Paul Murray’s top 10 wicked clerics

Murder, rape, incest, blackmail — literary priests just don’t know when to stop. Novelist Paul Murray selects the best of the worst fictional clergymen


The ultimate evil cleric? Russian monk Rasputin.

Former bookseller Paul Murray’s first novel, An Evening of Long Goodbyes, was shortlisted for the Whitbread prize in 2003. The Irish writer has just published his second novel, Skippy Dies, the story of death and a doughnut-eating competition at a Dublin Catholic boarding school where French teacher Father Green (known as Père Vert) holds sway.

1. Archbishop Roger degli Ubaldini in Dante’s Inferno

Dante finds the archbishop in the ice of Lake of Cocytus — the innermost circle of hell, reserved for traitors. Frozen beside him, apparently eating his head, is Count Ugolin della Gherardesca, who pauses from his meal to tell the pilgrim how he formed an alliance with the archbishop to get rid of his grandson, Nino, head of a rival Guelf party in Pisa. After Nino was driven out, the archbishop turned on Ugolin and imprisoned him and his four sons and grandsons in a tower. The gate was nailed shut: Ugolin describes watching the children starve to death. Now the count and archbishop are locked together in the ice, and Ugolin feasts perpetually on Roger’s head and brain.

2. Friar Hubert in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales

Devoted to the principles of Francis of Assisi, the friars, who arrived in England in 1221, lived without possessions, travelling the country teaching, preaching and begging. Their graphic depictions of hell proved very effective in separating the laity from their cash, to the fury of the established church, who also accused them of being lenient in confession with criminal types, again for their own financial gain. Hubert is a kind of summary of the common gripes about supposed mendicants who rode fine horses and looked suspiciously well fed; friars also come off badly in The Summoner’s Tale and The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale, leading some critics to suggest that Chaucer must have had a personal run-in.

3. Tartuffe in Tartuffe by Molière

Probably the most famous hypocrite in literature, Tartuffe is an impoverished conman who wangles his way into the home of the well-to-do Orgon. Bewitched by Tartuffe’s ersatz religiosity, Orgon arranges for him to marry his daughter; Tartuffe meanwhile is doing his best to seduce Orgon’s wife. The play scandalised the church fathers, and was banned before Molière had even finished writing it following a performance of three acts at Versailles in 1664. When it reappeared disguised as L’Imposteur three years later, the archbishop threatened anyone who so much as read the play with immediate excommunication.

4. Abbot Ambrosio in The Monk by Matthew Lewis

Written in ten weeks largely to support his mother, who was in dire financial straits after running off with a music teacher, Lewis’s Monk gleefully details the downward spiral of the initially upright Abbot Ambrosio into lust, Faustian pacts, rape (of his sister) and murder (of his mother). This most gothic of all gothic novels also features a vengeful mother superior and a ghostly bleeding nun. First published anonymously, on the second edition Lewis, then an MP, included his name: Coleridge was only one of many who was scandalised to see that “the author of The Monk signs himself — a legislator!”

5. William Collins in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Mr Collins is one of Austen’s most brilliant creations, and his proposal to Elizabeth Bennet is a comic tour de force. After setting out his reasons — good example to his flock; vague sense of altruism; really though because his patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, has told him to — he assures Elizabeth of the violence of his affections. When she refuses him, he refuses, in turn, to believe her, pointing out that this is probably the only chance she will get. Two days later, he proposes to, and is accepted by, her more calculating friend Charlotte.

6. Reverend Edward Casaubon in Middlemarch by George Eliot

The character of Casaubon surely strikes a chord, whether of fear or sympathy, in many writers and academics. A sere, remote clergyman, he has spent his life lost in research for his impossible Key to All Mythologies. At first he appears merely aloof and alienated; after marrying Dorothea, he reveals a more venomous side. He forbids her to see his young cousin, Ladislaw, and threatens to disinherit her should she ever marry him; then he tries to compel her to finish his great work in the event of his death — which follows a few pages later. A blackly humorous portrait of a wasted life.

7. The Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

This “unwritten poem”, which nihilistic Ivan Karamazov relates to his saintly brother Alyosha, is set in 16th-century Seville at the height of the Inquisition. Christ has made a brief reappearance to boost the flagging faith of his people. Witnessing him resurrect a little girl, the Grand Inquisitor has him arrested, and that night in his cell reveals that the church has long abandoned his teachings. Christ’s insistence on man’s freedom led to moral and social chaos, the Inquisitor argues. Man is weak; freedom makes him unhappy; he not only needs but actively wants to be ruled by force, and the church has made a pact with the devil to do just that. Dostoevsky’s depiction of the totalitarian state in which the oppressed people effectively collude proved chillingly prophetic.

8. The preacher in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

At a supposed spiritual retreat, an unnamed preacher subjects the boys of Belvedere College to a 15-page description of the tortures of hell. The walls “four thousand miles thick”, the rivers of effluent, the agonising flames and the terrifying image of eternity send Stephen Dedalus first into a fantasy of his own death and torment, and then into a prolonged period of unbearable religious zeal. The original of this supremely creepy preacher was one Father James Cullen, of whom Joyce’s schoolmate said, “he had a distinct trace of sadism … He found it humorous to shake hands with young boys and then squeeze their hands until they yelled with pain.”

9. The Bad Priest in V by Thomas Pynchon

In war-torn Valletta, poet Fausto Maijstral first encounters the Bad Priest when he tries to persuade Fausto’s lover to get rid of their child. Loaded with guilt and shame, Elena only escapes through a chance meeting with a good priest, Father Avalanche. During “the Day of Thirteen Raids”, when the Luftwaffe repeatedly bomb the city, Fausto witnesses the Bad Priest trapped under a beam: stripped and tortured by local children, the priest is revealed to be a woman — none other than the final incarnation of V, the mysterious, shape-shifting, demonical-mechanical take on the eternal feminine which dances in and out of Pynchon’s mesmeric first novel.

10. Brother Leon in The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier

Set in an American high school and revolving around a charity chocolate sale, Cormier’s outstanding novel explores the coercive forces which underlie the education system. At its heart is Brother Leon. Outwardly placid, the assistant principal is a power-obsessed sadist without a single saving grace. An expert at finding the boys’ weak spots, he exploits them mercilessly and teaches his young disciples to do the same. By the end of the book, one boy is dead and the school is a moral ruin — with Leon proudly installed at the top.


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