Maugham and Spark

The title of this post may call to mind a comedy duo from the music hall era, though that is not the intention. Recently, and not for the first time, I have been reading novels by these authors, both of whom deal with religion but in very different ways. Spark converted to Catholicism while I would say that Maugham, though brought up by a clergyman after his mother died (or perhaps because he was brought up by this clergyman), was not an adherent of a faith. Further to that, I would say he frequently looks on human behaviour with a cynical eye. So of the two, you would expect Spark to have the more sympathetic view of religion. Strangely, though, that is not how it seems to me. Spark has a gift for satire, and religion does not escape. Take her novel, The Abbess of Crewe.

We find that the abbess has some rather strange ideas, going so far as to include a course in electronics in the curriculum. This does not escape the authorities in Rome, who are sufficiently concerned to write to her seeking clarification. The Abbess considers her response.

‘What I have to decide,’ says the Abbess, ‘is how to answer the second question in the letter from Rome. It is put very cautiously. They seem quite suspicious. They want to know how we reconcile our adherence to the strict enclosed Rule with the course in electronics which we have introduced into our daily curriculum in place of book-binding and hand-weaving. They want to know why we cannot relax the ancient Rule in conformity with the new reforms current in the other convents, since we have adopted such a very modern course of instruction as electronics. Or, conversely, they want to know why we teach electronics when we have been so adamant in adhering to the old observances.

This is very witty, but hardly enters a Graham Greene realm of moral dilemma. To me, it is not only witty but overly whimsical, though some might respond that in this book Spark prefigures the surveillance society we have now.

Upstairs and far away in the control-room the recorders, activated by their voices, continue to whirl. So very much elsewhere in the establishment do the walls have ears that neither Mildred nor Walburga are now conscious of them as they were when the mechanisms were first installed. It is like being told, and all the time knowing, that the Eyes of God are upon us; it means everything and therefore nothing. The two nuns speak as freely as the Jesuits who suspect no eavesdropping device more innocuous than God to be making a chronicle of their present privacy.

Perhaps she suspected how things were going, though whether this is a result of foresight or the author extending the situation in the abbey to its furthest conclusions I have no way of knowing. Either way, though, the abbess does not inspire respect and nor does the establishment she is in charge of.

Maugham is a different case altogether. He based his writing on what he observed, his powers of observation were acute, and if he observed religion operating well that is that he reported. This is what occurs in the Painted Veil.

The heroine, Kitty Fane, is much affected by local nuns caring for the sick. The Mother Superior, a high-minded lady, gives her the benefit of her wisdom on several occasions.

‘You know, my dear child, that one cannot find peace in work or in pleasure, in the world or in a convent, but only in one’s soul.’

‘There is only one way to win hearts and that is to make oneself like unto those of whom one would be loved.’

‘Good-bye, God bless you, my dear child.’ She held her for a moment in her arms. ‘Remember that it is nothing to do your duty, that is demanded of you and is no more meritorious than to wash your hands when they are dirty; the only thing that counts is the love of duty; when love and duty are one, then grace is in you and you will enjoy a happiness which passes all understanding.’

Impressed as she is by the Mother Superior, Kitty, being human and by no means a saint, has problems with this.

It was singular that, though their way of life so profoundly moved her, the faith which occasioned it left her untouched.

This might well be the author’s own attitude, though there is no way of proving this. And then we have the human element, brought out in her relations with one of the nuns.

She had a wild impulse to seize the stout, good-natured nun by the shoulders and shake her, crying: ‘Don’t you know that I’m a human being, unhappy and alone, and I want comfort and sympathy and encouragement; oh, can’t you turn a minute away from God and give me a little compassion; not the Christian compassion that you have for all suffering things, but just human compassion for me?

Aspects of religion crop up a lot, sometimes in great detail, in The Razor’s Edge.

Maugham shows a knowledge of how patronage can operate in the Catholic Church.

The Abbé spoke of the faith with wisdom and benignity; he was broad-minded, modern in his outlook, and tolerant. He made the Church seem to Elliott very like a select club that a well-bred man owed it to himself to belong to. Six months later he was received into it. His conversion, combined with the generosity he showed in his contributions to Catholic charities, opened several doors that had been closed to him before.

One character, Larry, spends much intellectual energy on religious topics and raises interesting questions,

I myself think that the need to worship is no more than the survival of an old remembrance of cruel gods that had to be propitiated. I believe that God is within me or nowhere. If that’s so, whom or what am I to worship – myself?

This novel is unusual in that the author figures as a character, and so there are statements in it which we can cautiously ascribe to Maugham himself.

For a while we were silent. A chill went down my spine as it strangely does when I am confronted with deep and genuine human emotion. I find it terrible and rather awe-inspiring.

I have only scraped the surface here, there is much more in the two Maugham books than this brief post can deal with. For example, I don’t want to give the impression that Maugham does not deal with the dark side of religion: for that we can turn to the powerful story Rain. But, for me, he covers this subject with greater insight than the true believer does, and this may be because he is more open about himself, his thoughts and his feelings.

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