Scholar who chronicled the history of Christanity and was le Carré’s model for George Smiley
The Reverend Vivian Green, the former sub-Rector of Lincoln College, Oxford, who died on January 18 aged 89, was best known as an ecclesiastical historian but also wrote authoritatively on subjects as diverse as the Hanoverians, the Swiss Alps and the history of Oxford colleges; in 1995 he was unmasked as the man on whom John le Carré based his fictional spymaster George Smiley.
Very much the archetypal bachelor don, except for his habit in younger days of striding round Oxford in leather trousers, Green treated theological themes with warmth and humanity, and greatly relished what he called “faction and dispute”. Critics, though, sometimes regretted that his tendency to concentrate on the external aspects of faith led him occasionally to neglect the spiritual appeal of Christianity.
Green was always erudite, readable and scholarly, but was not the sort to espouse radical new theories or seek notoriety. His insights and discoveries were incremental, and he always acknowledged his debt to his predecessors. In a field strewn with denominational mines and partisanship, no one ever accused him of bias.
He was ordained in the Church of England, but was as honest and objective about the chequered history of his own Church as he was about the merits and failings of others.
Towards the end of his life, Green summarised a lifetime’s work A New History of Christianity (1996), a magisterial survey of 2,000 years by a man confident and familiar with his subject. He traced the way in which the 20th-century pattern of the Church had been shaped by the interplay of Cross and Sword in past centuries, and how Christianity had evolved from a fringe society to became the single most important influence on Western civilisation. He examined how churches had sought to reabsorb and adjust to man’s changing understanding of the nature of God.
In the book’s epilogue Green, unusually, allowed himself to speculate on how the Church might develop in the 21st century. Belief in concepts of Heaven, Hell and the afterlife were no longer seen as relevant in most people’s lives, he argues; the textual authority of the Bible was being questioned, and Christians increasingly had “faith but little theology”. It seemed plausible that churches would either become closed sects, “clusters of believers in an unbelieving world”, or more immersed in secular morality and culture at the expense of their supernatural framework.
But he found some grounds for optimism. It was less historically important that Christianity should have been a belief than a way of life. Whatever their shortcomings, Christians down the ages had set an example of self-sacrifice and love of which Jesus Christ was the exemplar. People still looked to the Church for answers when the enormity of life was too great to bear. Religious faith, he argues, was “not unlike sex”, less a product of the intellect than an expression of “something deep within the human psyche”. It was this quality that would give it the capacity to endure.
In 1995 Green was formally identified by John le Carré, in an article in the magazine of Lincoln College, as the man who had inspired him with the character of George Smiley. Le Carré revealed the information for the first time because the college was then collecting money to found an academic fellowship in Green’s name.
Green had first met le Carré when the future novelist was a boy at Sherborne, where Green had been chaplain. In the 1950s, as le Carré’s tutor at Lincoln, he had coached him to a first-class degree in Modern Languages; they remained close friends. Le Carré claimed that he had borrowed Green’s “strength of intellect and spirit” for Smiley – and his thick spectacles.
Green also acknowledged that Smiley’s habit of disappearing into crowds “like a shrimp into sand” could have been based on him: “I am not a social person; I hate crowds and I don’t enjoy drawing attention to myself.” Moreover, he admitted that he and Smiley shared “an estrangement from women”.
Yet in other ways Green did not fit the bill: he was lively and impatient, while the fictional spy was deadpan; and he confessed to hating spies and spying. In 1999 le Carré said that Smiley had actually grown out of two people, the other being John Bingham, Lord Clanmorris, with whom the novelist had worked at MI5.
Vivian Hubert Howard Green was born on November 18 1915, the only son of a sweatshop owner from Shankill, on the Isle of Wight. His mother took in paying guests so that he could go to public school, and he attended Bradfield, from where he won a scholarship to Trinity Hall, Cambridge, to read History. He graduated with a First and won the Thirlwall Medal and Prize. He decided to enter the Church and took Holy Orders in 1940.
Meanwhile, he had embarked on a career as a school chaplain and teacher. From 1940 to 1942 he was chaplain at Exeter School and at St Luke’s Training College, Exeter, then, from 1942 to 1951, chaplain and assistant master at Sherborne.
His first book, Bishop Reginald Peacock (1945), was a scholarly study of the 15th- century Bishop of Chichester.
In 1951 Green was appointed chaplain at Lincoln College, Oxford, where he remained until his retirement as Sub-Rector in 1983. He served two terms as Senior Tutor at the college, from 1953 to 1962 and from 1974 to 1977.
He continued to produce a steady stream of books, mainly on church history. After Renaissance and Reformation (1952) came The Later Plantagenets (1955). The Young Mr Wesley (1961), one of two books he wrote about Wesley was a portrait of the Methodist leader as a young don. Like other young dons, Green revealed, Wesley drank, danced, played cards and fell in love; but there was also another side to him, a personal quest for holiness and ultimate authority which he believed he had found in the traditions and teaching of the early Church. Green underlined the ironical truth that the greatest of the dissenters had a firmer belief in the Church and a higher notion of churchmanship than most of his contemporaries.
Green wrote several books about Lincoln College and its luminaries, including a history of the college, The Commonwealth of Lincoln College 1427-1977(1979). Oxford Common Room (1957) explores how the college responded to social changes in the years between 1792 and 1884.
Love in a Cool Climate: the letters of Mark Pattison and Meta Bradley 1879-1884 unfolds the almost certainly chaste romance between a former Rector of Lincoln College, Mark Pattison (the original for George Eliot’s Casaubon in Middlemarch) and Meta Bradley, a woman 40 years his junior, a relationship that scandalised both families and gave Pattison’s enemies a stick with which to beat him. Green also edited Pattison’s memoirs for publication in 1988.
In Religion at Oxford and Cambridge, Green surveyed the intimate association between learned institutions and the broad course of national history. It was largely at Oxford, he noted, that the humanist values of the Renaissance were disseminated, but Cambridge was the nursery of the great churchmen of the Reformation, three of whom – Latimer, Ridley and Cranmer – were burned at Oxford. This set a pattern in which Cambridge tended to be the more intellectually adventurous, and Oxford the more emotionally effervescent.
In The Madness of Kings (1993), Green aimed to portray the effects of the regal insanity on the fate of nations, though the book was more notable as a series of entertaining portraits of such lamentable personalities as Charles IV of France (who thought he was made of glass), Christian VII of Denmark (who rubbed gunpowder on his stomach and picked his nose in public) and the Emperor Wenceslas (who had his cook roasted on a spit) as well as better-known “madman” such as Nero, Hitler and George III.
Among Green’s other books were several works on the Reformation, notably Martin Luther and the Reformation (1964); Medieval Civilisation in Western Europe (1971); The Hanoverians (1948); From St Augustine to William Temple (1948); and a History of Oxford University (1974).
A keen walker, Green also write a book called The Swiss Alps (1961), on which he was an expert, and another about a complex murder case, A Question of Guilt: the Murder of Nancy Eaton (with William Scoular, 1989).
He was unmarried.