Although nineteenth-century Christian it-narratives included missionary boxes and cushions among their protagonists, adventurous Bibles were a popular subject, from Sarah Wilkinson's Adventures of a Bible (1821) onward. In the 1860s, the prolific children's novelist Matilda Horsburgh wrote two such narratives, The Story of a Red Velvet Bible (1865[?]) and its conveniently color-coded sequel, Richard Blake and His Little Green Bible (1868), which exemplify some of the most common strategies in these evangelical texts.
Given the target audience, both novels emphasize the child's agency in adult conversions, although without endorsing the kind of full-blown preachiness one finds in something like Charlotte Elizabeth's Judah's Lion (whose angelic child has the aggravating habit of addressing the Jewish protagonist as "Mr. Jew"). This agency resides not in going door-to-door as youthful evangelists, but rather in reading their Bibles, exemplifying Christian virtues in their day-to-day lives, and, when called on, celebrating and explicating prooftexts for less enlightened readers. Notably, we never see either child receiving formal instruction from a clergyman or parent (although Richard grows up in a Christian household); solid Protestant beliefs (especially those about Christ's Passion) derive transparently from attentive reading of the text, no catechism required. Although Horsburgh usually avoids any sort of confessional polemic, we get a remarkably eye-popping moment in Richard Blake, which informs us that a young servant girl with an Catholic upbringing has no idea who this Jesus fellow is (RB 32). (Even for garden-variety Victorian Catholic-bashing, that's a bit extreme.)
Although the novels trace different social worlds, they are structured the same way. The red Bible goes to an upper-class girl, who resides in a sadly worldly family with a non-wicked, but definitely class-conscious, stepmother; the green Bible to a working-class boy on his way to be apprenticed in the big city. (We see the green Bible sold at the beginning of the first novel.) The girl, Amelia Delany, discovers real (as opposed to nominal) Christianity by reading the Bible; her devotion to the Bible in turn inspires her little half-brother, her governess, the poor woman whom she visits, and even her mother, although her father "might have been saved, but he would not" (TS 93). Richard Blake, who is already a boring paragon of devotion at the beginning of his novel, similarly brings various random people into contact with his Bible, but with more emphasis on the urban working (and non-working) poor; as in the first novel, there are two holdouts, one of whom dies having "'spurned the gift'" (RB 81). In both cases, the failure is figured in terms of 2 Corinthians 2:16: "To the one we are the savour of death unto death; and to the other the savour of life unto life. And who is sufficient for these things?" For the child protagonists, the Bible speaks only life, in part because it is initially received as a source of innocent pleasure (RB 26) that, in turn, prepares for the transformative moment of conversion in which Bible reading flips around: the Bible reads the child, forcing her to consider "[w]hat sort of spirit had she?" (28). These transformative readings occur virtually at random--here, Amelia opens the Bible and finds that it lands on Romans 8:11 (28)--and are a much-Protestantized version of the sortes sanctorum (divination by Bible verses), still popular in the nineteenth century. No longer does the random Bible verse foretell the future; instead, it shocks the reader into plumbing the depths of her soul. Or, to put it differently, it shocks the reader into discovering that she has a soul. The vulnerable child is far more open to being reborn into both salvation and Protestant subjectivity than are the adults, who must undergo considerable pain and suffering before they can humble themselves before the Bible's message. In a way, the adults have to learn how to unread, stripping themselves of their accumulated ideologies about worldly living before they can truly hear the Word.
Like other Bible it-narratives, however, both the Red Velvet Bible and the Little Green Bible have a problem on their way to being read: their profitable place in the bookselling and publishing industries. Aileen Douglas' seminal article on eighteenth-century it-narratives argues that they "exploit and strengthen an emerging consumer culture," and tracks how such narratives both savage and salvage the new social relationships that emerge from a society based on increasingly free trade--trade that encompasses not just a nation, but an empire.1 Bibles were certainly a mainstay of Victorian religious publishing, circulating in crushing quantities; the British and Foreign Bible Society alone managed to distribute over 27 million copies in fifty years.2 But both Horsburgh's novels and the other Bible it-narratives I've read so far do their best to remove the Bible as fast as they can from commercial exchange, even though they may otherwise offer John Halifax-esque praise of the hardworking young man who makes good (as is the case with Richard Blake). After the initial purchase of the red and green Bibles, they circulate entirely through gift exchange, accidental or chance reading, bedside storytelling, and loans. The sale of the green Bible certainly suggests that it challenges the normal rules of profit-making: the seller, who "was noted for never giving a book, or, indeed, any article, a penny under its real price," is inspired by a chance text from the red Bible to knock down the price from half-a-crown to two shillings (RB 7). But as the narratives unfold, we see that there is no congruence between the Bible's monetary price and its actual worth, which emerges only when a reader engages with the Word. Even though the Bible's materiality is crucial to these narratives, they try to erase the scene of purchase--the Bible's moment of "profane" value, as it were--as soon as possible. In some Bible it-narratives, there is no moment of purchase at all: the Bible is simply gifted from one person to the next, or handed down as an heirloom. The exchange value is, after all, not truly quantifiable. This is something I intend to work out in more detail over the next few months.
1 Aileen Douglas, "Britannia's Rule and the It-Narrator," Eighteenth-Century Fiction 6.1 (1993): 68.
2 Michael Leger-Lomas, "Mass Markets: Religion," The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain: Volume 6, 1830-1914, ed. David McKitterick (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2009), 329.