Worcester Cathedral and Cloisters. The cathedral provided the inspiration for Helstonleigh Cathedral (Charles Wood, Memorials, 11). The picture of the interior of the cloisters, below, is from the same source, p. 1.

Introduction

Victorian women novelists are not generally celebrated for their sense of humour, and the last place one would expect to find comic sketches is in the Quiver, a weekly periodical started by the "straitlaced" John Cassell (Sutherland 517). In the early years, this proclaimed on the front cover that it was "Designed for the Defence of Biblical Truth, and the Advancement of Religion in the Homes of the People" (see Vol. II, for example). But it was here in the early 1860s that Mrs Henry (Ellen) Wood first published some of her most popular early fiction, including The Channings. This appeared in 1861-62, and here she mixes humour and religion very successfully.

Like Anthony Trollope's popular Barsetshire novels, starting with The Warden in 1855, Wood's setting is ecclesiastical, but her respect for the warm-hearted Bishop of Helstonleigh is complete, and her main focus is not on ecclesiastical politics but on the value of a truly Christian upbringing, as illustrated in the histories of two local families, the godly Channings and the worldly Yorkes. As intermarriage between the two families shows, the contrast is not always as cut and dried as it seems, but nevertheless this is where the conflicts arise. In the following passage, the cathedral setting is most useful as a setting, a rather spooky one at that.

In Chapter XI, "The Cloister Keys," the mischievous college boys of Helstonleigh Cathedral's school play a trick on the surly cloister porter, Jack Ketch, whose name, of course, reminds us of the notorious seventeenth-century hangman. When Ketch goes to lock up the cloisters, the boys hide inside and and whisk away the keys, exchanging them for rusty old ones that refuse to let them out again. Ketch happens to be accompanied by Joseph Jenkins, the local lawyer's humble clerk, and the pair shout for help. In the following chapter, "A Mishap to the Bishop of Helstonleigh," along from the deanery comes the Bishop himself, and his servant Fordham, the former wondering if he is in time to take a short cut through the cloisters.

Excerpt from Chapter XII

"It is all right, I think, my lord," said Fordham. "I hear the porter's voice now in the cloisters."

"How dark it is!" exclaimed the bishop. "Ketch must bo closing late to-night. What a noise he is making!"

In point of fact, Mr. Ketch had just arrived at that agreeable moment which concluded the last chapter — the conviction that no other keys were to be found, and that he and Jenkins were fast. The tone in which he was making his sentiments known upon the calamity, was not a subdued one.

"Shall I light you round, my lord?"

"By no means — by no means. I shall be up with Ketch in a minute. He seems in a passion. Good night, Fordham."

"Good night to your lordship."

The servant went back to the deanery. The prelate groped his way round to the west quadrangle.

"Are you closing, Ketch?"

Mr. Ketch started as if he had been shot, and his noise dropt to a calm. Truth to say, his style of complaint had not been orthodox, not exactly suitable to the ears of his bishop. He and Jenkins both recognized the voice, and bowed low, dark though it was.

"What is the matter. Ketch? You are making enough noise."

"Matter, my lord!" groaned Ketch. "Here's matter enough to make a saint — saving your lordship's presence — forget his prayers. We be locked up in the cloisters."

"Locked up! " repeated the bishop. "What do you mean 1 Who is with you?"

"It is me, my lord," said Jenkins meekly, answering for himself; "Joseph Jenkins, my lord, at Mr. Galloway's. I came in with the porter just for company, my lord, when he came to lock up, and we have somehow got locked in."

The bishop demanded an explanation. It was not very easily afforded. Ketch and Jenkins talked one against the other, and when the bishop did at length get to comprehend the tale, he scarcely gave credence to it.

"It is an incomprehensible story, Ketch, that you should drop your keys, and they should get changed for others as they lay on the flags. Are you sure you brought out the right keys?"

"My lord, I couldn't bring out any others," returned Ketch, in a tone that longed to betray its resentment, and would have betrayed it to anybody but a bishop. "I haven't got no others to bring, my lord. Them two keys hangs up on the nail always, and there aint another key besides in the house, save the door key."

"Some one must have changed them previously — must have hung up these in their places," remarked the bishop.

"But, my lord, it couldn't be, I say," reiterated old Ketch, nearly shrieking. "I know the keys just as well as I know my own hands, and they was the right keys that I brought out. The best proof, my lord, is, that I locked the south door fast enough ; and how could I have done that with these wretched old rusty things?"

"The keys must be on the flags still," said his lordship.

"That is the only conclusion I can come to, my lord," mildly put in Jenkins. "But we cannot find them."

"And meanwhile we are locked in for the night, and here's his right reverend lordship, the bishop, locked in with us!" danced old Ketch, nearly beside himself with anger. "Of course, it wouldn"t matter for me and Jenkins: speaking in comparison, we are nobody; but it is a shameful indignity for my lord."

"We must try and get out, Ketch," said his lordship, in a tone that sounded as if he were more inclined to laugh than cry. "I will go back to the deanery."

"Away went the bishop as quickly as the gloom allowed him, and away went the other two in his wake. Arrived at the passage which led from the cloisters to the deanery garden they groped their way to its end — only to find the door closed and locked.

"Well this is a pleasant situation!" exclaimed the bishop, his tone betraying amusement as well as annoyance; and with his own prelatical hands he pummelled at the door, and shouted with his own prelatical voice. When the bishop was tired, Jenkins and Ketch set on to pummel and to shout, and they pummelled and shouted till their knuckles were sore nnd their throats were hoarse. It was all in vain. The garden intervened between them and the deanery, and they could not be heard. (The Channings, 87-88)

Commentary

Worcester Cathedral (Charles Wood, Memorials, facing p. 16).

The comedy here depends partly on the generally farcical situation, but more on the characterisation, and the use of language. The characters sometimes act in concert: for all his impotent rage, Ketch is stunned when he hears the bishop's voice, and both he and Jenkins instinctively bow to the bishop despite the enveloping darkness. But then their different personalities come into play. At first, they simply talk against each other, augmenting the confusion. Then their individual voices are heard. To the bishop's first question, Jenkins responds in his usual deferential, placatory way. But Ketch is fizzing with impotent rage. Speaking "in a tone that longed to betray its resentment, and would have betrayed it to anybody but a bishop," he can hardly contain himself, and lets spill ungrammatical usages like "I haven't got no others" (about the keys) and "they was the right keys." The bishop meanwhile is quite clearly superior to both, even though he is supposedly the one whose dignity and comfort are most at stake: "speaking in comparison, we are nobody," grovels Ketch. The bishop is also superior to the situation, and able to be faintly amused by it all. At the same time, he is somewhat annoyed, and tired too, so it is he who resumes the call for rescue: "with his own prelatical hands he pummelled at the door, and shouted with his own prelatical voice." Of course, the repetition of the adjective "prelatical" brings out the contrast between his high office and present comic predicament.

Prank it may be, and humorously recorded, but there will also be a serious side — a lesson to be learnt. While bad-tempered Ketch with his hangman's name only gets a deserved winding-up, Jenkins suffers a head injury from a fall in the dark cathedral. Anxiety about him is offset by the complaints of his henpecking wife, who blames him entirely for the fall. Moreover, the Bishop himself remains more amused than angry, and forgives the boys' ringleader when he owns up honestly. Wood herself, with her "rare knowledge of boy-nature" (Charles Wood, Memorials, 292), seems to be more in sympathy with the culprits than their victims. Yet, just as clearly, such mischief can have unintended consequences and should not be taken too far, lest real harm befall.

As far as the plot is concerned, this episode is by no means a digression. It is during Jenkins's enforced absence from his post that a cheque goes missing in the lawyer's office. This leads to the first appearance of Wood's crafty but incompetent detective, Jonas Butterby, who will feature at more length in the novel's sequel, Roland Yorke (1869).

Wood's is not high art. It does not plumb depths of feeling, raise perplexing questions or provoke much thought. The message of the novel in general is simply that we either bring our troubles on ourselves by not choosing the right path, or should receive them, as the Channings do, as blessings in disguise from God, to strengthen us. Even the troubles of Roland Yorke, though brought on himself in this novel, will turn out to be a blessing for him in its sequel, at the end of which he will marry sweet-natured Annabel Channing. In this sense, both The Channings and Roland Yorke are religious novels in a way that Trollope's Barchester Chronicles, for all their clergymen and church affairs, are not. But Wood is an accomplished story-teller and never fails to "interest and amuse her readers" as she brings her message home to us (Charles Wood, "Mrs Henry Wood," 349).

Related Material

Sources

Sutherland, John. The Longman Companion to Victorian Fiction. London: Longman, 1988. Print.

The Quiver, Vol. II (1862). Google Books. Web. 22 November 2013.

Wood, Charles W. Memorials of Mrs Henry Wood. London: Richard Bentley, 1894. Internet Archive. Web. 22 November 2013.

_____. "Mrs Henry Wood: In Memoriam" The Argosy Vol. XLIII (January-June 1887). 251-70; 334-53; 422-42. Internet Archive. Web. 22 November 2013.

Wood, Mrs Henry. The Channings. London: Richard Bentley, 1881. Internet Archive. Web. 22 November 2013.


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Last modified 22 November 2013