The word parson, like matron, brings to mind saucy Carry On films and salacious newspaper headlines. So it was with plenty of nudge-nudging and wink-winking that I settled on the sofa to read Adam Sisman's The Professor and the Parson: A Story of Desire, Deceit and Defrocking.
The Parson of the title is Robert Peters, and the book follows his career as he repeatedly tries to take up positions at academic and religious institutions around the world, using forged documents and bogus qualifications.
Much of the material for the book was collected by Oxford academic Hugh Trevor-Roper between 1959 and 1983. The first indication of a misdemeanor was in 1944, when the parson's licence to preach and administer sacraments was withdrawn, and in 1946 he was exposed as a bigamist in the Glasgow Sunday Mail. His nefarious career spanned nearly sixty years. How on earth did he get away with it for so long?
Sisman says Peters's tactics were always the same: "assume a position based on forged qualifications, maintain a lofty superiority, aggressively repel challenges until continuing becomes impossible, and then flee." You might be thinking that these days, with so much information available online, the parson wouldn't get away with it. On the contrary, "fraudsters and bigamists seem to be as active today as they have ever been", and I can attest to this from my own experience not so long ago, when an employer was reluctant "to provide frank testimonials" about the questionable activities of an employee. Fear of losing face amongst colleagues and fear of libel kept everyone's mouths shut.
Peters's antics provide entertainment to us now and did so to those who followed his progress at the time. It's easy to pass his exploits off as a bit of fun. The media in the book depicted him as "a hoaxer, a cheeky chappie who might have bent the rules but had done no significant harm. He might even have done some good, in pricking the pomposity of professors, bishops and vice-chancellors." However, we shouldn't overlook the seriousness of his actions, since he "had officiated at a number of weddings, rendering these unlawful."
I can't help wondering why Peters persisted in his deceits even after being exposed. Could he not have applied his skills to an honest profession? At the end of the book Sisman offers his own theories as to what demons drove the parson to do what he did. We can never know for sure, which leaves me feeling a little sad for the man who could not be honest with the world at large, nor with himself.