I have decided to put my Christmas day to good use and what better use could there be than the contemplation of wonderful books? I hope some of you may have found The Wry Romance of the Literary Rectory by Deborah Alun-Jones under the Christmas tree or perhaps already have it in hand because, to my way of thinking, it is a rather perfect book to spend the holidays with. Alun-Jones combines two of my favourite reading topics – families and the clergy – in her entertaining survey of writers who lived in rectories. Some were the children of clergy, some were clergymen themselves, and some were drawn to rectories by the romantic connotations they hold. In Alun-Jones’ hands, all of their lives are interesting.
There are certain authors whose lives are so closely entwined to their rectory(/parsonage/vicarage, etc) upbringings that even the most disinterested reader is aware of them. Alun-Jones mentions Jane Austen and the Brontës in her introduction but, much to her credit, does not focus on either family. Much (too much) has already been written about their lives already. Instead, she focuses on a selection of authors both familiar and unfamiliar, most of whose lives (with the exception of Dorothy L. Sayers) I knew very little about beforehand.
While I enjoyed most of the chapters (the weakest, to me, were the final two, which focus on rectories where more than one author has lived), I was truly delighted by the sections on Alfred Tennyson, R.S. Thomas, and Sydney Smith. I am not sure I had ever heard of R.S. Thomas (a Welsh poet and clergyman) before reading this but I was absolutely fascinated by his domestic life at Manafon Rectory in the Welsh borders. And I loved learning about the Tennysons growing up at Somersby. I was especially delighted to hear that Alfred and his brothers went around wearing “long flowing capes and dark sombreros” as young men. Their eccentric habits (and their vicious, unbalanced father) would have made them awful neighbours but they are absolutely fascinating subjects.
But best of all was Sydney Smith, the essayist and diarist. Smith’s diaries have been on my to-be-read list for a while now and, after reading what Alun-Jones has to say about him, I am so much more eager to read them. Smith sounds wonderful. His home sounds wonderful. His family sounds wonderful. So many other writers she profiles had awful parents or were bitter misanthropes or impractical romantics who I could never identify with. Smith, on the other hand, is described as someone who did good work as a clergyman but, more importantly, who was deeply loved by both his family and his large circle of friends. He sounds entirely delightful and this brief portrait has only reinforced my desire to become better acquainted with him.
The portraits of Dorothy L. Sayers growing up in her father’s rectory and of Rupert Brooke’s lodgings at the now immortalized Old Vicarage, Grantchester are both excellently done. I was less enamoured of the chapters discussing George Herbert and now Vikram’s Seth’s time at Bemerton and the rectory in Lincoln inhabited by the Benson family and, later, the de Waals. The pages devoted to the Bensons are very well done but these chapters do not fit as well with the rest of the book. I am also frankly skeptical of the de Waals’ literary credentials.
The whole book is beautifully and generously illustrated, with photographs, drawings, and paintings of the homes, churches, surroundings, and people Alun-Jones describes. The chapter on R.S. Thomas is particularly interesting, with illustrations by his wife, the artist Elsi Eldridge (who sounds like a far more interesting person than her husband). All of these illustrations helpfully allow the reader to do some superficial comparisons between the rectories and I must say that John Betjeman’s home at the Old Rectory in Farnborough looks to me to be the nicest of all the rectories surveyed. But, as Alun-Jones points out, these rectories were often built by cash-strapped clergymen and what may have looked nice outside was cramped and barely habitable inside (at the Old Rectory, water had to be fetched from the village pump well into the 1950s).
All in all, a rather wonderful book. I find that so many authors struggle with the kind of brief biographical sketches this book is made of; Alun-Jones does them very well indeed. I, being someone who is fascinated by all things clergy-related, was the perfect audience and I was certainly a very appreciative one.