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Lauren F. Winner

Mitford Rules

Jan Karon and the clerical novel.

I am in minor literary mourning. Light from Heaven, the final Mitford novel, has just been released. I stayed up all night reading it, and when I had finished, I remembered a story my mother used to tell me. As a girl, she was a devoted reader of Hugh Lofting's Dr. Dolittle series. When she came to the last page of the last installment—Dr. Dolittle's Puddleby Adventures—she bawled. She hated knowing that she would never again encounter new Dolittle tales.

For those who do not number themselves among Jan Karon's millions of fans, here's a quick summary: The Mitford novels, set in small-town western North Carolina (think Lake Wobegon with less irony), follow the quaint adventures of an Episcopal priest named Father Tim and his next-door-neighbor-turned-significant-other-turned-wife Cynthia. I use the term "adventures" loosely, because the most adventurous thing Father Tim ever does is take an airplane ride. Most of the time he's making hospital calls, drafting sermons, packing picnic lunches, reading Wordsworth, walking his remarkable dog Barnabas (who responds not to the usual canine commands, but to the recitation of Scripture), and writing a lot of letters (and, increasingly, emails).

Light from Heaven finds Father Tim and Cynthia just outside Mitford, looking after Meadowgate Farm, while Meadowgate's owners, the Owenses, spend a year in France. As ever, Father Tim wrestles with that Protestant demon, Usefulness. Especially now that he has retired, he is deeply concerned that he not Waste Time, but find a way of going about the business of being useful to someone. Fortunately, his bishop calls with a charge: go revive a small mission church whose doors have been closed for decades. Of course, Father Tim and Cynthia are just the ones for the job. Along the way, they take in not one but two stray children. Meanwhile, a few Mitfordians die, a few more get married, a lost sibling gets found, a million orange marmalade cakes get baked … just a typical year in Karon-land.

People either love these novels or hate them. Some readers treasure their sojourns in Mitford because real life lacks the certain warm community feeling that Mitford has in spades. Others dismiss this very sensibility as a tad too twee. (An aside: I learned the word twee from a Milford novel. Cynthia drops it into a letter to Father Tim in A Light in The Window, a fact that itself might inspire naysayers to rest their case, screeching "Who on earth uses the adjective twee?").

I'm obviously in the first camp, but nonetheless I must repeat a disclaimer I issue every time I ruminate about Jan Karon's Mitford novels: I realize that they are not Great Literature. I realize that they are not comparable to the very novels I will, in a few paragraphs, compare them to. But they are excellent specimens of what they are. I have read just about every Mitford knockoff published in recent years, and Karon's stylistic sensibility, humor, and local color beat the copy-cats by a country mile. Not to mention the fact that the first two novels in the series were hugely significant in my own conversion to Christianity. This, it seems to me, is one of God's little jokes: other people get to tell about how Dostoyevsky or Karl Barth drew them to Christianity, while intellectually prideful me will spend the rest of my life explaining that I was converted in part through the ministrations of fictional Father Tim.

Still, Great Literature or no, the Mitford novels do participate in a venerable literary tradition: clerical fiction, a capacious category which would include everyone from Trollope and Hawthorne to Susan Howatch and Marilynne Robinson (whose Gilead is, among other things, a superbly unconventional clerical novel). F. Scott Fitzgerald could even squeeze in there if you count his short story "Absolution."

Many clerical novels spotlight the challenges of clergy's lives. To wit, James Street's novels The Gauntlet (1945) and The High Calling (1951). Street's hero is a Southern Baptist pastor called London Wingo, who's sympathetic, even if he has absorbed a flabby sort of humanism, and who struggles to balance the needs of his congregation with the needs of his family. Other clerical novels—one thinks here of George Eliot, and Trollope—expose the changing role of the minister in society. Still others, like Sinclair Lewis's Elmer Gantry and Peter De Vries' too-little-read 1958 novel, The Mackerel Plaza, seem born of the author's desire to unmask Christian hypocrisy. But every clerical novel can prompt reflection on what the life of the church can and should be. A parody like De Vries' may rightly be interpreted not as a dismissal of Christianity but rather as a heartfelt expression of distress at expressions of Christianity that have gone totally off the rails.

In one respect, the Mitford novels, though decidedly evangelical, are more reminiscent of the Catholic clerical tradition than the Protestant. It is not too gross an oversimplification to suggest that in novels featuring Catholic priests we more often find portraits of faithful lives well lived. In fiction, Protestant clergy seem given over to other tasks: wrestling with doubt inflamed by scientific criticism, Darwinism, or humanism (as in Harold Frederic's The Damnation of Theron Ware), or getting mired in hypocrisy and blatant sin (as in John Updike's Month of Sundays). It is in Catholic clerical literature that we find priests who, though flawed, are nonetheless devoted to pastoring, to the cure of souls.

Put differently: I once began to write a novel (I have begun to write about 23 of them) about a widow who had insomnia and read a lot of sermons in the middle of the night. That, at the start, was all I knew about the widow. I shared my idea with a novelist friend, who responded in some alarm, "Well, something has to happen, some plot, other than this woman's spiritual development." In Mitford, not a whole lot happens other than the characters' spiritual development, and in this way—this unashamed willingness to place Christian growth at the center of a novel—Karon recalls not Frederic or Updike or De Vries or Street, but rather some of the great Catholic novelists.

Consider, for example, Georges Bernanos' peerless The Diary of a Country Priest. Like Bernanos, Karon is an unabashed apologist, even evangelist for the Christian faith. Like Bernanos' hero, Father Tim is unafraid of (in Bernanos' phrase) the "red-hot iron" that is the Word of God. Like Bernanos' priest, Father Tim understands that he loves his parishioners best when he suffers with them. Similarly, Father Tim's pious, selfless devotion to the Barlowe boys—abandoned by their alcoholic mother, threatened by their violent father—recalls François Mauriac's Abbé Calou, the priest at the center of A Woman of the Pharisees, who, like Father Tim, is determined to introduce rebellious boys to Jesus Christ. Even Father Tim's struggles with the witchy Edith Mallory, struggles that find an evangelistically satisfying conclusion in Light from Heaven, might well be modeled on Bernanos' priest's struggles with the Countess, or, in Mauriac, Calou's struggles with the titular pharisienne.

Many of my clergy friends won't read the Mitford novels. They say that Mitford is no escape—it reminds them too much of their own jobs. Or they say that Father Tim is utterly unrealistic, laughably so. One interlocutor told me dismissively that Father Tim had "boundary issues" (I wondered if my friend's penchant for psychologically analyzing fictional characters she claimed to have no time for reflected her own boundary issues).

But maybe Father Tim's willingness to take in all those stray kids, and his readiness to weep at the bedsides of parishioners who've become family to him, are not indicators of an inability to maintain good boundaries. Maybe, instead, Father Tim embodies an ideal of the self-sacrificial servant who knows more about love than he does about the strictures of our therapeutic culture. (Again, shades of Bernanos' country priest, who tells us "I have undertaken to visit each family once every three months at least. My colleagues consider this excessive.") Some might say that Karon's portrait of Father Tim is idealistic to the point of hagiography. The riposte: perhaps he is a portrait of Christian maturity. Perhaps after lives of service and self-sacrifice we, too, would embody his faith at age seventy.

These novels sparked my conversion for lots of reasons: I was marooned in Manhattan, missing home, which for me is western North Carolina. I was attracted by the vibrant community Jan Karon imagined. But the final attraction was this: I saw the way that faith pervaded the lives of the Mitfordians, and I wanted that faith. Today I look at Father Tim and see his solid, unwavering faith and his heartfelt service, and I want it still.

Lauren F. Winner is the author of Girl Meets God (Algonquin/Random House) and, most recently, Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity (Brazos).

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