Posts tagged ‘religion’

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…

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07/03/2014

Bernard Leslie; or, A Tale Of The Last Ten Years

gresley1“Depend upon it, we cannot too closely conform to the direction of the Church. Nothing can be so preposterous as the custom of the present day, to preach against ordinances, when they are so lamentably neglected. It almost looks as if clergymen wished to drive away their congregation on the festivals, in order that they may not have the trouble of performing the service. And then to enlarge on spiritual worship, as if the two were adverse, or incompatible one with the other; whereas the express object of Christian ordinances is to raise the soul to spiritual things. For what do we commemorate the deeds of saints and martyrs, but that, by the contemplation of their zeal, and faith, and holiness, a spirit of emulation may be kindled in our own dull souls? For what do we follow the steps of our blessed Saviour and the prophets and apostles, in frequent fasting and prayer, but that we may inure our souls to self-denial, and raise them above the carnal vanities of life? Have the Christians of the nineteenth century any right to think that they can safely dispense with aids to devotion which the holiest of men in all ages have employed? I am convinced,” continued Mr Manwaring, rising from his seat and speaking with more than usual energy, “I am convinced that our people are perishing by thousands, from the neglect of the means of godliness prepared for them in the Church. This is the grand stumbling-block of the Evangelicals, and is the cause of the comparatively small effect of their exertions upon the masses of the people. Much as I respect the zeal with which they have brought forward many vital and peculiar doctrines, I must freely say, that, practically, they have entirely failed in accomplishing any great amount of good. Their work is hollow and insubstantial, and will not endure the fiery trial.”

It’s my own fault, of course.

When I realised in the course of Stephen Jenner’s Steepleton; or, High Church And Low Church that the novel had been written in response to an earlier, factionally-opposed work, it seemed to me that in the interests of fair play I was obliged to give that earlier work equal air-time. The work in question, Bernard Leslie; or, A Tale Of The Last Ten Years, is a Tractarian manifesto by one of the first people to recognise that the novel could be powerful and far-reaching vehicle for the dissemination of doctrinal positions. William Gresley was already the author of several successful non-fiction works on church history and practice when he turned to fiction as a way of broadening his audience. A number of his works were intended for a younger audience (what we would today call “young adult”), and use tales from history to entertain and preach, but his Bernard Leslie is an unapologetic polemic intended to explain, on one hand, not merely the content of the controversial Tracts For The Times, but their essential rightness, and on the other the many doctrinal and practical failings of the faction that Gresley chooses to call “Evangelical”.

Having struggled through both Bernard Leslie and Steepleton, I have to say that my sympathies are with the Low Church faction. At least Stephen Jenner pretended to be writing a novel for about 50% of his work, before dropping the façade of fiction and lecturing me unmercifully about the treacherous proceedings of the Tractarians and, conversely, the doctrinal soundness of the Low Church. William Gresley, on the other hand, is not even a quarter of the way into his 300-page work before he strips off the gloves.

Bernard Leslie and Steepleton are written on almost exactly the same scheme; a deliberate move on the part of Stephen Jenner, no doubt. Both novels follow a young man through his early education (the only thing that Gresley and Jenner agree on is that education at the time was grossly inadequate, both generally and particularly as a preparation for ordination), his first church appointments, and his subsequent rise to prominence as an advocate for his doctrines. Both start out with their protagonist declaring that he belongs to no faction; after joining a clerical society, eye-opening encounters with various fellow-clergymen, and much reading and reflection, the young ministers eventually come down on one side of the factional fence, though of course Bernard Leslie and Frank Faithful end up on opposite sides. Both works depict their minister-heroes as the personification of correct doctrinal practice. Both devolve into a series of long, hectoring lectures intended to support one position and undermine the other.

(The other thing these novels have in common is their attitude to women, who are essentially invisible in both. Like Frank Faithful, Bernard Leslie marries—and her bare existence is all we ever hear of Mrs Leslie, although her husband takes the opportunity to expound for a full chapter upon the question of whether clergymen should marry.)

It is unclear how much of Stephen Jenner ended up in Steepleton, but Bernard Leslie is clearly a semi-autobiographical work. Ironically, neither William Gresley nor his literary counterpart set out for a career in the church. Here, we are offered only the cryptic comment, Owing to circumstances which need not be detailed, the plan originally laid out for me by my father was abandoned; in reality, Gresley suffered an injury which damaged his eyesight and compelled him to give up his plans to become a barrister: the church was his second choice.

Since Gresley did not condescend to anything as prosaic and unnecessary as “a plot”, his Bernard Leslie is not really a reviewable work. That said, several things did leap off its pages at me, in addition to those issues which Stephen Jenner specifically highlighted in Steepleton—or, more correctly, wrote Steepleton in order to highlight. I think all I can do here is point out what particularly struck me on the way through.

The first thing, perhaps the most significant thing, is William Gresley’s choice to designate his opponents under the title “Evangelical”. Here immediately I stumble into difficulties, because – heaven knows! – I’m no expert in the finer points of the hair-splitting 19th century religious vocabulary. (For example, I’m still trying to figure out why “Puseyism” is a derogatory term.) However mistakenly, I was under the impression that “Low Church” and “Evangelical” were not necessarily interchangeable terms, though there was certainly overlap; although the difference was perhaps one of attitude rather than doctrine.

It seemed to me that by his blanket use of “Evangelical”, William Gresley was unfairly bundling some disparate factions together under a single heading in order to dispose of them collectively with a sometimes misapplied but sweeping condemnation—and I received some support for my uncertain views from some unexpected quarters, in the first place from William Gresley himself, in what struck me as a piece of revealing disingenuousness.

The contentious question of the correct response to the Tracts For The Times raises its head in the district in which Bernard Leslie’s first curacy is situated. The Evangelicals want them denounced, but a High Church clergyman named Mr Manwaring, who becomes Leslie’s doctrinal mentor and the novel’s voice of High Church reason, compels the Tracts’ enemies to admit publically that they haven’t read them. (I don’t have any trouble believing that was frequently the case.) This admission shocks the still-naïve Leslie, who responds by obtaining and studying the Tracts under Mr Manwaring’s tutorage—on the whole embracing them, occasionally pointing out passages which seem to go too far, or act as the expression of a personal opinion rather than church opinion. The first of several chapters devoted to the contents of the Tracts is also where the word “Evangelical” begins to intrude upon the narrative, and concludes with the following footnote:

There is an obvious objection to use a word of so excellent a meaning as “Evangelical” to designate a mere party. There seems, however, no alternative but the substitution of some offensive nickname. I have thought it better, therefore, to employ a word which conveys to all persons the notion which is meant to be expressed, and is not offensive to the party to whom it is applied: though of course I should maintain that High Churchmen are the most truly evangelical, in the right sense of the word,—that is, they keep to Gospel-truth more strictly than others.

Presumably the “offensive nickname” that Bernard Leslie chose not to use was “Low Church”: we may recall that in Steepleton, in all likelihood provoked by this very quote, Stephen Jenner has his Frank Faithful take to himself the term “Low Church” as a badge of honour: Now it is an undeniable fact, which is of great moment in this inquiry, that the appellation “High Church” is assumed—the designation “Low Church” imposed: the one is arrogantly claimed—the other meekly borne.

We might dismiss all this as a fairly childish exchange of name-calling except that, most tellingly, two contemporary publications that embraced Bernard Leslie, both of them unabashedly High Church, to say the least, each expressed unease at the novel’s use of “Evangelical”—indicating that the substitution was indeed a misapplication of the term.

The Gentleman’s Magazine was a publication that lasted for almost 200 years, appearing in monthly issues from 1731 to 1922. During that time it changed content and approach several times, and in the first half of the 19th century was openly a Tory / High Church publication that campaigned against reform and “liberalism” and supported the Tractarians during the controversies of the Oxford Movement. Indeed, so devoted was it to its cause that in its review of Bernard Leslie, which appeared in the August 1843 issue (and must have been of the second edition), it finds itself capable of praising the author in the following terms: He understands the art of composition, and can impart his knowledge in a lively, dramatic form, without weakening its effect, or impairing the dignity of its subject…

If I were to make a list of words that do not describe Bernard Leslie, “lively” and “dramatic” would be somewhere near the top of it. However, doctrine is the real issue. The magazine’s praise is almost unstinting, but even so, evidently a squirm of conscience prompted the reviewer to observe in a footnote: The term “Evangelical,” it has been by some observed, is a misnomer…

And footnotes also intrude in a far more surprising context: The Christian Remembrancer was a High Church magazine that ran from 1819 to 1868, and a prominent vehicle for the leading Tractarians. In the July 1842 issue, Bernard Leslie is one of the works considered at length as part of an examination of “the great movement”: lengthy quotations are included, and Gresley is praised for his clarity of argument and his handling of the Tracts, in particular his ability to distinguish issues, and to separate doctrine from opinion. Yet even here, a caveat suddenly appears: The truth of this remark of course depends upon the sense in which the party term “Evangelical” is used…

Startlingly in some respects, the article in which Bernard Leslie is examined is titled “The Progress Of Anglo-Catholicism”—and startling, too, at least from certain perspectives, is the novel’s attitude to Catholicism, which is declared to be correct in its essentials: it is the Evangelicals who are the enemy, not the Catholics, who have simply, and rather foolishly, allowed a crust of human arrogance to overgrow correct doctrine and appropriate submission to church authority. “Dissenters—Wesleyans, for instance, or Socinians, or Papists, who as we believe, are born and educated in an erroneous system,” declares Mr Manwaring, and so are not to be blamed for their errors, which are circumstantial. The Evangelicals, on the other hand, have with eyes wide open chosen to reject many of the church’s traditional beliefs and practices, and are consequently damned.

My own use of the word “traditional” evokes an involuntary shudder. Even as in Steepleton Stephen Jenner devoted pages to the implications of “hereby” and “thereby”, here William Gresley, via Mr Manwaring, gives us a painfully lengthy and detailed explanation of why “tradition”, often a term of abuse applied to Catholicism and a way of summing up everything wrong with that religion, is actually a good and right thing:

    Mr L. “I begin to think that no satisfactory conclusion can be arrived at, unless we have a regular logical definition of tradition, or at least a mutual understanding as to what it means. Will you tell me, dear sir, what tradition really is?”
    Mr M. “I will endeavour to do so. You are quite right as to the importance of settling the meaning of the term. To have done so would have saved the controversialists a great deal of unnecessary trouble:—To begin, then, secundum artem. Tradition, as I need scarcely remind you, is derived from the Latin word trado, which signifies ‘to hand down’. But it is important to observe, that the English word tradition answers to two Latin words, traditio and traditum. Tradition (traditio) is the act of handing down; a tradition (traditum) is a thing handed down. Now the modes of handing down are various. A thing may possibly be handed down from generation to generation by mere word of mouth, and never committed to writing; or it may be handed down in writing; or it may be handed down for two or three generations by word of mouth, and then committed to writing…”

And so on.

Of course, within the context of the Oxford Movement this stance towards Catholicism is not surprising at all: at the very heart of the movement was a revival of traditional practices, and the propagation of the idea of the Established Church as a truly “catholic” body. However, when you have become accustomed to the bitterly hostile anti-Catholic voice that marks so much English literature over a period of some three hundred years, this sudden apparent embrace of Catholicism is jolting, to say the least. On the basis of Bernard Leslie, it is certainly not difficult to understand why the enemies of the Tractarians declared them to be, in truth, “backdoor Catholics”.

In addition to its examination of the Tracts, much of the narrative of this novel concerns the young minister’s efforts to revive various traditional church practices that have been allowed to fall to the wayside under the wicked influence of the Evangelicals. When he is appointed as rector of a parish, Leslie finds things in a deplorable state:

My two predecessors had been, the one, I am sorry to say, negligent in his duties, and the other, who succeeded him, not possessed of a zeal according to knowledge, but one who considered the feelings of the times, rather than the ordinances of the Church, to be the ground of his operation. Many of the practices which he had introduced into the parish were directly opposed to the rubrics and canons…

Deciding that he might as well start as he means to continue, Leslie revives in his parish various discarded practices including fasting, the observance of feast days and daily prayer, re-orders his services with respect to the sermon, psalms and prayers, and introduces a weekly lecture which he uses to explain himself to his bemused parishioners; who, once they understand why these things have been done, embrace them wholeheartedly. (Even The Gentleman’s Magazine found this instantaneous conversion somewhat improbable.) For a while Leslie has things all his own way:

Fortunately, there had not then arisen that wicked newspaper-agitation, which represents conformity to the ordinances of the Church as popery, and the minds of my parishioners had not been poisoned. At the present time, in consequence of the ignorant prejudices of some, and sinful misrepresentation of others, it is very doubtful whether a clergyman who conscientiously acted upon the established order of the Church would not be in danger of offending, or even driving from the Church, many unstable and ill-instructed persons…

But there is one group looking on in deep disapproval—

These were the Dissenters, who abounded in the parish when I arrived there, but, I am thankful to say, have since much diminished in numbers. Manifold were the expedients to which they resorted in order to prejudice me in the eyes of the congregation. Of course, the principal charge against me was, that I was an abettor of popery. What could be so popish as to keep fasts and festivals? What so uncharitable as to revive the Anathasian Creed? What so monstrous as the doctrine of apostolic succession, which unchurched all those who did not belong to the Establishment? Then there was the soul-destroying heresy of baptismal regeneration…

(I have been re-reading The Last Chronicle Of Barset, in which it is observed of the fiercely Evangelical Mrs Proudie – no problem with designating her an Evangelical – that, Services on saints’ days she regarded as rank papacy, and had been known to accuse a clergyman’s wife, to her face, of idolatry, because the poor lady had dated a letter, St. John’s Eve.)

Ah, yes—baptismal regeneration. You might recall that Steepleton devoted three whole chapters to arguing the Low Church stance on baptismal regeneration, clearly in response to what had been said on the High Church position in Bernard Leslie. This was one of the critical divisions between the factions, which (to put it simply and superficially) disagreed on the necessity of baptism, or rather upon whether or not the ceremony did in fact confer “regeneration”. Leslie’s own researches lead him to conclude that baptism is absolutely necessary, that the ceremony cleanses the child of original sin, and that, in suggesting that, “Our Church, in calling baptised children regenerate, speaks the language of charity…she expresses her hope and trust that the baptised person possesses, or, through God’s grace, at some future time may possess, the requisite qualification”, Mr Flavel, an Evangelical who has had great influence upon Leslie up to this point, is either misinterpreting the text or guilty of deliberate sophism. It is upon this point that Leslie turns his back upon Flavel and his followers:

I verily believe it was this discussion about the doctrine of regeneration that saved me from Evangelicalism, into which I was fast descending. I had  been struck with the usefulness and apparent zeal of Mr. Flavel, and others of his way of thinking,—had made him my counsellor, and adopted many of his views. But this discussion staggered me. I did not for a moment consider Mr. Flavel as dishonest; but I thought there must be some strange perversion of the understanding which could explain away the scriptural doctrine held by the Church of baptismal regeneration. If Mr. Flavel could so palpably distort the language of our formularies, supported as they were by Scripture, in one instance, how could I trust his advice in other matters?

And henceforth Leslie studies at the feet of the High Church Mr Manwaring.

The suggestion that the Evangelical Mr Flavel had been guilty of “palpably distort[ing] the language of our formularies” was another thing pounced upon by Stephen Jenner in Steepleton, who retaliated by accusing William Gresley of misunderstanding – or misquoting – the Catechism, in order to support his views on baptismal regeneration; arguing – at great length – that the substitution of “thereby” for “hereby” alters the entire thrust of the very passage he is quoting to make his case.

Be that as it may— We left Bernard Leslie about to have a smackdown with the Dissenters in his parish, who accuse him of “popery” when he reintroduces what he considers to be sound High Church practices:

But the principal cause of their anger was the progress which Church-opinions made, and the secession of some of their own members from the meeting-house. All these things gave ample scope for discussion in a small community like that of High Kirkstall. I was attacked several times, with some bitterness and scurrility, in the radical papers; but of this I took no notice. Tracts and handbills were spread profusely amongst my congregation, though without much effect. I might well have declined to answer them. But as I believed the Dissenters themselves to he a portion of that flock over which, as parochial minister, I was by the providence of God appointed, I thought it a good opportunity, in preference to preaching in the church, where the Dissenters would not hear me, to draw up my views on the subject in the form of a tract or pamphlet, which I circulated amongst them.

What follows is a sixteen-page-long argument against the dissenting stance, which attracted enormous attention at the time of Bernard Leslie‘s publication, to the extent that it was finally reprinted and disseminated as a tract in its own right.

Meanwhile, we also get an illustration of William Gresley’s indulgent view of Catholicism. A new curate arrives in the parish, a Mr Monkton (subtle!), who is devout and hardworking, granted, but who horrifies the congregation and dismays Bernard Leslie by wearing a cassock-like coat, making the sign of the cross, shaving his head to produce a tonsure, and substituting wafers for the wheaten bread generally used during communion. All of these things, however dangerously Papist at first glance, turn out to be some of those silly human additions of which the Catholics are guilty, not wicked but unnecessary and confusing for the congregation. Between scolding and argument, a chastened Mr Monkton is shown the error of his ways, and as a consequence settles down to become a good churchman. (It is, it is clearly implied, just that easy to convert Catholics, if only someone would take the job on!)

Having won over both the Dissenters and the Catholics to his way of thinking, Bernard Leslie then takes on his chief enemies: the conclusion of this novel is a diatribe against the Evangelicals. Many and varied are the ways in which they err, we learn, and somewhat curiously, given the stereotype of the joyless, hectoring, hard-line Evangelical (see also: Mrs Proudie), it seems that their main sin is that they leave their parishioners too much to themselves, and allow too much to depend upon the experience of the individual. Their faith is placed, literally, in personal conversion; it is in conjunction with this that the importance of baptismal regeneration is downplayed. All of this, in Bernard Leslie’s view, is not just wrong but deeply sinful: the Evangelicals are leading their followers into damnation by not “claiming” them at the time they are born, and holding them hard to a single way of proceeding from there. (And if that sounds very much like the Jesuit aphorism, Give me a child until he is seven—, well, I’m sure it’s only a coincidence.)

And here, I think, the problem with the dodgy definition of “Evangelical” rears its head in earnest:

I maintain, therefore, that the unsound and defective views, which I have specified as characteristics of the Evangelical party, are shared by all who belong to that party. All Evangelicals are unsound in the doctrine of baptismal regeneration, and in the doctrine of the one Catholic and Apostolic Church. Not one only here and there, but all. All confound the doctrine of the visible Church with the communion of saints; and all refuse to receive, in its true and natural sense, the doctrines of the Church respecting baptism. All, more or less, exalt the doctrine of justification by faith, to the disparagement of other great doctrines,—though some more than others. All cry down ordinances, and more or less neglect the fasts and festivals appointed by the Church. It is these characteristics which constitute the Evangelical party. Those who do not hold these views are not Evangelicals.

But our friend Bernard is only getting warmed up:

    In a word, it is to be feared that Evangelicalism has so obscured the doctrine of baptismal regeneration, and so unscripturally smoothed the way of repentance, that multitudes have been beguiled to their destruction. Multitudes have been destroyed, not so much by what the Evangelicals teach, as by what they leave untaught…
    They are unsound in the doctrine of the one Catholic and Apostolic Church, confounding it with that of the communion of saints, or the invisible Church, holding it in a different manner from that in which it has been held by the Church universal from the beginning, and adopting the doctrines of the Dissenters.
    They associate with schismatics on the platform and elsewhere, contrary to the express command of Scripture; and by so doing, and by the near approach
which they make to the doctrine and practices of the Dissenters, they have confused the minds of the common people as to the duty and necessity of union with the Church, and the sin and danger of schism. This conduct has been the main cause of the lamentable state of schism and religious discord to which the nation has been reduced,—schism which, alas, has been communicated to our colonies in distant lands, and spread by our influence through the world, so as to impede the advance of Gospel-truth, and render the union of the Church more hopeless than ever…

Fortunately, however, a breath of fresh air is currently blowing through the church—causing much wailing and gnashing of teeth in certain quarters:

    They have now stood forward in a new light. They are no longer contending for the souls of men, but struggling to maintain a waning popularity. They see growing up around them, perhaps settling in their own parishes or neighbourhood, a zealous and laborious body of men who have devoted themselves to restore the ancient energy and purity of the Church. These men are gradually gaining an influence over the public mind, to the prejudice and annoyance of the Evangelicals. Hence their rage against them; and because these men blame as defective the effete Evangelicalism of the day, they are accused of being enemies to the Reformation; and because they endeavour to restore the ancient usages of the Church, which have been sinfully neglected, they are accused of popery and held up as departers from the Church’s discipline by men who err themselves in a tenfold greater and more dangerous degree. The effrontery with which these men accuse their brethren is marvellous. The daily newspapers and monthly magazines have been filled with false charges and injurious reports against those who are endeavouring to raise the tone of religion. Instead of that generous rivalry which ought to influence men engaged in the same great cause of winning souls to Christ, there has sprung up amongst the Evangelicals a bitter hostility and ungenerous jealousy; they bar the kingdom of heaven against men; they neither go in themselves, nor suffer those that are entering to go in…
    Under these circumstances, my feeling with regard to this party is changed. I no longer respect them as I used. They have assumed the attitude, not only of violent partisans of a defective system, but they stand forth as opponents of those who would raise the Church to her true position; and thus are fast approaching the sin of antichrist…

And having thus unburdened himself, William Gresley stops to draw breath:

It may appear to some that these accusations are penned in a spirit of harshness…

Heavens, no, William!—heavens, no…

08/09/2013

Steepleton; or, High Church and Low Church

Jenner1b    The term “Low Church” would seem to imply something base in its nature and levelling in its tendencies, as the term “High Church” would something noble and elevating. The one system might be supposed, from its designation, to lower, to degrade, to weaken the Church; the other to exalt, to adorn, to strengthen it. Such, probably, would be the impression which a foreigner coming into this country, or a person ignorant of parties, would receive from first hearing these terms used.
    But we must not allow ourselves to be prepossessed and imposed upon by terms, without considering their origin, and their conventional application. When we would institute a comparison between the two systems, or parties, which these terms denote, and would weigh their respective merits, we must first take into account the exact momentum of the empty vessels, so to speak, which contain the goods of the opposing claimants. These empty vessels are the names by which the respective parties are designated. Now it is an undeniable fact, which is of great moment in this inquiry, that the appellation “High Church” is assumed—the designation “Low Church” imposed: the one is arrogantly claimed—the other meekly borne.

I don’t think there’s much doubt about when and why this particular…piece of writing; I hesitate to call it a novel…ended up on The Wishlist: undoubtedly as a consequence of my consideration of Joseph Ellis Baker’s The Novel And The Oxford Movement, which examined the way in which the novel progressively became the vehicle of choice for the warring factions involved in the inter-church brawling that marked 19th century English religious life. Written by a clergyman called Stephen Jenner in 1847, Steepleton; or High Church And Low Church: Being The Present Tendencies Of Parties In The Church, Exhibited In The History Of Frank Faithful is a perfect example of the way in which the novelistic form was hijacked into the service of writers more notable for their religious fervour than their literary talents. This is a tub-thumping, anti-Tracterian, anti-Catholic, Low Church polemic…although I must say that it is not immediately evident that this is so, since Jenner hides his claws for quite a lengthy stretch of this particular work. Once the claws are unsheathed, though— Yowza!

In fact, for a while there I was falsely lulled into feeling that in drawing Steepleton from the hat, I’d gotten off lightly. The first third or so of this work is actually quite interesting, and occasionally even humorous. However, perhaps its virtues are best illustrated by the fact that for quite some time, it was not at all obvious which side of the factional fence, if any, it was going to come down upon. Steepleton opens with the entrance into the ministry of Frank Faithful, About that eventful period, twelve years ago, when the Church seemed to be awakening from the sleep of a century. This is a reference to the beginning of the Tractarian movement in the mid-1830s, which was itself a reaction to the Reform Bill of 1832 and the (perceived) increasing liberalism of the times, and in particular what was viewed as intolerable government interference in church matters. The text then jumps back still further, and we learn that, It had been Frank Faithful’s desire, from as early an age as he could first lisp his wishes, to become a clergyman. We then dwell, in a supposedly inspiring but actually quite nauseating passage, upon the many ways the precociously devout Frank expressed his calling, for example, He took it into his head to lay by all the little gifts that he received from his friends, in order, as he said, to get money enough to build a church…

We are, presumably, to read all this as Frank being touched by God, since nothing in his family environment predisposes him to a religious calling: his father, indeed, treats his ambitions as a joke*, something he will grow out of, and intends that Frank will enter his business; his mother, though sympathetic, hesitates to oppose her husband.

(*Not surprisingly, this gentleman is referred to throughout as “Frank’s father” rather than “Mr Faithful”.)

Most of the interest of the early parts of Steepleton lie in its criticisms of various common life-practices, secular as well as religious, as from these we are able to infer a great deal about normal middle-class life at the time (at least for boys). At this point in the novel, these criticisms are implicit rather than explicit, with Jenner simply describing how things were done and allowing the reader to draw their own inferences. It’s a very great pity he couldn’t keep this approach up for the duration, but I suppose that’s too much to be expected. Anyway— Here, for example, is a description of Frank’s confirmation day:

By the help of his Right Reverend Brother, the Bishop’s duties were soon over—a merry peal from the steeple announced the termination of the service: the Bishop departed, and the only question that engaged the solicitude of Frank and his companions was, whether they considered the proper Bishop, their own Bishop, had laid his hands on their heads. The rest of the day was spent by Frank, and ten others of the young gentlemen of his own parish, in playing a game of cricket against eleven of another parish. This was followed by a dinner at the Inn, with its usual accompaniments; after which Frank went to bed with a severe sick-headache, produced by the excitement.

Likewise, after his father is worn down into allowing him to pursue his vocation, we get a good insight into the educational system of the time via Frank’s awful experiences with private tutors (who send him off to university knowing little more than he did when first placed under their “care”), and his tussle with contradictory university procedures that give more weight to tradition than to preparing students for adult life, let alone for entering the Church.

Steepleton keeps a non-denominational tone for about half of its narrative, presenting Frank as devoted to his calling but unsure which party, if any, he should throw in with; the narrative follows him as he tests out each possibility in turn and begins to draw conclusions. The novel’s messages here tend towards general warnings, such as not confusing the Church with its ministers. With hindsight, however, Steepleton does tip its hand early on about what kind of novel it will eventually be. Recoiling after his parish minister is involved in an embarrassing drunken incident, Frank is briefly drawn to the “Wesleyans”, but decides that he cannot approve various of their practices. Nevertheless, Methodism is presented with a degree of sympathy that is indicative of the overall tendency of the text: indeed, a footnote by Jenner refers to the Wesleyans as “the best allies which the Church of England possesses”.

More indicative still is that when Frank goes to university, he goes to Cambridge. As has been pointed out by numerous commentators (although never really gotten to the bottom of, as far as I know), a ridiculously high proportion of “university novels” are set at Oxford, even if there doesn’t seem to be any particular reason for the choice. Consequently, this particular bit of iconoclasm in Steepleton draws attention to itself. Jenner is even more critical of university practices as he was of private tutoring:

For the Church, in fact, the University affords little or no direct preparation. Though in some of the colleges they do profess to give divinity lectures, yet those who are appointed to give them are often mere novices, who know nothing of divinity themselves; and it is not to be expected that those who have never learned should be able to teach. Hence it is that our church becomes filled with such a number of inefficient, ill-prepared ministers—than whom many cottagers in their parishes have a more clear and consistent view of the Christian system, and, in all but the knowledge of words, are far more fitted to be public teachers.

It is finally Frank’s private studying rather than what he learns at university that allows him to pass his Bishop’s examination. This is for him “a season of solemn seriousness”, as he undertakes a “momentous responsibility”—

His religious views at this time were catholic and scriptural, without any decided bias of party prejudice; for with party he was as yet but very imperfectly acquainted. He fully believed the Established Episcopal Church to be the proper representative of Christianity in this country—a true apostolic branch of Christ’s Holy Catholic Church; and on this ground he became one of its ministers.

Frank’s first curacy falls amongst a predominantly Low Church clergy, though this is made little of to start with. He throws himself with devotion and energy into his duties, gaining a reputation for both his preaching and his parish work. In particular he is a believer in home-visiting as a way of getting to know his flock, and of rounding up strays. There is dissent in the parish, which is presented as the inevitable result of a lack of ministerial zeal, having little to do with actual belief, and Frank manages to bring most of these “wanderers” back to his church.

Along with his actual duties, the great attraction of Frank’s situation is the existence of a clerical society that meets regularly to discuss passages from the Scripture and to debate, and hopefully settle upon, the correct interpretation of matters of doctrine. This allows Stephen Jenner to expound – at length – about what we can take to be two of the hot-button issues at the time: the question of justification by faith alone, and baptismal regeneration. Here, I think it may be truly and not too unkindly said, Steepleton becomes much more like what we might have expected of a novel of this type; and if neither “angels” nor “the head of a pin” actually makes an appearance, I can assure you that the chapters presenting the clergymen’s tireless and minute dissection of these two topics gives that notorious piece of doctrinal dispute a fair run for its money. Here’s just a taste:

“Bear this principle in mind, then, in your interpretation of the baptismal service, which is drawn up strictly in a covenant form. It is a service constructed for the purpose of bringing persons into a covenant relationship to God and his Church. It begins by stating what is required in all persons before they can enter into the kingdom of heaven; it then exhorts the sponsors to join in praying that this blessing may be granted. The blessing is then prayed for in terms which obviously imply that baptism is only a figure and seal of the thing desired. The water is spoken of as being sanctified only to the ‘mystical‘ (i.e, emblematical, as the word means) ‘washing away of sins’. And it is a fact worth knowing that this qualifying word, mystical, is not in the Romish service, which absolutely asserts the washing away of sins by the outward rite. The prayer that follows is, that the child may be washed and sanctified by the Holy Ghost—that he ‘may receive remission of sins by spiritual regeneration‘.”

And so on…for about another 20 pages. (And in fact we get a second chapter on baptismal regeneration later on!)

Now—to cut to the chase a little—Steepleton‘s main thesis is that there is no such thing as “Anglo-Catholicism”, just Catholicism, and that the Oxford Movement and its resultant Tractarianism was a deliberate, covert, underhanded scheme to pave the way for the reintroduction of Catholicism into England under another name. (Boy…I just can’t get away from plots to reintroduce Catholicism into England, can I?? Sigh.) It is argued that one of the Tractarian tactics is to omit, or substitute, or misinterpret (accidentally or otherwise), certain words and phrases in the Scriptures, in order to give the passages that contain them a more Catholic slant. Frank Faithful proves very alert on this score, and painstakingly corrects these passages and elicits their true meaning via lengthy lectures upon grammar and language usage that (at least to this reader) are simultaneously numbingly dull and hilariously funny. But at least now I now the difference between “thereby” and “hereby”.

The second thing that emerges at this stage of the novel is that Steepleton was written in response to another novel. In my post on The Novel And The Oxford Movement, I mentioned that one of the leading exponents of the Tractarian novel, one of the first people to seize upon the novel as a weapon of propaganda in this inter-factional war, was William Gresley. In addition to publishing several extremely popular works of non-fiction, among them Anglo-Catholicism: A Short Treatise On The Theory Of The English Church, Gresley wrote half a dozen or so novels including Bernard Leslie; or, A Tale Of The Last Ten Years, a fictionalisation of his own experiences within the Oxford Movement. Though he roundly criticises both, it seems to have been the latter that provoked Stephen Jenner into taking up his own pen; and throughout Steepleton there are short passages quoting Bernard Leslie and showing exactly where Gresley is wrong / mistaken / fooling himself / lying:

    “Ah! I perceive,” said Faithful, “that you have learned the Catechism from your friend, Mr Gresley, and not from the Prayer Book. It is remarkable that twice over in his “Bernard Leslie” does he profess to quote this answer of the Catechism, in proof of his notion that the Church holds the doctrine of regeneration by baptism, and both times does he misquote it, substituting ‘thereby‘ for ‘hereby‘ (pages 68 & 173). Now my argument upon this is, either Mr Gresley did not know the difference between ‘hereby‘ and ‘thereby‘, and therefore unconsciously made the mistake, because the sense which he would put upon it required it; or he knowingly changed the word in order to deceive. You may hang him upon which horn of the dilemma you please.
    “But I don’t see,” replied Mr Roodstock, “what difference it can make, whether it be ‘hereby’ or ‘thereby’. Will you explain what you mean?”
    “Readily: ‘hereby‘ means ‘by this‘, the last thing mentioned, and that, in this case, was the ‘inward and spiritual grace’, for that is the subject of the question to which this answer relates, and not to the outward part or rite: ‘thereby‘ means ‘by that‘, the former thing mentioned, and that would be, as Mr Gresley makes it, Baptism. ‘Hereby‘ refers to the death unto sin, and the new birth unto righteousness, which is the inward and spiritual grace; and it is hereby we become really children of grace; but not thereby, that is, by baptism, ‘which is only the outward and visible sign’.”

So, are we all clear on that?

(And now, of course, I feel obliged to give the Tractarians equal air-time by reviewing Bernard Leslie. Sigh.)

On the whole Frank is happy during his first curacy; although he cannot help feeling that his openly Low Church brethren are not quite—well, quite. It was a common High Church position that its adherents were all gentlemen, while Low Churchmen were generally rather under-bred. (Anthony Trollope’s Barchester novels, for example, express their High Church sympathies via this slur, amongst others.) Though he admires and respects them for their devotion and zeal, Frank can’t help feeling that the Low Churchmen amongst whom his lot first falls are not quite the gentlemanly companions he desires; and when the parish in which he takes up his second curacy proves to be thoroughly High Church, he is relieved, anticipating that he will find himself amongst clergyman who will suit  him both doctrinally and socially.

That’s not quite how it works out…

Once settled in his new position, Frank eagerly joins the local clerical society, but finds it far different from the one founded and run by the Low Church clergy. The members eschew discussion of the Bible in favour of debates over the Prayer-Book and the Rubrics; they change the subject whenever a point of controversy seems likely to emerge; and they seem much more interested in the convivial dinner that generally follows a meeting than they are in the meeting itself. Sometimes, indeed, meetings are given over to matters not spiritual at all, although not necessarily without intense interest to the clergy:

After a long pause, Mr Sheepfleece started forward from his seat, and said;—“Mr Chairman, it is rather beside the question certainly, but I want to put a query to my brethren about the Income Tax Act, which is just coming into operation.”

Socially, meanwhile, Frank finds his colleagues given over to dissipations such as drinking and card-playing and dinner parties, and deplores their failure to set a personal example for their parishioners. His own attempts to do so find him being given the cold-shoulder in the town. While this does not trouble him, except in so far as his stance has no effect whatsoever upon his colleagues, he is more than troubled by the Tractarian slant he detects in the clerical society, and in the library for which the society is responsible. His attempts to rectify this are thwarted in a variety of ways, including counterarguments made with jesuitical subtlety (“jesuitical”, small-j, is one of Stephen Jenner’s favourite terms of abuse). Matters finally come to a head when another clergyman, a Mr Fairlight, who is “a pious, candid High Churchman, but no Tractarian”, tries to introduce into the library, “The able and learned charge of one of our Bishops against Tractarianism.” There is great consternation when this suggestion is seconded by Frank, but the threatened party has regrouped by the time of the next meeting, passing a motion banning all bishops’ charges from the library. This is of course like a red rag to a bull:

Faithful immediately arose and said, “Gentlemen, this strikes me as a most extraordinary motion—that, from a society, composed as this is entirely of clergymen, it should be proposed that bishops’ charges be excluded! I can have no doubt that this motion has arisen out of the circumstance of one particular charge having been voted into the number of your books—a charge which some are afraid to face—a charge which pours a regular broadside into the vessel which the Tractarian party have fitted out to carry all the people of England to Rome.”

(I think the charge in question is the Visitation Charge of Richard Bagot, Bishop of Oxford, of May, 1842.)

This is the final straw. It is known that Frank’s curacy is coming to an end, and the Tractarians get together to pass another motion, breaking their own rules of association in the process, that no-one may be a member of their society unless he holds a parish living or curacy. And so the troublemaking Frank is shown the door…

From this point Steepleton drops any pretence of being a novel. (Simultaneously, its footnotes get longer, more frequent, and more strident in tone.) Its final chapters amount to a series of lectures given by Frank to some convenient, Dorothy Dix-like parishioners, on such topics as  What’s Wrong With The High Church?, The Difference Between Church Principles And Scripture PrinciplesHow To Tell If Your Minister Is Sneaking Catholicism Into Your Parish – And What To Do About It, and What Are The Duties Of A True Protestant?

Steepleton, via Frank Faithful, is perfectly willing to admit that there are pious, hard-working, steady-principled High Churchman. However, it contends that too many of the party are devoted to accumulating earthly powers rather than practising heavenly duties, and put much more time and effort into obtaining preferments and larger incomes than into their obligations as ministers. Hence their insistence upon “Church principles”, which they pass off as the principles of the Church of England, but which shift the focus from the Scriptures to the person interpreting the Scriptures, as well as giving too much weight to “tradition”—thus opening the door to Catholicism. Likewise, the High Church taste for vestments and choirs is too close for comfort to pernicious Catholic ritual, while the taste of some for powers of absolution exposes their desire for greater personal importance. Low Churchmen, meanwhile, are devout, humble and dedicated. They may not always be perfect gentlemen, but they are perfect ministers of God.

But of course, misguided as the High Churchmen may be, their sins pale into insignificance compared to those of the sneaking, treacherous Tractarians and their vile Catholic masters.

To make sure he fully understands the magnitude of the threat facing England, Frank decides he needs to visit a Catholic country in order to see its practices and their effects on the people for himself—or, as the novel puts it, to take A Peep At Popery. However, while Frank may declare that he is there to learn “the real character of popery”, all he’s actually doing is confirming his own prejudices. Never at any point does he talk to anyone about their faith, or make any genuine attempt to enter into the hearts and minds of its practitioners; he simply looks on from a safe distance and so, not surprisingly, sees exactly what he expects to see. It is also noticeable that Frank observes only the additional rituals of Catholicism, and never actually gets around to attending Mass.

Two subjects in particular emerge from the rabid anti-Catholic diatribe that constitutes this chapter. The first is confession, which is seen on one hand as an encouragement to sin, and on the other as a form of corruption—particularly the corruption of young girls, whose innocence is shattered by the questioning of the priests—and which, “Sufficiently accounts for the early and general spread of corruption of morals in Roman Catholic countries.”

Not to make any sweeping generalisations, or anything.

The other target for extreme hostility is idolatry. This in general is anathema to Frank Faithful (who is passionate about undecorated, bare-board churches and calls whitewash “emblem[atic] of the holiness which ought to pervade God’s house”), but nothing in his peep at popery horrifies him as much as the tributes he sees being offered to the Catholic saints and, above all, to the Virgin Mary.

One thing you may have noticed about Steepleton is that there are no women in it. We are left in little doubt that this is an expression of Stephen Jenner’s own view of life: that women should be seen and not heard, and preferably not seen either. In this spirit, it is not until Frank moves from his first curacy to his second that we discover that there is a Mrs Faithful, not to mention “a family growing up around him, for which he required a suitable home”; and after that remark they are never mentioned again. There is a brief appearance by an uneducated cottager, who exemplifies the text’s assertion that such better understand Christianity than most university-educated ministers, but otherwise women only appear, and that very briefly, to be mocked for their foolishness and misguided beliefs.  When the Tractarians fight back against Frank’s efforts to expose them by rigging the election of a churchwarden, they do so by stooping to the lowest possible tactics: Out-dwelling landlords were hurried (not knowing why) to the rector’s help: even WOMEN were brought in post-chaises to vote…

Stephen Jenner’s loathing of Catholicism is evident throughout, but when he talks about the position held by Mary and her adoration by Catholics he gets a whole extra layer of revulsion in his voice. Mary is finally interpreted here as a ploy to draw weak-minded (and pre-corrupted) women to the Catholic church; and for all that Protestant women are not pre-corrupted, the text expresses a deep concern that they might be weak-minded enough to fall for it too.

I doubt this was what Stephen Jenner was going for, but right now I’ve never felt so furiously Catholic in all my life.

Anyway— Steepleton concludes with an exhortation to all true Protestants to be on their guard against Catholic encroachments and the Tractarian manoeuvring that, knowingly or unknowingly, makes it possible:

Regard not minor differences, where you all hold the same essential truths. Let not party distinctions keep you from co-operation. If you find any, whether called High-Church or low, who show that they really value the purity of faith more than party, enter into a friendly alliance with such. Collect, associate, combine for the defence of the truth, and of the Protestant established Church, as the great bulwark and safeguard of the truth. Let not slight variations of opinion on minor points divide and weaken you. “Union is strength.” If all true Protestant churchmen would but thus lay aside their party jealousies, and contend, as one man, for the faith that was once delivered to the saints, they would be stronger than all its enemies. Everything is at stake:—your Protestant Church, your Bibles, your liberties, the spiritual well-being of yourselves and your children. Arouse yourselves but in time, and these may be preserved to you and to your posterity: continue unwatchful and unresisting, and they are lost for ever…

Steepleton ended up being both more and less than I expected. Its early stages are surprisingly good-humoured and even (as with the sudden intrusion of the Income Tax Act) occasionally funny; but when it loses it, it really loses it. Still…I imagine that what I consider its losses, Stephen Jenner considered its gains. (Inadvertent John Henry Newman joke alert!) I will say this, though: right at this moment I am clearer in my mind than ever before about both the specifics of Protestantism and the doctrinal differences between Protestantism and Catholicism, and that’s knowledge I’m happy to have.

Oh! Right. I suppose I should explain the significance of “Steepleton“: it’s the town associated with Frank’s second curacy. It’s barely mentioned, and never relevant, and you have to wonder why it was chosen as the title of the novel. Wouldn’t just Frank Faithful have been more to the point?

11/05/2011

The church in a state

The Victorian English left us, in the form of fiction, a picture of themselves more complete than any we possess for other nations or other generations. But historians have almost ignored this vast mine of humane knowledge, a source of insight, if not indeed of fact. The view of the intellectual movement presented by men of unquestioned honesty to a public too well acquainted with the subject to accept obvious misrepresentation, should be valuable—not only for what is stated, but also for what is unconsciously revealed of bias, assumption, of the spiritual atmosphere of the time. Moreover, the Victorians were tremendously concerned with religion, lest it vanish, and their chief instrument of propaganda (in fact, their favorite means of presenting serious psychological or social study) was the novel.

Those of us who love the Victorian novel nevertheless face certain challenges in absorbing from it all that it has to offer. For the modern reader, one of the greatest of these may well be coming to terms with not merely the religious content, which is almost ubiquitous, but the terminology that goes along with it. In Victorian Britain, religion was a very public thing: this was a time of strife, not only between the church and its enemies – or at least its disputants – but between the various factions within the church itself. One of the pleasures for me of Joseph Ellis Baker’s The Novel And The Oxford Movement is that it allowed me finally, seriously, to begin to get my head around the vocabulary of the age, and to understand the allusions that for the Victorian reader were clear and self-explanatory: High Church, Low Church, Evangelicalism, Tractarianism, Puseyism, High Anglicanism, High And Dry, Anglo-Catholicism, Roman Catholicism— AAACCKK!!!!

Grateful as I am to Joseph Ellis Baker, I have, nevertheless, certain qualms about trying to review this book. As he declares in his preface, Baker was himself Catholic – or as I should say in this context, Roman Catholic – and even with my limited knowledge, I can see how this tends to skews his presentation of his material. Another issue is that, writing in 1932, Baker makes certain assumptions, and takes certain things for granted, that some eighty-odd years later we might not be inclined to accept. This presents a problem – one I don’t intend to try and overcome. Call it tolerance or call it cowardice, but I’ve decided not to engage with Baker at that level.

Instead, I’ll stick to talking about what I most took out of this book, a better understanding of the various religious movements of 19th-century Britain, and an awareness of some now extremely obscure novelists. And,  well, you know me: obscure novels, and obscure novelists, are my stock-in-trade; and I confess that these peculiar, clumsy, ponderously sincere, ephemeral texts hold a strange fascination for me.

(While I can say I have a better understanding of this subject, that’s certainly not to say it’s flawless. So if I get anything wrong here, or misuse any of the terminology, please feel free to set me straight.)

By Baker’s account, the so-called Oxford Movement grew out of a backlash against the liberalism of the 1830s, which saw various reforms passed giving greater rights and opportunities to the lower and middle classes, and an increasing distance placed between Church and State. A key moment came in 1833, with a Bill introduced in parliament to reduce the number of bishoprics in Ireland. Although this was part of a reform under which the money saved would be applied to other church business, the Bill was preceived in some quarters as an outrageous secular meddling in religious matters. The most notable reaction came from John Keble, the author of The Christian Year and, from 1831, the Chair of Poetry at Oxford. In 1833, Keble’s Assize Sermon was entitled “National Apostasy”. In it he denounced both the Irish Bill and the interference by the state in church affairs. This sermon is now generally regarded as the beginning of the Oxford Movement.

Following Keble’s sermon, a group of English clerics banded together and produced a series of papers that they called Tracts For Our Times, which expounded upon the principles of what they called “the English branch of the Holy Catholic Church”. These Tracts became the focus of a move away from the Low Church, or Evangelical, form of worship, which then dominated England, and towards what would be known as Anglo-Catholicism: a stricter, more traditional approach that, while not recognising the authority of the Pope or the Catholic hierarchy, or incorporating confession and absolution, adopted Catholic procedures and rituals. It was Anglican, but not Protestant.

This movement was and for a decade remained based around Oxford. In the first instance it was often called “Tractarianism”, in reference to the publications which the Anglo-Catholics used to fire the first barrages in what would become a decades-long conflict. In line with their horror of liberalism and reform, the Tractarians advocated a return to an England under the joint paternalistic rule of the church and the aristocracy: a realm where everyone was content to stay where God had seen fit to place them; where the poor were  “looked after”, in the feudal sense, and thus kept passive and obedient, and where an uppity middle-class was to learn submission to God’s will whether it liked it or not.

Even as it is generally accepted that civil war is the most internecine, this battle not between different religions, but between degrees of the same religion, was a bitter if bloodless conflict, a war fought from the pulpit, and in the newspapers – and in the novel. By the time of the birth of the Oxford Movement, the novel was an accepted although not entirely approved form of recreation. While in general novels were still held to be a threat to the weak-minded of society – women, servants, the working-class – it was nevertheless recognised that if written with strict purpose, the novel could be a powerful weapon. So it was that during the 1840s, the religious novel was born, as each of the various factions tried to reach, to educate, to sway the English public through its favourite form of entertainment – not, however, without certain qualms.

It is to these qualms that we owe the most peculiar characteristics of the novels of this time. Many writers, uneasy at adopting a form often denounced for its pernicious influence to favour their cause, actually took pains to make their novels as unentertaining as possible. (Or at least, that’s the story they’re sticking with.) It became a matter of pride, for instance, not to include anything resembling a love-story: a convention perhaps easier for the Anglo-Catholics, one of whose tenets was the celibacy of the ministry. Indeed, many of the earliest religious novels are essentially sermons in prose. But over time, it was conceded that the power of the novel lay in its ability to engage the imagination and the emotions; that soapbox shouting defeated its own purpose. Finally, the more talented of the religious novelists began weaving their themes and their arguments into stories that carried conviction through their grounding in a recognisable reality.

Most readers today, I imagine, if asked to name a religious 19th century English novelist, would probably nominate Anthony Trollope, specifically his Barchester books. Ironically, although he gives Trollope his own section in his book, Joseph Ellis Baker essentially dismisses him as a religious novelist, arguing that his clergymen are predominantly creatures of society and not the church. This is, of course, to a large extent true, as Trollope himself admitted; it is not private religion but public duty with which he mostly concerned himself. Baker also points out that in Trollope’s novels, the Oxford Movement seems almost not to have happened – that he spends most of his time satirising the Evangelicals from a High (but not too High) Church perspective, exactly as his mother, Frances Trollope, was doing in her novels of the 1830s. This, however, Baker subscribes largely to the fact that Trollope was writing his novels after the first great wave of religious controversy had subsided, during a period of greater tolerance and reduced disputation.

Nevertheless, for the modern reader, Trollope is still a good place to start – and quite complicated enough, with his Proudie / Grantley – Low Church / High Church brawling. We do in fact find in his novels a few references to the earlier religious controversies, including the unanticipated and most unwanted climax of the Oxford Movement, which saw several of its leading exponents, most notoriously John Henry Newman, convert to Roman Catholicism: exactly what the Movement’s Lower Church enemies had warned would be its natural consequence.

Thus in Barchester Towers, Francis Arabin is described as “an ardent disciple” of Newman, and, So high, indeed, that at one period of his career, he had all but toppled over into the cesspool of Rome. In Doctor Thorne we have Caleb Oriel, who represents a mild form of another frequent accusation made against Catholicism: that it was a religion of the senses and not of the spirit. Caleb’s initial calling was, we learn, Rather to the outward and visible signs of religion than to its inward and spiritual graces. He is also an advocate of celibacy in the church: a belief which scarcely outlasts his first meeting with Beatrice Gresham. Trollope is indulgent with those who go a little too “High”, believing that this is something they will simply grow out of; but he has little patience with those who go Low. For Trollope, Evangelicalism is the refuge of the ungentlemanly.

That Anthony Trollope is an enduringly popular novelist, and that Anthony Trollope was not, in Joseph Ellis Baker’s opinion, a religious novelist, are probably not unrelated. Most of the propagandistic novels produced during this time were so narrow in scope, so humourless in execution, so specific in respect to time and place – and, let’s face it, so poor in quality – that very few of them outlived the brief period of their initial release.

A few good – or at least, interesting – novelists, albeit ones not much read these days, did emerge from this controversy. Benjamin Disraeli’s works reflect his “Young Englishism”, a form of Toryism than looked yearningly back at the forms of Old English tradition, and thus found some parallels with the conservatism of the Oxford Movement. Significantly, Disraeli’s novels came in two waves, matching the two great outbreaks of religious controversy, during the 1840s and the 1870s.

On the other side of the fence, Charles Kingsley used the novel to launch scathing attacks upon the Tractarians, but from a rather unique perspective. Kingsley took issue with the notion that human nature was inherently sinful, believing that what was “natural” was “good” – including sex. While decrying celibacy and asceticism, Kingsley finds God equally in nature and in science. On the other hand, he held grave views about the possibility of rebellion by the lower classes, which like his religious enemies, the Anglo-Catholics, he viewed as defiance of God’s will.

But it was the Anglo-Catholics who first seized upon the novel as a means of propaganda, their leading lights in this respect during the 1840s being William Gresley and Francis Edward Paget. Both of these men were exponents of the dissertation school of novel-writing, avoiding love interest and concentrating instead on topics such as church restoration and the removal of pews. Stories of individuals who inherit estates and make them over in religious / feudal terms were also popular.

Another recurrent theme was the pernicious influence of the Mechanics’ Institutes and the like, which not only educated the poor and the working-class, but educated them in science; thus moving from being merely foolish to the outright sinful. In her 1855 novel, S. Alban’s; or, The Prisoners Of Hope, Felicia Skene offers a dire warning about what was going on in these Institutes, giving an example of the kind of lecture the lower classes were listening to: They were all equal, and men were not to be bought and sold like slaves, whose labour was to be made use of; and all this wicked sophistry [was] remarkably palatable to the proud unchastened spirit of the man…

But as the fight heated up, the novels became more and more thunderous against democracy or liberalism in any form; against reform; against social progress; and above all against anything that questioned the “natural authority” of the church in the first instance, but also of the aristocracy. This attitude is illustrated in William Gresley’s Clement Walton, wherein the English Church – i.e. the Anglo-Catholic Church – is praised for producing men who are “loyal, faithful, peaceable, and intelligent”; while conversely, in those who follow other tenets there is, An absence of that humble submission to authority, which is so amiable a feature of the Christian character… Corresponding with this spiritual defect there is a political disaffection to civil government; a democratic, arrogant temper; an anxiety to maintain rights rather than to perform duties.

Most of the early Tractarian novels were written by men about men; but later in the century, the novel of domestic manners became prominent, and gave women writers an acceptable framework within which to tackle religious matters. Perhaps the most significant aspect of these novels is their profound anti-intellectualism. The same advocacy of submission is present in these novels, but it goes hand-in-hand with an overt suspicion of the intellect. “Thinking”, generally, is viewed as a form of wicked wilfullness that will inevitable lead to sin: to think is to question; to question is to doubt; to doubt is to disbelieve. And “thinking” is doubly sinful when it is done by women, who along with the church will usually have an array of fathers, brothers and husbands to whom they should be submitting without hesitation or reflection.

Perhaps the most well-known, and indeed the most talented, of this particular school of novel-writing is Charlotte Yonge. The Clever Woman Of The Family, as we might guess from its title – the 19th century produced no more damning term for a woman than “clever” – is the story of a woman who has the temerity to think for herself, and who must suffer a proper and thorough humiliation as a consequence and thus learn her place. Meanwhile, Yonge’s Hopes And Fears has a young woman who has learned to be deeply suspicious of her own intelligence, which she fears will lead her into sin, looking wistfully at her mentally disabled sister and praying to be, As silly as she.

It is, however, Elizabeth Missing Sewell who represents the most extreme form of this stance, embracing a creed of absolute, unthinking obedience to authority. Obstacles are sent by God not to be striven against, but as a sign that we should stop whatever it is that we are doing and sit still: in Margaret Percival, when a character cannot afford to go to university and become a clergyman because of his brother’s gambling debts, it does not mean that he should work and strive and overcome these difficulties, but a sign that God does not want him to be a clergyman.

Also in Margaret Percival, we find the heroine hesitating over donating money for church restoration, as to do so would give her pleasure and is thus in all likelihood a sin. When she wavers towards Rome she is lectured bluntly about, “The duty of remaining where God has placed you, unless you have absolute demonstration, which you never can have, that the English Church is no true Church…” – and further warned that doing what is right “in her own eyes” will likely land her in Hell. “Thinking” is a form of self-will, and therefore a sin. “Conscience”, likewise, is setting our own judgement against that of a proper authority and a sin of pride. Acts such as these are dangerous for anyone, but unforgiveable in a woman, for whom the safest way is to fill her life entirely with religion – the right religion – so that she is in no danger of thinking about anything else, and therefore in no danger of thinking at all. In Ursula, a woman who has suffered an illness that leaves her “weak-minded” finds that obedience to authority now comes much more easily to her, and recognises that what she at first viewed as an affliction is a gift from God.

After all this, it was, I confess, with some relief that I turned to Baker’s account of the opposing Evangelical novels. It is a given in these novels that Anglo-Catholicism is all about the externals – of the senses, not the spirit, as we have said. As a religion, it leads people away from inner grace to a fixation on forms and ceremonies; while the decoration of churches reflects a sinful adherence to worldly pleasures. Evangelical novels do not generally express the same kind of suspicion of the intellect per se as the Tractarian novels, but what we find instead is a dismissal of art and literature as having any value in and of themselves.

That the Tractarians are, one way or another, deluded is the catch-cry of these novels. Girls are shown to be at particular risk of being drawn in: it is, we are told gravely, a short step from embroidering an altar-cloth to “going over to Rome”. Unlike the Anglo-Catholics, the Evangelicals tended to make a point of including a love-story in their novels. A number of Evangelical novels, including Emma Jane Worboise’s Overdale; or, The Story Of A Pervert, suggest that the attraction of Catholicism (Anglo or Roman) to young women is that its public display affords them – ahem – an outlet for their emotions. Once a nice young man turns up, all that nonsense is quickly forgotten. Another danger is celibate churchmen, who amusingly enough are sketched as being like catnip for their female parishioners. Celibacy is viewed with great suspicion, as evidence of the fundamental “unnaturalness” of Catholicism; and as it leads women away from love and marriage, it becomes not just wrong but wicked.

Despite all this, however, the Evangelical novels tend to be more generous to the Anglo-Catholics than vice-versa: they admit the good intentions of their spiritual enemies, even that they do much good amongst the poor; but all of this is as nothing beside such transgressions as encouraging amusements on Sundays – or frequenting theatres and other such places at any time. Thus, in Experience; or, The Young Church-Woman, an anonymous novel from 1854, we have the heroine refusing an invitation to the opera, her rule being, “Never to go anywhere to which I would not take my Saviour.”

The controversy surrounding the Oxford Movement died away during the 1850s, giving us a period of comparative calm and tolerance in the 1860s, in which religious novelists of all camps, although holding their ground, became more willing to present both sides of an argument, and to allow that their enemies, however misguided, were sincere. It was during this period that Anthony Trollope flourished. Things changed during the 1870s, however, on the back of a severe agricultural depression that put enormous pressure on the traditional landowners and brought about widespread unemployment. Life was hard for many, and it is perhaps because of this that the second wave of the Oxford Movement manifested itself as Ritualism, with an emphasis not only on ceremony, but on the emotional aspects of worship, including belief in supernatural manifestations and an embrace of mysticism.

When the Evangelicals hit back, as they inevitably did, against these “Catholic extravagances”, their retaliation was in its own way just as extravagant: whereas once religious novelists had shied away from the conventions of the form, this second wave found them using the scandalous framework of the sensation novel to make their case, telling lurid stories about religiously mixed marriages and scheming priests. Oddly, this movement produced, or at least attracted, a talented novelist in the form of Eliza Linn Lynton; perhaps she was just glad of an excuse to write a sensation novel. In any case, her Under Which Lord? is the definitive study of an Anglo-Catholic wife torn between her duty to her husband and her duty to her church. The scheming priest in this case is an advanced Ritualist, and condemned by the narrator as, A Roman Catholic in all save name and obedience…one who was contemptuous of modern science, sceptical of modern progress, and opposed to all forms of mental freedom. The distance between Lynton’s creed and that of Elizabeth Missing Sewell is staggering to contemplate.

Amusingly, this new form of Evangelical attack brought the Victorian religious novel full circle, as Francis Edward Paget, one of the pioneering Tracterian novelists of the 1840s, reacted by publishing in 1868 Lucretia; or, The Heroine Of The Nineteenth Century, a bitter and heavy-handed satire of the sensation novel, which is accused of not merely exploiting, but actively promoting all manner of sin – chiefly adultery and murder. Paget has no doubt where this novelistic trend was leading: France is not the only country in the annals of the world in which a reign of lust has been followed by a reign of terror.

The most horrifying aspect of the sensation novel, however, is that so many of them are written by – gasp! – women:

—and the worst of them, UNMARRIED WOMEN!

Emphasis his.

But this wave, too, died away. In the 1880s, novels were still dealing with religious matters, but those themes were being woven into the story instead of being the story: the era of the overt propaganda vehicle was gone. Not surprisingly, many of the novelists who had entered this particular battle subsequently sank into oblivion. Their works, equally crude and sincere, are the very definition of “an acquired taste”…yet some of us have acquired it. I shudder to reflect what The Novel And The Oxford Movement – in combination with Margaret Maison’s Search Your Soul, Eustace, which I read shortly pre-blog – has done to my wishlist. All the novels mentioned here are in there, people – it’s only a matter of time…