“Dear Mr Merry! To support us all, so that people think it is Nicholas!”

Pastors and Masters has continued to prove difficult to write about. Usually when that happens I come up with some strategy for attack. Attack! Break it down, pull it apart, expose all the works inside, say something. I managed only the tinest bit of that in my post on its style.

Part of what stymies me is how much that style makes the novella about its characters. The characters are all excellent—utterly unusual and lifelike. But again, back to the style, the only way to really talk about them is by telling you nearly everything they say. I’m sure you have a picture of Mr Merry at this point; there is more, yes, but there’s not much more I can tell you without simply quoting the rest of his lines.

So in my reluctance to leave such a brilliant work with the mediocre one-post treatment, I will get to the other subject that interests me right now: work in Pastors and Masters. It turned out to be quite relevant to The Project.

The boys’ school is run by Nicholas Herrick, a seventy-year-old bachelor who has a degree and supports his 20-odd-years-younger sister, bachelorette Emily. He does so by running the school—but as I mentioned, all he does for the school is to read morning prayers to the boys.

He does one other extremely important thing: he holds a degree, and when it’s prize-giving day and the parents come, he gets to wear his academic gown. Mr Merry, the real schoolmaster, does not have this privilege, but he has something else. This something is continually alluded to by the Herricks and their friends, Mssrs Masson and Bumpus, fellow degree-holders who have remained in academia. But “[t]he quality of Mr Merry’s that gained him his bread was never alluded to between them.” What is it?

He knows how to reassure the parents—especially the mothers. One evening he does so, after one has arrived to meet with Mr Herrick. Herrick leaves the woman with Merry and goes back to his rooms, which he shares with his sister.

‘This is a good room to come back to,’ said Herrick. ‘That hall and the woman, and poor Merry shuffling up to do his duty! It made me shiver.’

‘The sight of duty does make one shiver,’ said Miss Herrick. ‘The actual doing of it would kill one, I think.’

‘Merry knows what the duty is,’ said Herrick. ‘For my life, I don’t.’

‘One couldn’t know what that duty was,’ said Miss Herrick. ‘It could only be felt, and perhaps you have too good a brain to do things in that way.’

‘Let us leave it at that,’ said Herrick.

But she doesn’t.

‘To think that you made the school!’ said Emily. ‘For it was you who made it. But of course you would do the creative part.’

‘Yes, yes. And I could go on with it,’ said Herrick.

‘Of course you could,’ said Emily. ‘Wouldn’t it be dreadful if you had to? Or if you did? It is almost dreadful that you could.’

Duty is a dreadful thing, a thing for ordinary people. It is a thing that the Herrick’s don’t understand—as Emily says, one must feel something, and feeling can’t be forced. Much later, at a dinner party, Emily says that “It must be so dreadful to be a servant…and do the important work of the world. That sort of work, so ill paid and degrading.” The only work done in her circle is done by the likes of Masson and Bumpus: research and writing, if that. Or perhaps by the local clergyman, giving sermons every week. But a servant? “Fancy having to be of nice appearance, and quick and willing and trustworthy, and not wear spectacles waiting at table, as if one’s sight would alter then!” Emily says. “It must be very bad to be all that, or anything except the first.”

Needless to say, these are not very nice people, but they are largely honest. And the Herrick’s definitely feel an uncomfortable indebtedness to Merry, well aware as they are that they could not, in fact, run the school without him. At the end, Herrick even admits to “almost envy[ing]” him, because his own life is coming to a close with very little to show for it in terms of work—the book he was working on throughout Pastors and Masters is never to be finished or published, and that is the end of any “career” Herrick might have had.

But Emily’s biting tongue is quick to put that notion to bed. “You should not talk about ‘almost envying’ Mr Merry, as if he belonged to people like that,” she says, quickly interjecting all the social distance possible between the two men. Merry is, certainly, not a contented man, either withs his job or his life. Neither is Herrick. But Herrick can see, by the end, that Merry has done something he has not—even if it is something he did not really want to do, it is also something he knows he was incapable of doing. But Herrick is “extraordinary,” and Merry is “ordinary,” and that is that.

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