Religious novelists, like other authors of popular fiction, are not exactly averse to returning to profitable themes. Hence the popular Baptist novelist George Sargent's Langdon Manor: Scenes and Sketches in the History of a Family Bible (serialized 1860; rpt. in vol. form 1880), a relatively brief it-narrative clearly designed to capitalize on the success of Sargent's earlier The Story of a Pocket-Bible (1859). Unlike Pocket-Bible, whose title "character" is sold and gifted through fifty years of an ultimately circular plot, Langdon Manor's Biblical protagonist spends virtually its entire "lifetime" in a single space: the library of Langdon Manor. Moreover, until the final chapters, its life is also taken up solely with three generations of (surprise) the Langdons.
Because this Bible never goes anywhere, its observations naturally focus on domestic life and worship. Thus, we get extended directions on the best way to conduct family prayers, from time of day to the singing of hymns to choice of Bible readings to the proper position for prayers (48-51). There's virtually no mention of church or explicitly denominational theology (unlike Pocket-Bible, which has a go at those who question total depravity, with a side-helping of anti-Catholicism), two decisions which may reflect Sargent's disinclination to alienate his ecumenical RTS readership. Nor does Langdon Manor address the question of good vs. bad strategies for reading the Bible, something which Pocket-Bible does dramatize; instead, it presumes that Biblical language is utterly transparent. People don't misread the Bible so much as they refuse to read it, like 2nd-generation wife Kate Langdon, who "closed me with unnecessary violence, and hastily removed me to a lower shelf in the heavy book-press, taking care to lock the door upon me" (71). Kate's closure and enclosure of the material Bible and its words implies a fear of invasion by the Word--which, nevertheless, constantly impinges upon the mind of the non-believer (or, in this case, the formalist). The brutalized and imprisoned Bible experiences a kind of mini-martyrdom at Kate's hands, but this turns out to double the "short and contemptuous accosts" that 1st-generation Gerald Langdon repeatedly encounters after his conversion (18).1 Our Bible is not merely a text, but a believer in its own right, undergoing the same slights as its human owners.
Whereas the Story of a Pocket-Bible does not have an overall narrative arc to its accounts of the saved and the damned--in fact, the Bible frequently gets relocated before it can finish its stories--Langdon Manor shifts to decline-and-fall mode. Generation One Langdons qualify as Awesome Christians in every respect, exemplars of saintliness; despite the occasional moment of temptation, they are given to doing things like Gerald relinquishing a large chunk of his inheritance when it becomes clear that there is a legal impediment to its possession. But Generation Two Langdons, despite their upbringing by the aforementioned Awesome Christians, are a more flawed lot. The son and heir, while devout, is too weak to resist his wife Kate's worldliness (cue lecture on properly gendered behavior here) and the marriage is troubled; they only achieve full reconciliation in the last few months of Henry Langdon's life. And things go entirely to pot with Generation Three, featuring an heir whose blasphemous, gambling ways wreck his entire fortune and result in an attempted suicide. To make matters worse, this heir is also named Gerald, suggesting just how difficult it is to transmit faith from generation to generation. The constancy of the Bible's witness thus stands in stark counterpoint to the frequent tenuousness of Christian profession. Even saints produce sinners; even the best of intentions fails to uproot postlapsarian weeds. Henry, for example, never really manages to overcome the wishy-washiness that prevents him from asserting himself against his wife's demands--a character flaw that the novel represents as a giving-in to self and sin, not merely incidental shyness. While the novel doesn't offer us the same lectures on human depravity that Pocket-Bible does, it makes the same basic point. The first Gerald Langdon, secure in his faith, has no real problem resisting minor temptations, but it is not him doing the resisting; rather, when he prays, he speaks with a mind that "dared not trust itself alone" (21). The Langdons implode precisely because self-trust proves victorious.
Near the end, the novel suddenly shifts into a different genre: the Jewish conversion novel. Here, Langdon Manor registers contemporary politics. The Jewish businessman who acquires the manor is also invested in English public life in a way that subtly reflects Jewish Emancipation (1858) (144). Moreover, the shift in the Manor's ownership, from many generations of Christians to a Jew, also suggests religio-political upheaval--not least because the Jew is known only as "Mr. L--." From Langdon to L: the abbreviated name implies that historical continuity has also been suddenly abridged. How, then, does the novel deal with the presence of successful Jewish citizens in the English countryside? It promptly reabsorbs them into Christianity. As is nearly always the case in the Jewish conversion novel, Langdon Manor invokes the Shylock plot in the form of Mr. L-- and his daughter Ruhamah (there is usually no mother in these plots). However, in a more unusual and inadvertently comical variant on the usual Jewish conversion narrative, in which the daughter converts and is rejected by the cruel father--i.e., religion of love vs. religion of law--father and daughter both read the Bible for several weeks, unbeknownst to each other, until finally we have the climactic reveal, which leaves them "of one heart and one mind, striving together for the faith of the gospel" (159). The Bible thus reinstates an integral relationship between being Christian and being English, over and against the actual changes in the civic rights of the Jewish minority. But even after being Christianized, the L--s don't get to retain the manor; instead, we discover in the last few sentences, Gerald eventually returns, penitent, and reclaims the family home from its owners (or renters). But the Bible makes no mention of children. It's as if that first symbolic rupture in continuity brought a potentially permanent end to the family's history. Even as the Jewish conversion narrative suggests that challenges to the (Protestant) (Christian) fabric of the country can be defused, it also hints to readers that some changes may not, after all, be possible to undo.
1 Cf. Leah Price, who remarks on the similarities between such examples of textual "martyrdom" and the "long tradition in which Christ's body was compared to a book." How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2012), 123.