The Short Story Project ~ The Sacristan of St Botolph

IMG_0046I’m willing to lay a small wager that you all thought I’d forgotten about The Short Story Project, but not a bit of it.  I simply had to make my way first through a number of books that I’d promised to post reviews for on specific dates.  In future such promises will be contingent on it being possible to fit the books in around more pressing and more interesting concerns.

As I said in my last post on the subject, I’m starting out with A S Byatt’s edited collection of English Short Stories for OUP.  This proved to be a felicitous choice because independently a friend had selected it to use as a set text for a new module she is teaching this year on short fiction, so we will be able to compare notes as we go.  The collection is arranged chronologically consequently that is going to be one of the first factors I shall be taking into account when I have enough data to begin drawing some conclusions.

Having said all that, chronologically speaking, I got off to a bad start with the initial story which is credited to a William Gilbert who lived from 1540 to 1603.  This would make the text something of an anomaly as all the other stories are from the nineteenth or twentieth centuries but, when I read it, I was quite willing to think that it was from the Early Modern period because the tale, entitled The Sacristan of St Botolph, would fit in well to an age in which the conduct of churchmen was constantly coming under close scrutiny from one side of the religious divide or the other.  However, thinking it would be useful to know something of the particular religious stance of the author before setting out on an analysis I discovered an editing error.  Yes, there was a William Gilbert with roughly those dates (1544 – 1603) and he wrote – a lot, but not short stories.  In fact he was a scientist and is known as the father of electricity. The William Gilbert who should have been cited was very definitely a nineteenth century man (1804 – 1890) and the story anthologised dates from 1866.  While this doesn’t change the results of my analysis it does throw an interesting light on what I found.

The Sacristan of St Botolph is the story of Geoffrey Cole, the eponymous churchman.  Mr Cole is not a man whose acquaintance I am in a hurry to make:

Although something of a miser, intensely selfish, and most uncharitable, both in the matter of giving alms, and in his feeling towards his neighbours, he was extremely punctilious in all the external forms and ceremonies of the Church, and he flattered himself he was not only very religious, but even a model of piety.  The more he studied the subject, the more certain of his blissful state he became, till at last he believed himself to be so good that the saints alone were his equals.

You get the picture.

Now, the sacristan has a bit of a penchant for widows and it is to one of these that he makes the claim that he would like to be subjected to the same temptations as was St Anthony to see if he could resist them.  Well, we all know, don’t we, that you should be careful what you wish for.  Arriving home that night he requested a neighbour’s wife to light his lamp and his fire for him (I have other suggestions as to what she should have done with whatever combustable she used!) ate a hearty meal and retired to bed.  You’ve probably worked out what happens next.

The sacristan is visited by an imp.  What is more the imp is accompanied by a very large, very stubborn and very truculent pig and we have the archetypal three occasions on which the self-aggrandising Mr Cole is forced to suffer total humiliation despite his best efforts to maintain the standards of living and personal dignity to which he has become accustomed.  The last of these three episodes differs from the other two in as much as a completely new set of characters are introduced and the sacristan is surrounded by a group of musicians and dancers all of the most fantastic and many even of the most horrible shapes.  He is led into what I thought was going to be a dance of death.

The sacristan now danced with all his might, his grotesque figure flying about in all directions, while he performed the most eccentric steps.  He became more and more excited with the scene, and danced with still greater vigour.

However, suddenly everything vanishes and Mr Cole, left stranded, on a dark heath in the pouring rain, has a moment of enlightenment and resolves henceforth to be a better human being, becoming

a good charitable man, doing his duty in the church, giving alms of all he had to the poor, and contend with being thought no better than his neighbours.

No, I didn’t believe it either.

But, what you really want to know is how the story stacked up in respect of its narrative structure.  Well, this text certainly is a full story in as much as it has all the elements I outlined when I was discussing The Three Little Pigs (all, of course, far more civilised than the one the sacristan encounters). Present are the exposition, inciting moment, igniting moment, development, climax, dénouement and resolution.   So, as far as my theory goes, this is a counter example.  However, it isn’t a very satisfactory story, especially in terms of its beginning and its end, which has set me off wondering if I shan’t find myself taking into account factors other than the grammatical narrative structure. Of course, this kind of thing always happens once you start looking at real data.  It’s where the fun of research lies.

The problem at the beginning seems to stem from the fact that the inciting moment, that is the event that kicks off the event line, comes before the exposition.  In a full length novel that is not that unusual, but the difficulty here is that the action that gives the initial thrust to the story is the repeated absence of one Master Walter de Courcey from church and as his name is the first thing the reader mets in the text it sets up the expectation that the narrative is going to be about him.  We never met him again.

At the end the difficulty comes about for two reasons. In her introduction to the volume Byatt comments on this text that the end is not fully achieved, and that is something of an understatement.  We are simply told

The spell under which he had been labouring for some days past was broken, and he found he had been making a great fool of himself.

You might be excused for thinking that this is the nineteenth century equivalent of and then I woke up and it was all a dream.

This is then compounded by the fact that the sacristan experiences a complete change of heart in the space of half a dozen lines and becomes a reformed character.  It simply isn’t believable.

I suspect that there is something contextual going on here and that if I had read this in 1866 when it was first published I would have responded to it in a very different way.  Reading it for the first time in 2014, however, I find myself thinking that in organisational terms there is a similar problem at the end to that at the beginning and that those problems lie not in the grammatical structure but in the referential organisation.  In both cases there is a disjunct where a character is concerned.  In the first instance because the elusive Master de Courcey is given thematic prominence we are led to expect, inaccurately, that he is going to be of some importance to the story.  In the second everything that we have been told of the sacristan’s character is suddenly reversed and we seem almost to be reading about a different man.  So, I have been digging about in my files this afternoon to find my copies of the papers of Tom Trabasso, who did a lot of work on the ways in which different parts of stories relate to each other.  It may be that this text is a one off where this type of issue is concerned, but just in case it isn’t I want to be prepared.


27 thoughts on “The Short Story Project ~ The Sacristan of St Botolph

  1. If I’d been that editor I would be squirming! Very interesting point about how we read texts differently depending on our own background and context, Alex. It seems to me to be something that changes throughout one’s reading life let alone across generations.

    1. Absolutely, Susan. Mind you, one of the things that you have to bring home to students is that when you are reading academically rather than personally you have to know where to draw the line between the views you have because of your context and those which are a true assessment of the text.

  2. I love the idea of your short story project. This first story certainly sounds as if it gave you a lot to think about, especially given the editing error which is quite an error to make.

    1. From other people’s comments, Ali, it seems as if it is a recent error isolated to this edition. Nevertheless, it is something that should have been checked, you’re right.

    1. Tom, I’m sorry I haven’t yet got round to reading your post. I will do, I promise, but I’ve been having a nasty reaction to a flu jab so I’m only just back in the blogging world. Without knowing more about the author, I wouldn’t like to comment on the question of whether or not the ending is meant to be a parody. What I’m interested in is how the text works in terms of its structure. The system of analysis I use is basically to do with a series of hierarchies. I set out just to examine how the texts worked in respect of the grammatical hierarchy and that is what enabled me to say that the story had all the requisite elements. However, the referential hierarchy is what brings to the fore that there are structural inelegances. What it doesn’t do is say why there are there.
      As to your last point that was an inelegancy on my part. I didn’t mean to suggest that it wouldn’t be a problem in a novel. Any text that foregrounds a character at the beginning who then vanishes should have the reader asking why and, if there isn’t a good reason, questioning the quality of the text.

  3. Off to a good start! I have found myself suddenly reading more short stories lately than I had even planned, but I suspect you will find all sorts of “one off” types as you go along. It will keep things interesting!

    1. I’m sure I’m going to have to read an awful lot of stories before I an able to draw any sort of conclusion, Stefanie, precisely because there will be so many one offs.

  4. Very interesting. I enjoy short stories and will be looking forward to more posts on your project. I have a feeling I’ll be starting to dissect the stories I read as well.

  5. Sounds not unlike ‘A Christmas Carol’ – one of my favourite stories, but I always found it unlikely that Scrooge would really change quite so dramatically. Terribly Victorian.

    1. A bit of a howler to say the least! I wonder if this is an example of a short story written before the form had solidified in the way that can be seen in a Strand type magazine short story or the stories that come from creative writing workshops. I think some of the short stories by Dickens are the same.

    2. That’s an interesting thought, FF. I hadn’t thought about it in those terms but you’re right, there is a Victorian morality about it.

  6. I thought it sounded like A Christmas Carol too – just with the timing a bit off, like the author had to meet his deadline and wrapped it all up a bit quick!

    1. I could’ think that a story like this would have survived from the sixteenth century, Karen. So many texts from that era have been lost. I’m glad I wasn’t the editor.

  7. Even stranger: the original 1998 edition of the anthology – it sits beside me – has no information whatsoever about the dates of the stories or authors. Perhaps that was added in later at the request of teachers? So originally there was no error about which William Gilbert was meant. In the introduction, Byatt says that she considered earlier English texts but in the end “included some Victorian short fiction, but nothing earlier” (p. xvi). So there is no confusion there, either.

  8. Hi, Alex. Yes, I agree with the readers who commented on your sacristan that he was in the same line as Scrooge when it came to his repentance. But the fact is, there is quite a long tradition, not excluding even figures like Mark Twain, who extends his repentance to a whole town in a particular way in his “The Man Who Corrupted Hadleysburg.” This tradition depends upon the “hair turned white overnight” phenomenon and the “he/she became suddenly good/merciful/kind to his/her neighbors for the rest of his/her life and was a model to the community” and etc. There are so many stories which develop and end this way that they all seem alike after a while, believable or not. Personally, I know more yo-yo backsliders than the stories indicate (i.e., people who repent, go back to being mean, repent again, etc.). But literature (especially using the term loosely to describe these stories) isn’t life, and there is obviously both reason to rejoice and reason to mourn. At least, so it seems to me. About the mistaken date, I’d hate to think that the wonderfully admirable A. S. Byatt is responsible for that, and I suspect that she isn’t, but who knows? As they say, “Even Homer nods.”

    1. “but who know?” – I know! Please see previous comment.
      It is funny that you mention Mark Twain, since he was a specialist in parodies of sentimental story’s with forced morals. That’s what this story is – the priest reforms nothing but his pride, his sense that he is as good as a saint. The story is a parody of stories like A Christmas Carol. The priest only needs to abandon his hypocrisy. He is not a saint, will never be one – and here is the kicker of the story – should not try.

    2. From what Tom says, she clearly wasn’t, SO. I’m sure you’re right about this begin a particular type of literature and it almost certainly has an educative purpose behind it. (They can reform so why can’t you get your act together.) It doesn’t work for me because inane sense I’m not really interested in what the story is about, only the way in which its elements hang together and in respect of the referential hierarchy they simply don’t.

  9. Hi, Amateur Reader Tom! I wasn’t neglecting your category of parody, nor suggesting that Mark Twain was writing with a straight face, only that the characteristic of having people supposedly “repent for life” was a literary formula. Clearly, a literary formula can be used for either straightforward or ironic purposes. And hi again, Alex! I didn’t mean to debate that A. S. Byatt was an unlikely culprit, but there’s many a slip twixt the editor and the compiler, so I wanted to take into account every possibility. I will go to Tom’s post forthwith–again, not deliberately ignoring it, just thought that he had boiled it down for our dialogue here in his comment. I’m always glad to see you on Alex’s comment page, Tom, you have a lot to offer. I just remember my early enthusiasm for Dorothy Sayers’s version of a medieval text, and being rebuked by a professor for preferring a “slick fiction writer” as an editor to a dyed-in-the-wool medievalist. Of course, A. S. Byatt is miles beyond Dorothy Sayers in quality, and is a notable academic figure herself, there is that. She’s always been one of my favorite novelists and short story writers, ever since I read “Possession,” and then eagerly grabbed up everything else of hers I could get a hold of. This OUP book you are discussing is one I have not yet had the pleasure of seeing, and I’m looking forward to reading it soon. Sorry if I created some confusion in your discussion.

    1. Oh, sorry, shadowoperator – the thing I “know” – textual evidence and all that – is that the Gilbert confusion is not Byatt’s fault. In this case, Homer did not nod but rather an overworked, underpaid OUP editor. The idea that the story is largely parodic is an interpretation, very much open to challenge.

  10. Alex, do you have any examples you can point to of how this kind of analysis works? I suspect it is beyond me, but maybe an example would make it clear. How the technique breaks down, I don’t know, Jane Eyre as compared to Wuthering Heights or something, texts with quite different structures.

    1. Part of what’s am trying out here, Tom, is how it will work with longer texts. It’s a system of analysis that was developed by Robert Longacre using the tagmemics principles of Kenneth Pike. I was introduced to it when I was working on my Masters and found it very useful for describing the types of story young children were being presented with and the stories they were writing: which was the focus of my research at the time. However, there were problems with the model even at that level and so when I came to do my doctorate I tackled those and raised various other issues to do with the nature of the markers of different features that Longacre proposed. The only full-length text that Longacre ever analysed was the story of Joseph from the Old Testament. After I finished my doctorate there were all sorts of different ways I wanted to go forward but I was in a teaching institution rather than one which concentrated on research and so I wasn’t able to pursue them. I thought about working with children’s picture books. It’s fascinating to see which elements of the story appear in the words and which appear in the illustrations. I also really wanted to have a good look at what’s happening in the epilogues and prologues of the plays that are contemporary with Shakespeare. How do they relate to the story and how do they relate to the world in which the story is being told? I stumbled on the idea of trying to use it with short stories simply because of a comment that Litlove made. I thought it would be worth trying out because I knew that short stories would be of interest to other people who read my blog and there is no point in trying to do something like this if you don’t have a community you can share and discuss it with. I can already see though,that the fact that people don’t know the method of analysis is going to be a problem. Unfortunately,it isn’t one that you can describe in a few words. If you or anyone else reading this is interested enough to want to follow this through then I’d be more than happy to send you a download of a couple of chapters of my thesis. But I would consider that a step beyond the call of duty on your part.😊

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