At the time of the Restoration, the opening of a locked chest in a remote hovel in Westmorland by a young woman reveals the unexpected life story of her recently-deceased father, a man she has barely known thanks to his self-imposed silence…
In 1615, after the death of his own parents and against the lingering backdrop of the witchcraft trials which have torn through his village, a young man, Matthew, finds himself manual labouring in Blackburn when he overhears a man with a dark mantle (later revealed to be Peter Shaw) speak of a minister bearing the same surname as him, over the border in Yorkshire. Seeing himself as having little to lose, Matthew goes in search of Minister Brierley and finds his abilities in Latin to be to his advantage in gaining some semblance of permanent employment as his informal assistant.
But Brierley turns out to be no ordinary Puritan Non-Conformist. Instead, he is the propagator of a Spiritist interpretation of Protestantism rooted in illicit Continental texts which, potentially with Matthew’s aid, he is set upon translating into English. He divulges a whole new history of faith to Matthew drawn from his understanding of Continental heretics.
However, even in the backwaters of the Pennine foothills, the ‘darkest corner of England’, Brierley cannot stay out of the prying gaze of the authorities for long. He has made enemies amongst the godly by emptying their churches and chapels and, within the cycle of a year from Matthew’s arrival in Grindleton, he finds himself at the centre of a drawn-out High Commission investigation in York, defining the boundary between Calvinist heterodoxy and outright heresy.
Meanwhile, with his raison d’être for being in Grindleton at least on hold, Matthew passes his time with the curate’s young wife, helping with mundane chores but also locked into a highly personalised isolation with her, witnessing her unwavering loyalty to Brierley but also quietly exposing both her fears and her contradictions.
After a year-long High Commission investigation, all fifty charges levelled against Brierley are dropped and he is restored to his old curacy. But he also knows that he must now play things differently, adopting a more strategic approach: patching up previous disputes with the mainstream godly, attending Puritan Exercises and passing off former differences as mere misunderstandings. It is a strategy which seems broadly successful. But in 1623 Grindleton is hit by the famine which swept across the Northwest in that year. It proves too much for Brierley. He and Matthew take psychological refuge in the relative security of the Brierley’s farm at Marland, Rochdale. When the curate gains new employment at Kildwick courtesy of one of his wealthier followers, Matthew stays on the farm. But one day, Brierley’s younger brother, Abel, reveals an ugly truth about the family’s past and Matthew seeks out other opportunities…
Utilising his connection with the never wholly trusted Shaw, he heads to the capital via a library situated on the empty Fenlands of Eastern England; a repository of Familist texts. In London he helps to foment a network of barely differentiated Familist and Antinomian sects, nominally as part of Shaw’s fanatical theological positions but almost equally as a servant to the latter’s thinly-veiled egocentrism. The more traditional godly forge a new alliance with the mainstream of the Church in order to focus on the errors of the Network and distract from the potential identification of doctrinal error in their own preaching. Whilst Shaw has reliable followers in the City, for truly untrammelled deception he makes best use of the naïve Matthew.
In spite of some promising opportunities, contact with a host of radical preachers and even a failed attempt to re-engage Brierley in a translation, Matthew’s thirteen years in London yield him minimal satisfaction. His journey to Burnley, Brierley’s last abode, reveals how far the two of them have drifted apart. Back in the capital Matthew befriends a young cutler’s apprentice: Giles Creech. When a series of raids take place – driven by the Archbishop of Canterbury’s obsession with Dr John Everard, Matthew’s younger friend decides to inform on his former colleagues – to Matthew’s initial horror. But, in the process, Matthew discovers that Brierley is dead – a fact which has been kept deliberately from him. He goes to Lambeth Hall Palace himself to meet with Sir John Lamb and subsequently returns to the North.
There he finds that Brierley’s descent into conformity and apostasy had not followed quite the course he had imputed. He finds himself trying to answer key questions regarding how much Brierley really compromised and how much longer he had continued to labour on translations that had actually been enlightening radical London.
Against a backdrop of an England irreversibly sliding towards the chaos of outright civil war, Brierley’s final letter to Matthew reveals one false assumption after another on the latter’s part. At the same time, Matthew unwittingly begins a new path with Brierley’s former maidservant towards the silent raising of their daughter in a remote corner of Westmorland. But only the combination of Janet, the maidservant, and a vagrant prophet in his dying moments can reveal the life course of the arch-sectary Shaw following his departure from London. And the old Millennial forecasts of the End of Time buried within a Familist text from the London sectarians are about to prove far from completely incorrect as the long-predicted year wipes all trace of the Network itself from the capital.
‘A Certain Measure of Perfection’ is constructed around genuine historical characters, including the minister himself, Roger Brierley – a man forgotten by history but one whose abilities went far beyond his rather unexceptional education. Working from an obscure Northern backwater and aided only by candle and condenser, miles from the centres of ecclesiastical power and learning, he completed one of the most extraordinary translations of the century, bringing the dreaded ‘Teutonic theology’ alive in the English language and sending a ‘movement of the Spirit’ not only across the hills of the North but subsequently also through the tightly cramped, jettied-building streets of the City of London.