The Jealous God
Full Fathom Five
It was not a good sign when John Braine’s last novel turned out to be a sequel to Room at the Top. If it suggested that Mr. Braine had a commendable faith in the possibilities of his character Joe Lampton, it also implied that his novelistic talents, which had never struck one as particularly fertile, were being forced into the sad and dangerous course of self-imitation. His new novel, however, sweeps away any suggestion of failing inventiveness. The milieu is still what Mr. Braine knows best and what we have come to expect from him: middle-class life in and around a small, fairly scruffy Yorkshire town. But in this novel he adds a dimension that seemed to have been deliberately left out of his earlier books. Though Mr. Braine is by birth and upbringing a Yorkshire Catholic, it seemed significant that there was no mention at all of Catholicism in his novels, which in other respects drew heavily and obviously on the environments which had moulded him. One of the most interesting things, initially, about The Jealous God is that it is a study of life inside the English Catholic community by someone who grew up in it; usually novels about English Catholics are written by converts. In Mr. Braine’s novel the Catholics of Charbury are mostly of second or third generation Irish origin, who still sardonically refer to themselves as “Micks” and who occasionally frequent, in a rather embarrassed way, a decaying institution called the Hibernian Club, with its portraits of the Pope, De Valera, and James Connolly. The surrounding streets, which once housed poor Irish families, have now been taken over by Pakistanis.
In the hero of The Jealous God, Vincent Dungarvan, Mr. Braine has drawn with remarkable accuracy a familiar type: the not-so-young Catholic bachelor, who wants to get married but who takes seriously the Church’s warnings against mixed marriages, and who goes on for years anxiously hoping for the right Catholic girl to come along. Mr. Braine’s study of Vincent is a fine piece of characterization, with a degree of subtlety that goes well beyond the forceful but crude outlines of his Joe Lampton. Vincent is a schoolmaster of thirty, happy in his work at the local Catholic grammar school, and dutifully though unfervently devout in his religious practices. Still a virgin, he has never entirely given up the idea that he might have a vocation to the priesthood, a notion assiduously encouraged by his widowed mother. There is something Prufrockian about Vincent; drawn with just a slight degree of exaggeration or imbalance he might have been a memorable comic character. He is content to live at home with his mother, an emotionally parasitic woman with whom he engages in constant semi-humorous bickering. Vincent keeps experience at arm’s length: he has a reasonably sensual inner nature but an aloof, even rather frigid manner; his general mildness is occasionally countered by a remarkably sharp tongue. He might have been married by now …