Archive for January, 2016

10/01/2016

Search Your Soul, Eustace

maison1bSo valuable seem these novels as powerfully revealing searchlights focused upon the Victorian spiritual scene, and as sensitive seismographic recordings of the cracks and upheavals in the accepted religious tradition, that they deserve a better fate than the neglect accorded to them by the mid-twentieth century. For, despite the advance of modern scholarship towards a reinterpretation of Victorian literature, our rich and abundant heritage of religious novels remains largely untouched. Its very abundance is probably a drawback, for the reader is presented with such an overwhelming embarrass de richesse that he scarcely knows where to begin. Our own very different religious climate also puts these novels at a disadvantage; so many of the stories run counter to the trend of modern taste and may inspire the reader of today with little more than boredom, revulsion or irreverent amusement. But there are splendid treasures among the huge dust-heaps and even those novels most sadly lacking in literary talent or spiritual profundity still remain for us as precious clues to the understanding of the Victorian march of mind. They are worth at least a glance or two, and, using for the sake of clarity the denominational framework of Christian belief in Victorian England, this survey will attempt to give the modern reader a glimpse, swift and superficial though it may be, into some of the many religious novels that so affected his Victorian forefathers, shaking or strengthening them in their beliefs, moving them to tears or paroxysms of rage, filling them with doubt and despair or bringing them to repentance and conversion.

As this quote rightly points out, the Victorian religious novel is one of the most important but least studied subgenres of 19th century literature—probably less because of subsequent shifts in beliefs, attitudes and interests than (as this quote also suggests) the gruelling nature of the material to be worked through. Still—a few brave academics have made the journey. We have already considered Joseph Ellis Baker’s 1932 study, The Novel And The Oxford Movement; the next notable work in this area was Search Your Soul, Eustace: A Survey Of The Religious Novel In The Victorian Age by Margaret Maison, published in 1961.

This later study differs from its predecessor in three important ways. Firstly – or so it seems to me – Dr Maison has less of a personal axe to grind: whereas Joseph Baker both admitted a bias in his views, in that he was a practising Catholic, and consequently omitted any notice in his work of the pro- and anti-Catholic wrangling that forms a significant aspect of the Victorian religious novel, Maison displays no personal bent, but examines each branch of this subgenre with interest. Secondly, as the title of her study indicates, Maison is detached enough to be fully alive to the inadvertent humour of this form of writing, which makes this a much easier work to read and enjoy. And thirdly, a related point, Maison understands (ii) that a bad novel is not necessarily an unentertaining novel, and (ii) that a bad novel can tell its reader just as much, if not more, about the society that produced it than a good one. She also has a keen eye for those works which are worth reading, as novels.

Maison begins by outlining the prevailing conditions at the time of the Oxford Movement, a period which saw the birth of the Victorian religious novel. It can be difficult these days to imagine the deadly seriousness of this conflict, and to grasp that it expressed itself not just in literary sniping, but in book-burning, attacks on churches, and violence in the streets:

    If England escaped the horrors of a revolution in the Victorian age her National Church did not. The history of the Church of England during this time is a stirring record of warfare, struggle, persecution, agonised secession and fiercest conflict, differences in religious belief causing hostilities not merely confined to verbal clashes, lawsuits and imprisonments but extending to the level of actual physical fighting…
    The Anglican Church had indeed awakened from her eighteenth century slumbers to become a real Church Militant. It was unfortunate, however, that so much of her war was internal, that the enemy was within as well as without, and that, in addition to the attacks of scientists and biblical critics, rationalists and agnostics, the hostilities of Dissent and the audacities of “papal aggression”, she had to contend with innumerable battles among her own ranks. The three principal groups in the Church of England, High, Low and Broad, were frequently at daggers drawn, and controversy raged throughout most of Victoria’s reign, the ritualism that marked the second phase of the Oxford Movement causing even greater uproars and the growth of religious liberalism provoking the increasing wrath of its opponents as the century progressed. High attacked Low and Broad, Low and Broad attacked High, Broad attacked Low, Low attacked Broad, confusions within the parties themselves making matters worse, for each group had its moderates, its extremists and various divergences, giving every appearance of a reign of anarchy within the one Church…

It was the Tractarians – in particular, William Gresley and Francis Paget – who first realised the potential of the novel as propaganda for their cause. However, it is important that we realise how much resistance there was at first to this form of writing: using religion as the basis of a novel, turning it into a form of mere entertainment, was considered by many people to be the height of disrespect. The early novelists were very mindful of this—with the result that you can search some of their works with the proverbial fine-tooth comb and not find anything that resembles “entertainment”:

    …”red-hot Puseyite stories” and “Oxford Movement tales”…flourished considerably in the eighteen-forties and fifties and were enthusiastically welcomed by keen Tractarians.
    Today, however, even the most devout High Anglican would survey these novels with a more critical eye. Their faults are glaring. Clumsy in technique, clumsy in construction, they are deficient in plot, characterisation and entertainment value. In general they conform to two set patterns and describe two imaginary types of lives—either the history of a chastened penitent or the life and opinions of a kind of propaganda prig.

Maison’s opening chapter proper, dealing with Tractarian fiction, is in fact entitled “Prigs, Pews And Penitents“: much to my delight, she tends to refer to the lead character of these tales not as “the hero”, but as “the prig”; a habit that almost leads me to forgive her for the fact that it was, almost certainly, as a result of my first reading of Search Your Soul, Eustace some years back that both the rabidly Tractarian Bernard Leslie; or, A Tale Of The Last Ten Years and its equally rabid factional enemy, Steepleton; or, High Church And Low Church, found their way onto The List.

But apparently I haven’t yet learned my lesson, because Maison’s comments about Gresley’s 1841 novel, Charles Lever; or, The Man Of The Nineteenth Century, really make me want to read it. After dismissing the “prig” novels as simply “monologue and disputation”, and noting with amusement the Tractarian fixation upon church restoration and pew-building – to which subjects, entire books were devoted – she moves onto the generally more interesting “penitent fiction”:

The lives of the penitents are slightly more colourful, and in describing the temptations into which the erring heroes are led the authors had more scope both for narrative and for imaginative writing, although they are somewhat hampered by early Victorian moral and literary conventions, as Gresley’s Charles Lever shows. Charles is the victim of Satanic influences, a Dissenting father and a Latitudinarian schoolmaster who teaches him “a sort of general religion”… Poor Charles inevitably becomes a Liberal, then a Socialist and then apparently something too dreadful to mention. “We must draw a veil over some portion of our hero’s life,” says the author discreetly.

Most of the early religious novels are painful, slogging affairs, dogmatic lectures thinly disguised as fiction. In their terror of being accused of denigrating religion, the novelists of this time – Tractarian or Evangelical, but exclusively male – shied away from including any recognised fiction conventions in their books, evincing a particular terror of the love-plot.

Ironically enough, we may say that it was the female novelists who “saved” the religious novel; or at least who, for better or worse, extended its lifespan for decades by showing how it should be written. On the whole women were very hesitant to get involved in this area: feeling that religious practice and church dogma were matters beyond their understanding, and that to speak of them was to step outside their proper sphere, they looked around for other ways of supporting and promoting their religious beliefs in their novels—and began to write stories of how religious faith impacted ordinary daily life. Nor did these women see any reason to avoid a love story, often describing marriages built upon a shared faith and practice (or the catastrophe of the reverse). Consequently, the religious novels written by women are real novels, with plots and characters as well as religious propaganda; and unsurprisingly, they are usually far easier to digest than those of their male counterparts.

However—this does not mean that they are not sometimes just as terrible…

One of the most misunderstood pieces of 19th century writing is George Eliot’s essay, Silly Novels By Scribbling Women, which far too many people interpret as a bit of arrogance on Eliot’s part, dismissive of all female writers but herself. This is because they haven’t read it. In fact, Eliot’s essay is chiefly focused upon the religious novel: it does not really address the authors in question – though she is very critical of those novels which went too far in the opposite direction, forcing a church-plot upon a conventional love story and then preening themselves upon being “religious” – but rather criticises the publishers who encouraged this sort of nonsense, and were thus, in her opinion, responsible for the very denigration of religion that the early novelists had feared. We should also note that is was the Evangelical novel that Eliot was particularly attacking.

The specific novel that provoked Eliot was The Old Grey Church by Caroline Lucy Scott (aka Lady Scott), from 1856:

…the heroine’s father, a banker, cannot resist temptation and commits the crime of forgery. This unfortunate man, the author tells us, “was by birth, education and manners quite what is termed a gentleman; but the horrid trade in which he was engaged—that of money-making—had by degrees hardened and even vulgarised both his mind and feelings.” This sinner, as we might expect, is hanged at Newgate, after a last minute repentance and conversion when, we are told, “his prison-house became to him a passage,—an entry into the gates of heaven.” This story also boasts a very coy heroine, always blushing and swooning, and a smug clerical hero…who sternly rejects anything savouring of worldliness, from opera tickets to frivolous fiancées, and ends up as a missionary in India (that country being the favourite missionary field for the Evangelicals).

Shortly afterwards, Eliot herself began writing fiction – Evangelical fiction, which is why she was so sensitive to bad writing in this area. Maison treats these writings with the proper respect, both for their moral and literary qualities, and most closely analyses Scenes From Clerical Life.

However, Eliot was not the only good female novelist in this area; and Maison highlights and praises three High Church ladies: Charlotte Yonge, Elizabeth Sewell and Felicia Skene. Yonge and Sewell can be a bit of a challenge these days, between the former’s rabid anti-feminism and the latter’s philosophy of complete female subjugation. The wild card here is Felicia Skene who, after an attempt to subjugate herself in the manner recommended by Sewell, broke free and began a new life as a social reformer, also boldly writing novels with daring subject matter such as prison conditions and prostitution.

On the other side of the fence, Eliot excepted, Maison struggles to find praiseworthy female authors, at least in the sense of quality:

    …from the eighteen-fifties onwards Evangelical writers busied themselves with sensational rather than psychological fiction and produced some very trashy tales of murders, hangings, elopements, shipwrecks, deathbeds full of unutterable agony, and dozens of wildly improbable conversions, all conveniently attributed to divine grace. In vain did the Pure Literature Society (founded in 1854 with three archbishops and sixteen bishops on the committee) rail against contemporary taste—the rising tide of sensationalism was too powerful to control. In 1863 the Religious Tract Society felt itself bound to lay down “the essential rules for healthful fiction”, insisting that it should be moral (not investing vice with interest), natural (not exaggerating its characters) and unexciting (not arousing the passions). But the rules were frequently broken by Evangelicals and although writers like Miss Fanny Mayne (a stalwart denouncer of sensationalism and champion of “a purified penny press”) kept within the prescribed limits and wrote about good working-class heroines who cooked their fathers’ dinners and did needlework for ladies and clung tenaciously to their Bibles, such stories did not please the public nearly as much as the more eventful and exciting ones.
    Hence the secret of Miss Worboise’s popularity. Emma Jane Worboise (Mrs Guyton) was a zealous Low Church writer who produced nearly fifty novels in which religious, domestic and sensational elements are all judiciously blended. She tells her stories well, and her portrayals of domestic life are not without psychological skill; indeed; she has left us several quite penetrating studies of the husband-wife relationship…

On the religious side, however:

Miss Worboise’s main interest…is in showing how people are brought to God… But her characters are always converted after some highly dramatic event, some bereavement or great shock or tragic calamity. It is no doubt a well-attested truth that God does draw many souls to Him through profoundly shattering experiences of this kind, but the frequency with which Miss Worboise employs this method of making conversions in her novels suggests that in her conception of the Divine Plan she attached an exaggerated importance to shock-tactics.

Before you ask—yes of course Miss Worboise is on The List; while I can’t leave this section of Search Your Soul, Eustace without quoting this passing observation from Dr Maison:

In minor Victorian fiction, governesses who are disguised wives are nearly as common as clergymen who are disguised Jesuits.

(We’ll get to the Jesuits in a minute…)

While the 19th century religious novel was thematically dominated by High Church / Low Church brawling, the Broad Church faction also weighed in on the conflict, in novels that appear to differ from their fellows chiefly in the occasional display of a sense of humour! Maison singles out F. W. Robinson in this respect, praising him for “satire without bitterness”. Furthermore:

Ridicule is indeed a weapon that Broad Church novelists use with considerable success, and it is not surprising that the most amusing religious novel of the century should come from a Liberal pen. The Reverend W. J. Conybeare’s Perversion (1856) is a neglected masterpiece of humorous fiction. (Lest the title might appear misleading, it should be noticed that the word “perversion” in popular Victorian usage had a religious and not a sexual significance, and to pervert or ‘vert meant to apostatise.) This book is written with the excellent purpose of showing how “the inconsistency, extravagance or hypocrisy of those who call themselves Christians” has the effect of driving the young into infidelity, and it tells the story of a young man’s quest for faith and his wanderings in the mazes of ecclesiastic conflict and labyrinths of scepticism that characterise the mid-Victorian spiritual scene… Conybeare’s clerical portraits, his descriptions of the free-thinkers’ club at Oxford, and, mirabile dictu, life among the Mormons in America, are some of the funniest pieces of writing in all religious fiction…

Having devoted approximately half her text to this mainstream in-fighting, Maison then looks outwards, devoting a chapter each to the minority religions, and to those novels dealing with the loss of, or lack of, religious faith.

Though Catholicism appears most frequently in the 19th century novel in the form of anti-Catholicism, Catholic novelists also had plenty to say. First and foremost amongst them, of course, was John Henry Newman, whose conversion to Roman Catholicism was to the Tractarians like a bomb going off in their midst. (While we can easily imagine the astonished glee of the Evangelicals: “We warned you! We warned you, but you wouldn’t listen!”) After the event, Newman provided an account of his experiences in Loss And Gain, one of the most important Catholic novels.

But as Maison points out, nearly all the Catholic novels dealt with a conversion, and many of them were written by converts: this branch of religious fiction seems almost entirely driven by the need to explain the irresistible pull of faith. A particularly interesting novelist is Lady Georgiana Fullerton, who began to write novels at a time when her she was questioning her own faith, and did so throughout the process of her conversion to Catholicism and beyond. We should also note the sad case of Elizabeth Harris, who converted to Catholicism and then regretted it. She stayed within her new church, however—and began writing novels that warned people off converting!

Most of the Catholic novels are serious and well-intentioned, whatever their literary qualities. The same cannot be said for the anti-Catholic novel, however, nor for its perpetual villain, The Wicked Jesuit (who was sometimes granted a side-kick in the form of The Wicked She-Jesuit):

    Few modern horror comics could equal in crudity, sadism, hysteria and blood-curdling violence the story of Jesuits in popular Victorian fiction. From the best-selling literature of the day we see that the Jesuit loomed large in Protestant imagination as a villain of the blackest dye, a spy, a secret agent, suave, supercilious and satanically unscrupulous, laying his cunning plots for the submission of England to “Jesuit-ocracy”, wheedling rich widows, forcing his converts to change their wills in favour of his Order, or kneel in penitence almost naked for hours through chilly winter nights and to leave their families for life at a minute’s notice. When frustrated in his knavish tricks he would frequently gnash his teeth, foam at the mouth and write frantic letters in cypher…
    For the Jesuits were, to the average Englishman, objects of suspicion, fear and hatred throughout Queen Victoria’s reign, and the disguised Jesuit (sometimes referred to as a “crypto-Jesuit”) occupied the same place in popular fiction of the nineteenth century as the Communist spy in the fiction of today. The Oxford Movement, of course, increased the fear and hatred enormously, Tractarianism being considered by many Protestants as part of a devilish Jesuit plot to convert England—Puseyism, Popery and Jesuitism being to many unenlightened minds synonymous terms…

After noting the hysterical anti-Catholic fictions of Mary Martha Sherwood (best known for her hair-raising Evangelical children’s tale, The History Of The Fairchild Family), Maison becomes one of several academics to single out Hawkstone by William Sewell (brother of Elizabeth Sewell) as the very worst of the bunch:

Intending to show the British public what a ghastly mistake Newman had made in embracing the Scarlet Woman earlier that year, Sewell paints an abominable picture of Catholicism and makes his Jesuit villain a most loathsome character who foams at the mouth even more horribly than Mrs Sherwood’s Jesuits, and meets his death by being eaten alive by rats (full details given).

This branch of fiction also threw up another example of the kind of thing that made George Eliot tear her hair, with a number of female writers producing novels that posed as “religious” but were really about the thwarted agonies of Jesuits in love:

…in Miss Worboise’s Father Fabian (1875), a novel permitted for Sunday reading in many Protestant households, the hero, who has “a noble nature, warped and vitiated, forced…into uncongenial basesness”, falls in love with the governess in the wealthy household into which he has insinuated himself. To him too is meted out an untimely and repentant deathbed. (He also has a female accomplice, a “Jesuitess” with false curls, a “horrid little laugh” and a habit of putting emetic in people’s cough-mixtures.)

Catholic writers tried to push back against these two tides of nonsense—Maison particularly notes Grace Kennedy’s Father Oswald, A Genuine Catholic Story—but only succeeded in resembling the boy with his finger in the dyke.

When they weren’t having a go at the Catholics, Protestant authors of this ilk might be found having a go at the Dissenters:

If the Jesuit was only too often a nasty piece of work in Victorian fiction, so also was the Dissenter. But whereas the Jesuit and his intrigues were at least clever, exotic and exciting, the Dissenter was usually shown as ignorant, drab, provincial and depressing…

And while the Catholics were able to fight their own battle in this respect, the Dissenters faced an almost insuperable barrier:

    We have scores of satirical and hostile sketches and unfortunately, to offset them, we have very few religious novels describing the inner life of characters who find true faith in Dissent or who deepen and enrich their belief in any of the Free Churches…
    One reason for this is clear—the novel was not, among avowed Free Churchmen, the accepted medium for describing the life of the spirit Like some of the stricter Evangelicals in the Church of England, they considered the novel to be the Devil’s Bible, and the puritan conscience classed novel-reading with theatre-going and card-playing as worldly amusements sent by Satan to ensnare the soul…

Though a few Dissenters did defy this tacit ban in defence of their faith—the Methodist Hocking family prominent amongst them—they were often held by their fellows to have done more harm than good. The Dissenting minister, George MacDonald, who lost his job after antagonising his flock, turned to the novel in place of his pulpit, and found success with the general public, if not his own people. Elizabeth Gaskell, a Unitarian, dared to make a Nonconformist minister the effective hero of her controversial novel, Ruth, and to contrast him with him with his distinctly un-Christian Anglican counterpart.

More outside views, such as those presented by George Eliot in Adam Bede and Margaret Oliphant in Salem Chapel, were popular, but the most successful pro-Dissent novels were, curiously, usually imports from America, where the ban does not seem to have been interpreted so strictly (or maybe it was a Presbyterian thing):

Heroines of tender years were popular too, and several little girls exemplifying Nonconformist virtue in America crossed the Atlantic to invade the Victorian nursery. The most famous of these was Ellen in The Wide, Wide World (1851), a best-seller by the Presbyterian writer Elizabeth Wetherell (Susan Warner). Victorian maidens lapped up the story of Ellen’s trials and temptations, but amongst little boys it was not quite so welcome. Lord Frederick Hamilton tells us that, “In my early youth I was given a book to read about a tiresome little girl called Ellen Montgomery, who apparently divided her time between reading her pocket Bible and indulging in paroxysms of tears.” This tale, with its lively scenes of American life and its continual exhortations to remember “our dear Saviour”, “our best Friend”, “our Physician”, was approved by thousands of Protestant mothers, and Ellen’s popularity has survived to the extent of having her story serialised on BBC Children’s Television a hundred years later…

But while all might have been serene in the average Victorian nursery, the greater world outside was gripped by an unprecedented upheaval. Consequently, in the second half of the 19th century the religious novel found itself sitting side-by-side by something equally powerful and for many people much more emotionally true and moving, the novel of doubt:

For, although scepticism and unbelief have always existed and found a voice in literature, the dethronement of orthodoxy in the Victorian age was a major event of far-reaching consequences, and the reverberations from this mighty crash were minutely and accurately recorded in contemporary writings. Never has any age in history produced such a detailed literature of lost faith…
The Oxford Movement, by not letting sleeping clergy lie, and by showing that simple faith was not as simple as the ordinary Anglican imagined, raised a spectre of doubt, and although it quickened the faith of some to a new birth it almost completely destroyed the faith of others, while the conflicts that arose between science and orthodoxy, geology and Genesis, evolutionary theories and accepted beliefs, caused those warriors whose shield of faith was not very stout to find themselves miserably defeated… It would be interesting to compile a list of eminent Victorians who lost their faith in the fray, or to enumerate well-known figures who, having contemplated or been destined for a career in the ministry, were forced by their changing convictions to renounce it. (This latter group would include men so diverse as Carlyle, Clough, Ruskin, Morris, Butler, Pater, Hardy, Burne-Jones, Alfred Tennyson and his brother Frederick, J. A. Froude, Hale White and even Charles Darwin himself.)

In the middle of the century, doubters and free-thinkers were invariably either converted or killed off. While such themes remained in the later decades of the century (conversion became the more popular option), there arose a significant body of work in which such men – almost always men – were being treated as heroes by the novels that described them, and were as likely to convert someone else as be converted themselves.

Nevertheless, the main reason that the novel of doubt so captured the popular imagination was that they did not hesitate to depict all the pain and uncertainty associated with a change in belief: as Newman had admitted in 1844, there was loss as well as gain; and a shift in faith that might alienate an individual from all they had previously held dear was something to be treated with respect. It was this emotional and spiritual environment that gave birth to the era’s overwhelming best-seller, Mary Humphry Ward’s Robert Elsmere, the story of a young minister who loses his faith, not in God, but in Christianity (this was a distinction often made). Ward was drawing upon her own crises of faith, and she returned to the same theme in her 1898 novel, Helbeck Of Bannisdale, which most unusually and daringly is the story of a female sceptic.

But in spite of the predominance of pain, there were those novelists who depicted a loss of faith as a new kind of freedom, a throwing off of weighty shackles. Those who felt that this in itself constituted sufficient material for a novel often made their central character a doctor: dedicated, hard-working, self-sacrificing—and faith-free. Other novelists, however, spoke for those who felt a void where their religion used to be, and sought to fill it with—well, what?

The fin-de-siècle aesthetes and decadents notoriously replaced it with the worship of beauty; others promoted what in an earlier time would have been called “good works”, and argued that religion had no monopoly on morality, charity and goodness; others again, though setting aside conventional worship, sought eagerly for what we might call “the historical Jesus”: trying, in effect, to wipe the slate and start over.

It is with a variation upon this final theme that Maison leaves us:

    …Marie Corelli saved the situation by rushing in where more learned novelists feared to tread. Not only did she popularise New Testament fiction in England, but she rescued the religious novel from the somewhat depressing rut of practical rationalism and pessimism into which it had fallen and exalted it into the glorious, miraculous and often very dizzy heights of a most vivid and extraordinary  Christocentric supernaturalism… No religious novel from this amazing pen is complete without a series of swoons, trances, psychic experiences, visitations of angels and aerial spirits, and generally an ecstatic vision of Christ himself to crown the day.
    In spite of the very glaring defects and limitations of Marie Corelli’s style it is an undeniable fact that she brought zest, vitality vision and imagination to the Victorian religious fiction at a time when it most needed them…

Religious novels, yes; novels of faith, certainly; but of a kind so bizarre and unique, readers of fifty years earlier would probably have added them to the bonfire, while even some contemporary readers were shocked and horrified:

    Thus the reign of Queen Victoria drew to its close, with Christianity being aestheticised, extroverted and even “electrified”, and Marie Corelli and Mrs Humphry Ward in undisputed sway as rulers of the religious novel, both commanding an enormous reading public and sales beyond the dreams of earlier novelists… Gresley and Paget, the fathers of Victorian theological fiction, would have been extremely shocked at the thought of such staggering influence allied to such staggering doctrines, for Miss Corelli’s eccentric revellings in supernatural fantasy and Mrs Ward’s earnest efforts on the other side to cope with “the crumbling of the Christian mythology” testify alike to the dissolution of traditional belief. The nemesis of a faith had at last received its popular recognition and acclamation, and the religious novel, the most influential ethical teacher of the time, fed the hungry sheep of late Victorian England with spiritual fare that differed considerably from the popular brands of nourishment offered fifty years earlier…
    The sixty or more years that separate us from the end of Queen Victoria’s reign have witnessed such great changes in literary taste and religious atmosphere that the majority of Victorian fictional sources of spiritual illumination, whether orthodox or unorthodox, Puseyite or Corellian, “infidel” or “perverted”, are now condemned to oblivion by the common reader of today, who neither understands nor appreciates the complicated theological traditions of his forefathers, and who generally finds crime more exciting than religion in fiction.
    But to the Victorian common reader, as we have seen, religion was an intensely exciting and absorbing affair. Even the religious novels least capable of communicating that excitement, three-deckers full of heavy didactic stodge with leading characters that are mere insipid “moral portraitures”, stiff, clumsy and lifeless (Paget’s pew was not the only “wooden hero” of a Victorian tale)—even these novels partly atone for their failure as fiction by demonstrating their authors’ deep concern with the Christian faith and by helping us to untangle some of the complex skeins of thought and belief in the Victorian age.

So I’m an “uncommon reader”? Cool!

One curious point about Search Your Soul, Eustace: Margaret Maison does not reveal within its pages the source of her title. (I should note that some territories found that title too facetious: this book was also published as The Victorian Vision: Studies in the Religious Novel.) But she does leave us a clue.

We have already met The Old Grey Church, the novel that provoked George Eliot. Allow me to reveal what was previously hidden under an ellipse:

This story also boasts a very coy heroine, always blushing and swooning, and a smug clerical hero named Eustace who sternly rejects anything savouring of worldliness…

03/01/2016

The Famous And Renowned History Of Sir Bevis Of Southampton

1689, and all that…

Fairly early last year I exasperated myself by stumbling across another work from the year I thought done and dusted: I was exasperated most of all because I couldn’t convince myself that it could legitimately be ignored.

The full title of this work is:

The Famous And Renowned History Of Sir Bevis Of Southampton: giving an account of his birth, education, heroick exploits, and enterprises, his fights with giants, monsters, wild-beasts, and armies, his conquering kings and kingdoms, his love and marriage, fortunes and misfortunes, and many other famous and memorable things and actions, worthy of wonder: with the adventures of other knights, kings and princes, exceeding pleasant and delightful to read

There are two copies of The Famous And Renowned History Of Sir Bevis Of Southampton accessible electronically, via the Early English Books Online project, the indirect source of most of my 17th century material. Ordinarily I download these early works in PDF form and read them on my eReader, but it soon became apparent that I would not be able to do so in this instance.

To my dismay, both copies of Sir Bevis exhibited a deadly combination of bleed-through and fade-out:

bevis5b

 

bevis6b

 

The fact that the entire book was printed in an almost-indecipherable Gothic font was merely the punchline to a bad joke.

However—by reading online, with the image blown up so as to give me some chance of dealing with the font, and by toggling between Copy A and Copy B as their individual idiosyncrasies demanded, I was finally able to decipher the text—and all for the low, low price of a splitting headache!

Imagine my “exceeding pleasure and delight”, then, when Sir Bevis turned out to be a Crusade-y sort of story, wherein Muslims who trick and deceive Christians are an evil scourge, while Christians who trick and deceive Muslims are pure and immaculate heroes; and Muslims who kill Christians are the tool of the devil, while Christians who kill Muslims are glorifying their God.

And let’s just say there was a whole lotta glorifying God going on.

After pondering the question, I’ve decided that I don’t want or need to go any further into the content of Sir Bevis: there’s nothing at all remarkable about it in a literary sense. It’s the bigger picture, the existence of Sir Bevis in this format in the first place, that is the important point, and the reason I couldn’t bring myself to just skip over it.

The story of Bevis of Hampton is much, much older than its 1689 rendering. For once, I think it’s easiest just to quote Wikipedia:

Bevis of Hampton (Old French: Beuve(s) or Bueve or Beavis de Hanton(n)e; Anglo-Norman: Boeve de Haumtone; Italian: Buovo d’Antona) or Sir Bevois, is a legendary English hero and the subject of Anglo-Norman, Dutch, French, English, Venetian and other medieval metrical romances that bear his name. The tale also exists in medieval prose versions, was transmitted to Romania and Russia, and was adapted into Dutch, Irish, Welsh, Old Norse and Yiddish… The oldest extant version, Boeve de Haumtone, an Anglo-Norman text, dates from the first half of the 13th century. It comprises 3,850 verses written in alexandrines.

(3,850 verses!? Apparently I should be counting my blessings…)

The story of this story is remarkable, and worth a read in full – here – particularly the assertion, one hard to argue with, that some version of this story was influential in the creation of Hamlet. (Long story short, Bevis’s mother conspires with her lover to murder her husband and son; the husband is killed but Bevis is saved and hidden by his maternal uncle, and later comes back for revenge—he’s a lot less indecisive about it than his descendent.)

Historically, the tale of Sir Bevis was astonishingly popular (which makes me feel a little bad for hating the 1689 version so very much). However, the aspect of it that I want to focus on is the shifting formats of the re-telling of the legend. As noted, this story was most often told in the form of an epic poem, either the English metrical romance or the French chanson de geste; with translations and adaptations toggling back and forth between the two nations before spreading to other countries and languages. Remarkably, the story of Sir Bevis became the first non-religious work to be printed in Yiddish, albeit in a somewhat de-Christianised version. (I’m curious how that might have worked, given the traditional plot…)

In England, meanwhile, version after version of Sir Bevis appeared in Middle English, all apparently descended from a single, earlier, now-lost work, but all of them telling the story in their own way and each varying significantly from the other. Modern scholars, attempting to reissue “the” story of Bevis in Middle English, were confronted with six manuscripts telling four or five different stories. That most commonly reprinted now is that taken from the so-called “Auchinleck manuscript” held by the National Library of Scotland, a codex dating from the 14th century. However, modern editors are at pains to acknowledge that this choice was made purely on the relative completeness of the available text, and should not be taken as privileging one version of the story over the others.

Versions of Bevis continued to appear in England over the following centuries: that by William Copland, which first appeared around 1560, is the oldest surviving complete edition; and this eventually became the “standard” version, being reissued regularly well into the 17th century. In fact, as the Spanish romances grew enormously in popularity in England, the story of Sir Bevis was the only local production to keep its audience; although it did eventually fall out of favour in the late 17th century, at least as a poem.

And THIS, my friends, is the real significance of The Famous And Renowned History Of Sir Bevis Of Southampton. Other countries had gone in the same direction literally centuries before (Russia seems to have gotten there first), but in England, where the Puritan resistance to fiction was a significant factor in the late emergence of the novel, it was not until 1689 that someone – we don’t know who – had the bright idea of taking William Copland’s epic poem and re-telling the legend in prose.

This, to me, is further evidence that during the closing years of the 17th century, the novel was becoming the dominant form of literary entertainment in England. It was no longer necessary to pretend to be telling a true story; it was no longer necessary to say “history” when you really meant “novel”. And it was perfectly okay to take a 350-year-old poem and turn it into a work of fiction, because that is what the English people wanted to read.

bevis7

 

 

02/01/2016

More than ordinarily pear-shaped

Well…2015 rather fell apart there, didn’t it? I’m sure that those of you who visit here – and other places – are tired of listening to me whinge, so I’ll just say that some significant personal issues developed over the second half of the year, which prevented me from giving much time to any of my hobbies. I am trying to make some changes at the moment, and I hope that we will all see an improvement in 2016.

As far as this blog in concerned, I am utterly mortified to realise that the putative main subject thread – that is, the development of the English novel – did not get a single update during 2015. There were a couple of reasons for this, none of them very satisfactory: the unappealing nature of the material was one (though that never stopped me before), while another was the fact that after signing off the year 1689 with a flourish some twelve months ago, I immediately came across another item from that year that I was unable to persuade myself could be legitimately ignored. I did read the item in question (short version: erk), but didn’t get around to posting. Hopefully with the help of a little loin-girding, it will be showing up here before too much longer.

A side-reason for not progressing in the Chronobibliography was the introduction of the Australian fiction section, which proved a major distraction. I also made some progress with my examination of early crime fiction, with posts on Eugène Sue’s Les Mystères de Paris and Catharine Crowe’s Men And Women; or, Manorial Rights. I also read Frances Trollope’s Hargrave, another important work in this respect…which had the effect of sending me off on yet another tangled tangent…

…because YET ANOTHER TOPIC AREA is exactly what I need right now.

When researching Hargrave, I discovered that several of Frances Trollope’s novels have crime themes, and should probably be included in this section of reviews. However—it was also asserted that a major influence upon Trollope, and in particular her tendency to mix disparate genres in her novels, was Edward Bulwer-Lytton, specifically his 1828 novel, Pelham; or, The Adventures Of A Gentleman.

This is where it gets complicated. Pelham in turn had been influenced by Benjamin Disraeli’s Vivian Grey, which was published the year before. Both of these novels drew heavily upon what is considered the first Bildungsroman, Johann Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship—and themselves influenced that odd, transitional English subgenre, the “Silver Fork Novel”…a topic I’ve been meaning to tackle, but put off because I felt I had quite enough to be going on with…

Which is of course beyond true. Trouble is, though, I’m now struggling to see this collision of elements as anything other than A SIGN.

Sigh.

So – as the panic begins to take hold – what is on the horizon? Four unwritten posts, to start with, consisting of my second attempt to draw a line under 1689, a “Reading Roulette” selection, another study of the 19th century religious novel, and of course Hargrave. This being the case, new material is the last thing I should be pursuing; but I’ve recently discovered that there may be an opportunity to get my hands on a copy of one of Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s more obscure early works via academic loan. If that does work out, it will be a case of drop everything.

Because let’s face it, everything’s better with Braddon.