One of those aggravating things about research is that you will publish something and only afterwards realize that a Book of Great Relevance was out there. A case in point is George MacDonald's Annals of a Quiet Neighborhood (1867), first of a trilogy about Walton, a clergyman in the Church of England, and his family--a novel that I really wish I had read before writing my introduction to Robert Elsmere, because MacDonald's narrative practice, as well as his character's understanding of clerical work, bears some interesting (and rather suspicious) resemblance to Elsmere's. Like most Victorianists, I was primarily acquainted with MacDonald's Christian fantasy works, and had not delved into the rest of his oeuvre; so, given that Book Three 1/2 will need to have a reasonable amount of MacDonald going on, I jumped in, only to discover that Mrs. Ward had been there before me.
Annals, written in the first person, is a strikingly self-reflexive novel, concerned with story-telling both in terms of fiction and in terms of character-building. At its core are two inset narratives: old Mr. Weir's account of his illegitimate birth, itself handed down to him by the servant who raised him; and old Dr. Duncan's tale of a nightmarish visit to a woman's sickbed, during which he realizes that she is being emotionally tortured to death by her own mother. Both narratives are about the upper-class Oldcastle family, and their Gothic quality (complete with creaky old house with mysterious rooms and a scary servant) is only heightened by, as Mr. Weir puts it, the occurence of "the same misfortune all over again among the young people" (68). In Weir's narrative, a governess, Miss Wallis, is seduced and impregnated by the wicked Capt. Crowfoot, who abandons her for the wealthy Miss Oldcastle; Weir's grand-daughter, Catharine, is in turn seduced and impregnated by Capt. George Everard, who wishes to marry the current generation's Miss Oldcastle, Ethelwyn. In the middle, Dorothy Oldcastle (Capt. Crowfoot's great-granddaughter) marries for love, only to find that her mother, the tyrannical Mrs. Oldcastle, will stop at nothing to destroy the relationship. Walton concedes that this history sounds "melo-dramatic" (84), and it seems odd at first to find it buried, as it were, within a novel whose title makes it sound pointedly free of incidents. The melodrama certainly reappears in Catharine's enraged vow of "revenge" (265, 267) against Everard. But one way of thinking about this explosion of Gothic melodrama is that the novel deliberately "tames" it by transforming the Gothic past into the realist present through Christian love. The tragedy of the Oldcastle past gives way to the comedy of Walton's eventual marriage to Ethelwyn, which promises to "remove the curse from this wretched family" (361): marrying for love, and in Christian love, displaces the regime of male sexual exploitation and female violence that had characterized the Oldcastle narrative. At the end of the novel, young Tom Weir's marriage to Walton's sister, which reunites the two branches of Crowfoot's descendants through marriage, signals that Christianity has fully supplanted the sociopolitical divisions that appeared on the Oldcastle's watch.
However, the acts of telling these stories are also important to the novel's understanding of Christian salvation and identity. At the very beginning of the narrative, the now-elderly Walton says of his body that "[t]hese things are not me," but rather, "I have them, and please God, shall soon have better" (4). Walton insists, in other words, that the body does not determine identity, and that, indeed, identity itself is not a static thing; instead, in good Carlylean (albeit more obviously Christian) fashion, the Christian self emerges in process, through its work. Storytelling serves as one form of process, a means of shaping imaginative community; it is telling that, like Robert Elsmere after him, Walton uses storytelling in the pulpit and draws heavily on literature (especially Shakespeare, Sir Philip Sidney, and the Romantic poets) to make his theological points. By the same token, Walton doesn't like to "argue," and prefers to "spend my energy in setting forth what I believe--as like itself as I could represent it, and so leave it to work its own way, which, if it be the right way, it must work in the right mind" (103). As this quotation suggests, "work" (a word which appears quite frequently in this novel) can signify direct human agency, but here it suggests that ideas themselves have their own agency and bear their own fruit when they come into contact with the "right" mind. It is not important that the idea is Walton's; it is important that the idea itself grows, develops, and then transforms the mental soil in which Walton plants it. (My sentence has been seeded with the novel's organic imagery, I do believe!) Walton, for example, is excited when his friend Old Rogers arrives at an insight about a Biblical passage that Walton himself had had a hard time interpreting--the answer is important, but so too is the thought process. Walton repeatedly asks us to notice that he is "thinking," or that character so-and-so is "thinking"; unlike many other didactic novels, this one rejects the belief that insta-conversion is possible, or that such a thing might even be desirable. Instead, all of the characters transform slowly over time, including Walton, who does not always do so well with the "love thine enemy" bit.
This emphasis on process returns in Walton's attempt to chart what makes Christian identity possible. At the end of his first encounter with Old Rogers, Walton determines that "I resolved to try all I could to be the same man in the pulpit that I was out of it" (11), and the rest of the narrative inveighs against all forms of subjective splitting. Any form of self-division in this novel is a sign of unresolved sin; to be at war with oneself means to be out of sorts with God. Or, as Walton observes of old Mr. Weir's son Thomas (symbolically named--this Thomas is a doubter), "till a man knows that he is one of God's family, living in God's house, with God up stairs, as it were, while he is at his work or his play in a nursery below stairs, he can't feel comfortable" (67). This domestic language replays itself in the intergenerational conflicts that dot the novel, beginning with Capt. Crowfoot's attempt to murder his own illegitimate son (probably) and extending through Mrs. Oldcastle's abusive relationship to her daughters, Thomas Weir's rage against his children (especially Catharine), and Catharine's growing resentment of her own illegitimate child. In other words, the novel is loaded with bad parents, who, pace Mrs. Sherwood, fail to take God's place on earth, even symbolically. All of the bad parents confuse, in the words of the novel's opening, "to have" with "I," whether by identifying the self with property (Crowfoot and Mrs. Oldcastle), propriety (Thomas), or vengeance (Catherine), and all of them suffer from their own self-inflicted pains. Or, to put it differently, whereas Walton insists that identity rests in a self understood as an organic and eternal whole, inspired by and of God, these characters locate identity in contingencies of money, desire, and the flesh. "Only by being filled with a higher spirit than our own," says Walton, "which, having caused our spirits, is one with our spirits, and is in them the present life principle, are we or can we be safe from this eternal death of our being" (215). Only those who understand that they are fully in God because they are fully of God can ever be whole selves--"fully themselves," as MacDonald says elsewhere, once they have understood the measure of their sin. (See here for a general overview of MacDonald's theology.) But that, too, remains a process: it is significant that Walton concludes the novel with one of his own moral lapses, and not on an unremittingly triumphant note.