Friday, January 18, 2013

Away from the Vicarage: A Novelist and a Preacher's Kid

Vicarages loom large in British fiction, maybe because so many vicars’ children ended up writing novels.  

Jane Austen was a PK (Preacher’s Kid), and like most PKs, she hated and loved vicarages.  Elizabeth Bennett avoids marrying a vicar and therefore ending up in a vicarage, but her first big Come-To-Jesus with Mr. Darcy happens in Mr. Collins’ house.  In other words, she begins to badass her way into Pemberley while inside the vicarage she has rejected.  In Mansfield Park the journey goes in the other direction. Fanny Price is miserable in the manor house, and finds her reward down the road in a pokey vicarage.

The Brontës famously grew up in a particularly dank vicarage.  Here it is in the 1860s, with adjacent graveyard prominently displayed.  

Charlotte Brontë didn't seem too fond of vicarages at all.  Jane Eyre spends an unpleasant season or two in St. John's vicarage, until she hears the supernatural calling, not of God, but of Rochester.    She hightails it from St. John's house to Rochester's . . . only to find it in demonic flames.   

If Haworth was grim and ringed round with the dead, beautiful vicarages were to be escaped, as well.   In North and South Elizabeth Gaskell (yes, she's a PK) paints the loss of the rose-covered pretty vicarage in the beautiful south as a fortuitous tragedy that turns out to be the saving of her snobby heroine.  

Further on down the timeline of British literature there’s Christie’s Murder at the Vicarage, which is stupendous – though Christie’s father’s profession was Rich American, and her mother was apparently a clairvoyant.  So Dame Agatha was a PK only if “P” stands for “psychic.”    

Noel Streatfeild was a proper PK and her little known portrait of inner-city vicarage life, The Bell Family, is worth a read.  The minister father barely makes an appearance in The Bell Family.  The house dominates the book.  It’s drafty and gray, but it is also a home that functions as the center of a community.  Streatfeild's three autobiographical novels about being a PK are pretty wonderful.  The second, Away from the Vicarage, has such a fantastic cover that it is propped up in pride of place on my bookshelf.

In the United States, we have plenty of PKs who grew up to be writers.  To name a few, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Stephen Crane, Pearl Buck, and the immortal James Baldwin, whose Go Tell it on the Mountain is one of the greatest accounts of being a PK ever written. 

In spite of all these PKs taking up the pen, the parsonage doesn’t make as regular an appearance in U.S. fiction as the vicarage makes in British lit.   This goes back to some pretty fundamental differences between us.  Americans don’t have a national church, no Church of the United States to mirror the Church of England.  Americans don't have lords temporal and we don't have lords spiritual; the second sons of the aristocrats we don't have don't take the cloth as a matter of inheritance. And so the homes of our ministers cannot easily be represented as microcosms of the nation.  

In Britain, in other words, the vicarage is historically tied to the manor house, and in British literature, titled houses title stories (Brideshead Revisited, Howard's End), and former churches title houses that title stories (Northanger Abbey, Downton Abbey).  In the centuries since Catholic priests were hung from the trees, the connection between the vicarage and the stately home has come to feel extremely comfy.  Remember when the vicar of Dibley gets engaged to the biggest landowner in town?  Obviously she doesn't marry him and gets herself a delicious piece of beefcake from London instead, but still.  I rest my case.

In American literature we are just as obsessed with the sins that stain the plush carpets of rich people's houses. But instead of preachers’ houses, it is the preachers themselves who lurk ominously around the edges of American fiction.   No matter how many friendly, sane ministers lead youth groups and work for justice in their communities in real life, the pages of American fiction are stuffed with creepy pastors.  Hawthorne’s tattooed wonder, Arthur Dimmesdale, is only the most famous of these clammy-handed servants of the Lord – there are more that precede and follow him.  Hawthorne knew why American fiction is doomed to be haunted by gruesome clerics.   Read Reverend Cotton Mather’s The Wonders of the Invisible World and you'll know, too.   Cotton was a PK -- his father, Increase Mather, was a big deal Puritan preacher.   Cotton's great work is fiction, just like those other nice books by PKs, Persuasion and Giovanni's Room and The Red Badge of Courage.  The difference is, Cotton thought his book was the documented truth, and he didn't figure out that he had written a fairy tale until it was much, much too late.

I’m a PK, as I’m sure you’ve guessed by now.   I’m also a novelist.  There is neither a vicarage nor a minister in my novel.  But I grew up in a parsonage, half way up a big hill in Amherst, Massachusetts.   And I’m here to tell you that growing up in a parsonage – or at least that parsonage – was a fantastic way to become a writer.

The house was actually made out of three smaller houses – little old farm cottages that were hauled from a valley ten miles away, when they flooded out five towns in the 1930s to make a reservoir for Boston.  The living room with its huge fireplace was the oldest cottage.  One of my sisters did a report on it in high school and I believe she dated it to the early 18th century. 

The church owned the house.  My parents had to submit all requests for furniture or carpets or wallpaper to a church committee. The house's decor was less than pulchritudinous.  But still, the parsonage was perfect.  You could run in a circle around the rooms of the bottom floor of the house.  From hall to kitchen to dining room to living room and back to front hall.  A staircase rose up in the middle of the house, leading to four little dormered bedrooms.  One for my mother and father, and one for each of their three children.

Except that I am the fourth and very late child, born when they’d already lived in the parsonage for a while.  I shared a bedroom with one of my sisters for a few years, and then she moved downstairs, to a parlor room on the first floor.  The house was filled now, almost to overflowing.

And overflow it did, because my parents didn’t believe in locking its doors, and they never turned away anyone who was in need of a place to stay. There are many stories about the dozens of people who passed through that parsonage on their way through their lives.  Most of them are sad and none of them are mine to tell. 

The point is not what the stories are, but that the stories were always there, always unfolding.   Time was funny in the parsonage.  You could feel the change in centuries as you went from room to room and there was always a different drama being played out in each one.   If you left the living room and someone was crying, they might well be laughing by the time you circled back through whatever was happening in the hall, the kitchen, and the dining room.

Comedy swirled, mostly over my head.  Melodrama slept uneasily on the sofa, or in the basement.  The Gothic sat at the dinner table and stared, and ate with either worse or better table manners than we did.  Romance and Horror both said things that weren’t supposed to be said in front of children.  Sometimes Tragedy wept all night in the kitchen.

When I was ten my mother and father left the church and we moved away from the parsonage into a little house that wasn’t anything but a house, and for that matter that had always only been one house, a few blocks away.  Although my parents left organized religion, they never changed.  Their house is still open to the orphans and drifters of the world.  It will always be a vicarage, the place where many stories cross paths, the house at the heart of a good tale. 

My house isn’t like that, and my life isn’t like that.   I lock my doors, and the people I invite in are people I know and trust.  I’m not as generous as my parents.  The uneasy guests who disrupt my nights, the strangers knocking at my door and demanding shelter – they are fictional.

But I think that the reason they knock, and the reason I do let them in, might well be because of that first ten years I spent living in a parsonage halfway up and halfway down a hill.

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