For Anglican book collectors, there are few titles so sought after as The Innocent Curate, A. Paris Leary’s 1963 roman à clef about life at St. George’s Church, Schenectady — veiled thinly in the novel as “St. Clement’s, Schinderhook.”
The book was published by Doubleday with a dust-jacket illustration by Edward Gorey, sold for $3.95, and was never released in softcover. It drew negative reviews almost universally and went out of print quickly. It is hard today to find copies on the used book market for less than $100, and prices can jump to twice and thrice that amount depending on condition or the seller’s knowledge of what buyers will tolerate.
The novel is richest in its personalities, atmosphere, and turns of phrase. Despite the careful and obligatory notice at the beginning that “All of the characters in this book are fictitious, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental,” they are all obviously drawn from life or serve as projections of the author’s background and experience.
The book opens with an extended portrait of Mrs. O. Felix Cooper, chief patroness and low-church lay pope of St. Clement’s, a former Menshevik of vast wealth. She is six feet tall, wears turbans and high heels (“plastic shoes”), and expresses the subtleties of her mood by the force or gentleness with which she uses doorknockers when she visits persons whose collaboration she requires.
Mrs. Cooper is a keen supporter of her parish church, but also of the Order of the Divine Aumbry at Belcher’s Landing on the Hudson — in which it is easy to see a depiction of the Order of the Holy Cross at West Park. She owns the largest collection of relics outside of Europe. She is a generous but determined person who “brooks no opposition from man or the Devil.”
“To human beings she was cruel only to be kind, and, if heads must roll, it was only as a symbol of encouragement to the ranks not to fall prey to the deceiving lures of the powers of darkness.” She introduces herself as “the widow of Cooper and Sandy’s Mining Company,” the source of her great prosperity. She takes in waifs and strays who subsequently turn their lives around and become contributing members of society.
Mrs. Fleming Van Rensaaler dies before the beginning of the book, but gives funding and inspiration for the middle 20th-century liturgical and architectural enrichment of St. Clement’s. We learn that “she had had a protracted illness, which she enjoyed immensely.” She is a type of the remnants of Dutch patroon-settler aristocracy in Schinderhook. She entertains 65 guests for breakfast after Christmas midnight Mass as a matter of course, and performs her anticipated death exquisitely:
The Blessed Sacrament was carried to her every morning in the gold pyx she had herself bought for Dr. Groby in Vienna. She had become as familiar with the Last Rites as she had been with mattins and evensong. She had had a horn installed outside her window; when she pressed a button by her bed it hooted across the whole First Ward like an air-raid siren — it was to call the clergy in the event she felt herself sinking and unable to reach for the telephone.
When she does expire, Mrs. Van Rensaaler leaves $15,000 directly to the rector of St. Clement’s, and an additional $50,000 “for the construction of a Lady Chapel to her glory, in memory of God.”
The eponymous curate of the title is the handsome Sonny Ball, who has “a sacerdotal Ivy League look” and an “ostentatious cleanliness of limb and morals.”
“Everyone knew Sonny Ball. Sonny Ball knew everyone. Everyone liked Sonny Ball. Sonny Ball liked everyone.” He had grown up at St. Clement’s and spent all of his life in Schinderhook except for three years at St. Dismas’ Seminary in New York (naturally, the General Theological Seminary).
Sonny’s fiancée is Rosemary Van Vranken, who caused local scandal in Schinderhook by attending Oberlin rather than Skidmore, emerging liberated and bohemian. “Rosemary laughed at everything and everyone. Except Sonny Ball.” Rosemary is at heart a pagan daughter of Camus and Sartre, despite being a daughter of Schinderhook, but she is “hopelessly in love” with Sonny and laughs at the “mental image of herself doing the parish bit — going to meetings, guilds, canvasses, bun fights, rallies, sodalities … oh, it was panic-making!” Their gentle, mutual love is the happiest subplot of the book, and she appears briefly in a bikini.
St. Clement’s parishioner Oakes Broussard is an English professor by vocation and a Southern aristocrat by background, a man to whom “it never occurred that a woman was capable of opening a car door by herself or that she carried her own matches.” He has “three degrees from Cambridge (the real one), a beautiful speaking voice, and splendid yellow hair.”
He is the character most like the author, educated in England on a Fulbright, having adopted European attitudes as an American Southerner who eschewed exposure to New York. His artist wife, Sophie, is a Frenchwoman whose love and understanding help him to recover from “a despair which had nearly destroyed him.” Sophie grew up in a French colonialist family in Algiers, makes her own clothes from fabric she chooses herself to avoid appearing like other women in the Schenectady Stockade, and “sees to it that Oakes has real French wine with his meals and lots of red meat, which American men like so much.” She and Rosemary socialize at the country club. Oakes Broussard observes; Paris Leary transcribes mentally and writes later.
The most withering portrait in the book is its treatment of the Rev. Dr. Walter Groby, rector of St. Clement’s, whose preaching is “in the Fulton Sheen style, but with less content and better taste.” He is highly successful. He drives a convertible, or someone drives him in one. Not long after his arrival, “young female faces began to appear in the congregation, which heretofore had been comprised largely of one hundred and ninety-seven elderly ladies and old Dr. Van Der Horn (the vestry absenting themselves except at Christmas and Easter).”
Dr. Groby longs to become a bishop, is deft at raising funds from Schinderhook old money and “National Electric” (General Electric, founded in Schenectady in 1892) interests alike. He “charmed the maiden daughters,” and “caused a grudging acceptance among even his most vocal adversaries.” Women began “playing Héloïse to his Abelard (not that their sheltered minds visualized for a minute to what anatomical straits this would have led him). He paid more attention to widows than their husbands had when alive.”
His wife is Fiona (née deCourcy-Sprat). “She drinks,” and “would bring a good fifteen thousand pounds a year to whoever married her.” Leary writes in one of his best character illustrations that Fiona
wanted to be carried off (quietly) to a small village. She wanted a rather tired, pale husband, with insufficient stipend, who was cautiously Sarum about saints and church furniture. She wanted him to be absent-minded, untidy, and not altogether well. She wanted to take care of him. She wanted a large, draughty vicarage, with an early kitchen and feudal plumbing. She wanted several large cats. She wanted to wear thick wool stockings, heavy thornproof-tweed skirts, and sweaters of no definable shape and color. She wanted a few poor people to work for, a modest hospital to visit, a reasonable number of Sunday School children to tell stories about Gentle Jesus Meek and Mild. She wanted hills to climb, covered with rough friendly heather. So when the funny-looking but charming American clergyman asked for her hand, she saw no reason not to accept.
One of the main difficulties of the novel is its one unfortunate sentence about the union: “After their wedding night, Walter Groby had thanked her for ‘a very lovely experience’ and installed her henceforth in a separate bedroom.”
Dr. Groby is of course the Rev. Canon Alfred Darwin Kirby, Jr. (1918-2006), rector of St. George’s, Schenectady, from 1947 to 1987 — a towering figure in 20th-century American Anglo-Catholicism (and sometime member of the board of directors of the Living Church Foundation). Fiona is his wife, Constance.
The Plot and Reviews
The novel’s plot — if it can be called a plot — consists entirely in the interactions of these individuals and their interests during an undefined period of time described in 203 easy pages that can be consumed in a morning with three strong coffees or an afternoon with many weak lemonades. The parish, with its constellation of competing interests and characters, is unable to manage an experience of the miraculous. The curate in his innocence receives the stigmata while delivering a tray of drinks to friends at the country club, and things fall apart: “But why?” asks Sonny. “I didn’t do anything wrong.” The rector insists that the curate has been praying too much, and asks him to go to the library.
The secret of scarce copies is a perfect combination of just one edition with a relatively limited print run, cover art by a major graphic artist, and a large enough group of persons who were offended by their portrayal in the book and keen to limit its circle of readers. There were credible stories as recently as the late 1990s about admirers of Father Kirby stealing The Innocent Curate from public libraries to remove it from circulation, or hoarding triplicates and quadruplicates of the book when it came up for sale.
Kirkus Reviews found that The Innocent Curate had “lots of intellectual jokes and jeux d’esprit — which do not quite make a novel.” The Episcopal Church Diocesan Press Service noted, blandly: “All sorts of over-stated characters move through the story, adding to its improbable fun. It is enjoyable and relaxing reading.” The Living Church was unusual in offering a kind evaluation, calling it “devastating enough to earn our gleeful gratitude.” Otherwise, it was a failure even within the rarefied community of readers who could understand it. As late as 1970, seven years after its publication, The Innocent Curate was still causing a stir in The Schenectady Gazette: “This book really is malicious — an attempted satire on downtown Schenectady and one of its churches. It tries too hard to be funny, and so it isn’t. This is a book you can skip.”
Albert Paris Leary was born in Shreveport, Louisiana, in 1931 as the only child in a family connected to the Church of the Holy Cross. He grew up there, precocious and encouraged by maiden aunts. Leary (who dropped “Albert” as an adult) completed his studies at Centenary College in 1951. Even before college graduation, Leary’s poetry appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, followed quickly by his national and international prominence as a young American poet whose work appeared in National Review, The New Yorker, The Saturday Review, The Village Voice, The Hudson Review, and in his words “in at least twenty of the better reviews and quarterlies here and in England.”
After studies at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, Leary was ordained to the diaconate in the Diocese of Louisiana in 1954 and to the priesthood in the Diocese of Albany in 1955. He would serve in just two parishes, and very briefly: at St. George’s, Schenectady, in 1954 and 1955, and at St. Mary Magdalene’s, Oxford, from 1956 to 1958 during his doctoral work.
Leary’s unpublished 1958 DPhil dissertation at Oxford was The Theology of Herbert Thorndike (1598-1672), a 760-page exploration of the work of an overlooked Caroline divine. His adviser was Frank Leslie Cross (1900-68), the Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity, known the world over as the editor of The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church and the organizer of the International Conference on Patristic Studies.
Leary returned to the United States in 1958 and served briefly as an associate professor of English at the University of Kentucky before becoming director in 1960 of the Writers’ Workshop at Bard College, Annandale on Hudson. He had left that position already by 1964 when he was working as an assistant professor at the State University of New York in New Paltz. Leary next accepted a Fulbright Fellowship to teach at the University of Leicester in 1964, and began tenure as inaugural lecturer in American literature in the University of Leicester’s Department of English in 1965. Having at last found a permanent position, he retired from Leicester at the end of 1988.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given the reception of his too-personal first attempt at fiction, The Innocent Curate was a first and last novel for Paris Leary. His other significant published works were two titles now mostly forgotten but possessed of curious success in their day. The 1965 Jack Sprat Cookbook — a collaboration with his friend Muriel De Gré — offered 120 pages of “delicious recipes for light eaters and weight watchers.” The much more influential A Controversy of Poets: An Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry (1965, published with Robert Kelly) was a popular anthology of modern American poems through which two generations of high school and college students learned about the work of Allen Ginsberg, Denise Levertov, Robert Lowell, Thomas Merton, and many others.
Leary died unmarried in 2005, having converted to Orthodoxy in his retirement, and was buried from the Russian Orthodox Church of St. Aidan and St. Chad in Nottingham.
In Orthodoxy, he took the name Tikhon in honor of St. Tikhon of Moscow, pioneer of Anglican-Orthodox relations in the early 20th century.
Richard J. Mammana is the archivist of the Living Church Foundation and a member of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences.