Now for those of you who don’t know my husband is a vicar in the Church of England and one thing he always complains about in my books is that all my villains are religious people. That is not strictly true, of course, but I admit many of the characters in my books who have a persona of holiness and morality are often pretty hateful people who do some very horrible things.
However, no matter what their own views on a divine being are if you’re a historical author you will have to recognise that religious institutions were an intrinsic part of everyday life right up to the 1960s.
The church legalised your marriage, baptised your children, gave you the last rites to secure your place in heaven and then buried you. Remember too, before the welfare state you had to be a recognised member of a parish to apply for poor relief or to stand any chance of an education for your children in a Sunday school.
Some parishes were run by vicars who were appointed by the bishop more often than not at the behest of a wealthy patron. The vicar was almost certainly a member of the ruling class and would
expect servitude and obedience from their flock and regular invitations to dine and hunt with the local gentry. He was often in charge of a number of churches which were ministered to by a ‘perpetual’ curate for a meagre stipend or allowance.
To assist the Rector, Vicar or curate in their holy duties were churchwardens, who had a long staff as part of their office with which to keep order during the services. Under them was the parochial church council made up of ‘gentlemen’ who oversaw such things as refuse collection, street maintenance, neighbourhood disputes along with church finances. Until after the 1st World War the PCC would have been exclusively male and made up of local business men or small land owners. They in turn appointed the parish beadle or constable who was in charge of the welfare side of the parish, as with Mr Bumble in Oliver Twist. The verger assists in services, setting things up like the communion plates and changing the altar cloths and there was the sexton who dugs and tended the graves.
It can’t be over emphasised that in times past being an officer of the parish carried enormous status which extended to their wives who often kept a finger on the pulse of a congregation for their husbands by overseeing the welfare provision and under taking parish visiting. As I said a veritable gold mine of plot and character opportunities.
Religious figures are brilliant as they can live up to their calling as with the 10th century Celtic priest I used in one of my early books to safeguard the hero’s birth right or the downright evil as with the sadistic nun who keep my heroine prisoner in a convent. They can have their fingers in the parish’s financial pie as Micky Donavan did by skimming off the food orders for the workhouse in No Cure for Love or the elderly Mrs Munroe, a fervent evangelical member of the Scottish Kirk who hated Josie O’Casey just because she was a Roman Catholic in A Glimpse at Happiness. They can also be breathtakingly hypocritical like Amos Stebbins the churchwarden complaining about the prostitutes loitering in the grave yard before catching a carriage to a child brothel in Perhaps Tomorrow or the compassionate Mrs Benson who helped kept Captain Johnathan Quinn follow his heart in Hold On to Hope.
In my latest novel Wedding Bells for Nurse Connie, Sister Connie Byrne crosses swords with her local catholic priest Father Flaherty, sadly with dire consequences for Connie’s patient Mary Daly and herself.
Like love, faith and belief can also be a both a life-changing motivator and a source of inner conflict both vital for the reader to identify with the main characters and keep turning the pages. I would suggest that faith and religion, be it in ones ancestor, the sun and stars, a panoply of gods or some universal force, has been the mainspring in every story told since the world began.
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