Alton Locke, Tailor and Poet : An Autobiography, by Charles Kingsley

Chapter 17.

Sermons in Stones.

The next afternoon was the last but one of my stay at D——. We were to dine late, after sunset, and, before dinner, we went into the cathedral. The choir had just finished practising. Certain exceedingly ill-looking men, whose faces bespoke principally sensuality and self-conceit, and whose function was that of praising God, on the sole qualification of good bass and tenor voices, were coming chattering through the choir gates; and behind them a group of small boys were suddenly transforming themselves from angels into sinners, by tearing off their white surplices, and pinching and poking each other noisily as they passed us, with as little reverence as Voltaire himself could have desired.

I had often been in the cathedral before — indeed, we attended the service daily, and I had been appalled, rather than astonished, by what I saw and heard: the unintelligible service — the irreverent gabble of the choristers and readers — the scanty congregation — the meagre portion of the vast building which seemed to be turned to any use: but never more than that evening, did I feel the desolateness, the doleful inutility, of that vast desert nave, with its aisles and transepts — built for some purpose or other now extinct. The whole place seemed to crush and sadden me; and I could not reecho Lillian’s remark:

“How those pillars, rising story above story, and those lines of pointed arches, all lead the eye heavenward! It is a beautiful notion, that about pointed architecture being symbolic of Christianity.”

“I ought to be very much ashamed of my stupidity,” I answered; “but I cannot feel that, though I believe I ought to do so. That vast groined roof, with its enormous weight of hanging stone, seems to crush one — to bar out the free sky above. Those pointed windows, too — how gloriously the western sun is streaming through them! but their rich hues only dim and deface his light. I can feel what you say, when I look at the cathedral on the outside; there, indeed, every line sweeps the eye upward — carries it from one pinnacle to another, each with less and less standing-ground, till at the summit the building gradually vanishes in a point, and leaves the spirit to wing its way, unsupported and alone, into the ether.

“Perhaps,” I added, half bitterly, “these cathedrals may be true symbols of the superstition which created them — on the outside, offering to enfranchise the soul and raise it up to heaven; but when the dupes had entered, giving them only a dark prison, and a crushing bondage, which neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear.”

“You may sneer at them, if you will, Mr. Locke,” said Eleanor, in her severe, abrupt way. “The working classes would have been badly off without them. They were, in their day, the only democratic institution in the world; and the only socialist one too. The only chance a poor man had of rising by his worth, was by coming to the monastery. And bitterly the working classes felt the want of them, when they fell. Your own Cobbett can tell you that.”

“Ah,” said Lillian, “how different it must have been four hundred years ago! — how solemn and picturesque those old monks must have looked, gliding about the aisles! — and how magnificent the choir must have been, before all the glass and carving, and that beautiful shrine of St. — — blazing with gold and jewels, were all plundered and defaced by those horrid Puritans!”

“Say, reformer-squires,” answered Eleanor; “for it was they who did the thing; only it was found convenient, at the Restoration, to lay on the people of the seventeenth century the iniquities which the country-gentlemen committed in the sixteenth.”

“Surely,” I added, emboldened by her words, “if the monasteries were what their admirers say, some method of restoring the good of the old system, without its evil, ought to be found; and would be found, if it were not —” I paused, recollecting whose guest I was.

“If it were not, I suppose,” said Eleanor, “for those lazy, overfed, bigoted hypocrites, the clergy. That, I presume, is the description of them to which you have been most accustomed. Now, let me ask you one question. Do you mean to condemn, just now, the Church as it was, or the Church as it is, or the Church as it ought to be? Radicals have a habit of confusing those three questions, as they have of confusing other things when it suits them.”

“Really,” I said — for my blood was rising —“I do think that, with the confessed enormous wealth of the clergy, the cathedral establishments especially, they might do more for the people.”

“Listen to me a little, Mr. Locke. The laity now-a-days take a pride in speaking evil of the clergy, never seeing that if they are bad, the laity have made them so. Why, what do you impute to them? Their worldliness, their being like the world, like the laity round them — like you, in short? Improve yourselves, and by so doing, if there is this sad tendency in the clergy to imitate you, you will mend them; if you do not find that after all, it is they who will have to mend you. ‘As with the people, so with the priest,’ is the everlasting law. When, fifty years ago, all classes were drunkards, from the statesman to the peasant, the clergy were drunken also, but not half so bad as the laity. Now the laity are eaten up with covetousness and ambition; and the clergy are covetous and ambitious, but not half so bad as the laity. The laity, and you working men especially, are the dupes of frothy, insincere, official rant, as Mr. Carlyle would call it, in Parliament, on the hustings, at every debating society and Chartist meeting; and, therefore, the clergyman’s sermons are apt to be just what people like elsewhere, and what, therefore, they suppose people will like there.”

“If, then,” I answered, “in spite of your opinions, you confess the clergy to be so bad, why are you so angry with men of our opinions, if we do plot sometimes a little against the Church?”

“I do not think you know what my opinions are, Mr. Locke. Did you not hear me just now praising the monasteries, because they were socialist and democratic? But why is the badness of the clergy any reason for pulling down the Church? That is another of the confused irrationalities into which you all allow yourselves to fall. What do you mean by crying shame on a man for being a bad clergyman, if a good clergyman is not a good thing? If the very idea of a clergyman, was abominable, as your Church-destroyers ought to say, you ought to praise a man for being a bad one, and not acting out this same abominable idea of priesthood. Your very outcry against the sins of the clergy, shows that, even in your minds, a dim notion lies somewhere that a clergyman’s vocation is, in itself, a divine, a holy, a beneficent one.”

“I never looked at it in that light, certainly,” said I, somewhat staggered.

“Very likely not. One word more, for I may not have another opportunity of speaking to you as I would on these matters. You working men complain of the clergy for being bigoted and obscurantist, and hating the cause of the people. Does not nine-tenths of the blame of that lie at your door? I took up, the other day, at hazard, one of your favourite liberty-preaching newspapers; and I saw books advertised in it, whose names no modest woman should ever behold; doctrines and practices advocated in it from which all the honesty, the decency, the common human feeling which is left in the English mind, ought to revolt, and does revolt. You cannot deny it. Your class has told the world that the cause of liberty, equality, and fraternity, the cause which the working masses claim as theirs, identifies itself with blasphemy and indecency, with the tyrannous persecutions of trades-unions, with robbery, assassinations, vitriol-bottles, and midnight incendiarism. And then you curse the clergy for taking you at your word! Whatsoever they do, you attack them. If they believe you, and stand up for common, morality, and for the truths which they know are all-important to poor as well as rich, you call them bigots and persecutors; while if they neglect, in any way, the very Christianity for believing which you insult them, you turn round and call them hypocrites. Mark my words, Mr. Locke, till you gain the respect and confidence of the clergy, you will never rise. The day will come when you will find that the clergy are the only class who can help you. Ah, you may shake your head. I warn you of it. They were the only bulwark of the poor against the mediæval tyranny of Rank; you will find them the only bulwark against the modern tyranny of Mammon.”

I was on the point of entreating her to explain herself further, but at that critical moment Lillian interposed.

“Now, stay your prophetic glances into the future; here come Lynedale and papa.” And in a moment, Eleanor’s whole manner and countenance altered — the petulant, wild unrest, the harsh, dictatorial tone vanished; and she turned to meet her lover, with a look of tender, satisfied devotion, which transfigured her whole face. It was most strange, the power he had over her. His presence, even at a distance, seemed to fill her whole being with rich quiet life. She watched him with folded hands, like a mystic worshipper, waiting for the afflatus of the spirit; and, suspicious and angry as I felt towards her, I could not help being drawn to her by this revelation of depths of strong healthy feeling, of which her usual manner gave so little sign.

This conversation thoroughly puzzled me; it showed me that there might be two sides to the question of the people’s cause, as well as to that of others. It shook a little my faith in the infallibility of my own class, to hear such severe animadversions on them, from a person who professed herself as much a disciple of Carlyle as any working man; and who evidently had no lack either of intellect to comprehend or boldness to speak out his doctrines; who could praise the old monasteries for being democratic and socialist, and spoke far more severely of the clergy than I could have done — because she did not deal merely in trite words of abuse, but showed a real analytic insight into the causes of their short-coming.


That same evening the conversation happened to turn on dress, of which Miss Staunton spoke scornfully and disparagingly, as mere useless vanity and frippery — an empty substitute for real beauty of person as well as the higher beauty of mind. And I, emboldened by the courtesy with which I was always called on to take my share in everything that was said or done, ventured to object, humbly enough, to her notions.

“But is not beauty,” I said, “in itself a good and blessed thing, softening, refining, rejoicing the eyes of all who behold?” (And my eyes, as I spoke, involuntary rested on Lillian’s face — who saw it, and blushed.) “Surely nothing which helps beauty is to be despised. And, without the charm of dress, beauty, even that of expression, does not really do itself justice. How many lovely and lovable faces there are, for instance, among the working classes, which, if they had but the advantages which ladies possess, might create delight, respect, chivalrous worship in the beholder — but are now never appreciated, because they have not the same fair means of displaying themselves which even the savage girl of the South Sea Islands possesses!”

Lillian said it was so very true — she had really never thought of it before — and somehow I gained courage to go on.

“Besides, dress is a sort of sacrament, if I may use the word — a sure sign of the wearer’s character; according as any one is orderly, or modest, or tasteful, or joyous, or brilliant”— and I glanced again at Lillian —“those excellences, or the want of them, are sure to show themselves, in the colours they choose, and the cut of their garments. In the workroom, I and a friend of mine used often to amuse ourselves over the clothes we were making, by speculating from them on the sort of people the wearers were to be; and I fancy we were not often wrong.”

My cousin looked daggers at me, and for a moment I fancied I had committed a dreadful mistake in mentioning my tailor-life. So I had in his eyes, but not in those of the really well-bred persons round me.

“Oh, how very amusing it must have been! I think I shall turn milliner, Eleanor, for the fun of divining every one’s little failings from their caps and gowns!”

“Go on, Mr. Locke,” said the dean, who had seemed buried in the “Transactions of the Royal Society.” “The fact is novel, and I am more obliged to any one who gives me that, than if he gave me a bank-note. The money gets spent and done with; but I cannot spend the fact: it remains for life as permanent capital, returning interest and compound interest ad infinitum. By-the-by, tell me about those same workshops. I have heard more about them than I like to believe true.”

And I did tell him all about them; and spoke, my blood rising as I went on, long and earnestly, perhaps eloquently. Now and then I got abashed, and tried to stop; and then the dean informed me that I was speaking well and sensibly, while Lillian entreated me to go on. She had never conceived such things possible — it was as interesting as a novel, &c., &c.; and Miss Staunton sat with compressed lips and frowning brow, apparently thinking of nothing but her book, till I felt quite angry at her apathy — for such it seemed to me to be.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56