I normally post about literary fiction or upper-range genre fiction, but today, let's try something different: a look at the kind of book that features in my day-to-day research. Henriette Burch's Dick Delver: A Story of the Peasant Revolt of the Fourteenth Century (Religious Tract Society, 1889) was intended for a children's gift or prize book; my own copy was awarded to "E. Watson" in 1900. As is so often the case, it's difficult to identify the precise age range of the novel's intended audience. Unlike RTS books for very young children, Dick Delver features reasonably complex syntax and presumes a basic awareness of fourteenth-century history and economics. Moreover, it also expects its reader to have a certain degree of political awareness--of which more in a moment.
Dick Delver is a rather unusual RTS production, for a number of reasons. To begin with, it's a multi-plot novel: the title character, a serf who escapes his lord and winds up as a moderately comfortable small farmer, carries most of the novel's political weight; his niece, Barbara, offers the reader access to medieval court society, and provides the novel's romance plot. The two characters are linked by Rodrick McArr, the Good (and Irish) squire of the Nasty (and English) Sir Hubert. Few RTS novelists attempt anything that looks like complex narrative patterning, a state of affairs that characterizes Victorian didactic fiction more generally.* To be honest, Burch doesn't do it very well--the providential coincidences, for example, just seem coincidental--but, at least, she puts in a good-faith effort.
What's even more unusual, however, is the extent to which Burch plays down religion and plays up politics. Victorian religious historical fiction often subordinates external events (look, a revolution!) to internal events (conversion experiences), making man's relationship with God more real than the mundane or not-so-mundane world of war, politics, and so forth. While several characters "convert" over the course of Burch's novel, they do it all offstage, and Burch has no interest whatsoever in theology; although she mentions some of Wycliffe's innovations and the Catholic response thereto, her characters' proto-Protestantism amounts to little more than a Bibliocentric approach to Christianity.** Moreover, unlike more overtly evangelical novelists, Burch doesn't utilize extensive Biblical quotations, and only near the end does she put her characters in situations explicitly represented as tests of faith. Although Burch concerns herself with the rise of the Lollards, she nevertheless refrains from representing Wycliffe himself; instead, she focuses on the notorious John Ball, who just three years previously had featured (positively) in William Morris' political fantasy A Dream of John Ball. (In fact, there seems to be something tactical about Wycliffe's absence: we almost see Wycliffe twice, but he never interacts with anyone in the plot. He is, quite literally, beyond the whole thing.) In taking the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 as her primary subject, Burch hits on a genuine sore point for her fellow novelists. Most Victorians were anxious to keep Wycliffe free from political taint, especially of the revolutionary variety; the usual solution was to divide the Lollards into authentic and inauthentic varieties, with the authentic Lollards interested only in religious reform. Burch vacillates on the possibility of drawing such a distinction.
Burch's problem, such as it is, is her simultaneous attraction to and fear of egalitarian politics. The novel drops the Lollards square into late-Victorian Socialist debates, complete with references to "capitalists" and "labourers"; one occasionally wonders if the serfs are spending more time with Marx than the Bible.*** While Burch doesn't indulge in the standard narrative tricks of the didactic trade, such as direct address, she does grant her characters historical self-awareness, and the narrator consistently represents the outcome of the clash between landowners and serfs as a done deal. ("Feudalism was tottering, and the landowners resorted to yet harsher measures to repress the rising serfs." ) As a result, the narrative's thrust emphasizes the inevitable rise of English liberty, against which it counterposes the dual reactionary mechanisms of Roman Catholicism and the feudal system:
"...The future of England depends upon her freedom from the thraldom of the Papacy; so long as her sons and daughters are in bondage to superstition and priestcraft, so long will they be enslaved and oppressed by the lords of the soil. Soul and body go together; freedom of the one can only be obtained by that of the other; sight is useless to those who walk in darkness." (296-97)
For Burch, Lollardy is inescapably political, but its political efficacy lies in its emphasis on spiritual liberty. Burch makes no attempt at all to dispute the egalitarianism of John Ball and company; for that matter, she has no particular beef with organized resistance to oppression. However, she distinguishes between a kind of "moral" rebellion, carefully regulated and based in religious principles, and the wholesale rioting that John Ball provokes. Burch's representations of the Peasants' Revolt draw very much on post-French Revolution crowd imagery; the peasants demand and receive kisses from the Princess of Wales and her court, in a moment vaguely reminiscent of Edmund Burke's famous set piece about Marie Antoinette, and they expend considerable energy on removing heads from bodies. But such images also echo the standard Victorian iconography of working-class mobs.
It would be difficult to layer Burch's position onto contemporary Victorian politics--after all, there's hardly a one-to-one correspondence between the late fourteenth century and the late nineteenth century--but given that her argument boils down (in essence) to the claim that Roman Catholic habits of mind enable the government to oppress the working classes, she probably expects her reader to take Catholicism's renewed presence in English life as a threat to civil liberties. At the same time, Burch is also critiquing the medievalist utopias offered up by some Victorian social critics; for her, English culture stabilizes only with the collapse of serfdom, the development of egalitarian attitudes, and the rise of wage labor driven by supply and demand. And, of course, the emergence of Protestantism.
Like most didactic fiction, Dick Delver does not respond well to close reading. There's not much to say about Burch as a prose stylist, beyond the usual damning-with-faint-praise (the grammar is correct...); there are no keywords resonating throughout the text, no particularly insightful uses of metaphor or symbolism. There's little in the way of characterization; the plotting is clumsy; Burch has a bad habit of larding the narrative with indigestible chunks of historical exposition; and so forth. (Other than that, Dr. B, how was the novel?) It's possible to study patterns of literary allusion in these types of novels, but their formal interest usually derives, at most, from their narrative structure. Otherwise, we're stuck with thematic analysis, revisions of and attempts to participate in extra-literary discourse, and the like.
*--A few notable exceptions include Emily Sarah Holt's Joyce Morrell's Harvest, a diary chronicle with multiple narrators; Elizabeth Mitchell's The Church in the Valley, featuring a narrator who travels through time; and Grace Stebbing's Denham Hall, set in the fourteenth and eighteenth centuries.
**--Other novelists, like Holt and Elizabeth Rundle Charles, expend considerably more effort on theology, ecclesiastical history, and liturgy.
***--Cf. Josephine M. Callwell: "A dozen years before the preaching of a crazy priest, John Ball, who was the first to propound the modern doctrines of Socialism and demand entire equality for all men, had kindled the peasant revolt which set half England in a blaze, and though the rising had been ruthlessly suppressed discontent smouldered still in many parts." A Champion of the Faith: A Tale of Prince Hal and the Lollards (London: Blackie and Son, ), 9.