Read CHAPTER XVIII - CLERGYMEN-continued. of Collections and Recollections, free online book, by George William Erskine Russell, on

Of the “Merriment of Parsons” one of the most conspicuous instances was to be found in the Rev. W.H. Brookfield, the “little Frank Whitestock” of Thackeray’s Curate’s Walk, and the subject of Lord Tennyson’s characteristic elegy:-

“Brooks, for they called you so that knew you best-
Old Brooks, who loved so well to mouth my rhymes,
How oft we two have heard St. Mary’s chimes!
How oft the Cantab supper host, and guest,
Would echo helpless laughter to your jest!

You man of humorous-melancholy mark Dead of some inward agony-is it so? Our kindlier, trustier Jaques, past away! I cannot laud this life, it looks so dark: [Greek: Skias onar]-dream of a shadow, go,- God bless you. I shall join you in a day.”

This tribute is as true in substance as it is striking in phrase. I have noticed the same peculiarity about Mr. Brookfield’s humour as about Jenny Lind’s singing. Those who had once heard it were always eager to talk about it. Ask some elderly man about the early triumphs of the Swedish Nightingale, and notice how he kindles. “Ah! Jenny Lind! Yes; there was never anything like that!” And he begins about the Figlia, and how she came along the bridge in the Sonnambula; and you feel the tenderness in his tone, as of a positive love for her whose voice seems still ringing through him as he talks. I have noticed exactly the same phenomenon when people who knew Mr. Brookfield hear his name mentioned in casual conversation. “Ah! Brookfield! Yes; there never was any one quite like him!” And off they go, with visible pleasure and genuine emotion, to describe the inimitable charm, the touch of genius which brought humorous delight out of the commonest incidents, the tinge of brooding melancholy which threw the flashing fun into such high relief.

Not soon will fade from the memory of any who ever heard it the history of the examination at the ladies’ school, where Brookfield, who had thought that he was only expected to examine in languages and literature, found himself required to set a paper in physical science. “What was I to do? I know nothing about hydrogen or oxygen or any other ‘gen.’ So I set them a paper in common sense, or what I called ’Applied Science.’ One of my questions was, ’What would you do to cure a cold in the head?’ One young lady answered, ’I should put my feet in hot mustard and water till you were in a profuse perspiration.’ Another said, ’I should put him to bed, give him a soothing drink, and sit by him till he was better.’ But, on reconsideration, she ran her pen through all the ‘him’s’ and ‘he’s,’ and substituted ‘her’ and ‘she.’”

Mr. Brookfield was during the greater part of his life a hard-working servant of the public, and his friends could only obtain his delightful company in the rare and scanty intervals of school-inspecting-a profession of which not even the leisure is leisurely. The type of the French abbe, whose sacerdotal avocations lay completely in the background and who could give the best hours of the day and night to the pleasures or duties of society, was best represented in our day by the Rev. William Harness and the Rev. Henry White. Mr. Harness was a diner-out of the first water; an author and a critic; perhaps the best Shakespearean scholar of his time; and a recognized and even dreaded authority on all matters connected with the art and literature of the drama. Mr. White, burdened only with the sinecure chaplaincies of the Savoy and the House of Commons, took the Theatre as his parish, mediated with the happiest tact between the Church and the Stage, and pronounced a genial benediction over the famous suppers in Stratton Street at which an enthusiastic patroness used to entertain Sir Henry Irving when the public labours of the Lyceum were ended for the night.

Canon Malcolm MacColl is an abbe with a difference. No one eats his dinner more sociably or tells a story more aptly; no one enjoys good society more keenly or is more appreciated in it; but he does not make society a profession. He is conscientiously devoted to the duties of his canonry; he is an accomplished theologian; and he is perhaps the most expert and vigorous pamphleteer in England. The Franco-German War, the Athanasian Creed, the Ritualistic prosecutions, the case for Home Rule, and the misdeeds of the Sultan have in turn produced from his pen pamphlets which have rushed into huge circulations and swollen to the dimensions of solid treatises. Canon MacColl is genuinely and ex animo an ecclesiastic; but he is a politician as well. His inflexible integrity and fine sense of honour have enabled him to play, with credit to himself and advantage to the public, the rather risky part of the Priest in Politics. He has been trusted alike by Lord Salisbury and by Mr. Gladstone; has conducted negotiations of great pith and moment; and has been behind the scenes of some historic performances. Yet he has never made an enemy, nor betrayed a secret, nor lowered the honour of his sacred calling.

Miss Mabel Collins, in her vivid story of The Star Sapphire, has drawn under a very thin pseudonym a striking portrait of a clergyman who, with his environment, plays a considerable part in the social agreeableness of London at the present moment. Is social agreeableness a hereditary gift? Nowadays, when everything, good or bad, is referred to heredity, one is inclined to say that it must be; and, though no training could supply the gift where Nature had withheld it, yet a judicious education can develop a social faculty which ancestry has transmitted. It is recorded, I think, of Madame de Stael, that, after her first conversation with William Wilberforce, she said: “I have always heard that Mr. Wilberforce was the most religious man in England, but I did not know that he was also the wittiest.” The agreeableness of the great philanthropist’s son-Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford and of Winchester-I discussed in my last chapter. We may put aside the fulsome dithyrambics of grateful archdeacons and promoted chaplains, and be content to rest the Bishop’s reputation for agreeableness on testimony so little interested as that of Matthew Arnold and Archbishop Tait. The Archbishop wrote, after the Bishop’s death, of his “social and irresistibly fascinating side, as displayed in his dealings with society;” and in 1864 Mr. Arnold, after listening with only very moderate admiration to one of the Bishop’s celebrated sermons, wrote: “Where he was excellent was in his speeches at luncheon afterwards-gay, easy, cordial, and wonderfully happy.”

I think that one gathers from all dispassionate observers of the Bishop that what struck them most in him was the blending of boisterous fun and animal spirits with a deep and abiding sense of the seriousness of religion. In the philanthropist-father the religious seriousness rather preponderated over the fun; in the bishop-son (by a curious inversion of parts) the fun sometimes concealed the religiousness. To those who speculate in matters of race and pedigree it is interesting to watch the two elements contending in the character of Canon Basil Wilberforce, the Bishop’s youngest and best-beloved son. When you see his graceful figure and clean-shaven ecclesiastical face in the pulpit of his strangely old-fashioned church, or catch the vibrating notes of his beautifully modulated voice in

“The hush of our dread high altar,
Where The Abbey makes us We,”

you feel yourself in the presence of a born ecclesiastic, called from his cradle by an irresistible vocation to a separate and sanctified career. When you see him on the platform of some great public meeting, pouring forth argument, appeal, sarcasm, anecdote, fun, and pathos in a never-ceasing flood of vivid English, you feel that you are under the spell of a born orator. And yet again, when you see the priest of Sunday, the orator of Monday, presiding on Tuesday with easy yet finished courtesy at the hospitable table of the most beautiful dining-room in London, or welcomed with equal warmth for his racy humour and his unfailing sympathy in the homes of his countless friends, you feel that here is a man naturally framed for society, in whom his father and grandfather live again. Truly a combination of hereditary gifts is displayed in Canon Wilberforce; and the social agreeableness of London received a notable addition when Mr. Gladstone transferred him from Southampton to Dean’s Yard.

Of agreeable Canons there is no end, and the Chapter of Westminster is peculiarly rich in them. Mr. Gore’s ascetic saintliness of life conceals from the general world, but not from the privileged circle of his intimate friends, the high breeding of a great Whig family and the philosophy of Balliol. Archdeacon Furse has the refined scholarship and delicate literary sense which characterized Eton in its days of glory. Dr. Duckworth’s handsome presence has long been welcomed in the very highest of all social circles. Mr. Eyton’s massive bulk and warm heart, and rugged humour and sturdy common sense, produce the effect of a clerical Dr. Johnson. But perhaps we must turn our back on the Abbey and pursue our walk along the Thames Embankment as far as St. Paul’s if we want to discover the very finest flower of canonical culture and charm, for it blushes unseen in the shady recesses of Amen Court. Henry Scott Holland, Canon of St. Paul’s, is beyond all question one of the most agreeable men of his time. In fun and geniality and warm-hearted hospitality he is a worthy successor of Sydney Smith, whose official house he inhabits; and to those elements of agreeableness he adds certain others which his admirable predecessor could scarcely have claimed. He has all the sensitiveness of genius, with its sympathy, its versatility, its unexpected turns, its rapid transitions from grave to gay, its vivid appreciation of all that is beautiful in art and nature, literature and life. His temperament is essentially musical, and, indeed, it was from him that I borrowed, in a former paragraph, my description of Jenny Lind and her effect on her hearers. No man in London, I should think, has so many and such devoted friends in every class and stratum; and those friends acknowledge in him not only the most vivacious and exhilarating of social companions, but one of the moral forces which have done most to quicken their consciences and lift their lives.

Before I have done with the agreeableness of clergymen I must say a word about two academical personages, of whom it was not always easy to remember that they were clergymen, and whose agreeableness struck one in different lights, according as one happened to be the victim or the witness of their jocosity. If any one wishes to know what the late Master of Balliol was really like in his social aspect, I should refer him, not to the two volumes of his Biography, nor even to the amusing chit-chat of Mr. Lionel Tollemache’s Recollections, but to the cleverest work of a very clever Balliol man-Mr. W.H. Mallock’s New Republic. The description of Mr. Jowett’s appearance, conversation, and social bearing is photographic, and the sermon which Mr. Mallock puts into his mouth is not a parody, but an absolutely faultless reproduction both of substance and of style. That it excessively irritated the subject of the sketch is the best proof of its accuracy. For my own part, I must freely admit that I do not write as an admirer of Mr. Jowett; but one saying of his, which I had the advantage of hearing, does much to atone, in my judgment, for the snappish impertinences on which his reputation for wit has been generally based. The scene was the Master’s own dining-room, and the moment that the ladies had left the room one of the guests began a most outrageous conversation. Every one sat flabbergasted. The Master winced with annoyance; and then, bending down the table towards the offender, said in his shrillest tone-“Shall we continue this conversation in the drawing-room?” and rose from his chair. It was really a stroke of genius thus both to terminate and to rebuke the impropriety without violating the decorum due from host to guest.

Of the late Master of Trinity-Dr. Thompson-it was said: “He casteth forth his ice like morsels. Who is able to abide his frost?” The stories of his mordant wit are endless, but an Oxford man can scarcely hope to narrate them with proper accuracy. He was nothing if not critical. At Seeley’s Inaugural Lecture as Professor of History his only remark was-“Well, well. I did not think we could so soon have had occasion to regret poor Kingsley.” To a gushing admirer who said that a popular preacher had so much taste-“Oh yes; so very much, and all so very bad.” Of a certain Dr. Woods, who wrote elementary mathematical books for schoolboys, and whose statue occupies the most conspicuous position in the ante-chapel of St. John’s College-“The Johnian Newton.” His hit at the present Chief Secretary for Ireland, when he was a junior Fellow of Trinity, is classical-“We are none of us infallible-not even the youngest of us.” But it requires an eye-witness of the scene to do justice to the exordium of the Master’s sermon on the Parable of the Talents, addressed in Trinity Chapel to what considers itself, and not without justice, the cleverest congregation in the world. “It would be obviously superfluous in a congregation such as that which I now address to expatiate on the responsibilities of those who have five, or even two, talents. I shall therefore confine my observations to the more ordinary case of those of us who have one talent.”