Commenter CJ Colucci has inquired more than once about how, exactly, I came to specialize in nineteenth-century religious fiction of, ah, less than stellar aesthetic quality. Here is how it happened:
1. Phase one: I am an English major at UC Irvine. Let's just say that in the late 80s, the tiny handful of Jews at UC Irvine were, if not showered with open antisemitism, nevertheless made to feel very Other. After a while, I became interested in religious issues because, well, they were being brought to my attention on a more frequent basis than I would have otherwise preferred.
2. Phase two: I become a graduate student at the University of Chicago, where there are fellow Jews all over the place. My personal reason for being interested in literature and religion goes by the wayside.
3. Phase three: Dissertating. By this stage in my career, I have discovered two things: one, I'm primarily interested in literary and intellectual history (I can close-read until the proverbial bovines return to their domicile, but I enjoy seeing how genres and concepts emerge and change over time); two, hey, religion seems pretty central to the texts I'm working on (early histories of women, the eventual subject of the diss and Book One), so I should think about it more closely.
4. Phase four: Professional life. Thanks to being at a non-R1, I can pretty much publish on whatever I feel like (this is an advantage of not being at an R1). Now, I've realized that a) I rather get a kick out of reading all this long-lost fiction, albeit with necessary detours into snark, and some of it turns out to have been quite influential; b) not very many other people are willing to put up with this material, and yet there's a lot of scholarship going on in religion & literature for which it's actually relevant; so c) let's say I put a + b together, do something I find interesting, and produce scholarship that might be helpful to other people? And thus, I started reading these things so you don't have to. (Although I'm afraid that I'm leaning more and more towards the position that you should read them anyway.)
OK, everyone, brace yourselves. Here we have what is quite possibly the worst religous novel I am going to read this year. Now, I grant that it's still only early July, and there are plenty of opportunities yet remaining to find something even more incompetently written than this monstrosity, but...really, I doubt it. Who Will Win? is that bad.
Isn't it awesome?
Anyway, before I completely fall down the well of snark, a few Serious and Scholarly observations. "Zuinglius" appears to be someone from the anti-Ritualist John Kensit circle--in fact, given the novel's stylistic ("stylistic") and propagandistic resemblance to "Frank Briton's" By and By, likely Kensit's own work, it may well be by Kensit himself. (Kensit actually makes a cameo appearance in Who Will Win? as "John Kentis.") Moreover, there's some interesting overlap between Kensit's own (failed) attempt at obtaining a Parliamentary seat in early 1899 and the novel's narrative of a Stalwart Protestant successfully winning a seat on an anti-Ritualist ticket. Who Will Win? appeared in Hodder and Stoughton's December 1899 list, which suggests (unless the author a) wrote very quickly or b) had his work sent through the press very quickly) that it probably isn't a direct fictionalization of Kensit's run, but may well be connected to it. In any event, the choice of pseudonym suggests both the book's intention as the harbinger of a new Protestant Reformation to overturn the Anglo-Catholic tendencies in the Church of England (again, Kensit's big bugbear), and its frequent assaults on transubstantiation. The novel further examines Protestantism's relationship to a number of ongoing transformations in fin-de-siecle British and European culture, including feminism (there's a suffrage campaigner and it's taken for granted that women can attend university), Socialism (there are hints of working-class unrest), and, interestingly enough, antisemitism (the novel is pro-Dreyfus). The book is, however, single-target in its argumentation: it holds that to solve any and all ills, evangelical Protestantism must be reestablished as the core of British identity, and both Anglo-Catholicism and Roman Catholicism expelled, repressed, and otherwise erased. When the Protestant campaigner, Frederic Wykeham, wins his election, he promises the people that "the Protestant cause should have his first attention in Parliament, and that he would leave no stone unturned to banish the evil from our midst" (244). The conclusion, in which Parliament bonds together over the question of Protestantism in the CofE, is set in 1900, so that the novel casts the new century as the positive turning point of Britain's once-inexorable slide towards Romanism.
I'm going to discuss the novel's plot, which I fear may bring on another attack of the snarks. I will try to remain strong in the face of temptation.
We have three main couples: Philip Vavasour and Millicent Greville; Bertrand D'Auvergne and Philip's sister, Helen; and Frederic Wykeham and Nervula Lauriston. Of this crop, Philip and Fred are staunch Protestants throughout; Millicent is an Evangelical, but "prone to look at men apart from what they teach" (363); Bertrand and Helen are deeply attracted to Anglo- and Roman Catholicism, with frightening results in Helen's case; and Nervula is a feminist disinclined to marriage. (Let me eliminate any suspense you may be feeling: they all wind up strong evangelicals at the end.) All of them must deal with the unholy trio of the Anglo- (later Roman) Catholic Orbillieres, brother and sister, and the suave Roman Catholic Father Montmorency. Most of the plot twists depend on the unholy trio being Mighty Morphin Power Rangers of sorts: all of them adopt multiple names and disguises, passing themselves off as members of different denominations in order to effect stealth conversions among the Protestant populace. Montmorency, for example, shows up as himself, as a stone worker, as a mysterious dude with a moustache... This plasticity clearly suggests something demonic at work. Characters who have no truck with this shape-shifting, like Philip, are in the spiritual clear, while characters willing to tolerate it, like Bertrand, are hovering outside the bounds of faith. And then there's Millicent:
"Oh, Mr. Montmorency," she exclaimed, "I never expected to see you here, much less employed in this way."
"What be you a-talkin' of, miss?" he replied. "I don't understand them big words. My name is Ben Jones."
"Well, you certainly remind me very much of a gentleman I have seen elsewhere."
"I have ne'er a-been in these parts afore, but I heard there was a job to be had here, so I came to get a bite and a sup." (54)
That sound you hear reverberating around the planet is that of a thousand facepalms. But yes, there's a symbolic reason for Millicent's inability to grasp that, gasp shock horror, she's looking at the Catholic priest: her willingness to take his speech at face value, so to speak, reflects her deeper incapacity to distinguish spiritual truth from moral error. Indeed, this encounter merely reinforces another Deep Symbolic Moment when she is trapped in the Roman catacombs, "left absolutely in the dark" (41); she wanders within a space consecrated to Christian suffering, yet cannot negotiate it herself or properly view her surroundings. The moral, as Philip explains to her, is that "Rome is a very dangerous place; you may be lost in it in more ways than one" (42). The novel enjoys racking up these Deep Symbolic Moments, as when Bertrand becomes so wrapped up in theological speculation that he promptly falls and breaks a bone (hey, it's a fall! The fall! Get it?) or when, after taking a walking tour that involves climbing a lot of mountains, the characters wind up in Deinseidel, which Helen dubs "a regular Vanity Fair" (118) (hey, mountains and Vanity Fair! It's just like The Pilgrim's Progress! Get it?) However, the characters like Millicent, Helen, and Bertrand frequently show themselves to be bad readers, and their inability to decode the religious symbolism of their own lives manifests itself in their susceptibility to Catholicism's myriad attractions.
This question of reading is frequently at the heart of the novel--what characters read and how they do it. Bertrand complains at one point that Philip is too "painfully literal and logical" (104), as part of their debate over transubstantiation--a debate that unfolds, as it normally does, around the question of figures of speech. What is "literal"? What is the status of metaphor? Is the metaphor the literal meaning? Philip and Fred, both literalists, are the plot's best readers, capable of leaping tall prooftexts at a single bound--I mean, capable of bruising other characters by whacking them over the head really hard with prooftexts--I mean, capable of identifying, deploying, and properly assessing the value of prooftexts in any given situation. (Whew. The urge to snark was getting a little overwhelming there.) At a rought estimate, 99% of the novel consists of nothing but characters playing prooftext tennis--a game that the Protestants always win, of course. The Catholics get ahead by recommending that people keep calm and smell the incense, or something, but since the novel consistently outs them as lying liars who lie (wait...I feel snark returning), they don't succeed for very long. (This is the kind of novel in which Jesuits actually boast about secretly running the world's governments, because when you're in charge of a massive evil conspiracy, boasting about it is exactly the sort of thing you do.) By the end of the novel, the characters have prooftexted their way through transubstantiation, the eastward position, vestments, apostolic descent, clerical authority, confession, obedience to parents, celibacy, Bible reading, lying, and just about anything else that can have a relevant (or not so relevant) prooftext attached to it. In fact, the characters are prooftexting even before the excuse for a plot hoves into view. However, and returning to reading, one of the things about the book that is legitimately interesting is tracking its references to contemporary controversial texts--that is, its attempt to construct a library of good Protestant reading, and to warn readers away from dangerous materials. Thus, we have references to the Methodist pop novelist Joseph Hocking's The Scarlet Woman (being serialized almost contemporaneously with this book), Nunnery Life in the Church of England, and so forth. Most of the novel's references are relatively recent, suggesting less a "canon" of controversial texts and more a play-by-play of what the up-to-date evangelical will have on his or her library shelves.
Back to the Victorian Catholic novels! Lady Amabel Kerr's A Mixed Marriage (1893), originally serialized in The Month, exemplifies the flip side of nineteenth-century discourses about religious toleration: anxieties about the pressure to assimilate. Readers of earlier nineteenth-century novels will certainly recollect examples of interfaith romance plots as signifying national reconciliation (The Wild Irish Girl) or, contrariwise, the apparent impossibility of same (Ivanhoe). It is no accident that Israel Zangwill's famous The Melting Pot (1908) concludes with a possible romantic union between Jew and Christian. The interfaith romance, in its most positive mode, assumes that the personal (love) can trump the political (ongoing sociopolitical disadvantages) and promises to remake public space (the nation) in the image of the private (the pluralist home). But many novelists were skeptical about the interfaith romance plot's religious implications, as well as its political ones. After all, as Mary Jean Corbett notes of The Wild Irish Girl, the "gendered paradigm of marriage" rests on an "inequality" that certainly makes it difficult to think of the novel's proposed Anglo-Irish "union" in egalitarian terms.1 Although Kerr writes long after Catholics had been relieved from most of their civil disabilities, she also reminds readers that they were still on the receiving end of serious religious and cultural prejudice, and her novel takes on that intersection of civic freedom and lingering bigotry. Under those circumstances, what seeds does the interfaith romance plot sow in the private sphere and, by extension, in the public? In that sense, A Mixed Marriage joins with better-known works like Mrs. Humphry Ward's Helbeck of Bannisdale and Mrs. Wilfrid Ward's One Poor Scruple in trying to think through the state of Catholic and Protestant (or free-thinking) relations at the end of the century.
As a novel, A Mixed Marriage derives from the tradition stretching back to Samuel Richardson's Clarissa about the dangers of a virtuous woman trying to "reclaim" a corrupt man. Its most obvious Victorian antecedent in this line is Anne Bronte's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall--except it's a Tenant of Wildfell Hall in which the attempted escape completely fails to work. However, Kerr also signals that her plot takes place in a sort of Trollopean realist universe: the setting is upper-crust life in a gossipy "Cathedral town," one of the novel's good Catholics is a banker named not Melmotte but Melnotte (not Melmotte?), and the heroine's jealous husband, Lord Alne, has some obsessions in common with the monomaniacal husband of He Knew He Was Right. Our protagonist, Margaret Bligh, begins the novel as a young woman in her late teens who, after enjoying a "hidden, uneventful life" (13) in rural Catholic society, is swept off to London with her mother by a wealthy Protestant cousin. (Yes, it's the attack of the country vs. city distinction again.) Much partying and wrangling later, Margaret falls in love with Lord Alne, the Protestant-ish (rather lapsed) son of a hardcore Evangelical. Despite her uncle's warnings, they marry, but only after Lord Alne promises that his children will be raised Catholic. Things cease to go swimmingly after the arrival not only of their first child, but also of Lord Alne's aforementioned mother, who drips old-school anti-Romanist prejudice into her beloved son's ears. As a result, Lord Alne concludes that he was a "confounded fool" (89) when he made his promise, and this position, which he maintains for the rest of Margaret's life, both shatters the foundations of their marriage and suggests the difficulties with a highly-individualized Protestant "conscience." Matters only worsen when they have a son, whom Margaret fails to save from Lord Alne's determination to raise a proper English gentleman. Although the marriage eventually rights itself somewhat, it is never entirely happy again, and Margaret becomes entirely alienated from her son (who winds up in unspecified but probably sexual difficulties). Not only does neither man convert, but both of them become less Christian as the novel continues; as Margaret, now in her early forties, lies dying at the end, the last thing she sees is that "the only two whose knees were not bowed in prayer were her husband and her son" (216). Female virtue turns out to have no effect whatsoever on men who are in no mood to be influenced.
As Maria LaMonaca has reminded us, Victorian Catholic fiction does not assume that marriage plots are inevitable, and it's telling that Kerr assigns this point not to any of the novel's women, but to the Catholic patriarch, Mr. Melnotte: "Well, I for one have never thought marriage absolutely necessary for any woman's good or happiness. I do not care two straws whether my Katie ever marries or not" (38). In effect, Margaret's life goes haywire because both she and her mother subscribe to an essentially Protestant worldview, which focuses on a woman's earthly needs (being "provided for"  through marriage) instead of her spiritual obligations. By investing themselves in their cousin's Protestant marriage plot, Margaret and her mother opt, however unintentionally, for social conformity over Catholic faith. This choice allies them with an otherwise minor character who is nevertheless the first Catholic we meet, Mrs. Munro, who "was one of those Catholics who take as their standard the Protestant world which surrounds them" (7)--an assimilationist position for which the novel has no brief. Instead, Kerr presumes throughout that the English Catholic ideally critiques normative "Englishness," especially English masculinity. As Mr. Melnotte complains, the position that "young men must be young men" (endorsed by Lord Alne and, to detrimental effect, his son) assumes that "God had created young men only for the purpose of sinning against Him" (41). But Margaret's decision to embrace her idyllic romance plot on the grounds of "instinct" (48) elevates individualist self-will above her obligations to God as laid out by her Church's teachings; by opting for desire instead of emotional self-discipline, Margaret negates Catholicism's critical and moral distance from the ungrounded Protestant "conscience." Although Margaret dislikes the assimilationist Mrs. Munro, who tells "real lies" (67) about Catholicism in order to conciliate Protestants, her own marriage leads to spiritual self-alienation: "I say my prayers, and I go to Mass, and I try to be good, but I am sometimes almost unable to realize that I am a Catholic" (68). Domestic religious pluralism, far from indicating any meaningful meeting of the faiths, instigates a series of fractures--between husband and wife, wife and child, wife and Church, and so on--that imply the absence of God's grace in the household. The wife cannot fully look to the husband's authority; moreover, given that the increasingly anti-Catholic Protestant husband quashes his wife's ability to instruct her children, she also cannot follow the example of Mrs. Melnotte, who "ruled where she was meant to rule" (95). As the interfaith marriage plot plays out, we see that love must falter under the weight of other commitments, both religious and social. Far from being free of religious, cultural, and historical entanglements, romantic love under an anti-Catholic regime turns out to bring with it a network of assumptions that undermine domestic stability. From A Mixed Marriage's point of view, interfaith marriage is neither "liberal" nor a guarantor of social belonging; it is, rather, a doomed assimilationist project in which the Catholic partner is fated to suffer the pains of never being like enough.
1 Mary Jean Corbett, Allegories of Union in Irish and English Writing, 1790-1870 (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000), 68.
Today, a novel my readers may actually have heard of--Mary Martha Sherwood's The History of the Fairchild Family (first volume, 1818). Whenever someone thinks Fairchild Family, the notorious gibbet scene is what soon comes to mind. There are, however, other things going on. Unfortunately, no true first edition of the initial volume appears to be online, which is a pity: Sherwood had revised the book somewhat by 1822, the earliest edition I was able to locate.1 Most Victorianists have, at the very least, a vague sense of the novel's Calvinist theology--in particular, the doctrine of total depravity. "I know that you have a wicked heart," Mrs. Fairchild says to her daughter, Lucy, "and that your wicked heart will often make you unhappy when there is nothing else to make you so" (49). Each chapter in the novel's episodic structure illustrates this point, usually through a child's disobedience and its immediate providential punishment. (Steal fruit, the Eye of Sauron--um, the Lord--will fall upon you. But really, it's a "dreadful Eye" .) The primary takeaway from any reading of the text, as Brendan A. Rapple explains, is that "the nature of the child in Mrs. Sherwood's eyes is evil, and it is primarily through parents' wise guidance that its soul may be redeemed."2 But the novel's form strikes me as potentially as interesting as its theology.
Nineteenth-century religious fiction for adults and children alike frequently functions as a commonplace book of sorts: narratives usually include extensive Biblical prooftexts, for example, thereby supplying readers with handy go-to material when at war with the nearest skeptic (or Catholic, or whatever). In addition to the regular prooftexting, though, The Fairchild Family deploys multiple other genres in the service of its theological message: hymns, deathbed narratives, spiritual diaries, prayers, inset tracts, the occasional bit of Gothic horror, and so forth. This multiplicity is contained within a repetitive overall structure, nicely summarized by Lynne Vallone: "The Fairchild Family puts into detailed practice the methods of the tracts: in narrative form, the reader learns the specifics to the ending of the story, that is, how the child 'gets good.' Each chapter ends with an occasional prayer and a hymn sung by the Fairchild children (to be learned by 'any little children'). In this way each lesson couples the tract message with the poetry of the hymn at the same time that the lesson is embellished through rudimentary narrative."3 The repetitive form of each episode, with each narrative beginning and ending in direct address before concluding with the prayer and hymn, teaches the child reader a comfortingly predictable formula while introducing new material for performance at the same time--something that Kimberley Reynolds suggests might well have been "familiar and empowering" to young readers, not "tedious."4 That is, while the novel teaches the evangelical child how to behave, in the sense of obedience to papa and mama, good manners, and so on, it also teaches the child how to read and speak to and of the divine. At the same time, the novel's interest in the genres of spiritual experience, both written and oral, offer the child reader multiple ways of "plotting" their own religious transformations.
A case in point is one of the less spectacular chapters, "Story on the Secret Sins of the Heart," which takes place after a more overt example of childhood naughtiness. When queried about her behavior, young Lucy thoughtfully tells her mother that "[p]erhaps, if you had not been with me, I might have been as naughty as I was that day; for I think that my heart is the same: I don't think that it is any better" (84). At this point in her development, Lucy both is and is not self-reflexive: the cautiousness of the repeated "think," as well as the qualifier "perhaps," suggests that she is unwilling to embrace the full force of her moral depravity. (This is in stark contrast to the adult narrator's voice, which, as Reynolds notes, lacks any signs of "uncertainties" .) "Nevertheless, she grasps that without parental surveillance, she is likely to once again come a-cropper. In response, Mrs. Fairchild offers her a diary in which to write "the naughty things which pass in your heart" (85). This diary, Mrs. Fairchild assures Lucy, will remain private unless Lucy wishes otherwise. That is, Lucy must learn to read and write herself, to externalize the sinning self through narrative and thus grasp its workings. Simultaneously, though, this act is cast as unique in its privacy: although the Fairchild parents have always assumed full control over their children's thoughts and actions whenever possible, here the mother shapes a space for the child to develop, as it were, by both withdrawing herself (the writing will remain for Lucy's eyes only) and making her presence felt (Lucy writes on a topic prescribed by her mother). As the story continues to unfold, Lucy initially resolves to be so "very good" that the diary would, in effect, remain blank, but instead there are a series of inward petty resentments--at being told to do her chores, or having to listen to the Bible reading--so that at the end of the day, she discovers that despite her outward good behavior, "her heart had been full of evil thoughts and wicked passions" (88).5 The resulting diary narrative moves away from "I think" and "perhaps" to declarative statements about her feelings ("I felt," "I was envious," "hated," etc. ). Far from being an exercise in narcissism or Romantic self-expression, the spiritual diary centers the child only to reveal her darkest sins to herself. Or, to put it differently, when she is the subject of the narrator's own first-person discourse, Lucy remains unconscious of her own depravity; when she takes over as her own narrator, Lucy finds that she is not, after all, an angelic good child.
Despite the promise of privacy, Lucy opts to show her mother the diary, although she worries that her mother might be outraged. We thus begin and end with parental surveillance, but Mrs. Fairchild's reading of her daughter's text also demonstrates the difference between mature and childish interpretive practices. Lucy, reading and writing herself, correctly concludes that she has a "wicked heart" (90), but wrongly believes that this marks her out as somehow Other, uniquely evil. By contrast, Mrs. Fairchild is delighted: "I thank God, who has by his Holy Spirit helped you to know a little of the wickedness of your heart" (90). Mrs. Fairchild's corrective works at multiple levels. First, she insists that Lucy, far from being angelic or demonic, is simply normal in her depravity. Lucy is neither the hero nor the villain of her theological plot. Second, she rewrites Lucy's authorship so that the diary becomes not so much the expression of an "I," but an act of divine collaboration, in which self-knowledge only emerges through God's intervention. Although the diary threatens to center the "I," Mrs. Fairchild warns that the "I" remains permanently in a state of incompletion. Finally, the prayer they utter is a joint expression of the "exceeding vileness of their hearts" (90): the mother and child are momentarily equalized as sinners before God, admitting that "I can do nothing for myself!" (91) The chapter thus leads the child reader through multiple levels of self-knowledge, on and up through the reminder that if all men are sinners, then even Mommy--authority figure though she may be--must be a sinner too. And yet, that knowledge emerges only in the act of humbling the self before God.
1 For a convenient overview of the revisions, see M. Nancy Cutt, Mrs. Sherwood and Her Books for Children (London: OUP, 1974), 76.
2 Brendan A. Rapple, "The Evangelical Image of the Child in Mrs. Sherwood's The History of the Fairchild Family," Children's Literature Association QuarterlyProceedings (1991): 253.
3 Lynne Vallone, "'A Humble Spirit under Correction': Tracts, Hymns, and the Ideology of Evangelical Fiction for Children, 1780-1820," The Lion and the Unicorn 15.2 (Dec. 1991): 84.
Let me begin by giving away the "plot" of William Carus Wilson's Youthful Memoirs:
(Almost) everyone dies.
No, it's not Game of Thrones. Youthful Memoirs, first published in volume form in the 1820s, collects a number of exemplary narratives that had earlier been published in Wilson's evangelical periodical, The Children's Friend. Despite the usual summaries of this volume, many of the narratives in question are not, in fact, about young children, and not all of them are staged at deathbeds. "Young Seaman," for example, is about a conversion experience during a storm, while "Little George" uses a small child's secret generosity to exemplify true Christian charity. Although some of the subjects are genteel, many of the narratives are about working-class children and servants, whose resignation to their lots is supposed to model how to think about divine providence. For modern readers, the least plausible is the story of little Richard Treweeke, who, at age 3 1/2, has apparently grasped enough theology to understand that Jesus died for his sins, and seems to take positive pleasure in meditating on his impending doom. Like hagiographical narratives, the memoirs soon take on a repetitive quality: sinners may be infinitely diversified, but all elect Christians, of whatever age, are at one in their godliness. And, of course, youthful entertainment is not the goal here, but youthful meditation, conversion, and prayer. ("O pray for the Holy Spirit to change your hearts, and lead you to Christ," the collection concludes .)
The longest narrative belongs to "Sarah." Sarah suffers from an unexplained mental disability which renders her much less tractable than the other children in this text. At one point, she and her guardian, Mrs. H., have the following exchange:
I asked her, "Do you ever wish to be with Christ?" She returned the same answer with increased seriousness. I proceeded, "Do you know, my love, what must take place before we go to Christ?" Again pausing as if to think--she answered, "we must die, I believe, before we can go to heaven." I told her she had judged rightly; but that only those who truly loved Christ, would go to him when they died. After a short silence, she said, "we shall soon die." "Why, my dear child, do you think so?" "I don't know, but I think so, and I shall like to go to Jesus Christ in heaven." "Why so, dear Sarah?"--"Because when I go to heaven, I shall always be happy, and I shall glorify God there. I think heaven is a very happy place..."1
Now, if you're a Victorianist, or just a fan of Victorian fiction in general, the rhythms of that passage ought to sound vaguely familiar:
"No sight so sad as that of a naughty child," he began, "especially a naughty little girl. Do you know where the wicked go after death?"
"They go to hell," was my ready and orthodox answer.
"And what is hell? Can you tell me that?"
"A pit full of fire."
"And should you like to fall into that pit, and to be burning there for ever?"
"What must you do to avoid it?"
I deliberated a moment; my answer, when it did come, was objectionable: "I must keep in good health, and not die."
"How can you keep in good health? Children younger than you die daily. I buried a little child of five years old only a day or two since,--a good little child, whose soul is now in heaven. It is to be feared the same could not be said of you were you to be called hence."
Not being in a condition to remove his doubt, I only cast my eyes down on the two large feet planted on the rug, and sighed, wishing myself far enough away.
"I hope that sigh is from the heart, and that you repent of ever having been the occasion of discomfort to your excellent benefactress."
"Benefactress! benefactress!" said I inwardly: "they all call Mrs. Reed my benefactress; if so, a benefactress is a disagreeable thing."
"Do you say your prayers night and morning?" continued my interrogator.
"Do you read your Bible?"
"With pleasure? Are you fond of it?"
"I like Revelations, and the book of Daniel, and Genesis and Samuel, and a little bit of Exodus, and some parts of Kings and Chronicles, and Job and Jonah."
"And the Psalms? I hope you like them?"
"No? oh, shocking! I have a little boy, younger than you, who knows six Psalms by heart: and when you ask him which he would rather have, a gingerbread-nut to eat or a verse of a Psalm to learn, he says: 'Oh! the verse of a Psalm! angels sing Psalms;' says he, 'I wish to be a little angel here below;' he then gets two nuts in recompense for his infant piety."
"Psalms are not interesting," I remarked.
"That proves you have a wicked heart; and you must pray to God to change it: to give you a new and clean one: to take away your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh." (Jane Eyre, ch. 4)
In both cases, the converted adult interrogates a child whose spiritual health is questionable, the better to diagnose her "condition" and prescribe a disciplinary remedy. Sarah's narrative dramatizes the conversation proceeding "correctly": the adult conceals the catechetical nature of the dialogue, drawing the child's attention to the soteriological implications of her own innocent responses. Sarah's guardian is affectionate ("my dear," "my love"), and her questioning does not provoke any resistance at this point. (Notably, Sarah will have moments later on in which she does push back sharply; the narrator concludes that this was a "short advantage permitted to Satan"  before Sarah's triumph and death.) Moreover, the child already understands death in terms of comedy, as the soul's reunion with Christ in an eternally "happy" communion. Brocklehurst's interrogation, by contrast, parodies Youthful Memoirs' celebration of a firm but nurturing adult-child spiritual relationship. Jane obstinately refuses to stay on script, uses her silences to resist Brocklehurst's interpretation of her answers, and, above all, prioritizes life over death. The monologic quality of the catechism, in which both the questions and answers are predetermined, gets short shrift from Bronte; in effect, despite Jane's overt and covert rejection of Brocklehurst's terms, Brocklehurst continues to steamroll through his own set script, highlighting how little the child's subjectivity actually counts for in Carus Wilson's collection. And Jane's refusal to embrace death parodies not only Sarah, but also the religious child prodigies like Richard Treweeke, for whom death comes to constitute its own peculiar joy. (Jane, of course, will never be in favor of martyrdom when other options are available.) At this point in her career, the literal-minded Jane remains firmly of the body.
1 W. Carus Wilson, ed., Youthful Memoirs (Philadelphia: American Sunday-School Union, n.d.), 64-65.
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.
I've been buried beneath various papers (as well as buried under our blizzard, which was blizzard-y enough to actually prompt my campus to cancel classes). But here I am, back with...a novel even more terrible than usual.
A contemporary review of John Douglas DeLille's Canon Lucifer:A Novel on an English Social Aspect (1887) opines that "[s]ave for a certain vigorous, though rough descriptive power, it is impossible to commend this story," which sums up this novel's quality well enough. The short-lived Mr. DeLille, who died three years later, was actually an American--he was the American consul at Bristol--and did not have time to perpetrate another novel upon the unsuspecting public. In any event, Canon Lucifer takes on one of the most serious crises in Victorian England: the tendency of clergymen without true vocations to murder their fathers-in-law, have rampant out-of-wedlock sex, attempt to murder virtuous young men, try to rape wealthy women, and strangle landladies. That's before they die from gargantuan South American spiders chowing down on their brain (yes, really) and wind up on a dissecting table. (I trust you were all taking notes.) As all students of Victorian literature know, there was practically an epidemic of men like these, committing all sorts of mayhem, sending shivers down the spine of every wealthy aristocrat--
OK, maybe DeLille was being a trifle hyperbolic in imagining his clergyman's career.
In theory, Canon Lucifer has, buried deep (very deep) within its eye-poppingly inane plot, a serious point about how turning the position of clergyman into a genteel career has effectively subverted the Church of England's moral fiber. DeLille's argument (to the extent that we can find one) suggests that professionalization means secularization: the man who enters the Church for "money and social eminence" instead of "vocation" (353) imports the profane into the sacred, turning a position that should be beyond the market into something answering primarily to market forces. In practice, however, reading Canon Lucifer is like riding a particularly rickety genre and mode rollercoaster. Most of the time, it's a sub-Collinsesque or -Braddonesque sensation novel. Except when it's a Western dime novel (complete with every racist stereotype known to humanity). Or a knockoff of one of Anthony Trollope's Barchester novels. Or a discourse on the decay of late-Victorian journalism and authorship more generally, which anticipates New Grub Street but is more probably harking back to Pendennis. There's a gambling scene that seems equal parts Vanity Fair and Daniel Deronda, and a bunch of randomly wandering allusions to Dickens, looking dazed and forlorn. And all of it is couched in dialogue straight out of melodrama; if our eponymous canon, James Morson, had a mustache to twirl, he'd twirl it so tight that the ends would look like corkscrews. ("Beware of driving me to do the worst in my power, Emanuel Mildon!" ) Our villain has no redeeming virtues; our hero is resolutely innocent, even when faced with large quantities of nubile young ladies flaunting their, er, attributes (this is a late Victorian novel, so the sex is less coded and more...right there); our hero's love interest is exquisitely pure. But hey, spiders in brains.
Part II of this draft of our imaginary list takes us through multiple big, interrelated, and protracted religious struggles: the fallout from Catholic Emancipation (1829); the emergence of the Oxford Movement and the spate of conversions to Roman Catholicism that followed in the mid-1840s; the controversy over the Maynooth Grant; the "Papal Aggression"; and Jewish Emancipation. Somewhat inconveniently, there are many more relevant works for our imaginary graduate student to read. There are, however, some recognizable authors other than Jane Austen.
Grace Aguilar, The Perez Family (1847) [one of the few attempts at Anglo-Jewish controversial fiction, by one of the nineteenth century's most popular Jewish authors; in print]
---, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) [object lesson in why reforming nasty guys is a losing proposition; includes a detailed discussion of universalism; in print]
Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre (1847) [yes, really, it's a Christian novel; in print]
---, Villette (1853) [lots of controversy about how we're to take its anti-Catholic themes; in print]
Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights (1847) [some pretty "heretical," in Simon Marsden's turn of phrase, things going on here; in print]
George Eliot, Scenes of Clerical Life (1857) [Eliot's historical novellas ponder various religious and social tensions; in print]
Frederic William Farrar, Eric; Or, Little by Little: A Tale of Roslyn School (1858) ["public school tale" featuring spiritual degeneration, boyhood temptations, psychological and physical abuse, and deaths of various sorts, until the title character is finally reclaimed by dying himself]
James Anthony Froude, TheNemesis of Faith (1849) [notorious novel of "doubt" and its consequences]
Lady Georgiana Fullerton, Ellen Middleton(1844) [in a fit of rage, a girl pushes her cousin to her death, and is haunted by it until she finally finds release through confession; internationally-successful High Church novel, published prior to the author's conversion to Roman Catholicism]
Osborn W. Trenery Heighway, Leila Ada, the Jewish Convert: An Authentic Memoir (1852) [a very dubious conversion narrative by the even more dubious Heighway, who was successfully prosecuted for passing off a faked religious autobiography as the real thing; nevertheless, one of the most significant examples of the genre, and still has a vogue in messianic circles]
Charles Kingsley, Hypatia; Or, New Foes with An Old Face (1853) [uses the story of the philosopher Hypatia and her death to contemplate contemporary religious problems in the UK, especially the Oxford Movement and the growing prominence of English Catholicism]
John Henry Newman, Loss and Gain: The Story of a Convert (1848) [the best-known Catholic controversial novel, probably because it doesn't behave like other Catholic controversial novels--and, of course, it's by Newman...]
Francis Edward Paget, Milford Malvoisin: Or, Pews and Pewholders(1842) [High Church novel, set in the seventeenth century and the present day, about the spiritual dangers posed by pews and the concomitant need for church restoration]
Elizabeth Missing Sewell, MargaretPercival (1847) [young woman is almost entrapped by the allure of Catholicism before being convinced to remain Anglican]
William Sewell, Hawkstone: A Tale of and For England in 184- (1845) [former pal of the Tractarians proceeds to bludgeon them really hard; also, evil union agitators and an especially creepy death by rats; has some interesting parallels to Disraeli's Sybil]
Catherine Sinclair, Beatrice:Or, theUnknown Relatives (1852) [an example of how anti-Catholic novelists responded to the "Papal Aggression"; a mysterious survivor of a shipwreck, evil Catholics trying to take over, female Jesuits, etc.]
Frances [Mother Mary Magdalen] Taylor, Tyborne: 'And Who went thither in the Days of Queen Elizabeth'(1859) [also known as Father de Lisle; internationally successful Catholic historical novel, part of the wave of fiction written by influential converts; an attempt to counter the Protestant turn to the Book of Martyrs]
Anthony Trollope, The Warden (1855) [an Anglican clergyman finds himself entrapped in a increasingly-heated kerfuffle over money; in print]
Frances Trollope, Father Eustace:A Tale ofthe Jesuits (1847) [a good example of how anti-Catholic fiction proceeded to "heat up" as the century continued; the Church plots to take a young heiress' property, thanks to some romantic underhandedness]
Charlotte Yonge, The Heir of Redclyffe(1853) [High Church bestseller, featuring the dangers of secrecy and skepticism against the virtues of Christian faith and honesty, plus illness, death, skulduggery, etc.]
---, The DaisyChain (1856) [moral and spiritual struggles within a big family, plus some rather unusual notions about near-sightedness]
You have a desperate urge to study nineteenth-century British religious fiction, no doubt because you have been reading my blog for a decade and find it all Extremely Exciting. It's time to take your qualifying examinations, and you've been asked to design a reading list. What do you read?
This is draft #1 of part #1 of my imaginary list, covering fiction written between 1800 and 1837. (Imaginary in the sense of it not being anyone's actual list, anyway.) More books will be added as I go on (see "draft #1," above). Items are limited to books that one could plausibly expect the imaginary graduate student to read without trekking long distances and/or to entirely different countries. (There are some children's books that I haven't been able to read yet, for example, because...anyone want to fund yet another trip to the UK?)
E. C. Agnew, Geraldine: A Tale of Conscience (1837-39) [one of the most successful early Catholic novels, to which Agnew later wrote a sequel, Rome and the Abbey; spawned at least one Protestant riposte, Gerald]
Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna, Derry: A Tale of the Revolution (1833) [historical novel about the Siege of Derry; by the 1840s, this was already a "go-to" example of religious fiction for literary critics]
It is so very tempting to read Charlotte Bronte's poem "The Missionary" ironically, thanks to its speaker's close proximity to Jane Eyre's St. John Rivers, both as a character (a missionary who has abandoned his beloved in order to seek martyrdom abroad) and in terms of composition (Bronte's editor Tom Winnifrith, who also notes the St. John parallel, suggests that Bronte may have penned it for Poems 1). But reading the ambivalent St. John back into "The Missionary" imports "our"--by which I mean non-Christian, non-evangelical, or at the very least secular--considerable unease with the poem's enthusiastic embrace of the Church Militant into a poem that shows no corresponding anxiety. (And it also requires us to forget that Jane Eyre's critique of St. John does not actually extend to his goal.) As Marianne Thormahlen points out, the model for both St. John and the unnamed missionary was probably HenryMartyn, of whom the Brontes were well aware (214-17). At the same time, this is not to say that the poem fails to query its speaker's motivations, although his internal divisions do not precisely mimic St. John's.
The very presence of "I" in the poem may well constitute part of its internal struggle. When I taught this poem a few weeks ago, my students and I noticed that despite the onslaught of imperative verbs (usually as trochaic substitutions) with which the poem opens, the speaker is object rather than subject until he reaches "I grasp the plough" (14). If the speaker's difficulties with thinking about himself as a subject suggest that something has gone awry with his will, his repeated turn to the "I" hints that the fallen human ego keeps intruding on God's vessel. Part of the paradox of missionary work, that is, is that, in Eli Smith's words, the missionary "must make himself felt" (17) even as he must also "acknowledge and feel his dependence upon God" (23). Christian independence truly emerges only in the wake of the greater felt dependence; the soul's virtue is, after all, not of its own making. For the speaker, his first step toward living in God was the "Jephtha vow" (43) that immolated his remaining desires for his beloved Helen; unlike Abraham, stopped from sacrificing Isaac, Jephtha went through with his oath to sacrifice his daughter, a decision that was still hotly debated at the time Bronte was writing. The ambiguity of this allusion (pious? impious?) is not helped by the "I"-ness of the stanza that follows, which justifies the righteousness of rejecting marital love in favor of the missionary's vocation. In a sentence that stretches from lines 75 to 90, subdivided into three sections each opening with "I," the speaker implicitly contrasts his innocent childhood experience of "Jesus' love" (80) to that self-regard he associates with sexual desire, concluding that "[d]ared I draw back or hesitate,/When called to heal the sickness sore/Of those far off and desolate?" (88-90) Erotic desire draws the speaker back to the prison of the "I"; Christ calls him outward to the community of sinners. His insistent return to "I" here, though, in the context of an extended self-justification (he is still, after all, trying to explain to the absent Helen why he had to abandon her), implies the ongoing pull of his past. The "I" and its longings aspires to the model of Christ, but the tug of "mere" human satisfactions remains.
To what extent does the speaker successfully negotiate the shoals of selfishness? "The Missionary" dwells on the garden of the soul, both the speaker's and that of those whom he has gone to save. The speaker's soul in the opening is choked with "weeds" (11), the "[m]ere human love, mere selfish yearning,/Which, cherished, would arrest me yet" (12-13). This clogged garden, the speaker implies, cannot be "[c]leared" (11) by the speaker's own agency, but only by his figurative transplantation from England to India--a somewhat egotistical interpretation of the missionary vocation. Our speaker's rather contorted understanding of both his own agency and of God's is again on view here: the soul's cultivation appears to be neither under his control nor under God's, but instead the altered routines of overseas existence. Closer to the end of the poem, when the garden image recurs in full force, the speaker momentarily steps outside himself to laud the missionary's vocation: "Yes, hard and terrible the toil/Of him who steps on foreign soil,/Resolved to plant the gospel vine,/Where tyrants rule and slaves repine" (107-110). No longer preoccupied with his interior garden, the missionary instead envisions himself as part of a larger army devoted to the organic spread of Christian faith, losing the individual in the group. "So I the culture may begin," the speaker prays, "Let others thrust the sickle in;/If but the seed will faster grow,/May my blood water what I sow!" (154-57) In this sense, the poem describes a spiritual as well as physical journey, as the missionary shifts focus from self-culturing to self-sacrifice as part of a larger, communal effort; the appearance of "may" reminds both the speaker and the reader that the missionary vocation is a godly calling that depends on God's gift of strength, not (as St. John Rivers would initially have it) the missionary's "mere" human will, marked as it is by sin.
1The Poems of Charlotte Bronte, ed. Tom Winnifrith (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1984), 363.