A Catholic Novel
In late August 1964, at the age of 29, I embarked at Southampton on the Queen Mary, bound for New York with my wife Mary, our two children, five suitcases and the first chapter of what I hoped would be my third published novel. I was beginning a year’s leave of absence from my post as lecturer in English Literature at the University of Birmingham to take up a Harkness Commonwealth Fellowship in America. This marvellous foundation allows the lucky recipients of its Fellowships to pursue their own programmes of study wherever they like in the United States, requiring them only to spend at least three months travelling, and providing them with a hired car in which to do so. We settled first at Brown University, in Providence, Rhode Island, where I studied American Literature; before we set off, in March 1965, in our brand new Chevrolet Bel Air, on the long, leisurely journey westward that would eventually take us to San Francisco. I had finished The British Museum is falling down and had it accepted.
This is easily the shortest period of time in which I have ever succeeded in writing a novel. My freedom from teaching duties, combined with the generally stimulating and liberating effect of the American experience, was one obvious reason for this. But another reason for the relative rapidity of composition was my conviction that I had lighted upon a subject of considerable topical interest and concern, especially (but not exclusively) to Roman Catholics, and one that had not been treated substantively by any other novelist as far as I was aware – certainly not in the comic mode in which I proposed to treat it. That subject was the effect of the Catholic Church’s teaching about birth control on the lives of married Catholics, and the questioning of that teaching which had very recently begun within the Church itself. I wanted to get my novel out while the subject was still a live issue, and before any other writer cottoned on to its possibilities.
I need not have worried on the first score: Rome did not attempt to settle the matter until 1968, and Pope Paul VI’s encyclical of that year, Humanae Vitae, endorsing the traditional prohibition of artificial birth control, succeeded only in provoking a much more fundamental debate, which continues to this day, about authority and conscience as well as sexuality. Since I have treated this subject in the course of a more recent novel, How far can you go? (1980), as part of a longer, wider look at changes and developments in Catholicism over the last quarter of a century, I would like to remind readers of the reissue of The British Museum is falling down that it was first published in 1965, some three years before Humanae Vitae. The relationship between the two novels, and the differences between them, can hardly be understood without bearing this in mind.
Adam and Barbara Appleby are not portraits of myself and my wife, and the circumstances of our married life never, I am glad to say, corresponded very closely to theirs. Nevertheless, it would be idle to pretend that I would have thought of writing the novel if we had not, in the early years of our married life, found (like most of our married Catholic friends) that the only method of family planning sanctioned by the Church, known as ‘Rhythm’ or the ‘Safe Method’, was in practice neither rhythmical nor safe, and, therefore, a cause of considerable stress. In How far can you go? a number of the characters, gathered in a pub, ask themselves why they ‘persevered for so many years with that frustrating, inconvenient, ineffective, anxiety-and-tension-creating regime’, and come up with a variety of answers: it was conditioning, it was the repressive power of the clergy, it was guilt about sex, it was the fear of Hell. Let me put forward another reason, which was perhaps not given its due in How far can you go? Any intelligent, educated Catholic of that generation who had remained a practising Catholic through adolescence and early adulthood had made a kind of existential contract: in return for the reassurance and stability afforded by the Catholic metaphysical system, one accepted the moral imperatives that went with it, even if they were in practice sometimes inhumanly difficult and demanding. It was precisely the strength of the system that it was total, comprehensive and uncompromising, and it seemed to those brought up in the system that to question one part of it was to question all of it, and that to pick and choose among its moral imperatives, flouting those which were inconveniently difficult, was simply hypocritical. This rage for consistency was probably especially characteristic of British and American Catholicism – Continental European cultures being more tolerant of contradiction between principle and practice – and especially characteristic of the working-class and petit-bourgeois Catholic ‘ghetto’. Mr Auberon Waugh, in an exceptionally hostile review of How far can you go?, asserted of the traditional Catholic teaching on sex: ‘No doubt a few Catholics who took it seriously found it oppressive; but the majority lived in cheerful disobedience.’ Well, that is what it may have looked like from the perspective of Combe Florey House and Downside, but not, I can assure Mr Waugh, from the point of view of the Catholic ‘majority’ in ordinary parishes up and down this country.