Autobiographical Sketches/Chapter IX
My resolve was now made, and henceforth there was at least no more doubt so far as my position towards the Church was concerned. I made up my mind to leave it, but was willing to make the leaving as little obtrusive as possible. On my return to Sibsey I stated clearly the ground on which I stood. I was ready to attend the Church services, joining in such parts as were addressed to "the Supreme Being", for I was still heartily Theistic; "the Father", shorn of all the horrible accessories hung round him by Christianity, was still to me an object of adoration, and I could still believe in and worship One who was "righteous in all His ways, and holy in all His works", although the Moloch to whom was sacrificed the well-beloved son had passed away for ever from my creed. Christian I was not, though Theist I was, and I felt that the wider and more generous faith would permit me to bow to the common God with my Christian brethren, if only I was not compelled to pay homage to that "Son of Man" whom Christians believed divine, homage which to me had become idolatry, insulting to the "One God", to him of whom Jesus himself had spoken as of "my God and your God".
Simply enough was the difficulty arranged for the moment. It was agreed that I should withdraw myself from the "Holy Communion"—for in that service, full of the recognition of Jesus as Deity, I could not join without hypocrisy. The ordinary services I would attend, merely remaining silent during those portions of them in which I could not honestly take part, and while I knew that these changes in a clergyman's wife could not pass unnoticed in a country village, I yet felt that nothing less than this was consistent with barest duty. While I had merely doubted, I had kept silence, and no act of mine had suggested doubt to others. Now that I had no doubt that Christianity was a delusion, I would no longer act as though I believed that to be of God which heart and intellect rejected as untrue.
For awhile all went smoothly. I daresay the parishioners gossipped about the absence of their vicar's wife from the Sacrament, and indeed I remember the pain and trembling wherewith, on the first "Sacrament Sunday" after my return, I rose from my seat and walked quietly from the church, leaving the white-spread altar. That the vicar's wife should "communicate" was as much a matter of course as that the vicar should "administer"; I had never in my life taken public part in anything that made me noticeable in any way among strangers, and still I can recall the feeling of deadly sickness that well nigh overcame me, as rising to go out I felt that every eye in the church was on me, and that my exit would be the cause of unending comment. As a matter of fact, everyone thought that I was taken suddenly ill, and many were the calls and enquiries on the following day. To any direct question, I answered quietly that I was unable to take part in the profession of faith required from an honest communicant, but the statement was rarely necessary, for the idea of heresy in a vicar's wife did not readily suggest itself to the ordinary bucolic mind, and I did not proffer information when it was unasked for.
It happened that, shortly after that (to me) memorable Christmas of 1872, a sharp epidemic of typhoid fever broke out in the village of Sibsey. The drainage there was of the most primitive type, and the contagion spread rapidly. Naturally fond of nursing, I found in this epidemic work just fitted to my hand, and I was fortunate enough to be able to lend personal help that made me welcome in the homes of the stricken poor. The mothers who slept exhausted while I watched beside their darlings' bedsides will never, I like to fancy, think over harshly of the heretic whose hand was as tender and often more skilful than their own. I think Mother Nature meant me for a nurse, for I take a sheer delight in nursing anyone, provided only that there is peril in the sickness, so that there is the strange and solemn feeling of the struggle between the human skill one wields and the supreme enemy, Death. There is a strange fascination in fighting Death, step by step, and this is of course felt to the full where one fights for life as life, and not for a life one loves. When the patient is beloved, the struggle is touched with agony, but where one fights with Death over the body of a stranger, there is a weird enchantment in the contest without personal pain, and as one forces back the hated foe there is a curious triumph in the feeling which marks the death-grip yielding up its prey, as one snatches back to earth the life which had well-nigh perished.
Meanwhile, the promise to Mr. Scott was not forgotten, and I penned the essay on "The Deity of Jesus of Nazareth" which stands first in the collection of essays published later under the title, "My Path to Atheism". The only condition annexed to my sending it to Mr. Scott was the perfectly fair one that if published it should appear without my name. Mr. Scott was well pleased with the essay, and before long it was printed as one of the "Scott Series", to my great delight.
But unfortunately a copy sent to a relative of Mr. Besant's brought about a storm. That gentlemen did not disagree with it—indeed he admitted that all educated persons must hold the views put forward—but what would Society say? What would "the county families" think if one of the clerical party was known to be a heretic. This dreadful little paper bore the inscription "By the wife of a beneficed clergyman"; what would happen if the "wife of the beneficed clergyman" were identified with Mrs. Besant of Sibsey?
After some thought I made a compromise. Alter or hide my faith I would not, but yield personal feelings I would. I gave up my correspondence with Mr. and Mrs. Voysey, which might, it was alleged, he noticed in the village and so give rise to mischievous gossip. In this Mr. and Mrs. Voysey most generously helped me, bidding me rest assured of their cordial friendship while counselling me for awhile to cease the correspondence which was one of the few pleasures of my life, but was not part of my duty to the higher and freer faith which we had all embraced. With keen regret I bade them for awhile farewell, and went back to my lonely life.
In that spring of 1873, I delivered my first lecture. It was delivered to no one, queer as that may sound to my readers. And indeed, it was queer altogether. I was learning to play the organ, and was in the habit of practising in the church by myself, without a blower. One day, being securely locked in, I thought I would like to try how "it felt" to speak from the pulpit. Some vague fancies were stirring in me, that I could speak if I had the chance; very vague they were, for the notion that I might ever speak on the platform had never dawned on me; only the longing to find outlet in words was in me; the feeling that I had something to say, and the yearning to say it. So, queer as it may seem? I ascended the pulpit in the big, empty, lonely church, and there and then I delivered my first lecture! I shall never forget the feeling of power and of delight which came upon me as my voice rolled down the aisles, and the passion in me broke into balanced sentences, and never paused for rhythmical expression, while I felt that all I wanted was to see the church full of upturned faces, instead of the emptiness of the silent pews. And as though in a dream the solitude became peopled, and I saw the listening faces and the eager eyes, and as the sentences came unbidden from my lips, and my own tones echoed back to me from the pillars of the ancient church, I knew of a verity that the gift of speech was mine, and that if ever—and it seemed then so impossible—if ever the chance came to me of public work, that at least this power of melodious utterance should win hearing for any message I had to bring.
But that knowledge remained a secret all to my own self for many a long month, for I quickly felt ashamed of that foolish speechifying in an empty church, and I only recall it now because, in trying to trace out one's mental growth, it is only fair to notice the first silly striving after that expression in spoken words, which, later, has become to me one of the deepest delights of life. And indeed none can know save they who have felt it what joy there is in the full rush of language which, moves and sways; to feel a crowd respond to the lightest touch; to see the faces brighten or graven at your bidding; to know that the sources of human passion and human emotion gush at the word of the speaker, as the stream from the riven rock; to feel that the thought that thrills through a thousand hearers has its impulse from you and throbs back to you the fuller from a thousand heart-beats; is there any joy in life more brilliant than this, fuller of passionate triumph, and of the very essence of intellectual delight?
My pen was busy, and a second pamphlet, dealing with the Johannine gospel, was written and sent up to Mr. Scott under the same conditions of anonymity as before, for it was seen that my authorship could in nowise be suspected, and Mr. Scott paid me for my work. I had also made a collection of Theistic, but non-Christian, hymns, with a view of meeting a want felt by Mr. Voysey's congregation at St. George's Hall, and this was lying idle, while it might be utilised. So it was suggested that I should take up again my correspondence with Mr. and Mrs. Voysey, and glad enough was I to do so. During this time my health was rapidly failing, and in the summer of 1873 it broke down completely. At last I went up to London to consult a physician, and was told I was suffering from general nervous exhaustion, which, was accompanied by much disturbance of the functions of the heart. "There is no organic disease yet," said Dr. Sibson, "but there soon will be, unless you can completely change your manner of life." Such a change was not possible, and I grew rapidly worse. The same bad adviser who had before raised the difficulty of "what will Society say?" again interfered, and urged that pressure should be put on me to compel me at least to conform to the outward ceremonies of the Church, and to attend the Holy Communion. This I was resolved not to do, whatever might be the result of my "obstinacy ", and the result was not long in coming.
I had been with the children to Southsea, to see if the change would restore my shattered health, and stayed in town with my mother on my return under Dr. Sibson's care. Very skilful and very good to me was Dr. Sibson, giving me for almost nothing all the wealthiest could have bought with their gold, but he could not remove all then in my life which made the re-acquiring of health impossible. What the doctor could not do, however, others did. It was resolved that I should either resume attendance at the Communion, or should not return home; hypocrisy or expulsion—such was the alternative; I chose the latter.
A bitterly sad time followed; my dear mother was heartbroken; to her, with her wide and vague form of Christianity, loosely held, the intensity of my feeling that where I did not believe I would not pretend belief, was incomprehensible. She recognised far more fully than I all that a separation from my home meant for me, and the difficulties which would surround a young woman not yet six-and-twenty, living alone. She knew how brutally the world judges, and how the mere fact that a woman is young and alone justifies any coarseness of slander. Then, I did not guess how cruel men and women could be, but knowing it from eleven years' experience, I deliberately say that I would rather go through it all again with my eyes wide open from the first, than have passed those eleven years "in Society" under the burden of an acted lie.
But the struggle was hard when she prayed me for her sake to give way; against harshness I had been rigid as steel, but to remain steadfast when my darling mother, whom I loved as I loved nothing else on earth, begged me on her knees to yield, was indeed hard. I felt as though it must be a crime to refuse submission when she urged it, but still—to live a lie? Not even for her was that possible.
Then there were the children, the two little ones who worshipped me, I who was to them mother, nurse, and playfellow. Were these also to be resigned? For awhile, at least, this complete loss was spared me, for facts (which I have not touched on in this record) came accidentally to my brother's knowledge, and he resolved that I should have the protection of legal separation, and should not be turned wholly penniless and alone into the world. So, when everything was arranged, I found myself possessed of my little girl, of complete personal freedom, and of a small monthly income sufficient for respectable starvation.