Much of what I write about involves popular religious fiction playing around with tropes and genres borrowed from high(er) literary culture, so it was genuinely interesting to uncover George Firth's The Adventures of a Martyr's Bible (1898)--an episodic Decadent novel that reworks the Bible it-narrative to explore problems in late-Victorian sexuality as well as religious doubt. Contemporary reviews were mixed but intrigued; the novelist, however, appears to have done nothing else in this line. Although the plot construction (or lack thereof) makes the novel a bit of a farrago, it is held together by its attempt to answer one of the questions plaguing nineteenth-century British Christians: after violent, state-sponsored religious persecution (as opposed to ongoing prejudice and/or discrimination) disappears in the UK, what can martyrdom possibly mean for modern Christians? Certainly, it was possible to think about martyrdom in the imperial context--there was a decent-sized audience for narratives of missionary martyrs--but what about at home or on the Continent? The novel's attempt to work through this problem, though, features a series of astonishingly Unfortunate Events involving murder (attempted, real), thwarted sexual desire (very explicit--no coding here), suicide, collusion, and overt misogyny. Imagine Oscar Wilde writing for the Religious Tract Society, and you've got the general idea.
Our narrator, Heathcote, who is somewhat ambiguously reliable, is a dilettantish philosopher in his mid-20s whose ancestor was burnt at the stake during the Reformation. The ancestor in question, John Adam Heathcote, passed on his Bible shortly before his death, with a somewhat gnomic injunction: "'Let him take it in his hands'" (1). This act, John Adam's descendants believe, invested the Bible with a mystical "influence" (2) that exerts its force on those who touch it: as Heathcote tells his friend the local clergyman, "'We believe that whoever touches it cannot do anything but right, according to his own best conscience, however else he may be tempted to act at the time'" (127). The Bible is an enchanted object--even, perhaps, the repository of John Adam's essence, that which motivated him to martyrdom. But even though John Adam died for the stereotypical Protestant reasons (private judgment, sola scriptura, etc.), his Bible's mystical power resides in its materiality. Heathcote quite cheerfully admits to the charge that this is a form of "idolatry" (3, 174). Virtually no-one reads this Bible; it exerts its power through physical contact, a kind of laying-on of hands. Thus, even though the Bible circulates through the novel in much the same way as it would in a traditional Bible it-narrative, handed from one person to the next, its influence has nothing to do with its textuality, and it does not directly generate any recognizably Christian conversions. A Bible it-narrative normally emphasizes the irresistible force of reading, of encountering God's Word and being abruptly awakened to a conviction of sin. Reading the Bible ultimately integrates the sinner and convert into the body of the Church. Here, though, the magic Bible does something far more violent, and even, in some ways, strangely sinister: it renders the user's actions perfectly congruent with his or her conscience, and in prompting absolutely righteous action, it often wrecks and blasts everything around it.
And this is the problem of modern martyrdom. In cleaving perfectly and absolutely to their consciences, the Bible's holders risk not official persecution, but social, psychic, and even physical destruction of the most shattering sort. In the first section, our narrator and his brother Harold both fall in flaming lust with their gorgeous cousin Juliet, who literally brings death to the household in the form of an infected shawl that kills their mother and, as a result, their father. During a late-night confrontation with Juliet, who sits ensconced in a symbolic halo of "knives and swords and daggers," Heathcote finds himself unable to "look straight or long at her," lest he "should have done some mad thing not of my own will" (43). Both the intensity and the sexual terror of this moment will repeat itself through the stories that follow; characters exist on the brink of an uncontrollable desire nearly always figured in fire-and-brimstone terms. Their only hope lies in the touch of the Bible, which forces their conscience to regroup itself against the pull of lust. In this case, the Bible moves Heathcote to think that although her beauty might move men to sacrifice themselves "like martyrs" (46), in reality, the sheer glory of her embodiment would "turn all men to do evil to her" (45); the chaotic force of male sexual desire will rebound brutally against the object of its passion. This insight does not save Heathcote from his passion for Juliet, but it does lead him to try for her salvation--in a discussion that, once again, involves martyrdom. "But is anything certain enough to be a martyr about now?" Juliet wonders (47), soon revealing that she has been attracted to Roman Catholicism (thanks to a priest who, predictably, was in love/lust with her). But while the novel is basically Protestant in orientation, and is not especially kind to Catholicism, doctrine is not its primary focus.
Instead, Heathcote diverts our attention from theology to something else, an absolute devotion to a felt truth:
"No one is wrong who is burned. If we all sprang from dust that came alive, as the world cooled and made mistakes as it came alive, even then, since that dust in us has been divine enough to die for its mistakes, it is enough God for me. I worship it. But if that is not the whole story, there was spirit, and I worship that. It comes to the same in the end. You see, don't you? The main thing is to get burned somehow or other, or at least to believe in it." (52)
Heathcote's solution to the problem of modern martyrdom is effectively post-sectarian. Rejecting questions of doctrinal correctness and pseudo-martyrdom (debates over the latter of which were still going strong in the Victorian period), he instead advocates the passion for martyrdom per se, the willingness to utterly abandon the self and its petty desires in the face of the call of righteousness. This total immolation of the self, whether literal or figurative, constitutes true moral greatness. In this context, the technical "rightness" of "wrongness" of a martyr's acts, when considered from an institutional point of view, no longer signify. At the same time, the rhetoric of "burning" itself reminds us that to risk martyrdom is to risk unspeakable suffering and, of course, the limit point of all suffering: death itself. If the modern martyr may not die literally, s/he may do so figuratively. And the fires may not always be easily contained.
Heathcote's willingness to martyr himself--in this case, by giving Juliet to his brother--brings no tangible reward. Instead, Juliet tries to murder him, and his brother helps. This sets the pattern for the rest of the narrative, in which there is no this-worldly reward for righteousness. But it also establishes one of the novel's less pleasant strategies, which is to link female sexuality (and desire more generally) with death, chaos, and all-around general mayhem. In the narratives that follow, we have an older woman healing Heathcote after the murder attempt, only to be rejected by him once she makes her desire clear; a prostitute blackmailing a saintly (but loathed) clergyman, then dying after he figuratively martyrs himself by offering her marriage; an increasingly insane elderly woman, also in love with (and rejected by) the clergyman; and a fashion plate married to a drunkard who commits suicide when her stepson tricks her into thinking that her husband has drowned (as a righteous act, this does seem rather counterproductive). This is entirely woman as the temptress, potential agent of man's damnation--or, as Heathcote's brother Harold later says of Juliet, "'she was Eve, and apple, and snake all in one'" (355). Pointedly, the only fully positive representation of a woman in the novel is Gwendolen, or "Bouncey," the prepubescent sister of one of Heathcote's friends (who is still treated as a sex object in the making, in a manner guaranteed to induce squick). Juliet, who strings the novel together (albeit mostly offstage), never manages to grasp the concept of "burning," but eventually abandons Harold for first another man (there's a quite matter-of-fact divorce) who locks her up in his castle (!) and, ultimately, for a convent, racing away from death instead of toward it. By contrast, Mrs. Emslie, the woman whom Heathcote rejects, marries Juliet's paramour, but is motivated by the Bible to liberate Juliet from her Gothic imprisonment. Her "burning," that is, lies in her willingness to put aside any potential sexual jealousy in order to save her husband's mistress from his brutal ministrations; it appears that the only way for a woman to catch a break in this narrative is to immolate herself in the fires of the danger she herself poses.