Archive for March 8th, 2014

08/03/2014

Speaking of evangelicalism…

I always enjoy it when my reading threads accidentally cross.

Having completed my post on Bernard Leslie, I relaxed with my current read, Vineta Colby’s Yesterday’s Woman: Domestic Realism In The English Novel. Although I have my problems with Colby’s style, I like the fact that she gets off the beaten track when examining the 19th century novel. In this particular study she examines the novel’s shift from romanticism to reality during the first half of the century.

After discussing “the fashionable novel” and “the novel of education”, Colby gives us a lengthy chapter on “the evangelical novel”, which in the context of Bernard Leslie and William Gresley’s use of “Evangelical” offers yet another way of thinking about this most fluid of terms. She uses it, most deliberately, with a small ‘e’ – “evangelical” – to indicate not a form of religious belief or practice, or even a religious party, but an attitude, an approach to religion:

The English church of the Victorian period was Protestant. Beyond that simple declarative statement it is impossible to make any generalisation about Victorian religion that cannot be seriously challenged. The stability, tranquillity, and homogeneity so often and so wrongly attributed to the Victorian age was nowhere more vulnerable and tenuous than in matters of religious belief. The half century from 1800 to 1850 that saw the passage of the Catholic Emancipation Act and the first Reform Bill, the flourishing of the Claphamite sect and the Oxford Movement, the evolution of Evangelicalism and Dissent from the status of radical fringe to solid respectability, the emergence of textual criticism and revisionism in biblical study, and open expression of scepticism and even atheism, was a period of religious ferment and turmoil less violent but no less dramatic than the Reformation…

The strongest religious force in nineteenth-century English life was evangelicalism. This term is to be understood in its broadest sense, referring not merely to that school of Protestantism which, by dictionary definition, maintains that “the essence of the Gospel consists in the doctrine of salvation by faith in the atoning work of Christ, and denies that either good works or the sacraments have any saving efficacy,” but to the many movements of religious enthusiasm and reform that swept through every Christian denomination. Victorian evangelicalism…was all but ecumenical in spirit if not in fact…

Evangelicalism embraced not only the entire spectrum of Protestant belief but also the widest social scene. It cut across class divisions and barriers that no political revolution could have trampled. Emphasising practical morality and philanthropy rather than theology, directed primarily to the emotions rather than to reason, it appealed to all ages and all classes…

The nineteenth century began with revolution in France, a tired and debauched monarchy in England, a starved and exploited working class both in the farms and in the industrial towns, massive drunkenness, prostitution, and crime. By the middle of the century, social and moral reform had swept England. No historian of the period underestimates the importance of evangelicalism in that reform movement…

Take THAT, William Gresley!

Of course, Gresley himself would no doubt argue that all this is quite irrelevant beside the Evangelical rejection of the sacraments; that all the people helped by reform and perhaps converted by Evangelical zeal are going to hell anyway, because they’re being taught the wrong doctrine. (I keep getting a mental image of an exasperated individual stamping his foot and saying crossly, “No, no, no! – that’s not how you do religion!”)

But as Vineta Colby makes clear in her introduction, we are talking here about emotional evangelicalism: a definition that allows her to classify together the novels of an amazingly disparate group of writers. Colby is uninterested in straight doctrinal “novels” like Bernard Leslie and Steepleton, whether they be for or against Evangelicalism, focusing instead upon the increasingly popular domestic-evangelical school of writing, a female dominated sub-genre of the religious novel:

We may therefore stretch the designation “evangelical novel” to embrace the extremes from Low Church to High, from Charlotte Elizabeth (Mrs Tonna), whose passionate anti-Catholicism made her positively regret her missed chance for Protestant martyrdom (as a child inspired by “that magic book” Foxe’s Acts And Monuments, she asked her father if she might someday hope to become a martyr; “Why, Charlotte,” he replied, “if the government ever gives power to the Papists again, as they talk of doing, you may probably live to be a martyr”), to Charlotte Yonge, whose Anglo-Catholicism inspired her to translate the intellectual issues of the Oxford Movement into romances of daily life that enchanted several generations of readers. In between we may include novelists of every variety and sect—Methodist, Presbyterian, Low-Broad-High Church. Even Roman Catholic converts like Lady Georgiana Fullerton and John Henry Newman wrote novels with the same zeal and fervour though for a different faith. And a Jewish novelist, Grace Aguilar, was evangelical, affirming in her Preface to Home Influence: A Tale For Mothers And Daughters that Christian readers need not fear: “…as a simple domestic story, the characters in which are all Christians, believing in and practising that religion, all doctrinal points have been most carefully avoided, the author seeking only to illustrate the spirit of true piety and the virtues always designated as the Christian virtues hence proceeding. Her sole aim with regard to Religion has been to incite a train of serious and loving thought toward God and man, especially toward those with whom he has linked us in the precious ties of parent and child, brother and sister, master and pupil…”

Call me crazy, but right now a religious novel in which “all doctrinal points have been most carefully avoided” seems strangely attractive…