Thursday, 31 May 2012

Penguin no. 1425: The Straight and Narrow Path
by Honor Tracy

Lest it be thought he was a man of no sincerity, it must be made clear at once that the programmes of the two parties were identical...While out of office, each party assured the voters that only by the speedy return of itself to power could these objectives be reached; but when it was in, they seemed in a mysterious way to become all at once shadowy, remote and unattainable. Then the party would settle down to the real business of government, which in the first place meant sweeping the grafters from public life and replacing them by deserving brothers and cousins and uncles of its own; and in the second, hanging on to power for the three years that were necessary if Ministers were to qualify for a pension.

Honor Tracy was the pseudonym of the English-born writer Lilbush Wingfield. She was a Catholic convert who moved to Ireland after the war, writing a humorous weekly column reflecting on Irish life for The Sunday Times in London. But when she devoted a column to the construction of a new house for the parish priest of Doneraile in County Cork, and contrasted  its extravagance with the relative poverty of the parishioners, the priest took exception and demanded an apology from the newspaper, which they duly published without seeking Ms Tracy's agreement. She successfully sued The Sunday Times and was awarded 3000 pounds in damages.

But it seems the parishioners felt it was entirely appropriate for Canon O'Connell to have the best house in the village, and they turned out the following weekend to rally in support of their priest. The reporting of the event suggests that the priest and his lawyer, encouraged by the crowd, may have indulged in a little spin, interpreting the Judge's words as a vindication of their own position, despite the finding in Ms Tracy's favour.

Understandably, these events must have rankled. The Straight and Narrow Path, published a few years later, would seem to be Honor Tracy's response.

As a tale of the misadventures of a hapless and priggish Englishman recuperating in Ireland following a breakdown from overwork,  and as a lighthearted look at the inevitable cultural misunderstandings during time spent in a recognisably similar and yet different society, it is really very funny and enjoyable to read. But as a satire on Irish society, it seems surprisingly bitter, and at times I had to wonder if she was being particularly fair in her portrayal. There seems to be no recognition at all that Irish Catholics are perfectly entitled to adopt a system of values which she does not share. At times she mocks them, clearly believing them na├»ve, and clearly certain of the superiority of her own perspective. The impression left is that once antagonised she was determined to have the final word. And she was determined to make it cutting.

Andrew Butler is the Reader in Anthropology at Edinburgh University, enjoying a three month break in the rural Irish village of Patrickstown. When the local English journalist is taken ill after a day spent drinking, Butler is called on at short notice to provide a feature article for the Sunday edition of a London newspaper. He despairs of finding an interesting topic until a helpful local takes him up to the convent at sun-down to clandestinely observe the nuns celebrating Midsummer's Eve in their typical and apparently pagan manner, by taking it in turns to jump across a bonfire.

The nuns' tradition is well known and accepted in the village, but writing about it for an English newspaper is not looked on favourably. The parish priest, guided by the local lawyer, declares the story untrue, seeks an apology from the newspaper, and demands a sum in damages, threatening to demand more unless they settle promptly. It is considered the safest and most reliable of scams, as the English newspapers always settle, knowing that an Irish jury will never find against a clergyman.  But unfortunately Butler is the straightest of Englishmen, and he is determined to prevent any payment.

Ms Tracy portrays the parish priest Canon Peart as a man of simple certainties. For him, the truth apparently has no separate and fundamental existence. He sees himself as the arbiter of what is right and wrong in his parish, and also of what has and hasn't happened. He understands the truth therefore to be what he says it is, and he lacks the mental ability to conceive of any other system. He reinforces his authority in his weekly sermons, with their reminders of damnation, and their topics carefully chosen to coincide with his own temporal ambitions. And so we can see that he acts out of self-interest as much as anyone else, but he is blind to his own motivations. She shows him to be a vulnerable and easily influenced man, and a pawn in the hands of his lawyer.

At times it seems that the parishioners are being presented almost as children, respecting only those they fear. When their priest is feeling vulnerable and uncertain, they can see right through him. But when his confidence returns, they fall in behind him. The real target of Tracy's satire seems to be the lawyer who is unfailingly corrupt, manipulative, and greedy, and happy to look his victims in the eye as he fleeces them.

Despite the bitterness, Honor Tracy also manages to convey much of what it is that she finds so appealing about Ireland and the Irish: their lack of directness, their happy acceptance of the irrational and illogical, and an almost communal telepathy in which they seem able to intuit what each other is thinking. At times she gives an endearing portrait, and at times an acerbic one. Her novel was very entertaining, and many of her characters were delightful, but she was hardly an unbiased critic, and I found it impossible to trust her as an interpreter of Irish life and culture.


  1. "Honor Tracy" was not a pseudonym -- it was her first and last name. The names Lilbush and Wingfield were her two middle names.

  2. Honor Tracy's portrait of the Irish as unreliable, cunning, dishonest, simple-minded, is certainly not one which any one of Irish background will want to take lying down. However, two other English authors wrote of the Irish and showed them in similar light: T. H. White in"The Elephant and the Kangaroo" and the anglo-irish authors of the "The Irish R.M." ---both of which are very entertaining.



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