Sabine Baring-Gould

  Jerome Shea       May 19, 2007      Weekend Wonk

What? You’ve never heard of Sabine Baring-Gould? Dear me. A Google search will turn up a dozen pages of citations (no, really). There is a Sabine Baring-Gould Appreciation Society (small but determined). He wrote more histories, novels, tracts, sermons, essays, and whatnot—especially whatnot—than a half-dozen lesser men could have hoped to.

Dear me, it’s time you were enlightened.

I first turned up “S. Baring-Gould” (as he styled himself) while browsing aimlessly in the University of New Mexico library, and was immediately hooked. Before I go further, let me credit not only the Google materials (and Wikipedia, etc.) but also the only biography of which I am aware, William E. Purcell’s Onward Christian Soldier (1957, and, yes, we have Baring-Gould to thank for that rousing hymn as well as “Now the Day is Dying” and a couple of other standards). Where to begin?

Sabine Baring-Gould was born in 1834, the eldest child of Edward Baring-Gould and Sophia Charlotte (Bond) Baring-Gould. Edward had been invalided out of the cavalry after dislocating his hip in a driving accident. An irascible man, easily bored in the best times, he early on moved the family to the continent, which is where young Sabine spent his formative years, roving the countryside with the family in a well outfitted wagon. (Think of it as a nineteenth century RV; I immediately think of the Gypsy wagon that so besots Toad in Wind in the Willows.) An unconventional childhood, surely, but one which engendered many lifelong passions, including antiquities, archeology, and folklore.

He matriculated at Cambridge (B.A. 1857, M.A. 1860), was ordained in the Church of England in 1864, and went to “the unpromising mill town of Horbury, near Wakefield.” This was no genteel “living,” no sinecure. Baring-Gould was a man who genuinely wanted to do good. He worked hard ministering to these humble folk, and surely they took to him. It was here that he met his future wife, Grace Taylor, a mill girl of 16. She was of a desperately poor family, and illiterate. This mismatch Sabine remedied in Pygmalion fashion, sending Grace away for two years to be educated and “taught the manners of polite society.” They were married for 48 years and she bore him 15 children. It is hard to compass the scale of his bereavement when she preceded him in death. He would die in 1924, days shy of his ninetieth birthday.

Eventually he became the “squarson,” a handy portmanteau for “squire” and “parson,” of the family manse at Lew Trenchard in Devon. There he lived out his long life, ministering to his parishioners, restoring the church and manor house, exploring the moors, collecting folklore from the natives, and writing, writing, writing. He was not only the consummate Victorian—energetic, confident, optimistic, moral without being moralistic—but he was also a passionate amateur, interested in everything. His detractors—and there were many–accused him of sloppy research and of often simply making stuff up. He ignored them and went on writing. He never did get the acclaim that so much work should have brought him, critics or no. That didn’t seem to have bothered him either.

An ardent Anglo-Catholic, he wrote a multivolume Lives of the Saints. By my own measure it spans almost two and a half feet in the UNM library. One senses his delight as he edifies us with accounts of St. Frideswide, St. Felix of Tubzacene, and Sts. Gwynoc and Aneurin. Clearly these accounts must straddle true history and folklore, but he makes no distinction. In Strange Survivals is a chapter on “Beds,” specifically the “four-post bed,” which is for some reason an object of disdain in his time. Off he goes on a disquisition on the Scandinavian origin of the four-post bed. That leads him to a discussion of Scandinavian architecture, which leads him—naturally, he must have thought—to the tragic story of the brothers Thorkel and Gisli in tenth century Iceland, which naturally leads him…. On and on he goes. He is roaming the moors of the mind, larking about with happy abandon. Two volumes come to hand which are typical: Legends of the Patriarchs and Prophets and Curious Myths of the Middle Ages, the latter of which will tell you all about Pope Joan, the seven sleepers of Ephesus, St. Ursula and the eleven thousand virgins, and other fascinating, cobwebby characters. As a novelist, his prose could turn dangerously purple. Swinburne felt that his novel Mehalah was every bit as good as Wuthering Heights. Even his detractors admitted that his potboilers were hard to put down.

He was a type, surely: the absentminded but kindly parson who can be easily parodied. One famous anecdote has him at a large birthday party at the vicarage. Children are running all about and he scoops one up and booms out, “And whose little girl are you?” Her little face crumples. “I’m YOURS, Daddy!” she wails.

To read Sabine Baring-Gould—and I urge you all to get started soon!—is to experience the envelopment of a place and the light of another day. Perhaps a better day than ours.

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