives of past generations and the rectory embodies that continuing discourse. The de Waal children, when they lived in the Chancery at Lincoln during the early s, were very conscious of the creative Benson family who had inhabited the building a century earlier.

For those who resided behind the walls of such declared parsonic perfection was it possible or even desirable to strive to match the presented ideal? Or was the disjunction between public image and private reality an ideal space for creativity — where the irreconcilable could be reconciled in fiction, poetry and art? Perhaps this is one of the reasons why so many writers are connected to these comparatively unassuming houses. Maybe more than any other domestic building these structures mirror the stereotype of the national psyche: the cool, calm exterior concealing the turbulence and drama of the inner self.

Others, such as the Revd Sydney Smith, found reserves with which to face their exile with humour and courage.


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For many, time in the rectory was an intensely creative experience as minds turned inwards in extreme self-absorption. Eccentrics abound alongside literary geniuses: the Very Revd William Buckland — decided to serve his god by eating his way through the animal kingdom. Others, such as the Revd Jack Russell — , whose name lives on in the breed of terrier he favoured, preferred to lead their flock from the hunting field.

Wry Romance of the Literary Rectory

Today, the rectory remains an enduring symbol of continuity against the darker forces of commercialism, urbanism, and aesthetic and moral decay. Here is a repository for a mystical spirit of England, a recognizable rootedness in the village landscape that reflects back to us a timeless sense of identity.

The yearning for a feeling of belonging remains entwined with the image of life in a rural rectory. With the increased secularization of society, amalgamation of parishes and resulting sale of Church property, however, the rectory is now more likely to be a postwar construction than the lyrical buildings of the imagination. Yet its Still, if it is a dream, let us indulge it a moment longer. Let us believe that some things last, and some places and some people are not touched by change. On a fine May morning, with the rooks rising and the hares scampering and the plover calling among the long grass, there is much to encourage the illusion.

It is we who change and perish. Parson Woodforde lives on … the house, thank God, withstands the storm; and then again there is the first swallow, and Parson Woodforde takes his greyhounds out a-coursing. This is the story from both sides of the rectory door, the romantic exterior and the secret interior life. As we grope blindly towards a sense of the eternal in our transient age, the rectory and all it stands for support us in that endeavour.

Within its walls the creative life takes on sacramental importance. See More. His home was the vicarage and, since he received the smaller tithes or was paid a stipend, the building was 10 t h e l a s t o u t p o s t o f t i m e pa s t usually of lesser status.

The Wry Romance of the Literary Rectory The Wry Romance of the Literary Rectory
The Wry Romance of the Literary Rectory The Wry Romance of the Literary Rectory
The Wry Romance of the Literary Rectory The Wry Romance of the Literary Rectory
The Wry Romance of the Literary Rectory The Wry Romance of the Literary Rectory
The Wry Romance of the Literary Rectory The Wry Romance of the Literary Rectory
The Wry Romance of the Literary Rectory The Wry Romance of the Literary Rectory
The Wry Romance of the Literary Rectory The Wry Romance of the Literary Rectory

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