In this rather amusing novel by Francis E. Paget we follow the arrival of the ambitious and well-meaning curate, the Rev. John Smith, who is met with opposition at every corner. At loggerheads with the entire village of Cumberworth, from the aristocracy to the village sexton, before his first week is even over, we read how even a simple task like regulating the church clock can impact an entire community.
Here is the first plot spoiler from my list of Victorian novels about clergy and parish life. This Mid-Victorian book by Francis Edward Paget is both entertaining and mildly satirical. In a series of witty anecdotes the author explores the theme of time and perception, and reveals the indolent and complacent attitudes of the Anglican Church during this period.
In the first chapter we see the new curate Mr. John Smith complaining about the train’s delay. He is so pedantic about time that in arguing with the train official he alights without some of his own luggage, and accidently takes a parcel containing a bonnet, which causes him embarrassment later in the story. He meets Mr. Gibson, the Rector of Cumberworth, and from their very first meeting there is already a subtle tension. Smith is young, restless, and enthusiastic about his placement. Gibson, of course is elderly, cautious and self-satisfied. They have opposing views about religion and ministry. After expressing his wish to jump straight into parish life, Smith is offered the lightest of duties: the care and maintenance of the church clock.
Smith takes his lodgings with a Mrs. Finch who is petulant, reactionary, and very particular in her ways. Pretty much like everyone else in the village. There is instant friction between Smith and Mrs. Finch, but they manage to keep things cordial, well… at least for now! On the following morning Smith goes to see Mrs. Beccles about the key for the clock tower and is met with a curt refusal. In fairness, Mrs. Beccles is eccentric and possibly even insane. When he tells Mrs. Beccles he would like to regulate the church clock in keeping with London Greenwich time, Mrs. Beccles argues: ‘why should the clock be regulated’ to which Smith answers: ‘because my good madam, it is half an hour too fast’. Mrs. Beccles retorts: ‘honoured sir, to make such a change as that would throw the whole parish out of their reckonings!’.
The next day, Mr. Smith, again with no useful occupation decides to explore the village. On crossing a field he startles some of the squire’s animals and is chased across the river. During this escapade he tears his clothes and arrives at the other side quite drenched and splattered with mud. He also damages the fence of the aforementioned squire, Sir Tukesbury, who hearing the disturbance, mistakes him for an escaped convict! Their misunderstanding is soon cleared up and Smith is invited to dinner the following evening. When he returns to Mrs. Finch’s home in his dishevelled state, she becomes hostile. Mrs. Finch will not budge an inch on any of her views! After his tiring adventure, Smith’s reasonable request for tea is met with ‘I beg your pardon, sir, but we don’t drink tea until seven’. When he compromises and asks for water, he is met with an equally unreasonable answer ‘you’ll excuse me, Mr. Smith, but you are much too warm to drink water’. They eventually descend into a heated debate about the placement of Mr. Smith’s books. The author muses ‘when Greek meets Greek, then comes the tug of war’.
After his libations, Smith proceeds to his engagement at Sir Tukesbury’s mansion and happens to overhear the disgruntled villagers discussing how they missed the visit of the Prince of Wales due to the church clock being wrong. The villagers initially blame Mrs. Beccles, but she firmly puts the blame of Smith, saying ‘he but her up to it’. He disappears after hearing their curses and threats, and arrives at the squire’s mansion ‘extremely late’ for dinner. During the party he overhears the Major discussing the disappearance of his sister’s bonnet and the distress it has caused. Smith is gallant enough to admit he was the culprit, and the Major reluctantly accepts his apology.
It transpires that Mr. Smith has indeed upset the whole village with his clock meddling. The changes to the squire’s stable clock and the church clock have definitely put everybody out of their reckoning! And when he returns to Mrs. Finch’s after the dinner party, he is again lectured about the propriety of keeping an early hour, and the two debate the likeliness of Smith getting his own latch key. Obviously, he doesn’t get one – and Mrs. Finch retires to bed informing Smith that Mrs. Beccles called for him twice that evening. Things come to a head after Smith visits Mrs. Beccles the following morning, and she suspiciously resigns the key. Now summoned by the imaginary ‘Gentleman in drab’, the insane Mrs. Beccles puts stones into the church tower lock during the night, and on the following morning, when nobody is able to get into the tower to ring the bells, or indeed wind up the clock, the curate obstinately starts the Sunday service early (to an empty church), still unable to accept his own watch is wrong! The villagers finally get their own back on the curate, and tolling the bell for evening service, they send a messenger to Smith’s lodgings, requesting his presence for evensong. Off his guard, he rushes out, leaving Mrs. Finches’ house unlocked, and during the interim his infamous watch is stolen!
Towards the end of the novel he finally has his epiphany and realises his watch must have been broken during the escapade with the cows! In the concluding chapter, Smith, summoned by the rector (who’s incidentally received a letter from the bishop accusing the curate of High-Church practices), explains how he’s made a terrible hash of his parish duties, but had no intention of extolling popery. The Rector and the curate reach a mutual understanding – and one is left hoping that the remainder of the Rev. John Smith’s curacy went smoother than his first couple of weeks!