Thursday, 26 October 2017

The Soul of a Bishop (1917)



A pendant to God the Invisible King, this short novel recasts Wells's new-found (and in the event, briefly-held-to) religious revelation as fiction. We start with Edward Scrope, Bishop of Princhester, waking, angst-struck, from a feverish dream about the Council of Nicaea—the point, according to Wells's argument in God the Invisible King, at which the rot set in with Christianity.

The highly-strung and insomniac Scrope has become a ‘belated doubter’ [2.1] since promotion from the old rectory of Otteringham to the episcopal throne of Princhester, a place which ‘made one think that recently there had been a second and much more serious Fall’: ‘industrial and unashamed’, ‘a countryside savagely invaded by forges and mine shafts and gaunt black things ... scarred and impeded and discoloured’, a landscape in which the human scale is ‘jostled and elbowed and overshadowed by horrible iron cylinders belching smoke and flame.’ [2.2] In case we miss the point of the cylinders reference, Wells reinforces it: Scrope chats with a local union official:
“There’s an incurable misunderstanding between the modern employer and the modern employed,” the chief labour spokesman said, speaking in a broad accent that completely hid from him and the bishop and every one the fact that he was by far the best-read man of the party. “Disraeli called them the Two Nations, but that was long ago. Now it’s a case of two species. Machinery has made them into different species. The employer lives away from his work-people, marries a wife foreign, out of a county family or suchlike, trains his children from their very birth in a different manner. Why, the growth curve is different for the two species. They haven’t even a common speech between them. One looks east and the other looks west. How can you expect them to agree? Of course they won’t agree. We’ve got to fight it out. They say we’re their slaves for ever ... We say, No! It’s our sort and not your sort. We’ll do without you. We’ll get a little more education and then we’ll do without you. We’re pressing for all we can get, and when we’ve got that we’ll take breath and press for more. We’re the Morlocks. Coming up. It isn’t our fault that we’ve differentiated.” [Soul of a Bishop, 2.5]
Morlocks. We take the point.

So: Scrope's wife has grown cold, his Votes-for-Women oldest daughter wants to go (horrors!) to University and he himself is losing his faith. He discusses this latter situation with an extremely wealthy American widow, Lady Sunderbund, whose American accent Wells renders in a near-incomprehensible series of abbreviations and apostrophisations (‘Mist’ Pat’ick O’Go’man. He is a Kelt and all that. Spells Pat’ick with eva so many letters. They say he spends ouas and ouas lea’ning E’se. They all t’y to lea’n E’se, and it wo’ies them and makes them hate England moa and moa’—there really is an interminable amount of this sort of stuff). Still, however orthographically awkward she is in this novel, Lady Sunderbund is rich, attractive and devoted to the Bishop.

Since Scrope's regular doctor is on holiday, he goes to see a new physician called Dr Dale. Dale diagnoses neurasthenia, and suggests treating it with a new kind of hallucinogenic drug. This potion has an immediate effect: ‘his doubts glowed into assurance. Suddenly he perceived that he was sure of God’ [5.4]. Whilst on this (not Wells's word, but still) trip Scrope meets an Angel who, in effect, summarises God the Invisible King for him:
“Your creed is full of Levantine phrases and images, full of the patched contradictions of the human intelligence utterly puzzled. It is about those two Gods, the God beyond the stars and the God in your heart. It says that they are the same God, but different. It says that they have existed together for all time, and that one is the Son of the other. It has added a third Person—but we won’t go into that.” [Soul of a Bishop, 5.9]
Finally, in the library of the Athenaeum Club, Scrope sees God Himself. Not bad going for a first toke of psilocybin, or whatever it is that Dale has given him.

Scrope's takeaway from his druggy mystic experience is that he must leave the established Church. He is talked into staying by his old friend and mentor Bishop Likeman, and for a while continues as before, not even confiding that he has had this vision to his wife and daughters. A second dose of Dr Dale's drug gives him a different vision: the whole world in torment.
“It is very wonderful,” said the bishop, and stood for a moment marvelling at the compass of his vision. For here was India, here was Samarkand, in the light of the late afternoon; and China and the swarming cities upon her silvery rivers sinking through twilight to the night and throwing a spray and tracery of lantern spots upon the dark; here was Russia under the noontide, and so great a battle of artillery raging on the Dunajec as no man had ever seen before; whole lines of trenches dissolved into clouds of dust and heaps of blood-streaked earth; here close to the waiting streets of Constantinople were the hills of Gallipoli, the grave of British Imperialism, streaming to heaven with the dust and smoke of bursting shells and rifle fire and the smoke and flame of burning brushwood. In the sea of Marmora a big ship crowded with Turkish troops was sinking; and, purple under the clear water, he could see the shape of the British submarine which had torpedoed her and had submerged and was going away. Berlin prepared its frugal meals, still far from famine. He saw the war in Europe as if he saw it on a map, yet every human detail showed. Over hundreds of miles of trenches east and west of Germany he could see shells bursting and the men below dropping, and the stretcher-bearers going back with the wounded. The roads to every front were crowded with reserves and munitions. For a moment a little group of men indifferent to all this struggle, who were landing amidst the Antarctic wilderness, held his attention; and then his eyes went westward to the dark rolling Atlantic across which, as the edge of the night was drawn like a curtain, more and still more ships became visible beating upon their courses eastward or westward under the overtaking day. The wonder increased; the wonder of the single and infinitely multitudinous adventure of mankind. [Soul of a Bishop, 7.6]
Realising that the priesthood is failing in its duty to minister to this afflicted globe, Scrope resolves to take the fortune Lady Sunderbund has blithely offered him, to found a new church—she, impressed by his accounts of his visions, has become his acolyte.

Scrope repudiates his previous faith during one of his sermons, before a shocked congregation, and to the horror of his peers (Bishop Likeman writes to him: ‘this sensational declaration of infidelity to our mother church, made under the most damning and distressing circumstances in the presence of young and tender minds entrusted to your ministrations, and in defiance of the honourable engagements implied in the confirmation service, confirms my worst apprehensions of the weaknesses of your character’ [8.2]). His new Church, however, does not come into being. After viewing architectural plans for a grandiose new church building, to be financed by Lady Sunderbund (“It’s young Venable’s wo’k. It’s his fl’st g’ate oppo’tunity.” “But—is this to go on that little site in Aldwych?” “He says the’ isn’t ’oom the’!” she explained. “He wants to put it out at Golda’s G’een” [9.6]) the Bishop has a third vision, this one unmediated by Dr Dale's peculiar drug, which reveals to him that ‘there must be no idea of any pulpit’ in the new religion.
Had God any need of organized priests at all? Wasn’t that just what had been the matter with religion for the last three thousand years? His vision and his sense of access to God had given a new courage to his mind; in these moods of enlightenment he could see the world as a comprehensible ball, he could see history as an understandable drama. He had always been on the verge of realizing before, he realized now, the two entirely different and antagonistic strands that interweave in the twisted rope of contemporary religion; the old strand of the priest, the fetishistic element of the blood sacrifice and the obscene rite, the element of ritual and tradition, of the cult, the caste, the consecrated tribe; and interwoven with this so closely as to be scarcely separable in any existing religion was the new strand, the religion of the prophets, the unidolatrous universal worship of the one true God. Priest religion is the antithesis to prophet religion. [Soul of a Bishop, 9.2]
The novel ends with the Bishop happy, reconciled to his family, and resolved, on his own, to spread the word regarding his new understanding of God.

Wells sets his protagonist in a fairly well-realised world: his relationship with his family, and with the eager Lady Sunderbund, are pretty well drawn, and there's something compellingly, we might say ingenuously, bonkers about his visions (at times it's a very psychedelic, 1960s sort of novel, anachronistically enough). What he doesn't manage to do here is create any sense of Scrope's episcopal, or more broadly his ecclesiastical, context: he doesn't, that is, do what (say) Trollope's Barchester novels do so well.

Wells's Bishop has what proves a purely notional attachment to his Anglicanism, and (as a church-outsider himself) Wells conveys no sense that being part of a particular community, a long-term context of social and interpersonal praxis, is as much what it means to be a Christian as subscribing to a tick-list of conceptual affirmations (like the issue that so winds Wells up, and which he blames on the Nicaean synod: the consubstantiality of Father, Son and Holy Spirit). As in God the Invisible King, Wells spends a lot of time on the latter aspect of belief and almost entirely ignores the former. That's a shame, because it is inevitably distorting. Faith is not just a set of propositions in a believer's head; it is a lived experience as part of a particular community, and the disappointment of The Soul of a Bishop is that Wells doesn't really take the opportunity fiction provides him to evoke that latter aspect.

Then again, maybe that's not what's going on here. Consider the chief labour spokesman's proud identification of his proletarian class with the Morlocks. Look again at the substance of the Bishop's second vision, quoted (at some length) above: the passage beginning ‘“It is very wonderful,” said the bishop...’ It is as much a panegyric to the panoptic possibilities of the novel itself as it is a passage about the torment of the world: the way the writer's imagination can, diable-boiteux style, lift the roofs on all the houses in the world. Dr Dale's strange pharmakon becomes, in this reading, less a specific agent of religious revelation and more an actualisation of the process of the novelistic imagination as such. Take a gander at the specific ways Wells specifies in which Scrope's new enlightenment falls short:
“The achievement of the Kingdom of God;” this was his calling. Henceforth this was his business in life.

For a time he indulged in vague dreams of that kingdom of God on earth of which he would be one of the makers; it was a dream of a shadowy splendour of cities, of great scientific achievements, of a universal beauty, of beautiful people living in the light of God, of a splendid adventure, thrusting out at last among the stars. But neither his natural bent nor his mental training inclined him to mechanical or administrative explicitness. [Soul of a Bishop, 9.18]
That's science fiction. I mean, isn't it? A vision of a gleaming SF future. And this is what Dale's visionary drug, administered as a phial of golden fluid, provides: the sciencefictional imaginary. Or, I suppose we might say: Wells conceives of the religious vision as a broader, more spacious version of the SF vision—just as Dale, the supplier of the drug, has a name that means a wide but shallow valley, and Wells, the supplier of the novel The Soul of a Bishop, has a name that means a narrow but deep indentation in the land. (And just as Scrope, whose name sounds like a variant of scrape, is narrow and shallow). I appreciate that SF tends to be my Casaubonian key to all mythologies: but, after all, this is H G Wells we are talking about here.

2 comments:

  1. What on earth is going on with that "American accent"? Or has Lady Blunderbuss got a speech impediment?

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    1. Mate, your guess is as good as mine. I've tried reading it aloud in a Blanche DuBois sort of accent and it doesn't entirely not-work, but it's pretty hit and miss.

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