Friday, 14 February 2014

Low Church versus High Church - Does Anyone in Miriam May Really Care?

Miriam May grabs an opportunity to criticize the state of the church when the bishop of St. Ambrose dies (he does not feature in the novel otherwise). Here the ecclesiastical theme of the novel is at its most explicit, and the narrative highlights the division between the Low Church and the High Church factions in the Church of England. The appointment of a bishop is a political matter:
"It is rumoured," said Mr. Harcourt, as he passed on, "that Slie will get it; he has great interest; his brother has not supported the administration for nothing. Lord Foxmore, too, is said to be anxious that Slie should have it; and Kantwell, who is notoriously the bishop-maker of the Cabinet, has written, I hear, to Mr. Slie." (Miriam May, Chapter 15)
Lord Kantwell's letter to Slie makes clear his hostility towards the High Church:
"I am determined to put down Puseyism; and any one whom I on behalf of Lord Fripon can recommend to the Queen, must very satisfactorily convince me that if, I may so say, he believes the Thirty-nine Articles might well be less in scope and number." (Ibid.)
As a 'job interview' for Mr Slie, Lord Kantwell list several questions that reflecting the division in the church:
"Do you believe, and to what extent in Apostolic succession? Do you believe in Baptismal Regeneration and in Absolution; and do you sanction in any way Confession? I do not desire to influence you in this matter, of course, but are you favourably disposed towards a moderate measure of liturgical revision? Would you sanction amongst your clergy the surplice in the pulpit? Are you friendly to daily services and weekly communions? What is the least and the most number of times in the year that you would urge your clergy to preach against the Virgin Mary? ... Should you be indisposed to look favourably on preaching in Exeter Hall? and I should take it kindly if you would let me know whether your sympathies are with the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, or the Church Missionary Society." (Ibid.)

Mr. Slie replies with his own lengthy letter, giving all these questions the correct, Low Church answers. For example, he considers "the exposition of the Gospel in Exeter Hall to be, of all things, a means for hurrying on the Kingdom of God." (Ibid.)  Exeter Hall on The Strand in London was a meeting place for several protestant organizations. And, writes Mr Slie, the strongly evangelical "Church Missionary Society has, of the two societies your lordship mentions, alone any place in my affections." (Ibid.)  More importantly, from a doctrinal point of view, Slie is in earnest "to put down Puseyism in its every form." (Ibid.) This was another name for the Oxford movement, after Edward Bouverie Pusey (1800-1882) who remained its leader after Newman converted to Catholicism. Pusey had a "long and almost unbroken career of controversy" (Catholic Encyclopedia  at; in 1843 his sermon on The Holy Eucharist got him banned from preaching for two years. ( ) He was also an excellent Arabic scholar.

All clergymen of the Church of England were obliged to subscribe to the Thirty-Nine Articles that are the foundation of faith in the Church of England. (See them all at Their significance was much debated in the church in the 1840s particularly, and the Oxford movement argued that they complied with the tenets of the Catholic Church. The narrative signals Slie's hypocrisy as a Church of England clergyman:  "his argument against the Articles — to which he thought it faithful to subscribe whilst he held certain of them to be a menace to the faith he professed." (Ibid.).  For more information on this whole matter, see Evangelicals in the Church of England 1734-1984 (1992) by Kenneth Hylson-Smith.

When Arthur's mother dies, he has to consider his own future. He is not sufficiently wealthy to lead the life of an independent gentleman. Mr Stoolman offers him a career in law. But Arthur does not want to be a "man of business," contributing only to himself, he wants to contribute to his country. He replies to Mr Stoolman: "I thought of going to Oxford for three years and then preparing myself for Parliament; as I feared the Church was out of the question." (Miriam May, Chapter 11)
Chapter 11 is entitled "Shying at the Collar." This could be a reference to Arthur's assumed general reluctance to get a job (the collar being the collar of a working harness), but it can equally be taken to refer to a priest's collar. This has High Church relevance: the Oxford movement popularized the dog-collar or the clerical collar. It is generally thought that this collar, which is little more than a normal 19th-century, detachable collar starched and turned back-to-front, was first 'invented' by Rev Dr Donald McLeod, as reported in the Glasgow Herald on December 6, 1894. It seems to me that Rev McLeod had his tongue firmly in cheek when he claimed the credit for it. The article in the Glasgow Herald reports a meeting of the Glasgow Presbytery where the matter of priests' vestments was discussed. It is in this context that Rev McLeod declared:
"Personally he had only one claim to immortality, and he was afraid it rested upon a fact known to no one but himself, and that was, he was the first to introduce what was known as the "dog collar." [Laughter.] In his youth, 39 years ago, he had introduced it." This is followed, according to the report, by more laughter.
(The article is available to view at, it is in the middle of the second page of the Glasgow Herald edition, under the headline 'Ecclesiastical')
A career in the church, then, is not Arthur's first choice. Instead, quite conveniently, on the third day after gaining his degree from Oxford, Arthur sees a piece in the Morning Post announcing that the member for Great Glastonbury "had been thrown many feet out of a tandem, and cast on to his head leaving whatever brains he had - for the first time brought to light - about the road." (Miriam May, Chapter 12) The paper has "an affectingly exact description of what amount of brains had been got together by some intelligent constable; any amount being on the side of the account that was new to Great Glastonbury." (Ibid.) The narrative combines gore and comedy in a disturbing way, but moves on quickly to describe how parliamentary elections are fought and won. Arthur stands at the elections against Lord Diskount and Mr Le Poer Bubb. Lord Diskount, with his wealth and the help of a "parliamentary agent" wins the seat. Arthur, in turn, loses a lot of money in fighting the campaign and he has to reconsider his options: "I had not the capital which would permit me to be honest, and yet enable me to be successful." (Miriam May, Chapter 13). Instead, he now "turned my thoughts towards the Church." (Ibid.) Arthur enters priesthood, it seems, not as a result of a religious calling, but because of convenience. There is no depiction of his spiritual life or his religious convictions in the narrative, beyond his fond memory of his dead mother teaching him his first prayer when he was a little boy. (Miriam May, Chapter 6).
As a priest, Arthur Trevor is High Church - his narrative should have made that clear by now. He soon establishes "daily services to the utter unstringing of Mrs. Dubbelfaise's Protestant nerves." (Miriam May, Chapter 15), he is friends with a High Church clergyman Mr Harcourt. Both of them are not happy about Slie's appointment as bishop:  "the Church may have too many of these men, why don't they keep to their chapels?" (Ibid.)  Although Arthur maintains that "Both Mr Harcourt and I had good cause to know that Mr Slie was no man to be a bishop" (Miriam May, Chapter 15), he accepts Slie as his superior - this respect for church hierarchy is another trait of High Church thinking (Miriam May, Chapter 18).

Miriam May gives its author scope to express views on the Church of England and its divisions. The portrayal of the Low Church preachers Slie and Wray and Slie's loyal congregation of the Glastonbury ladies, the lengthy sections on the idea of "faith without works" and Mr Slie's appointment as a bishop, the references to Puseyism and the Thirty-Nine articles all make up a commentary which disparages the Low Church and supports the High Church faction in the Church of England.

Matters of the church in Miriam May appear as both a source of comedy and (mildly) critical commentary. Crucially, they do not provide any significant contribution to the plot of the novel. The role of the church or religion in the individual characters' lives is not explored in any meaningful way. Arthur's choice to become a priest, and his religious convictions (or lack of them), are not analyzed. Mr Slie's apparently strongly held ecclesiastical views have no impact on the events of the story. His progression up in the church hierarchy is not of interest in the narrative.

H. L. Mansel identified the matter of High Church vs Low Church as the key theme of Miriam May. It is a theme that clearly runs through the novel, but what it adds to the novel is some degree of entertainment value rather than drama, depth or serious social commentary. The reason for this lack of impact is the fact that no one in Miriam May really seems to care about religious matters, despite the fact that both the narrator/hero Arthur and the character that comes closest to being the villain of the piece Mr Slie are priests in the Church of England. The place where the narrative should most explicitly pass judgment on this matter is the treatment of Evelyn May, the (possibly) un-wed mother and her (possibly) bastard daughter. In most simple terms, the Low Church congregation of Mr Slie refuses the two women charity, whereas the High Church Arthur Trevor support the women throughout. But this distinction is not attributable to the ecclesiastical leanings of the two sides, there are other motivations than religious ones. The ladies of Glastonbury are driven as much by ideas of middle-class respectability as evangelical principles. On the other side, as a gentleman, Arthur is obliged to help Evelyn and Miriam, after Miriam has 'saved' him and spent years as an 'adopted' sister in his household

Robins has sought to use the sensational, melodramatic plot of Evelyn and Miriam May's tribulations as a vehicle in which to insert comments on the theme of the church. This is why, first, you can read Miriam May and ignore the sections about the church, you will not miss anything in understanding the plot or the characters; and secondly, Miriam May is not a very good novel (there are other reasons, too, more about them later). The controversy between the Low Church and the High Church, which was a passionately fought issue that affected deeply those involved in it, is a powerful theme for a sensation novel. Religious convictions, fundamentalism and sectarianism are strong motives with sensational potential. Miriam May almost completely fails to take advantage of this.

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