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Here we have a new aspect of the historical phenomenon represented by this book and its popularity. Some of its attitudes to class, to sex and to the Jews offer a preview of assumptions which are to recur in popular British literature during subsequent decades. To that extent the modern reader may feel that the Edwardians were not after all so different from himself as he may have supposed. But it is impossible to imagine a novelist of any period after 1914 basing his entire plot on the assumption that a general belief in the Incarnation and the Resurrection is the sole force which prevents Western civilization from blowing up with a bang. (It was the view, one may recall, of Ivan Karamazov.) I have just used the phrase -after 1914. But it is really impossible to know at precisely what point in British history such a plot would cease to be credible. Naturally at the time of its publication the book was greeted with derision and occasional disgust by considerable numbers of people. But as its circulation figures, not to mention the sermons of the bishops, show, the notion of Christianity and the literal truth of the Gospels as the main if not the sole factor holding civilization together was accepted in England to an extent which seems suddenly to remove the Edwardians to a remote and almost wholly alien world. A world which has seemed largely familiar abruptly becomes as strange as the world of the Middle Ages. This kind of illumination, this kind of jolt to one’s historical sense, is among the reasons why a study of the bestsellers is of serious importance and certainly not to be considered in the light of a mere amusement to be enjoyed chiefly for the pur¬ pose of noting how ‘odd’ or unsophisticated their authors and mass public must have been.
What has, of course, happened is that Hands, guided by corrupt lonides, has found the inscription forged by Sir Robert Llwellyn, and has sent the incontrovertible (so it seems) tidings to Spence. Although there was, in those days, no Press Council, Ommaney has a proper sense of journalistic responsibility and, before publishing anything, insists on a meeting with the Prime Minister. Kaiser Wilhelm, German Emperor, is also immediately made aware of the perils now facing civilization.
What is decided is that a Commission of Experts (and here we seem to be in more or less modern times) shall visit the scene. And who leads this great international Commission? None other, naturally, than Professor and Knight Llwellyn. He has no difficulty in convincing his colleagues, plus Harold Spence, who has been rushed by the Daily Wire to the scene, that the fatal inscription is indeed genuine. It stands up to every test.
Now it emerges that the principal, if not the only force, which has been holding civilization together is the belief that Christ rose from the dead.
Just for a start, the Turks begin to massacre the Balkan
peoples. The Russians mobilize. India revolts. ‘In America; says a newspaper report,
“we find a wave of lawlessness and fierce riot passing over the country such as it has never known before. The Irishmen and the Italians who throng the congested quarters of the great cities are robbing and murdering Protestants and Jews. From Australia the foremost prelate of a great country writes of the utter overthrow of a communal moral sense … ‘Everywhere I see morals, no less than the religion which inculcates them, falling into neglect. Set aside in a spirit of despair by fathers and mothers, treated with contempt by youths and maidens, spat upon and cursed by a degraded populace, assailed with eager sarcasm by the polite and cultured.’
“The terrible seriousness of the situation need hardly be further insisted on here. Its reality cannot be more vividly indicated than by the statement of a single fact – CONSOLS ARE DOWN TO SIXTY-FIVE.”
The statement also vividly enough indicates the values and attitude of a society in which it can be published, in what the Bishop of London could describe as a ‘remarkable work of fiction’, and regarded as credible and at least worthy of serious discussion by scores of thousands of readers. (Hands, reading all this and regarding himself as responsible for the original ‘discovery’, goes partly mad and dies in a fit.)
The most significant feature of the whole affair is the effect upon the position of women. For it turns out that male belief in the Resurrection is the only factor which prevents most men treating most women in bestial fashion. In the aftermath of the news from Jerusalem, criminal assaults upon women in England rose by nearly 200 per cent. In Ireland, ‘with the exception of Ulster, the increase was only eight per cent.’ The explanation for this is that at the outset the Vatican not only denied the slightest validity to the ‘discovery’ but absolutely forbade Roman Catholics even to discuss it. That was why the women of southern Ireland were relatively safe, while in the Protestant north men went hog-wild.
The Secretary of the World’s Women League reports that
‘crimes of ordinary violence, wife-beating and the like, have increased, on an average, fifty per cent all over the United Kingdom.’ He is able to produce field reports from reliable individuals up and down the country. The vicar of St Saviour’s, Birmingham, notes: ‘Now that the Incarnation is on all hands said to be a myth, the greatest restraint upon human passion is removed … In my district I have found that the moment men give up Christ and believe in this “discovery”, the moment the Virgin Birth and the manifestation to the Magdalene are dismissed as untrue, women’s claims to consideration and reverence for women’s chastity in the eyes of these men disappear.’
Information reaching the World’s Women League from the United States is no less alarming. Reclaimed prostitutes are rushing from the League’s ‘homes’ back to the streets, only to return a few weeks later as mere wrecks, on account of the novel and appalling brutality of the men. “The state of the lower parts of Chicago and New York City has become so bad that even the municipal authorities have become seriously alarmed. Unmentionable orgies take place in public. Accordingly a bill is to be rushed through Congress licensing so many houses of ill-fame in each city ward, according to the Continental system.”
But God is not mocked. Vengeance is mine saith the Lord. Vengeance in this case takes the form of our man Basil Gortre, curate. Gortre has all along, as we know, had his suspicions of the almost universally respected, if sometimes feared, Constantine Schuabe. Then there was the episode of the broken Murillo. And immediately after that came Schuabe’s arrogantly over-confident hints of something terrible about to happen to the pale Nazarene.
Since then clues have been piling up, more particularly in an episode at Dieppe in which Gortre, on a brief holiday with Helena, Byars, and Spence, sees Llwellyn getting into the same Paris-bound express as Schuabe himself. Then occurs an amazing stroke of luck for the righteous or, it might be more prudent to say, an act of Providence. For none other than Gertrude Hunt, somewhat under the influence of the news that she is suffering from a slow complaint and has only a couple of years to live, has, to put it coarsely, ‘got religion’.
Gortre’s vicar at the great Bloomsbury Church of St Mary’s tells him the story.
“This poor girl told me all about it. the same very sordid story one is always hearing. She is a favourite burlesque actress, and she lives very expensively in those gorgeous new flats – Bloomsbury Court. Some wealthy scoundrel pays for it all … Oh, my dear fellow, if the world only knew what I know! Great and honoured names in the senate, the forum, the Court, unsullied before the eyes of men. And then these hideous establishments and secret ties! This is a wicked city … She has expressed a wish to see you to talk things over … Go to her and save her. We must…”
Gotre goes to see Gertrude. He has been there only a short time when Professor Llwellyn enters. (This is just after his first, secret trip to Palestine when he forged the inscription.) Enraged at finding the young curate closeted with his Circe, he allows himself, like Schuabe on that earlier occasion, to be provoked into an astoundingly indiscreet series of threats and prophecies as to what will soon befall ‘all meddling priests … Your Christ. your God, the pale dreamer of the East, shall be revealed to you and all men at last!’
Since that day. Gotre has secured the very useful backing of Sir Michael Manichoe, a man of colossal wealth who ‘represented the curious spectacle to sociologists and the world at large, of a Jew by origin who had become a Christian by conviction and one of the sincerest sons of the English Church as he understood it … He had been Home Secretary under a former Conservative administration, but had retired from office.’ But although now a back-bencher ‘he enjoyed the confidence of the chiefs of his party.’
With the help of Manichoe’s money, and his own vigorous London vicar (who gets a lot of money from Manichoe to keep the church and parish going), Gortre gives Gertrude a healthy Christian brain-washing, and gets her secretly to disappear from Bloomsbury Court Mansions and the clutches of Sir Robert Llewellyn. She goes into concealment in a remote country village.
Meanwhile Sir Robert, what with over-rich food and nervous premonitions brought on by the crash of civilization he has helped to bring about, is a prey to overpowering sexual lust for the absconding Gertrude. Nobody else will satisfy him. Gortre in London and Gertrude in her hide-out sense this. After much soul-searching, they decide that, horrible and in some senses sinful as such a course must be, the right thing for her to do is to return to Sir Robert, play upon his lusts, and worm out of him the truth of what Gortre knows must be the case, but can produce no evidence to prove.
She does so. In a passionate bedroom scene Llewellyn tells all, boastfully and in detail.
Gertrude hurries off to report.
Ommaney and Harold Spence are now at once brought into action. Spence is sent off to Palestine with unlimited money. He runs to earth lonides, who, just after Llwellyn’s first visit, has ‘inherited’ a large sum of money and retired to a country village a couple of days ride from Jerusalem. Spence, after paying over a heavy bribe to the Turkish Governor of the area, secures a tough bodyguard and goes out to lonides’ house. The Turkish official has asked, and secured from a slightly reluctant Spence, permission to torture lonides if that is the only way to secure his confession.
The threat is sufficient. lonides tells how he was bribed to assist Llwellyn in the faking of the alleged message from Joseph of Arimathea, the re-sealing and its subsequent discovery by Hands, led thither by lonides.
With this confession, the fate of Schuabe, the Professor and their whole conspiracy is sealed. Not only the establishment but the deluded populace turn against them. Llwellyn is lynched, trampled to death by the mob under the eyes of his wife in the home which he has so often deserted. Schuabe escapes to Manchester with the intention of committing suicide. He fails and goes mad. He is taken to the County Asylum.
It was apparently customary, or at least not unusual, at that time for visitors to be shown round the asylum as an alternative to visiting, for instance, the zoo. One afternoon the chaplain was showing a group of young ladies over the place. The girls were three in number, young and fashionably dressed. They talked without ceasing in an empty-headed stream of girlish chatter. They were the daughters of a great iron-founder in the district and would each have a hundred thousand pounds.
“‘How sweet of you, Mr Pritchard!’ said one of the girls, ‘to show us everything. It’s awfully thrilling.’ The party ‘went laughing through the long spotless corridors, peeping into the bright, airy living rooms where bodies without brains were mumbling and singing to each other.'”
“‘Did ye show the young ladies Schuabe?’ said the doctor to the chaplain.
“‘Bless my soul!’ he replied, ‘I must be going mad myself. I’d almost forgotten to show you Schuabe!’
“‘Who is Schuabe?’ said the youngest of the sisters, a girl just fresh from school at St Leonards.
“‘Oh Maisie!’ said the eldest. ‘Surely you remember … He was the Manchester millionaire who went mad after trying to blow up the tomb of Christ. I think that was it. It was in all the papers. A young clergyman found out what he had been trying to do …’
“‘Everyone likes to have a look at this patient,’ said the doctor. ‘He has a little sleeping room of his own and a special attendant. His money was all confiscated by the Government, but they allow two hundred a year for him. Otherwise he would be among the paupers.’
“The girls giggled with pleasurable anticipation. The doctor un¬ locked a door. The party entered a fairly large room, simply furnished … On a bed lay the idiot. He had grown very fat and looked healthy. The features were all coarsened, but the hair re¬ tained its colour of dark red. He was sleeping.
“‘Now, Miss Clegg, ye’d never think that made such a stir in the world but five years since. But there he lies. He always eats as much as he can, and goes to sleep after the meal.’
” ‘He’s waking up now, sir. Here, Mr Schuabe, some ladies have come to see you.’ It got up with a foolish grin and began some ungainly capers.
” ‘Thank you so much. Mr Pritchard,’ the girls said as they left the building. ‘We’ve enjoyed ourselves so much.’
“‘I like the little man with his tongue hanging out the best, said one.
“‘Oh Mabel, you’ve no sense of humour. That Schuabe creature was the funniest of all.'”
And thus, with the blessing of the Bishops of London and Exeter, we leave a book highly recommended by them to the British public and by that public enthusiastically received.
There is, I suppose, a difference between those rich girls giggling so heartily at the lunatics, and the hangers and torturers of our own day. The differences are indeed obvious and can be studied in laws and by-laws. Perhaps still more interesting to study would be the similarities, not always obvious, between our own times and the days when it was dark.
From Claud Cockburn’s Bestseller, published 1972.