The novelist tells Peter Stanford that she maintains a strong emotional bond with the Church despite drifting away There is a line of Alexander Pope’s that – like all good poetry – puts into words what we would otherwise struggle to articulate, namely the ambiguous situation of many who were raised Catholic, remain attached to much of what they learnt of faith in childhood, but who, in adulthood, have not continued to practise their faith. “Just as the twig is bent,” the 18th-century poet and Catholic wrote, “the tree’s inclined.”
It has just been quoted to me over a central London coffee shop table by the novelist Wendy Perriam as she struggles to explain her own position regarding the Church of her upbringing.
“I have already arranged my requiem Mass,” she confides. It seems hopelessly premature since, at 69, Perriam looks 10 years younger, to lower the tone and quote a television makeover show. Once (self-) titled as “Surbiton’s only living writer”, she now lives in the capital and, after 15 novels, has concentrated in recent years on publishing short stories. The latest collection, The Queen’s Margarine, is out this month.
“It is going to be at St Etheldreda’s [London’s oldest Catholic church],” she continues, “and when he agreed to do it, I asked the then rector, Fr Kit Cunningham, to tell the congregation that, although I was a great sinner, emotionally I was always a Catholic and always will be one.” Which is when she comes out with Pope’s words.
I have heard of lapsed, cultural and à la carte Catholics. An arrogant few are even so sure of their place in the universe that they can use the labels “former” or “ex-” without keeping their fingers crossed, but what precisely, I ask Perriam, is an emotional Catholic? “Well, there is an attachment to the ritual,” she begins. “I couldn’t conceive of being buried in a crematorium without music and ritual.” And beyond that? “There’s the concept of ‘loving thy neighbour as thyself’. We’re all so used to it, it's easy to forget what an extraordinary concept it is, and how it would transform the world if we only took it seriously.” Anything else? “Forgiveness. Having one’s own sins forgiven is not only liberating but also awe-inspiring. Forgiving others their trespasses is essential to avoid bitterness and resentment. I deeply admire those rare souls who can forgive the murderers of their children.” It seems almost rude to bring up God, but I need to go back to basics. Does Perriam believe in God? “I want to,” she replies. “It means a huge amount to me.” One of Archbishop Vincent Nichols’s successes when in Birmingham was the
programme he ran to reconnect with those who had drifted away from the Church. Traditionally seen somehow as beyond the pale for having committed an act of betrayal, this group was, as part of the initiative, approached and heard out in an effort to understand their choices. On the same spirit, though it may seem odd to interview in a Catholic newspaper a writer who has in a formal, institutional sense lapsed from the Church, there is surely a value in exploring Perriam’s experience, not least because her most popular novels – including Absinthe for Elevenses, After Purple and The Stillness and The Dancing – all remain suffused by Catholicism.
Her father, she recalls, had spent five years in the seminary. “He left to marry my mother but was very much the priest still in his subsequent life.” The couple sent their daughter to a convent boarding school run by the Society of the Holy Child Jesus where she shone academically. “I was a serious child and I took words very seriously indeed,” she remembers, “so when we were told, for example, that we were not worthy, I took that to heart. But nature had made me rebellious and questioning and so when the Virgin Mary was held up to us as a role model, beautiful, obedient, never shouting or complaining, it was as if she was all the things I wasn’t. My grandparents had come from Hungary and my complexion was dark and my eyes very dark. I used to be taunted by other pupils as “Blackie”. So I felt that even my skin colour set me apart from this very blonde, blue eyed, pale Mary.” Perriam has, like other women of that generation educated in convent boarding schools of the Fifties and Sixties, explored the effect of what often felt like a harsh, uncompromising, judgmental environment. There were, she accepts, things about her that might have made her unhappy in any school. “Both my father and my mother – who had a Jewish father – were very keen to be seen as very English, and that gave me a feeling as a child that I didn’t quite belong, that I didn’t fit in.” Again it is a theme in her novels. The classic Perriam character is the social misfit. And she accepts without argument that things have now changed in today’s Catholic schools, and in ways that she would approve of, but she returns to the point that her experience was her experience.
She won a place at Oxford to read English but while there lost her faith. “It was more precious than anything else to me. I had been taught that to lose your faith is the worst of all sins, and then it happened to me.” The pain caused by her rejection of God drove her to attempt suicide. Yet her intellectual, rational break with the Church was never accompanied by an emotional one. Catholicism remained part of who she was. “I continued at Oxford to hang around the chaplaincy, like a child with her nose pressed to the sweetshop window.” Soon after university Perriam was diagnosed with a severe kidney illness and was told that it could be lifethreatening. “I associated that with the vengeful God of my childhood punishing me for losing my faith,” she explains. The doctors also told her that she would never be a mother as a result of the treatment she needed. Yet, when she married her university sweetheart, she did manage to conceive. “And then, during the pregnancy, they couldn’t hear the foetal heartbeat and told me my baby was dead. It turned out they had made a mistake. When my daughter was born healthy, my mother told me it was the miracle she had prayed for. And I believed her. I still believe in miracles. They happen all the time in my stories.” Life continued to throw challenges at Perriam – the break-up of her first marriage and bouts of depression; then came the news that, at 40 and despite never having smoked, her beloved daughter Pauline Maria had been diagnosed with tongue cancer. “Her surgeon said he had never known anyone get it so young,” she says. “She had a 12-hour operation to re-make her tongue after the surgery with skin from her wrist.” Perriam holds out her own wrist across the table as if to demonstrate.
“When he said the operation had worked, I just hugged him. He said if Pauline remained clear for a year, there was a good chance the cancer wouldn’t come back. On the 12-month anniversary I went out to Seattle [her daughter had settled in the States] and we rejoiced. A week later, it returned to her lungs, then her liver, her bones and her blood. And so I sat at her bedside unable to do anything. The natural inclination of a mother is to make it better, but I couldn’t even tuck her in because there were so many tubes.” As death approached in September of last year she helped her daughter write letters to her two young sons, aged seven and 10, to be read when they were older, and to prepare boxes for them to remember her by. She wrote them but we did it together. “Tell them how they were born,” I remember urging her. Her first husband had died and the boys’ step-father wasn’t there at their birth. We talked about what to put in the boxes – her hairbrushes, her bracelets...
Her voice trails off and her eyes fill with tears. For a few minutes we sit in silence with me holding her hand. “Writing is the best kind of therapy,” she begins afresh, composing herself. “At its simplest, it is just so distracting. And it gives me a sense of order, a way of constructing a shape. That’s what I tell my students in the writing classes I teach. And it gives me the control to create a happy ending, even though I know it is only makebelieve.”
The stories in her new collection were written while Pauline was undergoing chemotherapy. Several describe the struggle to come to terms with death – the 40-year-old only child spending Christmas alone for the first time, her only company a picture of her parents, both of whom have died in the past year, or a beloved daughter clearing out her dead father’s home. Now, Perriam reports, she has started a new novel, her first in almost a decade. “It is a black comedy, but that’s all I can say about it.”
Her daughter’s death has inevitably turned her thoughts back to that vengeful God of her childhood, but it has also renewed her deeprooted yearning for faith. “I’d love to join the Church again. I know I’d be much happier there, but,” she says, “it is like falling in love. You can only do it to order in books.” There remains, she reflects, so many good things about her that come from Catholicism. Such as? “Angels,” she replies. “I see angels. And grace. I adore the idea of grace and am so grateful for it. And I am always in churches, lighting candles. That is where I am going after we finish talking.” As I bid her farewell and watch her making her way into a local church, I can’t help thinking that there is something keeping Perriam going as she lives through every parent’s nightmare of burying their child. Though physically slight, she has a strength and a purpose about it. There is, of course, her work and her devotion to her two grandsons, who are coming to stay with her this summer. But there appears to be more. Her attachment to Catholicism may fail any empirical test, but nevertheless gives every appearance of being real and sustaining.
The Queen’s Margarine by Wendy Perriam is published by Robert Hale on June 30 at £18.99