A few days in Sussex gave us the opportunity of walking to Lavington Church to visit Caroline (nee) Sargent's grave. I hadn't been there since the mid-1950s, and we had trouble rediscovering it ... you know how hard inscriptions can be to read when lichen has superimposed its own arabesques upon the lettering. Eventually we found it, under a shady wall, right under the steep and sunless wooded North incline of the Downs. I had to kneel down to trace the inscription with my fingers, my knees crunching in the beechmast. Her husband is not buried beside her.
They were married in 1833 in the nearby church by her brother-in-law Soapy Sam, later bishop of Oxford and then of Winchester, who was to earn eternal detestation among prim and humourless people by getting a cheap laugh at Darwin's expense. Four years later, childless, she died of consumption. Had she lived, might she have been the wife of an Archbishop of Canterbury? I have lost count of the number of bishops, not to mention the mere parsons, in her family connections.
Her husband succeeded her father, whose curate he had been, as Rector of Lavington and Graffham. He left behind him diverting accounts of his peasant parishioners, in which the summaries, if critical, ex. gr. 'addictus inebrietati', 'familia malo et ignaviae addicta', are in Latin or Greek. "The morning and evening prayers and the music of the English Bible for 17 years became part of my soul. If there were no eternal world, I could have made it my home".
A friend described his deathbed, nearly sixty years after the marriage: "I was by his bedside; he looked around to see that we were alone: he fumbled under his pillow for something; he drew out a battered little pocket-book full of a woman's fine handwriting. He said 'For years you have been a son to me, Henry; I know not to whom else to leave this - I leave it to you. In this little book my dearest wife wrote her prayers and meditations. Not a day has passed since her death, on which I have not prayed and meditated from this book. All the good I may have done, all the good I may have been, I owe to her. Take precious care of it'. He ceased speaking and soon afterwards unconsciousness came on".
You will remember the edifying accounts of how, when the body of S Thomas More was prepared for burial, under his outer finery was discovered a hair shirt. But on this occasion what they found on this corpse was a small locket, containing the portrait of his 'dearest wife' Caroline.
I hope they had the decency to leave that locket where they found it, round his neck, beneath the pallium. I like to feel, as I approach the Byzantine edifice to which they moved his body, that, under all the haughty marble assertion, beneath the dangling red hat, there lies a tiny picture of the very devout and pretty girl who was the daughter of a squarson and the wife of his curate and who lies in spe beatae resurrectionis under the beechmast in Lavington churchyard.