Deaconess Theodora Braithwaite (in her thirties) is the creation of Dr D(iane) M Greenwood, who described herself as "a low level ecclesiastical civil servant". Coming originally from Norfolk in England, she took a first degree in classics at Oxford, then, as a mature student, a second degree in theology at London University. She taught at various schools before working for the diocese of Rochester. She was described by an ex-pupil as "a classics teacher of terrifying erudition and eccentricity". She retired as diocesan director of education for the diocese of Rochester in 2004. She published nine Theodora Braithwaite novels between 1991 and 1999. She was last heard of living in Greenwich with her lurcher bitch.
Greenwood's ecclesiastical experience is apparent in her use of church settings, and this is what makes them so interesting and hard-hitting. Her stories, she said, were "initially triggered by anger" and she takes as her theme the "tension between what the clergy say and what they actually do." She described her mysteries as "the humour of social comedy" and said she saw "no reason at all to bore the pants off people". This she certainly doesn't do.
Clerical Errors (1991)
Her first book, Clerical Errors, though, isn't one of her best. She seems to be still finding her way, and Deaconess Theodora Braithwaite, although she eventually solves the problem of two improbable murders at Medewich Cathedral, doesn't really play the major part, which is taken by Julia Smith, a young woman who has just joined the cathedral staff. She isn't a particulary interesting character and does not reappear in later books. The author's comments about the church too are rather more restrained than later on too, although she well describes a "general atmosphere of corruption and decay". But there's not much excitement in the story-telling.
Unholy Ghosts (1991)
Unholy Ghosts tells how the Rev. Hereward Marr's body is discovered in a pit and how his wife disappears.The Bishop asks Theodora, who is enjoying a break in Norfolk from her duties in a London inner-city parish, to look into the case. This is the Bishop who'd "been on a management course from which he had returned to speak of God as 'the perfect chairman of our meetings'. 'The New Testament teaches us,' he had told a disbelieving congregation, 'that Jesus was an administrator.' It was this willingness, free from any sense of banality, to dress traditional teaching in modern cliche, which had won him his bishopric." You can't help feeling that the author is writing out of bitter personal experience.
Theodora was able to form no clear picture of how the Rev Marr had died. 'You mean he fell into a pit which he had himself dug which was connected with the building's central heating system?' She tried to keep the incredulity out of her tone. The Archdeacon nodded unhappily. It was untidy. It was undignified. It was un-Anglican. It would undoubtedly lead to a lot of administrative activity. It was all he most hated." The author is at her best when dealing with such church dignitaries.
Idol Bones (1993)
In Idol Bones, the head of the Roman god Janus is found in a cathedral close - and near it the body of a disliked clergyman. The cathedral close setting (that the author knew so well) and the characters of the accompanying clergy are, as always, very well caught: the new Dean "did not care for the poor. They and their houses smelt. He did not like their children; their directness, his inability to impress them frightened him. He liked well-dressed, prosperous adults with southern vowels. That was what he had joined the church for, to mix with nice people". Then there was the Bishop: "His ability not merely to look helpless but actually to be so, had stood him in good stead all his professional life. The good willed, especially amongst the laity, flocked to help him. He had no pride, no shame. He knew (and the more sophisticated of his rescuers knew) that he did them a kindness in allowing them scope for their charity".
There is affection too, mixed in with the bitterness. Mrs Perfect, one of the office staff, recognised that "The cathedral clergy themselves were mostly disorganised, peremptory and ... poor spellers. What kept her in her place, she had to admit, was pity. She felt a surge of protectiveness whenever one or other of them displayed their failings. If she could, she'd have liked to take them back home with her, enclose them in proper family affection, and send them out again into the world new made over, to do better. Failing that, she corrected their spelling and syntax and was unfailingly kind to them all." All this rings true and makes this one of Greenwood's best novels, even if some of the other characters (especially the police) and the murderer's motivation are rather less convincing.
Holy Terrors (1994)
In Holy Terrors, we escape from the church settings to St Veeps Girls' School (Greenwood herself had taught at St Pauls Girls' School) and a South London comprehensive of which the head teacher, Mr L. Springer B.Ed, had "worked hard at the image. Clothes, language, demeanour - which he called 'body language' - nothing was accidental. He'd started his professional life fifteen years earlier in flannels and tweed jacket. Now his grey polo, black denims and white trainers equipped him for the corridors of this sort of power ... Always alert to social change, never less than professional in his responses, he'd gone on a course and emerged an expert. He'd learnt the jargon and told his secretary to rename the ethnic minorities file 'multi-cultural'." But when one of his pupils is killed, and a girl from St Veeps is kidnapped, Theodora and the priest for whom she works are together able to solve the Cyprus-based mysteries. Theodara's own faith stands firm: "We're here to show people what God is like, where He can be found, what a life lived from and towards Him should be, can be".
Every Deadly Sin (1995)
Every Deadly Sin sees Theodora at an Anglican place of pilgrimage, a centre for retreat and spirital learning, where guilty secrets about the past, and a murderer, soon emerge. She is still a deacon: "There's very little that I can do that needs to be done, that can't be done as a deacon. The priest thing seems rather too closely connected with wanting power. Best left, I've come to feel." There's a strong story here, told with affection and humour and enlivened, as usual, by the author's acid portraits of some of the senior clergy, such as the suffragan bishop who has risen in the church "partly by a judicious amount of boasting (high profiling, as he put it), partly by catching a doting old bishop's eye. The Bishop had been looking for a son that week and Francis had looked real son material ...He talked of great events as though he had formed them and great men as though he knew them intimately. Few, after all, could check. It was amazing how far this could get you in the Church of England, ever ready to be impressed by the world. He'd a friend or two in the media, he'd told the old bishop. That had clinched it."
Mortal Spoils (1996)
Mortal Spoils takes us to "Ecclesia Place", the political centre of the Anglican Church and the odd clergy who man it (there are no women above the rank of secretary). One of the most fearsome is Canon Clutch always aware that "the clergy were quite, quite different from laymen, above them in authority, better in quality, superior in status". Theodora ("the product of eight generations of Anglican priests") was not impressed: "She had seen enough senior clergy ... to know that they were men whose talents entitled them to be humble." The unlikely plot involving the death of a visiting orthodox clergymen is not too convincing, but the descriptions of "Ecclesia Place" itself (Church House?) and its functionaries are really amusing to read.
Heavenly Vices (1997)
In Heavenly Vices, Theodora goes off to Gracemount Theological College to research the life of Thomas Henry Newcome, the Victorian divine, who founded the college, and whose life she is writing, but she finds herself obliged to investigate the recent death of the Warden before she is allowed access to the papers she needs to see. But it is really not the plot that matters, so much as the portraits of the various clerics and students involved, about many of whom she writes with real compassion and understanding.
About the whole training process she has her doubts: "Training priests by secluding them from the world for two or three years and making them read a lot was an expensive and perhaps not very efficient way of forming them for life in the parishes ... perhaps something more practical, more orientated to the hardness of the world was needed now." There are the usual swipes at how church preferments are made. It appears that the late Warden had been preparing to blackmail the church into granting him a bishopric by revealing scandals among the senior clergy: "But bishoprics aren't come by like that," protested Theodora.
"Yes, they are," said Richeldes (the Warden's widow).
Theodora "knew she was right. That was what the Church of England's appointment system, secretive and unaccountable, had become."
A Grave Disturbance (1998)
A Grave Disturbance is an involved story about land ownership, the restoration of possibly the ugliest cathedral in Britain and a workman who falls to his death. It all begins to get slightly tedious, especially as the emphasis seemed to be more on Lionel Comfit, an Assistant (Lay) Diocesan Secretary, about to retire, than on Theodora herself. Mind you, Comfit feels free to really let himself go about the clergy: "Arrogance I thought I knew, but not the strutting vanity of the bog stupid which passes for management in the Church of England". As for the Chapter of the cathedral: "None of them had to apply for their jobs, none of them has to demonstrate that they have any relevant skills for them, and it's no-one's business to see that they do anything at all ... The senior cathedral clergy live in a world of their own quite untouched by reality. When they get up on their hind legs and tell governments how to govern and local authorities how to administrate they can do so totally untainted by knowledge or experience of any kind".
There's even a mention of "the old boot who ran the diocesan education department, a woman of advanced years not known for falling in with the wishes of others." Could this be the author referring to herself? Incidentally, there have been significant changes in the Anglican church since the period described in this book, and cathedral chapters, for example, are no longer unaccountable to anybody.
Foolish Ways (1999)
Foolish Ways is set at a diocesan conference being held at the less than luxurious Bolly's Jolly Holiday Home where the body of one of the participants is found stuffed into a washing machine. Greenwood's understanding of the clerical background is as sharp as ever: the Bishop's new Communications Officer "did all the work and took all the blame. That, he was learning, was what chaplains were for. If there was any success, the Bishop would step in and take the glory". There was also the Youth Chaplain: "He wore no clerical collar, though he was a cleric. He was dressed in the height of youth fashion, his hair shaved to SAS shortness, his trousers of a kind of polished black leather which reflected the light, and a pink T-shirt which said 'Jesus Loves Me'.... He was thirty-four but had worked at being younger than his age for a decade."
Then there is Bishop himself: "If the man and woman in the street don't understand us, we'll just have to change our tune until we find one that we can all sing together." Theodora "thought that was a very good summary of what was wrong with the upper echolons of the Church of England". His funniest moment comes when he is delivering his opening address with the aid of an overhead projector, which is loaded up with the wrong illustrations: 'This is where we are,' he said sternly. His audience gazed at a coloured slide of an opulent bed on which a lady and gentleman were showing more than mere affection for each other. The chaplain could be heard coughing heavily and attempting to attract his master's attention.The Bishop was not to be diverted ... 'We need to be a lot more self aware, and do a lot better then this ... ' "
There are those, though, whom the author really respects, such as some of the wiser clergy, and two old missionaries: "He was eighty-two, she eighty-one. Together they had half a century's experience in the mission field of West Africa, he a doctor, she a nurse ... They had supported each other and cared for large numbers of others, helping to alleviate the many sorts of suffering caused by men and the rather smaller number caused by nature." And she describes the man she was curate to as "a sane and hard-working inner city priest". And even Joshua the Jester, a clergyman who dresses and acts as a clown (there really was one of these) in an attempt to mirror back truths that the Church might otherwise forget, seems to earn her approval. It's a pity he had to end up in that washing machine.
I'm sorry this was Greenwood's last book. In it she seems to write with even more affection and rather less acid than before. She tells me that she thought she had said all that she had to say, "so best cease on a high!" A pity, as it would have been interesting to hear what she made of the changes in the church that have taken place since her time. I can only suspect that she might not have found them all that significant.
There is a list of D M Greenwood's novels (with publication dates) on the Fantastic fiction site, but very few references to her elsewhere on the web.
Some of the books have recently been reprinted by Ostara Press in the UK.
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