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The Bible and the novelists

06 December 2013

Michael Wheeler on  a study of the world of Robert Elsmere


Psalmos, "music played on instruments": Egyptian musicians play a variety of instruments in a painting from the tomb of Amenenhet at Thebes, 1475-1448 BC, used to illustrate the section on the Psalms in The One-Stop Bible Guide by Mike Beaumont (Lion Hudson, £9.99 (£9); 978-0-7459-5728-2), an easy-to-follow overview with 150 illustrations, and including timelines and maps

Psalmos, "music played on instruments": Egyptian musicians play a variety of instruments in a painting from the tomb of Amenenhet at Thebes, 1475-14...

Bible and Novel: Narrative authority and the death of God
Norman Vance
OUP £55
Church Times Bookshop £49.50  (Use code CT260 )

DO NOT be put off by the cover (a darkened image of a Francis Danby on a black ground), or by the price (since this is an academic study, destined for the library), or by the subtitle (the book is not about theothanatology). Treasures lie within. Professor Norman Vance of the University of Sussex is well known to Victorian scholarship for books such as The Sinews of the Spirit, on Christian manliness, and The Victorians and Ancient Rome. Bible and Novel is his summa, the product of a lifetime of reading and reflection.

Vance argues that we have moved beyond the tedious secularising phase of literary and historical studies of previous decades, and that there is now a sense of disenchantment with disenchantment. A "new round of interrogation and revision" can begin. His section on "secularisms", which includes discussion of the ironies associated with the origin of the word, ranges over centuries. By the late 19th century, he argues, romance was flourishing, and the novel had achieved a high level of cultural and moral authority. But can fiction be religious by means other than those of scripture?

Vance is as comfortable with biblical criticism as he is with literature and the history of ideas. His chapter on the authority of the Bible ranges from the Fathers to Gladstone, taking in Dante and Archbishop Ussher en route. As the author of books on Irish literature, Vance has things to say about the way in which 19th-century Britain was "culturally as well as religiously identified as Protestant". Thomas Barker's portrait of Queen Victoria in the Audience Chamber at Windsor (National Portrait Gallery, c.1863) shows her presenting a kneeling African prince with a Bible. The painting, also reproduced as a popular engraving, is entitled The Secret of England's Greatness.

Vance's chapter on the crisis of biblical authority covers familiar territory, but offers numerous fresh insights along the way. German Protestantism, he believes, German scholarship, and well-informed novelists, such as George Eliot and Mary Ward (author of Robert Elsmere), "favoured a more dynamic or process-focused model of religion" than that of previous generations. In the later 19th century, Rider Haggard was exploring themes in his African novels which resonate with Bishop Colenso's situation a generation earlier: both tried to make sense of scripture in a "culturally alien environment".

The second half of the book is made up of case studies on George Eliot (a long chapter on Vance's prime example), Hardy, Ward, and Haggard. Archbishop Trench of Dublin was spotted on the platform at a church conference looking intently into the hat on his knee. It turned out that he was reading, not a book of devotion, but Middlemarch. Thomas Hardy should be thought of as post-Christian rather than anti-Christian: late in life he refused to be included in a dictionary of modern rationalists. As "Mrs Humphry Ward" is seldom read today, her life and work are summarised, as are Haggard's. Both have quasi-messianic heroes in their books.

Mark Pattison, the learned Rector of Lincoln College, Oxford, advised the young Ward to "get to the bottom of something"; she went to the Bodleian Library and became an expert on early Spanish literature and history. Vance has got to the bottom of the Bible and the late-Victorian novel.

Dr Wheeler is a Visiting Professor of English at the University of Southampton.

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