Review – “The Company of Heaven” by Catherine Fox

Catherine Fox’s Lindchester Chronicles are a series of novels and stories about a fictional cathedral city in England, and The Company of Heaven is the most recent addition.  They began as an experiment in serial fiction by Fox, posted on a blog chapter by chapter as they were written, and then published in book form.  This allows her to engage immediately with the “issues of the day”, which in recent years have ranged from same-sex marriage, to female bishops, to Brexit, Trump and Covid.  Some of those are more obviously “churchy” than others, and Fox is skilful at showing how large abstract questions are filtered through the details of people’s lives.

Both the subject and the blogging form prompt comparisons with Trollope’s “Barchester” novels, some of which appeared in monthly instalments in The Cornhill magazine.  The image of the Church of England grappling with social and cultural change, which Trollope presents, is a key theme of Fox’s work.  The same could be said of Susan Howatch’s “Starbridge” novels, which depict religious change in an English diocese in more lurid and even supernatural ways.  More recently, Kathleen Jowitt’s “Stanchester” novels also depict the Church of England’s struggles with social issues, and their impact on young people around the Church.  Setting Fox’s novels amongst these is not to say that this a huge genre – on the contrary, there are relatively few novelists who write this kind of novel across the last century or so.

Angela Thirkell, Elizabeth Gouge, Barbara Pym and Trollope the Younger might be added to the list of comparisons, as well as a clutch of detective novelists, but Fox and the “-chester” and “-bridge” writers above are especially interesting because they are deliberately aimed at depicting the institution and the people who live in and around it.  Perhaps her most striking talent as a novelist is the detailed account she gives of the atmosphere, attitudes, associations – the whole mental world of a portion of Church of England in the early twenty-first century. 

This is even more noticeable in The Company of Heaven than in previous Lindchester novels I’ve read.  The style is dense with allusions, jokes, references and ironies.  The direct address with which the chapters start is unusual amongst much modern fiction.  It admits quite openly that the reader is being directed to look at particular things, to consider problems, to sympathize with characters.  It’s intriguing to find a rhetorical device which is so honest that the reader’s attention is being demanded.  It’s a device which recalls Trollope and the intrusive voice of the nineteenth-century novel, whilst also perfectly suiting the blog form.  It’s also very like a sermon in some ways: not that it’s “preachy” in the popular sense of that word, but that it is performative.  It points and lets the reader know there’s a purpose behind the gesturing finger.

The narrative voice of The Company of Heaven is also strikingly honest in another, related way: the frank recognition of a “we” in the text.  “Are we not an Easter people?”, “We wait in long queues for our boosters”, “do we feel a Game of Thrones chill”.  The openness of the narratorial voice allows it to sketch very clearly who the text is addressing.  Allusions to Sunday School hymns, Anglican twitter and views on gender roles and the cultural canon give a vivid sense of the mental world of the narrator’s listeners.  This is another element which is even more strongly marked in this volume: the sharp delineation of a world which can become thick and close, even claustrophobic.  (This is probably increased by the fact that the novel takes place during the latter stages of the Covid pandemic.)  In this sense, Fox picks up from the midcentury middlebrow novelists like Angela Thirkell, Elizabeth Fair of Barbara Pym, effectively showing the mesh of social attitudes and ways of life within a particular slice of the population.

As well as narratorial voice, Fox’s handling of time is intimately connected to the realm she depicts.  Each chapter contains a month, with an associated flower and gemstone.  The building in of seasonal details in such a clear way recalls novelists as different as Ellis Peters’ Cadfael novels, with their firmly delineated changes in the plants available in the abbey gardens, and Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13, with its insistent foregrounding of what the natural world is doing at every move in time.  It also highlights the very conscious recuperation of the liturgical year by the mainstream Church of England in recent decades.  The move for greater emphasis on the liturgical cycle underlines how this is at odds with many other ways of dividing up the year, and indeed how “reclaiming” it requires a deliberate effort which would have been unnecessary in centuries when it was dominant.  The association of times, flowers, stones and songs pulls the reader even deeper into the mental world of the modern church.  (Emphasized by the fact that this novel does not contain an Easter celebration, disrupting the time cycle just as Covid disrupted the year.)  The Company of Heaven is an engrossing novel, which combines its style and subject matter in fascinating ways.