Monday, 10 December 2012

The Silence of Dean Maitland: Volume 3

Judkins gives Dean Maitland a shock
frontispiece, 1906 Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner edition
On with the reading of Maxwell Gray's 1886 novel The Silence of Dean Maitland.

The first two volumes had followed the consequences of events that kicked off in the village of Malbourne on New Year's Day of 1863. The curate Cyril Maitland has got the coachman's daughter Alma Lee pregnant, and (we think) killed her father Ben. However, Maitland let his best friend Henry Everard take the rap, and got on with his career for nine years while Everard is in prison (apart from a brief escape in 1872).

Jump to 1881, and a grizzled man, the recently-released Everard, is on the train from Dartmoor to Exeter. He stops off there to buy a change of clothing, then continues homeward toward Malbourne, where he hopes his fiancee Lilian is waiting for him. However, he decides to stop off at the cathedral city of Belminster (Winchester) to look at old haunts, and goes to soak up the ambience at the cathedral.

There he has a number of surprises. He finds that Maitland is now Dean of Belminster, a nationally-famous preacher and author set for promotion to Bishop, and also has a chat with a blind chorister who turns out to be Maitland's son, Everard Maitland.

Outside his career, Dean Maitland has had mixed fortunes; his wife Marion (Everard's sister) died some years previously, as have several other children except for the blind Everard and his daughter Marion. He's also become something of an 'Agony Uncle', a consultant on spiritual matters following his book The Secret Penitent. On the same day Everard is in town, Maitland gets a visit from a young American he thinks is seeking advice. To his shock, it's a Benjamin Judkins, Alma's son, who has come to demand that Maitland admits to be his father. At first Maitland denies all knowledge and threatens to sue, but is taken aback when Judkins shows him a note from Alma. She too is in Belminster, dying in the hospital of a terminal illness; the note confesses to a lifetime of guilt at her perjury, and begs Maitland to visit her.

Now both Everard and Maitland are going through crises. Everard is reading Maitland's books, and impressed by their honesty and spiritual message. Maitland thinks on his own guilt - it's finally explicit that he killed Alma's father in a fight - which is worsened when he fails to visit Alma in time. The two men's paths finally cross when Everard goes to Maitland's sermon in the cathedral, and Maitland gives a highly self-referential sermon about Judas, to the effect that Judas must have been a high-ranking hypocrite. The sermon affects Everard deeply. He concludes correctly that Maitland has been under agonies of guilt for 18 years, and writes to him, forgiving him. On receiving the letter, Maitland, who we now find is taking laudanum for a nervous complaint, is shaken to the point of turning down a royal edict to dine at Osborne House, and packs off his family to Portsmouth.

Everard, having had no reply from Maitland, gets the Oldport train, and by staggering coincidence finds he's sharing it with the judge who convicted him, who he also forgives. After a painfully nostalgic journey through Chalkburne, he finally comes to Malbourne Rectory, where he and Lilian are happily reunited.

Unknown to Everard and Lilian, Dean Maitland is now on self-destruct. In front of an audience including the Prime Minister, at a sermon at Belminster intended to mark his accession to Bishop, he makes a full confession of his crimes, then slumps by the pulpit and dies. On hearing the news, Everard and Lilian go to Belminster and find that Maitland has prepared well. Anticipating the possibility, as indeed happens, that his confession may be taken as insanity, he has left detailed legal depositions; he has also left Everard a hefty bequest. Everard finds himself exonerated, and even feted for his fortitude. A final chapter takes us to Switzerland some time later, where Everard and Lilian are enjoying happy middle age together.

Conclusion: I found it a very good novel, and I can see why it was a best-seller. Sometimes it's weakened by some horrible implausibilities - what are the chances of meeting the judge who convicted you when taking the train home from prison? - but it's well-crafted overall, with the central conflict played out excellently. And Maxwell Gray hadn't got into her later habits of over-egged flights of landscape description.

 It didn't go unnoticed at the time that there were thematic similarities to previous 19th century novels featuring clergy-gone-bad. One reviewer mentioned the possibility of unconscious plagiarism from "Lockhart, Hawthorne, Charles Reade": a reference to John Gibson Lockhart’s 1822 Adam Blair, which concerns a widowed Scottish minister who has an affair with a married woman; Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, in which the minister Arthur Dimmesdale keeps silent about his adultery with Hester Prynne (who takes all the public blame) until - like Maitland - he finally confesses in the pulpit and dies; and Charles Reade’s 1866 Griffith Gaunt; or Jealousy, in which an eloquent young priest attempts to seduce a married woman. Nevertheless, Dean Maitland seemed to hit a nerve by putting events in the hitherto cosy context of middle-class English clergy.

I do wonder what Mary Tuttiett's family made of it, since the character inspirations don't look far from home: her father Frank Tuttiett was a doctor, and her uncle was  Lawrence Tuttiett, a hymn writer, author and churchman whose career wasn't dissimilar to Cyril Maitland's (minus the sensational ending).

The travelogue aspects are proving very interesting, and I may well write more about this. I've only just realised that Alma Lee's family live in a building identifiable as The Temple, Calbourne, an ornamental folly on the Swainston estate. I've written more on this in an update: To see Swainston.

- Ray

The silence of Dean Maitland: a novel (1886) - Volume 3 (Internet Archive ID silenceofdeanmai03gray).


  1. Having followed your summary, I've finally gotten sufficiently hooked to start reading the novel for myself.

    I expected Hardyesque or possibly echoes of J M Falkner, but am actually reminded of Trollope.

    Put me down, by the way, for a preorder on your book :-)

  2. Yes, the whole village-politics, ecclesiastical-politics side is very Trollope; and there are references to exactly the same kind of mid-Victorian tensions within the CofE that Trollope satirizes. At one point Maitland, who is definitely High Church

    racked his brains for some pretext to escape from his brother-clergyman, who had the advantage of being his senior by many years, and whose theology was of a kind to fill Cyril with despair, since George belonged to the straitest sect of the Evangelicals.