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Hallo again to all.

Charlotte YongeSome years ago we began a project of reading through the vast body of Anglican fiction, defined not as fiction by Anglicans — as that would take several lifetimes of reading — but rather as literature with Anglican content, characters, themes, and settings. This endeavour has brightened many hours of commuting in subway, on bus, on bridge, and in tunnel. It has been an experience, much like checking an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, that always takes us someplace rather far afield from where we entered on the shelf.

We began with old standards, recognisable by their last names alone: Trollope, Howatch, Lewis, Sayers, Karon, Yonge, Pym, Kingsley and Brontë. It did not take long for friends to recommend writers whose full names trigger readier recognition: Louis Auchincloss, P.D. James, A.N. Wilson, Alan Paton, Robertson Davies, Compton Mackenzie, Rose Macaulay, Peter Carey, Joseph Henry Shorthouse. Volumes could be filled with the names of authors and titles less well known, but no less deserving or wonderful. The top of our list in this category would include Article Thirty-Two, by John Rathbone Oliver; Heathen Valley, by Romulus Linney; The Beloved Invader, by Eugenia Price; early work by Sheila Kaye-Smith; Cast on a Certain Island, by Roger Tennant; I Heard the Owl Call My Name, by Margaret Craven; Benton's Conviction, by Geoff Page; The Bell, by Iris Murdoch; and Burden of Desire, by Robert MacNeil.* Thankfully, the list grows by the year with new writing by Kate Charles, Darcey Steinke, Dennis Maynard, Julia Spencer-Fleming and Reynolds Price.

Darcey SteinkeThis catalogue is not meant to show how much our Interlibrary Loan coordinator has been taxed chasing down Anglicana, nor how upsetting our bills with can be. The hunt for this title or that one has oft taken well over a year, snaking its way from the Anglican Bibliopole to deaccession racks at theological-college libraries and back again. Not every sought-after book has quite lived up to its promise, and, in truth and fairness, literary taste today has left some of our best lights far behind in the dust.

But reading through these many books, meeting their characters, attending their churches and working through their encounters with God has been a remarkably rewarding experience. It has, in a surprising way, been an antidote to the easy fascination with sepia-toned Anglicanism that can be a besetting propensity for those who find themselves keen on church history. Literature can often delve into the muck and matter of Anglican life on the ground in ways that the various fictions of our historical tradition usually do not. Whilst church polemicists and historians have tried their hands at novels, their work has not often entered the canon of good Anglican reads.

Far from being a kind of literary escapism, Anglican fiction fills in the living interstitial space between history's chronicles and the real, dialogue- and work- and emotion-filled days of real people in real parishes. Parish, rectory, seminary, mission field, and cathedral close all provide a tested palimpsest on which the genre is usually written; more readers will be attracted to a novel about eccentric vicars and parishioners than to a statistical or historical analysis of any number of actual parishes with all of the same characteristics. Social historians have themselves begun to take Anglican popular fiction seriously as a source for the reach and content of trends in church life. A fictional — but really quite true and beautiful — account of the life of a priest in a Kwakiutl community in northern British Columbia strikes us as often more worthwhile than twice- or thrice-digested ideas about the coterminous character of the Anglican Communion with the British Empire. By the same token, the depiction in Heathen Valley of the disastrous impact of Anglo-Catholicism in a remote Appalachian community tells us something more about the ritualist movement than the oft-told story of the triumph of the Oxford Movement in revitalizing church life during a period of alleged decay and lassitude.

Most of all, we find ourselves drawn to Anglican fiction because we can and do meet Septimus Harding, Mrs Proudie, Frank Prescott, Aunt Dot, and Anson Greene Phelps Dodge, Jr. each week. They are our friends and a part of us. In print, we mourn their deaths, share their joys and sorrows, and wish there were sequels or different endings and beginnings. Maybe, just maybe, the chance to have met and empathised with them on the page can be an impetus to understand and better know them in person.

See you next week.

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Last updated: 15 January 2006

* Yes, that Robert MacNeil.

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