Sunday, November 8, 2009

Reading Journal: "Robert Elsmere"

Mrs. Humphry Ward, Robert Elsmere. Oxford World's Classics 1987. Originally published 1888. 576 pp.

Mrs. Humphry Ward

Robert Elsmere was an instant and sensational bestseller when it was published in 1888. William Gladstone, in between terms as Prime Minister, wrote a forty-page review of the novel, finding fault with its rejection of Anglican orthodoxy. Oscar Wilde summed it up with a witticism, dismissing it as "Arnold's Literature and Dogma with the literature left out." Mrs. Ward was, in fact, Matthew Arnold's niece, and like Arnold, she objected to the literalism of orthodox Christianity, which was based on an unscientific acceptance of miracles. The underlying purpose of her novel was to suggest a new Christianity, based on historical knowledge, the humanity of Christ, and the ideal of social justice.

The novel begins in the Lake District, where the saintly and evangelical Catherine Leyburn brings comfort to her poor neighbors and holds her family together after the death of her like-minded father. The first part of the novel tells quite compellingly the story of Catherine's wooing by the young clergyman Robert Elsmere, fresh from Oxford and about to become the rector of a small parish in Sussex. Catherine struggles between her sense of duty to her family and neighbors, and her growing love and admiration for Robert. Finally, she accepts him, and Robert takes up his post in Murewell, Sussex, where he immediately becomes a force for good. At the same time, he comes under the spell of the scholarly and misanthropic Squire Wendover, with his fabulous library and his atheism. Under the Squire's influence, Robert comes to reject the miraculous basis of Christianity, which means that he can no longer accept the 39 Articles and therefore must leave the Anglican Church.

Elsmere, through his historical researches, comes to the conclusion that the miraculous elements of Christianity, like the story of the Resurrection, arose out of prescientific modes of thought and conventions of storytelling. Miracles made Christ's story compelling to a first century audience. But the scientific nineteenth-century had no need of miracles or the divinity of Christ: the self-sacrificing moral goodness of a purely human Christ was enough. There was no need to believe in the literal Resurrection when the example of Christ remained, though the work of his followers, a powerful force for social and moral regeneration.

Robert Elsmere represents a middle way between the evangelical orthodoxy of his wife Catherine—who becomes a less sympathetic character as she struggles intractably with her husband's heresy—and the thoroughgoing skepticism and atheism of Squire Wendover. Gladstone objected that the deck is stacked against orthodoxy because Ward gives the Church no intellectually formidable proponent in the novel to counter the influence of Wendover. For Catherine, Christianity is a matter of feeling, not thought, and she can only pray that her husband will return to the fold. At the same time, Robert doesn't follow the Squire's teaching to its logical conclusion, and become an atheist. The Squire is misanthropic, too absorbed in his scholarship, and dies bitter and alone. Atheism is a moral abyss.

The novel is full of attempts at salvation. Rose, Catherine's artistic younger sister, yearns to save the handsome morose Oxford tutor, Langham, from his lonely and disappointed life. A minor character, Charles Richards, wants to "reclaim" his alcoholic wife. Catherine wants to save Robert from heresy and damnation. Robert wants to save everyone. Salvation, Ward seems to say, is not worked out through the miraculous intervention of the risen Christ, but through human relationships, and human love. Christ was not the incarnation of God; rather, we are the incarnation of Christ when we work together in love for the betterment of the world. This is the essence of Robert Elsmere's new religion.

Storytelling is also central to the novel, and to Mrs. Ward's ideas about religion. Both in his Sussex parish and in his ministry to London workers, Elsmere institutes storytelling evenings, when he reads aloud to his parishioners. Like her uncle, Matthew Arnold, Mr. Ward saw that familiarity with the workings of literature was essential for understanding the metaphorical truths of Christianity. Storytelling also brings us into the lives of others. It draws people together, and becomes an agent of reconciliation. It's hearing from someone else the story of her husband's ministry to the London working poor that finally reconciles Catherine to her husband's loss of orthodox faith.

In the course of the novel, as Catherine becomes more rigid and less sympathetic, Elsmere himself becomes more idealized. One character talks, late in the novel, about "the spirit of devotion, through a man, to an idea." He says, "There is no approaching the idea for the masses except through the human life; there is no lasting power for the man except as the slave of the idea." Mrs. Ward, writing in the late nineteenth century, optimistically believed in the power of the charismatic ideologue to be a force for profound good. The twentieth century would show the other side of the coin.

Robert Elsmere is an absorbing, thought-provoking, beautifully written novel. Mrs. Ward has a sympathetic understanding of human character. Walter Pater called the novel "a chef d'oeuvre of that kind of quiet evolution of character through circumstance, introduced into English literature by Miss Austen..." The influence of George Eliot can also be felt throughout (at one point, Elsmere's influence is said to be "incalculably diffusive"—a quotation from the end of Middlemarch). Above all, Mrs. Ward has a deep Victorian moral earnestness. The novel is, as Gladstone, said, "eminently an offspring of the time," and as such offers a panoramic picture of late Victorian religious and intellectual life. It's a shame that Oxford has not included the novel in the latest reissue of the World's Classics series.

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