For if that which is done away was glorious, much more that which remaineth is glorious

Wednesday, 12 September 2018

Myths About Little Gidding

Apropos a book I have just read about Nicholas Ferrar who retired from Court, high politics and business with his wider family to set up a household for prayer in an out-of-the-way farm, here are some myths about Little Gidding that need to be dismissed. (And perhaps there is a note of warning in what follows for those of us who are thinking of a similar kind of structure to live out the so-called Benedict Option.)

(1) It was a rich family buying a nice farm where they could afford to live with servants and carry on hobbies and pray together.

They were financially straightened. Only one of Nicholas's letters goes into financial detail, an exasperated response to his wastrel younger brother who lived in London. His brother was asking yet again for more money, with protestations of deep repentance for having wasted the last installment. Nicholas tells him that his mother's legacy of £180 per annum is already providing him with £40 per year, that they are hundreds of pounds in debt, and face ruin without some unexpected providence. He also details that they have only two or three servants left (the household was probably around 30 people), have cut back drastically on daily food - his nieces Mary and Anna are weighing theirs out - and that his mother can just about afford the clothes on her back. It seems to me like the letter of a man trying hard to keep his temper, who says: right, you are asking for money, let me tell you just how much we are living on here in our opulence.

(2) Nicholas retired to Little Gidding because of the collapse of the Virginia Company through the loss of James I's favour, and his elder brother's financial ruin, which left his worldly and political hopes bereft.

He received offers of a powerful Privy Council post after the Virginia Company had its charter withdrawn, as well as an offer of at least one other diplomatic post, and when his friends found out that he had received deacon's orders and was retiring to Gidding they thought they would help him out by offering him lucrative livings if he would take priest's orders. He refused all offers. There is every reason to suppose from his letters that he had conceived the plan to retire to a life of prayer years before, and the fall of the Virginia Company was the signal that he had been waiting for to leave his London life.

(3) Life there was peace and harmony, secluded and cloistered.

Three things that I read dispel this idea. (i) They were scarcely a day without a caller, because the house - although in a remote village in Huntingdonshire - was only three miles' distance from the great North Road from London to Edinburgh. Many of these callers were strangers, turned up unannounced, and included a large number of the idle curious. (ii) Nicholas's sister-in-law Bathsheba (wife of his elder brother John) was not at all happy at Little Gidding, and perhaps deserves some sympathy although she certainly managed to make John's life a misery for much of the time, and cause considerable upset. (iii) Once the little school was up and running, some nobility would send their sons there for tutoring, and there are hints in Nicholas's letters that some of these youngsters needed a firm hand and had perhaps been sent because the kindly discipline and ordered round of life at Little Gidding was felt to be what they needed to give them some self-control and moral fibre.

L'Ascensione (II)