Pageant of Life (1932)

This is a discussion of Fr. Dudley’s 3rd novel for those who have already read the book:  it has some spoilers.  There is one character that caries forward into his next novel (The Coming of the Monster)  June Campion.
This is his darkest novel, and the introductory note states:  “I have endeavoured to present…an antithesis to that modern cowardice which manifests itself in the vogue for the vague and non-committal; the convenient dilettantism which questions everything, holds nothing, and funks the hard facts of truth.”
Still, we’ll start with humor.  Cyril Rodney had never before had a Catholic friend, and had never been to a Catholic’s home:
     [Cyril] had been (Thornton never forgot it) appalled at finding the whole family at Mass next morning in the private chapel which he entered in mistake for the breakfast-room; Thornton, on his knees, had looked up to see him staring bewilderedly and then hurriedly escaping with a frightful frown.  There had been worse to follow.
     At breakfast, the chaplain, whom Cyril had been watching shyly, had remarked something about “missionaries” and a “leper fund.”  Afterwards, in the hall, Cyril had lounged up to him, with a finger on a sovereign in his waistcoat-pocket— “May I see you a minute, sir?”  The chaplain, unwarned that Cyril was not a Catholic and misunderstanding, had led him to the chapel, going in ahead, entered the confessional-box, sat down and waited…
     Thornton had run into Cyril coming back into the hall looking perplexed and awkward:  “That Padre of your has got into some cupboard place in there.  Might give him that for those Johnnies of his, will you?  Can’t get at him.”  Thornton had gone in with the sovereign to look for the chaplain, returned quickly, and collapsed on a chair with yells of laughter…
Later in the plot, Cyril Rodney has become an Army Captain, Anselm Thornton has finished medical school, and they have gone to a ski resort in Switzerland:
     Amongst the visitors at their hotel…were a Mrs. Finley and her two daughters, with whom they struck up a friendship.  The two girls were twins, eighteen, extremely pretty and vivacious…Thornton discovered they were Catholics and told them that he was one also.
     They must have concluded the same of Cyril, until, on the Sunday, they found he had not been to Mass and asked him boldly, “Why not?”  Cyril frowned and replied, “I’m not a Catholic.” One of them proffered, “What a pity!” and they both, with alarming candour, said they would pray for him.  Cyril, politely, jerked out, “Thanks,” and changed the subject.
Fr. Dudley wrote of what he knew, and it is hard to know where autobiography ends and pure fiction takes up.  His family suspects that the character of Cyril Rodney was based upon his older brother:  Capt. David Dudley, who was a superb athlete (and a Rugby player), and was killed in action in the action on Auber’s Ridge, France–at age 34—in May 1915.  Dudley’s two other brothers saw a great deal of action in World War I, and one of them probably had PTSD.  His sister did remount work like June Campion in the novel—although I have no reason to believe that she was injured.
After his conversion, Fr. Dudley was a Catholic Chaplain in a British artillery unit in France and Italy.  (I wonder if the “deserter” execution in the novel was a first hand experience?)  Books regarding that era note that Catholic Chaplains went to the front so as to be in a position to deliver last rights—while other Chaplains usually remained further back.
The novel certainly was varied!  It started with scenes from teenage years during the era of candles and carriages.
It had philosophical debates which included this passage:
“Why, in the name of all that is sane, should I be responsible to my fellow-men? Under what obligation am I to be good for the sake of Humanity? What obligatory value can Humanity give to morality isolated from religion? You proclaim to me a moral imperative which, put to the test, reduces it self to an empty vaunt; `moral laws’ which carry with them no sanction. From whom would you obtain authority to make and execute them in a Godless world of your dreams? You deny moral authority derived from a Deity; do you expect to derive it from yourselves?…I am an individual, you’re equal, with the same rights as yourselves. I refuse to find in you sanctions for what I do…Religion at least offers me a rational basis for morality. If I accept the Deity, I accept a moral obligation. If I acknowledge a Creator I acknowledge an Author of the moral order. A Supreme Legislator, a Being to whom I owe my own being, Who has absolute rights over me, Whose subject I am. Give me a God and I obey. Give me a God and I obey YOU when you present to me His Laws and not your own… Religion at least treats me as a rational being. You treat me as an unthinking fool. I decline your offer with thanks…”
Fr. Dudley’s books were sometimes used in Catholic college courses:  since there was so much closely reasoned philosophy in this book, surely this must have been one of them that was used.
Chapter XI contains a prolonged meditation upon the nature of war and its horror, of which this is part:

     It was the Catholic in Thornton that had felt these swift tragedies so acutely–the lightning transit from life to death.  No time for anything.  These men, the majority of them with no visible religion, shot, blown, disintegrated into, for them, the Unknown–for himself, the Known.  He has seen himself a hundred times lying mutilated and dead, and, as far as possible, had prepared himself for that eventuality.  He had knows, as a Catholic, exactly what had to be done in face of it.  Whenever the R.C. Padre has visited their lines, he has received the Sacrament with the Catholics amongst the men.
     But the others?  Did they ever let their imagination wander ahead?  Did they think at all?
     His own mess-officers? Did they ever think?
     Captain Bandreth, an amazingly good sort…?  The Major?  The Colonel, who rode cheerily up to the lines through a bombardment, to “stiffen `em up”?  The others?  Nearly all of them decent men.  Did they think at all?
     Thinking was not encouraged in the Army.  You “carried on,” a cog in a machine.  You carried on until—  And you did not contemplate the “until.”  You carried on.  You could make jokes about “picking daisies.”  Anything more debarred from Mess, like politics.  It wasn’t done.
     …[T]his vast Armageddon mowing down men like wheat.  There was no time for sentiment…It unstiffened….
     Psychologically, the Army attitude was the only possible one.  It was damnable; but it was necessary for maintaining discipline and morale, and for “getting on with it.”

Fr. Dudley’s father was an Anglican vicar (as was one of his grandfathers).  One of his brothers also became a Catholic priest.  This all caused tensions in the family—and they have some memories that might be fairly characterized as almost bitter.  So it is interesting that this novel contains the only sincere, devout Protestant character in all of his novels—and she did not convert.  (None of his converts were portrayed as actively practicing any religion at the time of conversion.)  And while she was an anti-Catholic bigot, she was portrayed quite sympathetically and as being good hearted.

Fr. Dudley’s views of class were complex.
  • This novel focuses upon the comfortable, but not the rich.  Additionally, it is his first portrayal—detailed, sympathetic, and empathetic—of poverty:  this contained autobiography, for his second posting as an Anglican minister (before his conversion) was to London’s East End—from whence the hop-pickers came during harvest time.  Very strong concern for the poor is also expressed in 3 of his remaining 4 novels.
  • British novelists have typically found the landed gentry interesting subjects:  as do Dudley’s first two and last two novels.  He illustrated the great good that could be found among such people, and the bad.  Regarding the latter, he showed contempt which reached utter scorn in Michael.  His last novel (Last Crescendo) focused on toxic (self-rightous) Catholicism in such a setting.
  • Fr. Dudley was at pains to dismiss the British prejudice against Catholic priests:  that they could never be intellectuals, gentlemen, nor refined.  That they could be refined was stressed in The Masterful Monk, Michael, and Last Crescendo.  Fr. Dudley made his Masterful Monk Benedictine, and Benedictines have been important in British history, but the vow of poverty was never mentioned in the novels…nor was there any evidence of it whenever the monk was not actually in his Italian monastery.
When interviewed in 1939 in the US, Fr. Dudley said that the English are terribly class-conscious, and “awful snobs”—something that some of his family members suspected of him.  His views reminds me of P.G. Wodehouse:  class conscious, but also seeing the fool in the wealthy and the wisdom in the poor—and vice versa.  Originally, I was taken aback by this:
He knew the type.  She was probably a chorus-girl, or, at any rate, on the stage.  She was pretty, with full, sensuous lips– in no need of her too lavish makeup.  Her shoes were showy, but not good. Her whole dress, hat and all were showy, but cheap.  She was traveling First.
With that unwise label on her bag.
(It was the label on her bag that revealed to Anselm Thornton that she was the mistress of Bernard Rodney:  a writer who had seen the truth of Catholicism philosophically, but had not taken the next step…and Thornton now understood why.)
This novel is his most blunt look at sexual sin (a prostitute, two mistresses, and a remarkably bold Gypsy woman):  but he makes the sin look ugly as it is—rather than glamorous as illusion (and much modern literature) would seek to portray it.
Moreover, P.G. Wodehouse, writing during that same era, had a very common plot theme:  a rich man taking up with a young woman from the stage—apparently it was really a thing back then (as humor is often reality exaggerated).  And if “Jeeves” is to be believed, the phenomena was not limited to England:  he dryly noted that the problem was so great in Pittsburg as to cause a serious shortage of chorus girls threatening the closing of some shows.
And Fr. Dudley criticized sexual sins of the wealthy—among each other—in 4 of his novels, so it is not as though he ever equated wealth with morality in women or men.
(But, yes, an Englishman…at least if he were Fr. Dudley…would notice such things in such a situation.  His most dramatic example of upward mobility was the daughter of a East End barman [Ann Roy in Last Crescendo]:  who, married into an old Dorsetshire family–with the strong advocacy of the Masterful Monk.  But, although she was not ashamed of her origins, she shed her Cockney accent, and wore cloths that were neither showy nor cheap…and she was wise, intelligent, and moral.
Still, I found it harder to understand the discussion in Chapter VIII (p. 126) months later regarding the same woman.  Bernard  Rodney had gone to see Anselm Thornton (who had recently graduated from medical school):
     “You remember that girl?”
     “I do.”
     “Rather an appalling thing happened. She – she died.” His mouth began to tremble. “About a month ago.”
     Thornton moved.
     “Oh?… I’m –”
He stopped. He had been going to say, “I’m sorry,” but he change quickly to:
     “How did it – happen?”
     “After a successful operation for appendicitis.”
The sarcasm was not intended rudely; more to cover his feelings. There was bitterness in it, though.
     “I don’t expect your sympathy, and I don’t ask for it. I thought I’d let you know, however.”
So this is why Bernard had come.
Thornton stood up and looked into the fire. He kicked a coal into position.
     “I’m glad you’ve told me,” he said at length. “I’m sorry, of course, she died – like that. I can’t very well say more, can I, considering –”
He stretched out a hand. Bernard gripped it,  and exclaimed warmly:
     “You’re a good sort, Thornton. I’ve missed you all this time – those letters, you know.”

Obviously what really matters is the eternal, and they were in a sinful relationship, but it would not have occurred to me to have reservations about expressing sorrow about a (presumably) unprovided for death.  Still less would it have occurred to me that such an awkward acknowledgement would be accepted so warmly.  Whether he would have also had scruples regarding Bernard’s death (had the situation been reversed) is complicated by the fact that he had kept Bernard’s character failings quiet for the sake of his family.  In any event, keeping in mind that Fr. Dudley wrote of what he knew in a way that spoke to the average Catholic in the pew, Fr. Dudley would have viewed this dialogue as realistic—although, of course, he could have been mistaken.  Among the many questions raised by all of this are:  have the times really changed so much…or was this just Fr. Dudley?

The ending of the book occurred during a largely forgotten episode:  allied efforts in Russia from the Arctic port of Archangel at the mouth of the Dvina River, on the White Sea in Russia.  Initially there were a number of goals, but towards the end they were limited to just helping the White Russians against the Red Russians (Bolsheviks).  I have not yet found how Fr. Dudley had such detailed information about Archangel, but the notion of a soldier being crucified was a widely publicized (but unverified) claim that German troops had crucified a Canadian soldier during World War I.
The novels shows the author’s interest in psychological problems that is continued in The Tremaynes.
The point of the novel was pretty much the same as all of his novels:  God, who gave us all, deserves all in return…and giving all brings a joy that is eternal.

Leave a Reply