A couple of nights ago, I read a short, funny, mildly satirical novel by Alfred Noyes, published in 1929 and called The Sun Cure.
(Noyes is perhaps best known to modern readers as the author of the widely-anthologized poem, “The Highwayman.” After the death of his first wife, he married a woman who was a member of one of England’s deeply rooted Catholic families, and converted himself, around the time that The Sun Cure was published. He was the author of an intriguing-sounding apologetic called The Unknown God, which I believe I’ll try to get my hands on. Here is a good article introducing Noyes, and here is a blog post by William Newton on the writer.)
The “Books” section of the Chicago Daily Tribune, with a review of The Sun Cure right next to a review of Graham Green’s first novel, The Man Within. Click on the graphic for a full version of the image..perhaps a bit easier to read.
The premise was irresistible. Basil Strode is a young, infallible-in-his-own-eyes Anglican curate who finds himself caught in the countryside without any clothes on. He was clothed when he embarked upon his walk, but through a series of… circumstances, his clothes are lost to him and he must find his way back home with the least amount of humiliation he can manage.
It’s short, very funny in parts, and generally quite knowing and wise. The satire centers, in a lesser way, on the dynamics of parish life – not an unusual literary theme. The anxious, persistent low-grade fever of anti-Catholicism is never far from the surface:
Then came an anonymous post-card, referring to genuflections as “antics” and asking Mr. Strode why he did not go over to Rome at once.
From a letter of a parishioner to the vicar, anxious about the curate’s disappearance:
It might be worth trying to find out whether the dreadful little convent in the village knows anything about it. Stella Maris, I believe it is called. He once attempted to persuade me that our own dear little Norman church was built by monks.
I love this. The original holistic spirituality:
…Dear old Dad hasn’t any prejudices of that sort. He even says that he likes incense, and wishes that Basil could have his own way about it. He told the vicar that now he’s getting on in life, he doesn’t see very well, and he doesn’t hear very well, so he rather thought he would enjoy a church where he could smell his religion.
What is satirized in a more general way are intellectual fashions of the day.
The specifics of those fashions are less important than the greater point: Most of the time, self-proclaimed radical cultural stances are expressions, not of ground-breaking, courageous individual originality, but of a safe, comfortable herd mentality. They are just that: fashions.
The “sun cure” recommended to him by a friend for other reasons and experienced in this almost accidental way did indeed strip the curate, but of more than his clothes. Two other characters converse about him during his puzzling absence:
“…I meant that if he could only break away from this pseudo-modernity, and pseudo-intellectualism; if could just once defy his own age, instead of defying the dead Victorians….I should feel that he was really his own self, instead of a variation on a current them….”
“…..One does get so sick of the notion of the present moment — that because its conventions aren’t those of the last century, it has no conventions of its own. …”
The curate had, at some point in the past, insulted a woman who expressed what he would term as simpler, less sophisticated tastes than his own. The woman who is the object of the curate’s affection takes him to task for this and tells him that his snobbery is off-putting. He argues that surely she would not refuse his hand based on “literary grounds.” She responds:
“They are not literary grounds. They are human grounds. Miss Bird, as I told you, is unlike your ‘distinguished’ anonymities in having a few quite genuine beliefs; and you used the cheap phrases of pseudo-metaphysical charlatan, in a precious literary weekly, to snub her. I saw the hurt look on her face long after you had wiped your boots on her perfectly sincere love of certain perfectly true and simple things. I walked home with her; and it was in her eyes when we said good-night…..”
Basil tells her, helpfully, that next Sunday, he’ll be quoting Strindberg in his sermon.
“….Very well. I don’t go to church to hear a high-brow Anglican curate quoting a Scandinavian lunatic…”
I was very struck by this exchange near the end of the book. Written almost a hundred years ago, in a cultural and social quite different from our own…but exactly the same:
Half of our differences at the present day are just differences of patter — the patter of one convention clashes with the patter of another — and we miss everything that’s worth having. I long to get away, sometimes, from my own generation. I don’t care whether it’s into the past, or into the future, so long as it’s away from the patter into simple realities again. I hate being a slave to my own age.
I read The Sun Cure via the Gutenberg Canada website – the US site has several of his poetry collections, but not this novel. It’s a short book – I read it in an evening, and enjoyed it a great deal.