Evelyn Underhill and the “Rattle of Teacups”

by Deborah Smith Douglas

The man was a high-ranking cleric in the Episcopal Church; he had just led a day of reflection for the parish where I worship. I thanked him for his presentation and, referring to something he had said about the spiritual life, asked him if he were familiar with the works of Evelyn Underhill. He laughed briefly, waved a well-manicured hand dismissively, and said that he had tried to read her, but “couldn’t get beyond the rattle of teacups in the background.” Since the reverend father was drinking a rather good sherry at the time, it might have behooved him not to mock the cliches of genteel Anglicanism, but this irony (which would have delighted Barbara Pym) did not occur to me at the time: I was too astounded by the depth of ignorance and prejudice revealed by his remark.

To my continuing amazement and indignation, this wrong-headed and parochial attitude is more common than I, for many years an admirer of Underhill’s clarity, probity and uncompromising integrity, would have believed possible.1 At the time, all I offered in response to the hand-waving sherry-sipping cleric was the suggestion that actually reading Underhill, instead of making careless assumptions about her, would doubtless change his mind about her value as a guide to the Christian life.

In the first place, as a purely practical matter, Underhill had little choice with regard to the bourgeois circumstances of her upbringing or her married life. She was constrained not only by social convention but by filial duty and a steely sense of Christian obedience to stay faithful and fully present in her roles of wife and daughter. The house in Campden Hill Square was undeniably the center of her world and daily round, which bound her to lunching almost daily with her mother, “going out to tea a terrible lot” as she confessed to a friend, and frequently entertaining for her prosperous solicitor husband.

There are more than occasional glimpses in her letters and diaries that she secretly chafed under the burden of this narrow life, but she did indeed bloom where she was planted: her home was the center of her ministry as well as of her social life, and the circumference of that circle was in fact remarkably broad. Her prodigious professional literary output and speaking schedule, as well as her rigorous spiritual and charitable self-discipline, would put many a high-ranking cleric to shame.

St. Paul would surely have approved her ability to preach the gospel under all circumstances: if God had placed her in Kensington, if the people who sought her guidance were wealthy gentlewomen, then to those gentlewomen she would minister; and she did. She ministered to them with considerable asperity when necessary too; for instance, there is an audible knuckle-rap in her remark to one correspondent: “All the prayer in the world will not get you into a state in which you will always have nice times.”2  Of another she demanded, “Where had your sense of proportion got to, when you thought you had not time for your morning prayers?”3 Another correspondent was firmly reminded, “The object of your salvation is God’s glory, not your happiness.”4 It seems the Kensington ladies were a pretty resilient bunch, accustomed to a director who pulled no punches. I wonder how the derisive sherry-sipping cleric would fare with such an eagle-eyed, tough-minded director?

Whenever the short leash of her life allowed it, Underhill traveled abroad, eagerly and widely, not only making the conventional grand tour of the capitals of Europe, and not only making strong-willed pilgrimage to many holy places in Italy and France, but also enthusiastically doing strenuous hill-walking and glacier-climbing among the Swiss Alps—a more ambitious undertaking than might be thought likely for a mere rattler of teacups.

Underhill also, on the recommendation of her own director, the formidable Baron von Hugel, spent two afternoons a week among the poor of London, visiting and assisting eight indigent families. With characteristic humility she confessed to him that she had been “starving for something of the kind.”5 With characteristic generosity and fidelity, she kept visiting those poor families all her life, until ill health made it physically impossible.

In a final irony, far from being a champion of the cozy or cultivated, Evelyn Underhill was an advocate for “wildness” in the constellation of spiritual values. She politely but clearly took the bluff Christian apologist C.S. Lewis to task for too “tame” a view of redeemed nature, in his chapter on animals in The Problem of Pain. She criticized his view (that only domesticated nature is somehow acceptable to God) as “a bit smug and utilitarian, don’t you think?” She gently suggested to the great man that “perhaps…your concept of God would be improved by just a touch of wildness.”6

The sound in the background here is surely not the ladylike rattle of teacups but the ring of tempered steel on steel in a courteous joust between peers—a gentlemanly bit of combat in which, it might interest the derisive cleric to know, the blow for the large, wild view of God was struck by the lady.

And I stand by that response: I am convinced that anyone who takes the time to read Underhill’s work carefully cannot help but be impressed by her wisdom and strength, a clear-eyed grasp of Christian vocation and identity that far transcends any presumed narrowness of focus or audience, despite the undeniable privilege of her upper-class Kensington circumstances. But as I have pondered the teacup-rattling bias against her, several more points occur to me.

First, I wonder what the derisive gentleman prefers to hear in the background of his spiritual reading: the rattle of sabers? the clash of ignorant nocturnal armies? the roar of the crowd? As someone once pointed out, one can scarcely open the pages of the New Testament without hearing the clatter of dishes, so central to the gospel is the sharing of table fellowship. Is it an unexamined reverse snobbery or a remnant of the muscular Christianity of earlier decades to imply that only workingmen’s beer glasses be allowed as emblems of companionable eating and drinking? No women allowed?

Beyond the implicit objection to Underhill as no more than a gently-bred spiritual advisor to pious Edwardian ladies, lie more troubling depths of misogyny and hypocrisy. There is more than a whiff here of disdain for whatever is perceived to be merely feminine and therefore trivial and insignificant. Furthermore, one detects a scornful pretense that the patronage of wealthy matrons and widows has not been essential to the work of the church since Mary Magdalene and the other women ministered to Jesus and the disciples out of their own means. I suspect that there are more than a few women, generous with their money and time, in the congregations of the Underhill-scorning clergy who would be most interested in the revelation of such an attitude to devout tea-drinking ladies.

However, all these observations simply reflect the prejudices of those who are contemptuous of Evelyn Underhill without troubling to read her, revealing a great deal about themselves without managing to say anything meaningful about her. There remains to consider the simple inaccuracy and injustice of the rattling-teacup charge.

In the last analysis, the heart of the matter is not whether or not Evelyn Underhill presided over tea tables—she unquestionably did. The real gift of her life and witness is the sheer strength of her faith, the remarkable extent to which she radiated the love of God. “Her writings opened a new world,” declared Lucy Menzies, her lifelong friend, and for years the Warden of the Retreat House at Pleshey. “No one else ever made me conscious of God as she did.”7

Another of her friends recalled after Underhill’s death, “It was in October 1937 that I met her first—invited to tea with her in her Campden Hill Square house. She had just had one of her bad illnesses…looking so fragile as though ‘a puff of wind might blow her away’ might be literally true in her case, but light simply streamed from her face illuminated with a radiant smile. One could not but feel…that one was in the presence of the extension of the Mystery of our Lord’s Transfiguration in one of the members of His Mystical Body. It told one not only of herself, but more of God and of the Mystical Body than all her work put together.”8

In the light of that sort of legacy, quibbles about teacups are reduced to a mere heap of broken crockery.


1 See e.g. Dana Greene, referencing U. Holmes, What is Anglicanism? (Morehouse-Barlow, 1982), p. 69, In Evelyn Underhill: Artist of the Infinite Life (Crossroad, 1990), p. 147.

2 The Letters of Evelyn Underhill, ed. with an intro. by Charles Williams (Longmans, Green and Co., 1944), p. 72.

3 Letters, p. 91

4 Letters, p. 96

5 Margaret Cropper, Life of Evelyn Underhill (Harper & Brothers, 1958), p. 88

6 Letters, p. 302

7 Lumsden Barkway. “Lucy Menzies: a Memoir,” in M. Cropper, Life of Evelyn Underhill, p. xvii

8 Quoted by Charles Williams in his introduction to Letters, p. 37