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I deplore the far too easy analogy between the traditional role of the priest and the current role of the therapist. It can only be made by people who clearly know very little of your profession and less than nothing of mine. You may assuage a troubled mind, but you offer no solace to the soul.

The Catholic Church is facing a losing battle with public opinion these days. The horrific revelations of child sex abuse that have increased in recent years were only made more horrifying with the discovery that the Vatican has made it policy to cover up allegations of abuse in lieu of investigating and prosecuting the crimes. This year Cardinal Tarciscio Bertone went even further and laid the blame on homosexual priests, in effect excusing the Church itself of any responsibility. A long-standing antagonistic relationship exists between the Catholic Church and the gay community, one that has led to the ironical claiming of Christian martyrs as gay icons, such as Saint Sebastian. Even the masochistic imagery of the Passion has itself become confused by sexual ambiguity and it is this blurred line between martyrdom and repressed sexuality that author Michael Arditti explores with his first novel.

Each chapter of The Celibate opens with a continuing narration by an erudite tour guide to a group of astonished tourists. We then flit from, in the first half of the novel, a discussion of the Whitechapel murders by the figure popularly known as Jack The Ripper, to a second narration, that of a troubled young man who has been ordered to undergo therapy. Slowly it becomes clear that the tour guide and the young man, an ordinand in the Anglo-Catholic Church, are one and the same. The therapy sessions are entirely one-sided, with the trainee priest’s life story unfolding almost unprompted, as to his increasing frustration, the therapist never speaks.

He describes how his calling was quite a unique one. As the son of an English Jew it seemed odd to many that he would choose to become a priest, but he feels compelled to study the Catholic faith and make it his own. At the seminary he befriends – and from the beginning we are given to understand was betrayed by – another student named Jonathan, who is fiercely passionate and politically active. The narrator at one point mentions that his one-time friend expounded from the pulpit that the Church’s ban of homosexuality is actually a distraction from the breaking of the more serious taboo of incest in the Bible by figures such as Noah and Lot.

The sudden seizure upon the altar which leads to the narrator’s suspension from his studies results in him working alongside more secular charities for a time. While there he discovers something of his old missionary zeal in trying to help London rent boys. He compares himself to William Gladstone, which in turn reflects the narration by his future self of the attitude towards prostitutes held by the Victorian era. Slowly his religious resolve begins to weaken and he discovers that he has been hiding his true nature from himself, something that the rent boys and pimps he meets are quick to guess at. Can someone believe in a Christian god represented on this Earth by a homophobic church and be gay at the same time?

This book is divided into two sections, each bookended with a different opening tour by our nameless guide. The first compares the hypocrisy of the Victorian era with its condemnation of ‘fallen women’, (allowing for a double-victimisation at the hands of the Whitechapel murderer), to the rampant homophobia of the Church and its refusal of mercy to homosexuals. The second examines the parallels between the plague of 1665 and the present-day AIDS epidemic, with bigotry and intolerance increasing the risk to sufferers of both.

As Arditti has chosen the device of having this character engage in ongoing monologues, via his tour guide patter and therapist confessional, we are privy only to his thoughts throughout. Scholarly discussions of the history of Christianity meet a reserved naivety of a man hiding from himself. As such the reader comes to know this nameless protagonist better than he knows himself – and by extension, we come to understand the dilemma of many priests who are called to betray themselves.

This is a stunning, yet disturbing debut novel. Sex and spirituality are twinned, the bigotry of the Thatcherite era equated with Victorian hypocrisy. A powerfully moving book.

“Ah, you light-complexioned women are all sulky,” he said. “What do you want? Compliments and soft speeches? Well! I’m in good humour this morning. Consider the compliments paid, and the speeches said.” Men little know, when they say hard things to us, how well we remember them, and how much harm they do us.

According to Matthew Sweet’s introduction both William Thackeray and British Prime Minister William Gladstone read this book in a day. So it seems I am in good company. However, it appears I have been labouring under a misunderstanding about this book. I always assumed it was a ghost story, thanks to a little known film starring Lukas Haas with a similar title, whereas in fact it is a pseudo-gothic tale of family intrigue and fraud.

The book’s preface contains a note stating that this is a new kind of tale, one were the action is to be related to us by its own characters. Published in serial form by Charles Dickens in the 1860s, this was considered a unique feature at the time. Collins proves to be adept with this new narrative form. [The characters] are all placed in different positions along the chain of events; and they all take the chain up in turn and carry it on to the end. The reader is left to question the truth of the events as they unfold.

Shortly before assuming a well-paid position as a tutor at Limmeridge House, Cumberland, Walter Hartright has a startling encounter on a country road just outside of London. A woman dressed entirely in white seems to appear out of nowhere. She speaks in low darting sentences, seems confused and possessed by turbulent emotions. Muttering accusingly about a man of rank, a baron of some kind, she begs Walter’s assistance. He agrees to accompany her into the city environs, where she claims a close friend lives who will aid her in her distress. She forces him to promise not to detain her, or question her about her circumstances and just as suddenly as he had made her acquaintance, the mysterious woman in white departs, leaving him much bemused on the streets of London.

After arriving at Limmeridge, Walter assumes his post as tutor to the two young women of the house, Laura Fairlie and her half-sister Marian Halcombe. The head of the house is the louche dilettante Frederick Fairlie: art lover, insufferable snob and claiming to suffer from a multitude of ill-defined afflictions. As he memorably describes himself during a later passage in the novel, he is nothing but a bundle of nerves dressed up to look like a man”.

Having introduced us to our nominal cast of characters, we then meet the villain of the piece – Sir Glyde. A man of good repute, whom Walter quickly notes, is a baron. Could this be the man the woman in white was babbling about? For Walter has fallen in love with Laura Fairlie and Sir Glyde has been promised her hand in marriage. Broken-hearted, the young hero leaves Limmeridge on an exploratory trip to Honduras. His part in the adventures that follow is not ended yet, though the telling of the tale passes from him.

Collins has both main actors and bit-part players address us during the proceedings. The story is told through the device of diary extracts, legal testimonies and signed confessions, an increasingly familiar device through the latter-half of the 19th century. Collins had a background in both art (hence Hartright’s role as an art teacher) and law, which explains the fraught legal dilemma that Laura quickly finds herself in. Strangely when Walter assumes the role of narrator, his heroic aspect transforms the two sisters into self-admonishing weak-willed women. Yet when Marian, distraught at the fraudulent marriage her sister becomes enmeshed in, steps to the fore, she is revealed to be a canny and determined heroine. She meets her match, however, in the conniving Italian Count, a friend to Sir Glyde, who uses charm and guile to entrap Laura’s estate.

Only the mysterious woman in white knows ‘The Secret’ to defeat the conspiracy that traps the sisters in their own homes, at the mercy of powerful men who with a word can strip them of their class and commit them to the asylum.

Madness and evasions of the word of the law haunt the proceedings, playing on fears of false incarceration. This is an effusively written, yet chilling, work of suspense.

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