On Twitter, I was asked about something that certainly sounds paradoxical: that for Charlotte Bronte's contemporaries, extensively quoting from the Bible (not to mention appropriating it, punning on it, &c.) in fiction was not necessarily a sign of devotion. Quite the contrary, in fact. Why so?
Especially in the first half of the century, critics who objected to such patterns of Biblical allusion and quotation tended to do so on the grounds of devaluation--that is, that it made the Biblical Word appear interchangeable with mere profane words. In 1826, for example, a reviewer for the Gentleman's Magazine complained that the novel before him evinced a "familiarity with the phraseology of Scripture, little short of profanation." This "lip Theology," the reviewer went on, was accompanied by "interlarding our common discourse with the solemn language of the Bible, on occasions wholly unfit for its introduction," all of which added up to a neo-"puritanic jargon" (528). An author who ornaments his rickety doctrinal scaffolding with unwieldy and inappropriate Biblical ornamentation, in other words, has a spiritually disastrous building on his hands. (One with radical implications, at that.) "Common language" threatens to taint the holiness of the Word. Similarly, the London Magazine snickered at the "Great Unknown" (Walter Scott) in particular, "scattering texts of Scripture everywhere, and mixing them up with all kinds of relishing confectionery to make them palatable, and if possible introduce them without suspicion of their beneficial tendency" (187). Again, the critic emphasizes the danger of authors commingling unlike discourses, the sacred and the profane, with overtones of kiddification (the literary candy's sweetness). This warning extended beyond quotation to imitations of the KJV's rhythms and syntax. W. Sherlock was blunt: borrowings from the "florid orientalism" of Biblical style frequently generate "ideas rather of the ludicrous than the solemn character" (82). Here, the author seeking to elevate him- or herself instead bathetically sinks the Bible by association.
Moreover, the very presence of Biblical quotation in fiction could itself appear problematic. Sighed a reviewer of Andrew Reed's No Fiction, "it appears to us at least an unwarrantable license to bring the solemn phraseology and pure truth of Holy Writ into unnatural contact with what every body knows to be unfounded in unreality" (488). Once more, reading protocols come into play: to entwine the Bible with "mere" fiction threatens to subvert the right interpretive approach to the former. Like the other complaints, the reviewer comes back to the position that the Bible cannot safely become a literary intertext, as we would now say, unless hedged around with extensive precautions (and better not to do it at all). To quote the Bible "wrongly," let alone playfully, implies that its authorship can be put on a par with that of any human author. Comic appropriations of the Bible were even worse. A reviewer for The Monthly Review chided one novelist for the "very frequent and very improper quotations of passages from the Bible, put into the mouth of ridiculous or hypocritical characters" (242), which again undermines not only the Bible's uniqueness, but also the reverent attitude with which readers ought to approach it. Hence one of the objections to Jane Eyre. "The humour," objected the Christian Remembrancer, "is frequently produced by a use of Scripture, at which one is rather sorry to have smiled" (396). Notice the critic's annoyance at becoming complicit in the author's violation of good taste. One of the dangers of such profligate Biblical quotation, that is, is that the reader finds herself repeating the author's transgression in the act of enjoying the results (or laughing at them). Nor did these complaints stop at mid-century. An 1861 review of the prolific didactic novelist Margaret Maria Gordon grumbled that "[q]uotations from the Holy Scriptures are introduced with a tone of flippant irreverence, as little to the credit of the taste as of the piety of the author" (482). There was a right way and a wrong way to quote the Bible, and if the author in question was a novelist, the way was frequently wrong.