I was very wary of novels by H.G.Wells, having forced myself to wade through the sheer opinionated tedium of his Joan and Peter (1918), but I found a cheap copy of his The Soul of a Bishop in Hay-on-Wye, and decided I might as well try it.
The novel is a sort-of-satirical fantasy about a Bishop who finds God. He starts off in the rather dismal diocese of Princhester, depressed by local politics and scandals, and feeling himself (and the church) to be totally ineffective. It is wartime, and he has followed the King’s example in giving up alcohol and tobacco, which makes him extremely irritable, so he goes to Harley Street in the hope that his doctor will tell him to start smoking again for the sake of his health. Unfortunately, his usual affable doctor has gone to serve at the front, and the locum prescribes instead a powerful stimulant, which has psychotropic effects. The Bishop sees visions, comes to a personal knowledge of God, and appals the Anglican community by preaching a heartfelt sermon at a confirmation service.
The satire on Anglicanism is enjoyable, though one suspects that Wells did not need to stretch himself much to write it. Bishops are such an easy target; a hundred years ago they had just the same talent for making themselves ridiculous that they do today (For a non-believer, the current crises in the C of E are like one of those exquisitely painful comedies, like The Office, where the viewer squirms even while laughing helplessly. Have they no idea how silly they look? Last week a Bishop burst into tears when he couldn’t get his own way about hindering the progress of women Bishops. Their concerns seem so tiny in the greats scheme of things. For example, do they really believe in a Supreme Being who might get upset because a couple of men are doing rude things with one another in the privacy of their own bedroom? But I digress…)
Wells’s Bishop has a vision of God that makes him realise Truth (which is very close to the opinions that happen to be held by H.G.Wells.) He undergoes a spiritual Odyssey that takes him from mitred misery to contented poverty. Some amusing points are made about the temptations of power and the temptations of powerlessness.
I don’t know if the religious ideas were seen as striking in 1917; today they seem rather tame. The bishop finds that he needs to get past the details of faith, such as the Trinity, to the great fact of God. He preaches that all faiths are good, and that all offer a way to the same God. It’s the sort of idea that prince Charles seemed to be hankering after,when he said he wanted to be Defender of Faith, rather than of The Faith. This seems very dubious to me. All faiths like to stress their good intentions, but if you start giving them all a blanket approval, doesn’t this mean that you’re likely to be unintentionally giving approval to their more unlovely aspects too – such as female circumcision, homophobia, and the killing of apostates, for example? Not many religions are without their nasty side.
The book interested me as a wartime novel, because the War is very much in the background. There are passages like the one I quoted yesterday that suggest something about the wartime atmosphere, and once or twice the War is used to intensify the atmosphere slightly (so that when the Bishop’s daughter falls in love, the fact that the man is a lieutenant heading for the front makes the scene more poignant.) On the whole, though, the Bishop’s progress could have happened just as well in peacetime, which reminds me of a truth that I occasionally let myself forget. While the War was there in everyone’s mind for four years as a real and terrible fact, other aspects of life (such as searches for God and falling in love) continued, that some people might have thought even more significant than the events of the Western Front.