Friday, January 22, 2016

Rev. J. Jackson Wray: Simon Holmes, Carpenter (1886)

Brief notice in The Spectator, 16th October 1886

[Image source:]

Chapter I begins with verse by Anna Letitia Barbauld and ends with Spenser. In between it's as the title says: GIVES THE READER A VIEW OF ASPENDALE AT SUNSET; AND A GLIMPSE OF THORPE ASPEN AFTER NIGHTFALL.  Wray is a skilful writer; but what catches my eye is how the popular English novel was such a strong form in this era  (1886)  that it could convincingly support Wray's evangelical Christianity, which might seem fundamentally at odds with it;  which does indeed lead certainly away from naturalism towards soul-adventure.

Of the titular hero Wray (sounding rather like the early George Eliot) says: "I will at once avow that the quaint and intelligent old carpenter is a special favourite of mine, and ... I intend that he shall stand in the same relationship to my readers ..." At first this doesn't seem very likely: Simon's incessant homilies, coupled with an unfairly-rigged record of guessing the future, provoke our rebellion. But eventually we do grow fond of him. By the usual measures of drama he does not play a very active role in plots that are primarily concerned with younger characters; in Wray's evangelical conception, however, the real action takes place much more on the spiritual plane than on the visible one in which the younger folk are captured by Spanish bandits, cast adrift in an open boat on the Atlantic, etc. Interspersed with these high adventures and loves are low-life comedy with Peter Prout the miller, Tim Crouch the cobbler, and others; all very skilfully intermixed. Three marriages are triumphantly achieved, and the heroic Ethel Spofforth belatedly goes to her rest.

This night-scene will stand for the rest.  The disgraced Alfred has returned incognito to his beloved village, and meets the drunk cobbler.

At one side of the road, in a recess of hedge and bank, there was a pump whose clear cold waters had been available for Thorpe Aspen from time immemorial. Alfred was inclined for a drink out of the well-remembered spout, and Tim seemed to have some views in the same direction. The cobbler laid hold of the pump handle and set to work with vigour to fill the trough with water. Then down he went on his knees, and doffing his battered hat he plunged his head into it, once, twice, thrice, and rose cool and sobered to his feet. He rubbed himself fairly dry with a big coloured pocket handkerchief from his pocket, put on his hat again, and turning to his companion said—
     "There! That's mah prescription for cheeatin' the ninepenny. Noo, Mr. Alfred, give us a grip o' your hand. Ah knoa yo', bud your seeacrit's as seeafe wi' me as if it were locked up i' the Bank o' England. If you'll cum' along o' me, oor Sally 'll gi' a corner an' a rasher o' bacon, an' jump at t' job. Ah reckon yo' deean't want to be knoan."

(On the following page, Alfred's brother Robert risks his life to rescue the lovely Ruth Hartgold from the burning house; a fire whose progress was interrupted for other chapters.)

Also, you will want to hear Simon Holmes in homiletic flight; to the pious, fading Ethel:

We knoa, as you say, an' you an' me'll just go on trustin' an' prayin' and waitin' on Him 'at says, 'Call on me in the day of trouble, an' I will deliver thee.' He either means it or He doesn't. If He doesn't, why there's nowt for it but just to shut up t' Bible an' drift doon i' the dark. But if He does, then He means it oot an' oot, an' t' biggest faith 'll fetch the biggest blessing from the throne of God. O Miss Ethel, Miss Ethel! Neither your prayers nor mine can stop midway on the rooad te Heaven. They're winged wi' faith that's stranger than an eagle's wing, an' accordin' to oor faith it shall be done.

To the despondent widow Atheling:

Ivery thing's goin' on all right and reg'lar, an' sum o' theease days, it'll be a case o' 'lang leeaked for, come at last.' ... It seeams te me that this mornin' afoore t' posst com' in you were all drinkin' the watters o' Marah, bitter an' brackish beyond degree. Noo the good Lord's tossed a wonderful healin' tree intiv it, an' you've gotten a sweeter teeaste i' your mouths then you've had for monny and monny a dark an' cloody day. Surely you may ha' fayth te beleeave that God 'll go on te be gracious, an' that by-an'-by you'll sit amang the palm trees an' the wells of Elim, here in your oan ingle-nook wi' Mr. Robert an' Mr. Alfred at your side. The Wonder-worker that did this for yo' can do t' other.

It was interesting to me that the still-so-prevalent expression, a case of (as in "It's a case of wait-and-see") goes back as far as this. See how differently adjusted Holmes' dialect and expressions are to his different audiences.

Of Wray's own language, two things stood out:

"O Mr. Ravensworth!" she said, in soft and winsome tones, "you are sad. Dear friend! tell me what it is?"
As she spoke the dark eyes of this fair daughter of the South were filled with tears, and there was that in her tones which revealed a secret which was not as yet understood by herself, nor recognized by her own young and gentle heart.
Just at that moment Ephraim Hartgold entered the little parlour , Ruth's own peculiar snuggery. Taking Inez by the hand and seating himself by her on the sofa, he drew her to him. There was a winsome gentleness in his tones and words as he said– "Where is thy father, Inez?– Where is Captain Lanyon?"
There was that in the tone of Harold's voice that displayed how deep were his feelings on this subject.
It was now Señor Bonanza's turn. Alfred thought he had never seen any nobler or more winsome features in living man than those that met his gaze when that gentleman rose from his place, pushed back from his brow his whitening hair, took Alfred's two hands in his, and said–
"Speak freely, please," he said looking down upon her with those wondrously winsome eyes, and in a tone that might well encourage her, and did.

Winsome=cheerful, pleasant, attractive (according to my dictionary). This now-obsolete word I had mostly associated with descriptions of females; Wray uses it of old men, the engaging Ephraim and his friend Señor Bonanza, in celebration of kindly paternalism to young women (not actually their own daughters), a type of encounter that may now be almost extinct.

There was that in (the young person's face, tone, etc) - this expression hallows the solemn and dramatic moment of revealed feeling by placing it beyond the narrowness of words. The idea is that these feelings, formerly hidden in the youth as only potential, are now brought to light; now the owner is seen to have become - permanently - the person they will be from now on. In Wray the feelings are owed to God and love, simply; in later Imperialist novels they may also be connected with patriotism, public school, the finest clay, etc.

When you see such expressions here as "What in the name of all that's wonderful" and "he said fervently", you realize that the popular novel of the next fifty years has an input not from the Church of England but from the evangelical tradition.

[The Internet records little as yet about J. Jackson Wray. He was, I believe, Pastor of the Whitefield Tabernacle in Tottenham Court Road. He died in 1892. I imagine him to have been a popular evangelical preacher as well as a prolific author: homespun homilies and histories of the dissenting tradition as well as novels like this. According to the numerous press notices advertising his other works, these novels were seen as particularly suitable for boys and girls, but not exclusively: "A capital book for all classes, old and young, lovers and married. A good story, told with much feeling. No one will read it without having their faith in God strengthened", says one of the encomia.]

Whitefield's Tabernacle, Tottenham Court Road (J. Prickett)

[Image source: . This is an early 19th century engraving. I imagine the building was in a worse state by the time Wray was pastor. It was pulled down and replaced in 1890. ]



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