In which we read three novels, and inch into the Victorian period. (Tuesday, we're inching back out of it again, actually.)
Today's accidental theme: novels that, having begun, then spent 3/4 of the rest of the narrative explaining the backstory.
- Selina Bunbury, Early Recollections: A Tale, Dedicated to Christian Parents (William Oliphant, 1825). The sad young Eustace St. Clair (neither saintly nor particularly clear about his spirituality) returns to Riverston. The rest of the story explains how he fell away from his early Christian faith, thanks to his worldly aunt and uncle, who don't want him to be a "Methodist" or a "saint." Much of the narrative focuses on the would-be Christian's fear of appearing "other" (or, to use the nineteenth-century turn of phrase, "singular") in the face of pressures to conform, here condensed in the act of conducting family prayers (do I? don't I? What will people think?). Perhaps the most interesting thing about the novel occurs at the end, when a character declares that "[c]onsistency, my motto in religion, is, I believe, the main point to be observed" (298): I don't think Jane Eyre responds to this novel directly, but a rapid keyword search indicates that putting "consistency" into the mouths of Mr. Brocklehurst and Mrs. Reed means more than just an indictment of their hypocrisy (clearly, they aren't consistent) or rigidity. Must do a bit more research there.
- Helen Plumptre, The History of Samuel: A Continuation of Scripture Stories (Nisbet, 1842). This is one of several volumes that Plumptre devoted to retelling various Biblical narratives for children. (Incidentally, the BL doesn't appear to own Scripture Stories itself, although the University of Chicago does...) Such tales are their own genre (see Ruth Bottigheimer for further discussion). The History of Samuel is not so much a novel--Plumptre is not trying to "fictionalize" the Biblical text--as it is a combination of quotation, typology, and exegesis. In each chapter, young readers are urged to find analogies for the characters' experience in their everyday lives; to empathize with the narrator's anecdotes of her own experiences; to cross-reference what is happening in Samuel with other verses; and, above all, to interpret much of the action as a type for events in the NT. It is, in other words, an attempt to model different kinds of reading and practical application for a juvenile audience.
- Jesuitism and Methodism, 2 vols. (Saunders and Otley, 1829). This novel was somewhat confused, albeit not confusing. As the title indicates, the goal was to draw out parallels in the effects of "Jesuitism" (sort of Catholicism +++) and Methodism on minds and morals. Both, apparently, produce hypocrites; beyond that, the parallels were actually hard to discern. Like Early Recollections, this novel begins near the end and circles back. Its parallel tracks follow the respective fates of Cordelia Millwood (beautiful innocent; married off at age 19 to much older Catholic, Lord Comdor) and her friend Betsy Brandleshaw (attractive but somewhat less innocent girl who winds up marrying a Methodist fortune-hunter). Both marriages collapse disastrously. Cordelia's implodes thanks to the machinations of the treasonous Jesuit Father Ignatius (...seriously?), who falls in lust with her but is confounded by her adulterous passion for the Methodist-raised Algernon Brandleshaw (Betsy's brother); when Cordelia and Algernon plot to elope from Lord Comdor's castle, the enraged Ignatius murders both of them. Ignatius eventually dies horribly, but does confess and receives absolution. (The end.) Betsy, by contrast, manages to rehabilitate herself after her husband, the low-born Paul Giles, abandons her in disgust once he learns that he had misunderstood the extent of her fortune. Despite much suffering, she is fully redeemed and self-supporting by the end of the narrative. The characters appear to be in different genres, in the sense that Cordelia's plot eventually morphs into the Gothic and Betsy's remains in realist mode; moreover, it appears that Betsy's Protestantism, no matter how wonky, allows her to ultimately undergo a true change of heart to "authentic" Christian faith, whereas Cordelia's moral degradation at Ignatius' hands leaves her no route back to salvation.