The BBC2 television comedy Rev, starring Tom Hollander as Adam Smallbone, a well-meaning but doubt-ridden priest in an inner London parish, returned on Thursday for a new series. Here, the author AN Wilson nominates his favourite fictional clergymen.
1. Rev Josiah Crawley
There is a multitude of clergymen from which to choose in Anthony Trollope’s Barsetshire but the story of Mr Crawley, perpetual curate of Hugglestock, in The Last Chronicle of Barset (1867) must be among the most heart-wrenching. Is he a poor man tempted to steal a cheque? Or is he an honourable, absent-minded individual? Investigating this apparently trivial question, Trollope draws an unforgettable portrait of a poor country clergyman and his family. We also meet our old friends, Archdeacon Grantly, Bishop and Mrs Proudie, and the nicest clergyman in literature, the Rev Septimus Harding, who starts off the whole Barsetshire series.
2. Archdeacon Hoccleve
Snobbish, irritable, married to the formidable Agatha (an Oxford English graduate who darns his socks by the inadequate light of a 40-watt electric bulb) – yes, we are in the world of Barbara Pym. Most of her priests are inadequate human beings (the archdeacon has fearful tantrums) but none are villains. Hoccleve was the anti-hero of Some Tame Gazelle (1950), Pym’s first novel and in some ways her best. Her fascination with the clergy is gently lampooned in the portrait of the two Bede sisters, based on Pym and her own sister, who watch the curate and the archdeacon’s every move.
3. Rev William Collins
Jane Austen’s Mr Collins would probably win the prize as the least sympathetic clergyman in literature. When, in Pride and Prejudice (1813), he proposes to Elizabeth Bennet, he provokes her father to the magnificent line, “From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents. Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr Collins, and I will never see you again if you do.”
4. Rev ‘Beefy’ Bingham
Like all PG Wodehouse’s curates, Beefy, who first appears in Blandings Castle and Elsewhere (1935), is devoid of political or theological guilt. “He’s a parson now … in the East End. Well, he runs a lad’s club for the local toughs – you know the sort of thing – cocoa and backgammon in the reading room and occasional clean, bright entertainments in the Oddfellows’ Hall.” In setting, perhaps the closest to TV’s Rev, it is Beefy who unwittingly presides over one of Jeeves’ more fiendish tricks, when the “toughs” are treated to repeated renditions of “Sonny Boy”.
5. Father Brown
The best clerical detective, who first appears in The Innocence of Father Brown (1911), is given a first name twice by GK Chesterton, and on each occasion it is different. (He is called Paul on one occasion and Joseph on another.) The apparently ineffectual little priest, who actually notices everything and is imperturbable in the face of human evil seems to be waiting for Alec Guinness to come along and enact him, which he did in the 1954 film of the same name.
6. Pope Hadrian VII
The 1904 book Hadrian the Seventh, by that seedy fellow Baron Corvo, aka Frederick Rolfe, is the ultimate clerical fantasy. Rolfe’s self-portrait as George Rose, the bitter seminary reject chosen by the College of Cardinals to become Pope and transform European history, is full of extraordinary prophecies and weird insights.
AN Wilson’s most recent book is ‘Dante in Love’ (Atlantic)