Dear Miss Weaver
by Jane Lidderdale, by Mary Nicholson
Viking, 509 pp., $15.00
The other day a faint breeze ruffled the unfathomable waters of the Church of England. How—if at all—should prayers be offered up for the dead? If hell is abolished, if no one has any conception of the form the Resurrection will take, if the whole Christian cosmos of nineteen centuries, immortalized in painting, poetry, and music, of death, damnation, grace, corporeal resurrection has vanished into an agnosticism so Stygian that it would have been acceptable to the generation of Victorian rationalists who foretold that it would come, what are we to do about the dear departed? Whereas in the last century and before the devout would have prayed for the souls of the dead, imploring God to show them mercy and compassion instead of dealing with them according to their deserts, today Anglican clergymen suggest that it would be more seemly to “commend” them to God and give thanks for “their life and witness.” Auguste Comte’s Positivist liturgy could hardly surpass this modest acknowledgement.
The word “witness” is a term of unction deriving from the Pauline epistles, St. Paul holding that every Christian should follow his own example and bear witness that Christ had died for him and redeemed him. Except in revivalist circles, there is today a singular lack of enthusiasm for witnessing to any Christian tenet. And yet occasionally there are people whose whole lives seem in retrospect to be a witness to goodness. Such people are not saints: saints have to retain a tough little nut of egoism inside them, and the sort of political sense which enrages their opponents as Gandhi enraged his. The witnesses to goodness are simple people, often muddled people, but serenely clear in their minds that their duty in life lies in helping those of their fellow men whom they consider to have exceptional talent, or exceptional misfortune. Or they serve causes which appeal to their sense of justice. They are the angels of radicalism—a movement which on the whole does not sparkle with the attractive, the charming, and the pure in heart.
Harriet Weaver was pure in heart. She wrote practically nothing, she let others take the lead, her role in life was to support, succor, rescue, and comfort, although she drew a curtain of reticence between herself and those she helped. She has a footnote in history as James Joyce’s publisher in England. Her life was a roll call of causes. Born into a middle-class family in the north of England, deeply evangelical, she showed the first sign of her independence by reading forbidden books so that her mother in horror removed from her hands her copy of Adam Bede on the grounds that one of the characters in the novel had an illegitimate baby and its author was living in sin with George Henry Lewes. But Harriet never broke with her parents. She compartmentalized her life. Beginning with social work in the East End of London in an organization with the characteristic title of …