In England, the 5th of November marks the brutal revenge inflicted on those who plotted to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605. Among the victims was a Catholic priest, Father Garnet, innocent but convicted on circumstantial evidence. As it was, Catholic priests had been banned from England, so Garnet had to take his place along with other priests, hiding in priests’ holes in sympathetic country houses of the well-to-do. Paul West’s 20th novel portrays Garnet as a priest on the run, an underground man defying King James I and half in love with an English lady aristocrat.
Father Garnet shrinks from the Renaissance outside his bolthole, not because he trickles and gurgles with sudden eruptive swaggers of his tripes, but because the huge polity out there bellows Death to Jesuits as if any one label sufficed to evince this polymath, baritone singer, adroit mellow speaker, earthy Derbyshireman still close to the loam that bore him, his little knotted soul all chirps and cheeps, weary of going on, being careful even as he reminds himself that memory is the pasture, the greensward, on which the mind can disport itself most ably, molding everything to the shape of heart’s desire. On a sailor’s grave, he recalls, no flowers bloom. He wonders where he heard that, and why, able here to summon all his mental moutons into one flock, baa-ing the gospel according to Saint Garnet, that not too gaudy, too precious, stone. Doomed to practice it day after day, even to the extent of dipping his nib in orange juice to make the words invisible, he has fallen in love with secrecy.
Once again he hears the noise of himself, squirreled away here in a priesthole made by a maimed dwarf of a carpenter who also happens to be a lay brother. Saved by woodwork, and a little tampering with the original masonry, Garnet languishes in the bosom of a vast country house, or rather in a thimble carved within a nipple, waiting for daylight, unable even to stand in the space allotted him. Why, he moans, are we hated so? He sneezes once, twice, pressing his nose hard to quell the seizure, each time murmuring the time-honored formula, Bless You, that saves the soul from being flung far away, angelic silver skein aloft amid the tawdry of this world, never to return. You could sneeze yourself soulless. But he never will, although strictly speaking someone other than you should babble the housekeeping, nose-saving formula. A tes souhaits, he knows, is what the soul-saving French neighbor says, automatic in this as in almost every other prayer. It is good, he reassures himself, to be prayed for in this way by just about anyone standing nearby. So, what does the King do when he sneezes? Bless himself or have a chorus of courtiers mumble the phrase? That is what they are there for, to keep his soul in his body in the interests of, well, not the one and only church, but his sect anyway. Father Garnet thinks that for the soul to speak it should have a language of its own, pure and godly, unknown to humankind, and therefore blessing itself in blindest esoterica. Now there’s just the kind of phrase to get him damned, socially at least, hoicked out of his hidey-hole and hanged along with hundreds of mildly dissenting churls. Father Garnet has no room in which to shrug, but his mind makes the motion for him.
This carpenter troubles him, this builder of hiding holes. He, Garnet, prefers the old-fashioned country word, joiner. Little John Owen, the joiner in question, makes a fetish of joining priests to their mouseholes, almost as if he thinks of the priesthood as a furtive, shy calling: nothing of titles and fancy robes, but the essential spirit hidden within the rind of the planet, within all these lavish country houses. Hide-and-seek is not far from it, not when daily or even nightly life can be shattered at any hour by the arrival of priest-hunting poursuivants armed with torches and dogs, probes and huge cones of bark through which they listen to the masonry, the chimneys, the passageways. Garnet chides himself for thinking ill of his savior, but sticks to his point nonetheless: hiding us away as he does, and making endless provision for ever more of us all over the Midlands and the South, he presumes to some kind of power, making us invisible and yet, at the same time, even more spiritual than ever, more abstract, more distant, more creatures of the mind than of ritual, splendor, office.
It is like being made obsolete, he tells his creaking bones, remembering only too well the crippled joiner s instructions: “You will not stand, Father, you will have to contain yourself at the crouch, there can be little easing once you have been installed. To make your little place any bigger would be to expose you.” He is a priest-shrinker, as alive in his trade as the old word for plough in such a word as carucate, which means as much land as you might reasonably plough in a year. In a way, Father Garnet broods in his cramp, our Little John is the ideal candidate for these cubbyholes, but he has no need, can go abroad as he pleases, more or less an upright dwarf, bubbling with good humor and perhaps more than a little amused by the spectacle of us all crouched until doomsday. He is almost a sexton, of the living, omitting only to smooth the earth over us at the last, and no doubt tempted sometimes to seal us in with trowel and mortar that, if we do not burst out while the seals are still soft, encases us for ever. Between cramp and suffocation we have a poorer life than we envisioned, far from the august panoply of the high-ranking prelate. Father Garnet, the ranking Jesuit in England, tries to soothe his mind with his own name, derived from the word pomegranate, the color of whose pulp approximates the stone. No use. The sheer inappropriateness of light hidden under a bushel provokes him and makes his stomach queasy, a fate little eased by recourse to the drinking tube that enters his hideaway from behind the wardrobe outside. A small pan, a slight tilt to the feeder, and water can reach its priest: anything that will flow, soup or gruel, just to keep the body attached to the soul. Father Henry Garnet of Heanor, Derbyshire, thinks of himself as a light.
Now he is trying to work out which is better: being alone in the hole or having another priest for company, Father Oldcorne, as on other occasions, or Father Gerard, as on a few. There is certainly more talk, he decides, but of such an abortive, thwarted nature it was better to keep still. Perhaps the pallid patter of the inward voice consorts best with secret living, on the run from King James’s hunters. For those eligible to have women with them, if any, it might be better, he reckons, not so much cuddling as meeting head-on a different point of view; after all, those bearing within them the secretest hiding place might better adjust to circumstances and so cheer up anyone with them. A Jesuit, he tells himself, should be able to reason the pros and cons without too much trouble, but he finds his mind blocked, twisted, perversely longing for daylight, sleep, a reassuring companion voice. Instead, he hears the echo of a refrain voiced by Little John Owen:
Him that can’t stand it tight
May never see the morrow’s light.
Small consolation, that. Imagine, then, the confessional even smaller than usual, even for the recipient, with the confessee granted room to squirm about during the painful act. What then? Should the priest freeze in there, shocked by what he hears? Should he practice in the confessional for the hole or vice versa? Has either any bearing on the other?
The very thought of all these country houses, rambling and august, is what heartens him: on the right side, the side of the angels, from Baddesley Clinton and Harrowden Hall to Rushton and Enfield Chase and Ingatestine. He has hidden in them all, there to conduct a mass, or to have an annual meeting with younger priests, as required. Only at Sawston, however, near Cambridge, did Little John Owen manage to provide a closet-stool for those acts of nature inevitable even for a Jesuit. The worst, could he think effectively back to 1591 (three years before the death of Palestrina), had been at Baddesley Clinton, 100 or so miles from London, rented from the antiquarian Henry Ferrers by Anne Vaux, where Owen the carpenter, creating a masterpiece of adaptation, had used moat, sewer, stairways and trapdoors to produce a miracle of a hidey-hole, in which poursuivants brandishing swords and torches failed to find them—the only snag being that the two priests had stood for hours half immersed in marrow-chilling water. These he considered the hazards of country living; it was as austere as that, and they were unprotected here by a girl child, as on another occasion, when Frances Burrowes, a mere ten, had fended off the constables, crying, “Oh, put up your swords or else my mother will die, for she cannot endure to see a naked sword.” They put a dagger to her throat even as upstairs a priest went on with his mass, but she resisted and finally won them over, offered a hundred pounds to visit London and meet the Bishop, she being suit- ably chaperoned of course. The child said no and so remained in the heedless swordsman’s mind an emblem of papist defiance. We always need such a child, Father Garnet thinks; this is no mere game, on the run while standing in cold water, stuck with our own refuse to the plank we squat on. It will have to change. On this date, however, he emerges at dawn to enjoy a breakfast of porridge, boiled kidneys, coarse bread, Double Gloucester cheese, and a pot of quince jelly, making up for meals missed. It wounds him to be so dependent on fuel, he who has been professor of Hebrew in Rome, knows Latin and Greek, and even the composer William Byrd, who often plays the organ while Father Garnet sings or plays the lute.
What a civilized gentleman to be hard pressed by religious adversaries, soaking or bemiring himself in the interests of duty! What is worse is this: Father Garnet is a peacemaker, an affable, easygoing person who has heard about the sharp remedies proposed by papist rebels such as Catesby and Guy Fawkes, but deplores them in the interests of diplomacy. Set aside his aberrations, such as his consuming interest in the female private parts, about which he speculates like a thwarted botanist, quite against his vows, or in that much more metaphysical question: his own courage and the degree of it if captured and tortured. These topics heave like dragons through his sleep, perhaps combining, and he wakes, obsessively murmuring his magic word.
—Paul West was born in 1930 in England, was educated at Oxford and Columbia Universities, and in 1957 moved to the United States. The author of 18 novels (Rat Man of Paris, The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg, and The Tent of Orange Mist among others) and 13 works of nonfiction, his many honors include a 1993 Lannan Prize for Fiction and the Hazlett Award for Excellence in the Arts. A Fifth of November will be published in May by New Directions.