Sunday, June 9, 2024

'The Heavenly Ladder' by Compton Mackenzie: A Guest Post by John Howard

Sir Edward Compton Mackenzie (1883-1972) was a prolific author, producing a steady stream of novels, satire, biographies, memoirs, and many other works during a career that lasted for over 65 years. The distinctive name of Compton Mackenzie always seemed somewhere in the background of life at home when I was young. My mother read her way through the ten volumes of Mackenzie’s autobiography My Life and Times she borrowed from the town library. (It was archly published in ‘Octaves’: each book covering eight years or so.) The family sitting-room boasted a tall bookcase containing copies of composer biographies belonging to my father and my mother’s paperbacks of Nevil Shute, Alastair MacLean, C.S. Lewis, Tolkien – and a copy of Mackenzie’s comic novel Whisky Galore. In the cabinet beneath my father kept his record collection and back issues of music review magazines. His favourite was Gramophone, which in every issue proclaimed that it had been founded and edited by Compton Mackenzie.

Mackenzie was added to my own shelves when, as a student in an ancient cathedral city, I bought a copy of the heftiest (829 pages) old orange Penguin paperback I had ever seen: his early novel Sinister Street. Although not uncritical, I was very taken with the story, a bulky Bildungsroman chronicling the progress of Michael Fane in society through school, university, and life in London. For me, one memorable aspect of Sinister Street was Fane’s Anglo-Catholicism. I mentioned this to my tutor, who promptly handed me three thick, battered volumes and said that I might like to borrow them. So I became further acquainted with Mackenzie’s fiction, another extended tale of character education, growth, and self-analysis, with one Mark Lidderdale as protagonist. Always a fast worker, Mackenzie had written and published the trilogy in short order: The Altar Steps (1922), The Parson’s Progress (1923), and, one hundred years ago in June 1924, The Heavenly Ladder.

The first volume takes Lidderdale from his childhood as the son of an Anglo-Catholic ‘slum priest’ in London, through gradually discerning his own vocation, to Silchester Theological College and ordination. Lidderdale’s father had regretted getting married and left his wife and son to become a missionary in Africa; the child and his mother moved to Cornwall to live with her father, also a clergyman. The tensions for a priest, whether married or not, between his spiritual and pastoral duties and personal desires and responsibilities, form a constant theme throughout the novels. In the second volume Lidderdale undertakes his first curacy and a series of parochial appointments, mainly in London, where he develops into a sought-after preacher and confessor. Eventually the ‘intensive work in the box’ breaks him, and The Heavenly Ladder sees Lidderdale appointed Vicar of Nancepean – the small Cornish parish where he had lived as a boy.

Lidderdale throws himself wholeheartedly into his new responsibilities, determined from the outset that ‘the change in the style of worshipping to be complete, the transition to [Anglo-] Catholicism to be rapid and sudden’ (1). Nancepean was a very poorly endowed parish, so Lidderdale relies on his London friends to provide the vestments, chalices, books, and furniture that he wants for his church and the richly elaborate rites and ceremonies that he wishes to introduce. He also attempts to pick up the threads of his childhood friendships, but his status as Vicar, rather than mere grandson of old Parson Trehawke, ensures that neither is entirely successful. Although Lidderdale faces much opposition he is still able to inspire a small but loyal band of supporters.

The appointment of a new, unsympathetic, bishop brings the conflict in the parish to a head, when he demands that Lidderdale cease his ‘Roman’ practices. As the Great War suddenly breaks out, Lidderdale decides that if he cannot be Vicar of Nancepean on the terms he believes required by his duty to God, then he will disobey. Lidderdale is deprived of his living and ejected from his vicarage: he ‘struggled on into the darkness, from which he would emerge only to be lost under another name in the deeper murk and utter darkness of war . . . ’ (304). After demobilisation, when he came to consider his future, ‘Mark chose a village in the Bernese Oberland in which to make his interior peace while the nations were making their exterior peace at Versailles’ (313). Conversations with an elderly Roman Catholic priest from England convince Lidderdale to accept that he must reject his Anglican priesthood: the thing that he had desired most.

For some reason Mackenzie, who had converted to Roman Catholicism in 1914, chose to write about the Anglican variety. Perhaps it was simply more appealing to a storyteller: Anglo-Catholicism was full of larger-than-life personalities both lay and clerical, and had a constantly growing mythology of exploits, told and retold by the faithful and denounced by their enemies. It was decidedly not respectable, but even dissident and transgressive: an incense-laden world of its own, in conflict with the ‘Establishment’ while paradoxically part of it by law.

Although Lidderdale’s progress, his spiritual journey, is never straightforward, its destination is also, perhaps, never really in doubt, because as a Roman Catholic Mackenzie would not have written it any other way. Perhaps, too, it is only natural that the conclusion of The Heavenly Ladder should read like a New Testament paraphrase, words reminiscent of Matthew 18:3, a teaching from the mouth of the Lord who he will still follow: ‘And he, like a child, was beginning life all over again.’

(John Howard)

1 comment:

  1. Very nicely done, thank you. The review is incisive and perceptive; you balance the personal and the general expertly. The highest praise I can bestow is that I sought out and purchsed a copy of "Sinister Street" immediately afterwards.