In one of those gorgeous verbal doodles with which he filled the pages of his absorbing (and at the time quite illegal) wartime journal, Hugh Trevor-Roper tells us that he likes

Listening to solemn music, the stately and serene music of Handel; and walking, in May, through woods planted by 18th century dukes; and drinking fragrant morning-tea in bed, reading learned and elegant and worldly biographies about learned and elegant and worldly bishops.

Does this not all sound very agreeable? Even today it is possible to breathe the varied atmosphere of that age in its literature, and what refreshing air it is: the greatest practitioners of the novel, from Defoe, who invented the genre, to Richardson, who perfected it, Fielding, Sterne, the various Gothic scribblers; in verse, Pope, Gray and the early Romantics; in prose, Addison and Steele and of course Gibbon, who produced the most readable history ever written in ours or any language.

There is much less to be said on behalf of 18th-century English religion, genial as it no doubt seemed to Trevor-Roper, who excoriated poor Archbishop Laud in a deliciously mean-spirited biography and once described himself as “Anglican, not Christian”. In those carefree days baptisms, which tended to be administered en masse and not infrequently without water, were often invalid. A parson who was keen on angling might keep his bait in the font; an ill-prepared curate, in the midst of celebrating the Prayer Book service, could be heard to ask whether any of the gentlemen in attendance happened to have a corkscrew about them.

It is difficult to see how anyone could have ever believed that the Rev Mr Roger Thwackum, in Fielding’s Tom Jones, was a sacrificing priest of the New Testament; certainly the man himself would very much have resented the suggestion.

This is not to suggest that English Catholic piety died out with the Non-Jurors. In 1729 William Law published his devotional masterpiece A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life. At Oxford the spirit of the great 17th-century Anglican divines was kept alive after a fashion by bibulous dons who taught little and wrote less but drank toasts to the King Over the Water. Wesley told friends that he found the place filled with “the skulls of Jacobites”. Only a few decades before Newman arrived at Oriel it was possible to hear sermons on the sacrament of Confession preached at the university. It was in this atmosphere that the young Gibbon realised there could be no middle ground between atheism and the Church; he did not practise his faith for very long before his father forced him into lifelong apostasy, but sub specie aeterni the author of the Decline and Fall is every bit as much a Catholic writer as Rabelais.

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