Thursday, August 24, 2017

“Sidney Chambers and the Persistence of Love” by James Runcie

The Masterpiece Theater Facebook page had a rather spirited (and occasionally mean-spirited) discussion about the “Grantchester” television series. Season 3 has taken a sharp turn toward the characters’ personal problems and angst – the police Inspector Geordie Keating has an affair with a secretary at the police station and the reverend Sidney Chambers is having growing difficulties reconciling his church position with his love for Amanda Richmond; Amanda is divorced and in the 1950s Church of England clergy could not marry divorcees and remain clergy.

The Facebook discussion quickly became a cultural debate, and how many British television shows with historical themes and narratives tend to impose the cultural values of the 2010s. We’ve seen it with “Grantchester” and with “Call the Midwife.” What happens is that the story line becomes almost promotional for contemporary cultural views, and we quickly get into politics and the culture wars.

My own observation in the discussion was that the Sidney Chambers books by author, filmmaker, and playwright James Runcie are nothing like what the television series has become. They move forward in time, they do a much better job of sticking to the cultural, social, and religious values of the period, and they are far more about Sidney Chambers and his spiritual reflections and growth, including his wrestling with doubt. In the books, Sidney does not have a love affair with Amanda, and Geordie is not unfaithful to his wife. For myself, the television series has become far less compelling than the books.

The sixth book has recently been published, and it continues in the same vein and narrative as its predecessors. Sidney Chambers and the Persistence of Love is comprised of six separate but connected stories, covering the first half of the 1970s. Sidney is the canon at Ely Cathedral (although Geordie remains a detective inspector in Grantchester) and he’s still finding himself pulled into mysteries.

In “The Bluebell Wood,” Sidney and his daughter Anna are walking in the woods, collecting flowers for Anna’s science project, when they find a body of a man among the bluebells. The death might be natural causes, or it might not. In “Authenticity,” Sidney almost forgets his tenth wedding anniversary. He has lunch with his friend Amanda (long divorced) and learns she may have discovered an unknown Goya, which is being put up for auction at an estate sales. But Amanda’s interest in the painting is skirting the boundaries of legality.

James Runcie
In “Insufficient Evidence,” Sidney’s and Geordie’s reporter friend Helena Mitchell, now married to the vicar at Grantchester (Sidney’s former position) is charging her photographer with rape. And it’s going to become an ugly trial. A valuable old book is stolen from a Cambridge college library in “Ex Libris,” and Sidney had to figure out not only who stole it but how it was stolen.

Sidney experiences a family crisis is “The Long Hot Summer,” when his nephew disappears. And in the final (and title) story of the collection, “The Persistence of Love,” Sidney faces an unexpected personal crisis – and it is a crisis that’s unexpected for the reader as well.

Sidney Chambers and the Persistence of Love is up to the mark of the previous books in the series. Runcie is able to evoke the spirit of the period by citing various current news events and often blending them into the stories. He’s demonstrating that a story set in recent history can be interesting and engaging without imposing contemporary cultural values on it.


Top photograph: The nave of Ely Cathedral, where Sidney Chambers serves as canon.

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