The Church of England Novel

ANY attempt to estimate the performance of women - novelists of our time, which has been par excellence the age of the novel, would certainly be incomplete without a glance at the work of two exceedingly clever specialists who have been industriously engaged for more than a generation in directing to one fixed and narrow purpose the employment of their admirable powers. I have no scruple about calling the purpose a narrow one, since the only persons who might have a right to object to the epithet— namely, these writers themselves — would be the last to consider it an injurious one. All moral truth, according to the authors of both Margaret Percival and The Heir of Redclyffe, is dependent upon religious truth ; and religious truth is a perfectly distinct, circumscribed, and immutable thing, a relic, a palladium, a sacred heir-loom, a costly inheritance, to be received with reverence, protected from the cupidity of the vulgar, and transmitted intact, with every possible precaution and guaranty. It is Christianity, but not by any means all of Christianity. That is to say, it is not Catholic Christianity in any natural or generally received sense of that much-coveted and frequently abused term. It is the special form of Christianity professed, and as far as may be practiced, in the Established Church of England.

All the earlier works of Miss Sewell and a good many of Miss Yonge’s are, indeed, as truly controversial as if they consisted solely of exploits of exegesis and dry treatises upon doctrine. Nor is this wonderful, when we reflect that both these conscientious writers were born and bred in an atmosphere of the keenest controversy. Both had intimate associations with Oxford ; inherited the culture, and were involved in the conflicts, of the intellectual and spiritual capital of the English race. Both were young and impressionable at the period of that great religious and ecclesiastical revival, that sudden rising of the spiritual floods, which men have rightly named the Oxford Movement. Both felt the shock of impact with the eternal obstacle which divided the swollen waters, and the stress of those hidden forces which imparted to the movement of either of the then parted streams, an energy that forty years have hardly begun to abate. Any discussion of the question at issue between the followers of Newman and the followers of Keble and Pusey would be out of place here. It will be enough to remind the reader that the doctrines of the historical continuity of the Christian faith, of priestly authority, and of sacramental efficacy were claimed and held, with equal tenacity, by both parties ; and one is, in fact, met at every turn, in the England of to-day, by evidences of the new light of faith and life of works enkindled within the Anglican Church by their revival.

These, then, are the doctrines which Miss Sewell and Miss Yonge have dramatized ; and that so attractively, with so earnest a purpose and so ample a knowledge of human nature, as to win for them toleration, and to a considerable extent, as I believe, acceptance, among readers outside the pale of any historical church. What influence they may have had among English dissenters I have no accurate means of knowing,— probably it would not be much ; but for the very marked and still recent Episcopal revival in America, and especially in New England, I hold these two gentle champions of the faith delivered to the Apostles so largely responsible as to render their blameless tales well worthy an hour’s dispassionate review.

Miss Sewell was the earlier in the field by several years. I can myself just remember the strong impression produced on the more serious-minded, unworldly, and orthodox class of New England’s unremitting readers by Gertrude and The Earl’s Daughter ; while even to the children of rather strictly educated and so - called “ evangelical ” families Amy Herbert and Laneton Parsonage were freely permitted as appropriate Sunday reading. Certainly the standard of behavior set before us, in these deeply interesting but at the same time severely didactic tales, was as high and difficult a one as the most austere Puritan could desire. The lessons they inculcated were such as all children brought up on the idea that they ought first of all to be good knew that it behooved them to learn. It did occasionally strike us, as we read, with a feeling akin to discouragement, that we had never dreamed before how exceedingly, not to say dreadfully, good we ought to be. Still, the juvenile conscience, nurtured in an atmosphere of old-fashioned New England piety, responded readily to the demand made upon it for unflinching truth, unquestioning obedience, unflagging diligence, and, above all, for a spirit of deep reverence toward the articles of the Christian faith. We were alive, too, as I believe intelligent children always are, to the great literary charm of this new order of “good books,” and we were still innocent as babes, being in fact little more ourselves, of the flippant but expressive term “ goody-goody.” We could appreciate the art with which certain select types of juvenile character were portrayed, the exquisite naturalness of conversation and incident, the atmosphere of moral refinement. Our naïf indifference to the basis of doctrine, the specific Credo, on which this high code of morals was supposed to rest, our absolute unconsciousness of our own outcast and perilous position, is irresistibly amusing when viewed by the light of one’s later knowledge of the burning questions of traditional authority out of whose agitation these warning parables arose. Our Bible was like the English Bible, we conceived, save for certain curious and unimportant little variations in the Psalms. Our Apostles, also, were the same, and we knew of no reason why Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John should not “ bless the beds that we lay on,” as well as the dimity-curtained cots, in the bowery English rectory. Our very baptism we imagined, in our simplicity, to be identical with theirs ; and as for that critical business of confirmation, on which such great and impressive stress was laid (our prime favorite, Laneton Parsonage, with its three fat and fondly cherished volumes, might almost have been denominated a Tragedy of Confirmation), we supposed, I think, that it was merely a more public and ceremonious form of what we had been accustomed to hear called conversion. We feared, upon the whole, considerably more than we loved, that embodiment of all speculative doctrine and practical reproof, that stern type of the spiritual pastor and master, who predominated over every tale, conducted the competitive examinations for full church membership, and directed to something as like as possible to his own pitiless excellence the weaker and more wanton souls committed to his charge. But we were far from comprehending, or even suspecting, the general anathema under which we ourselves would have been held to lie, had our cases really come within his spiritual jurisdiction. I speak as a child, of course, and possibly as a fool, but I am by no means persuaded, even now, that the childish instinct of aversion to this priestly dictator was altogether a sinful and mistaken one. Whether or no he lacked light, he did, on many occasions, very signally fail in sweetness; and it is not easy to imagine one’s self spontaneously confiding a spiritual difficulty either to the rector of Laneton Parsonage or to the clerical uncle in Margaret Percival, who, when the gentle heroine tremblingly acknowledged to him that she had come, in his absence, to entertain doubts as to whether the authority of the Church of England were indeed superior to that of the Church of Rome, replied, with so entirely the air of an ecclesiastical PoohBah, “ My poor child, have they brought you to this ? ”

Naturally, however, the grown-up readers of Miss Sewell’s adult tales gave more heed to her arguments than was accorded them in the nursery ; and a considerable number were undoubtedly a good deal influenced by them. The most directly and confessedly argumentative of the early books, indeed, — the tale of Margaret Percival’s narrow escape from the zeal and the fascinations of a beautiful Italian countess, passionately attached to her own ancestral faith, — was perhaps the least effective of them all with American readers, for the reason that the questions which it involved were hardly living ones among our native pietists at that time. Yet even Margaret Percival was taken seriously, in a sense quite contrary to any the author can ever have intended, and was followed by the queerest of consequences in the shape of a sequel entitled Margaret Percival in America, and artlessly prepared by some reader on the hither side of the sea, who could not quite reconcile herself to Margaret’s final reduction to obedience by the clerical disciplinarian before mentioned. Despite the liberal admission with which the true story of Margaret Percival ended, — that for the Roman Catholic siren, too, there may have been hope in her death, — the place in which the soul of the so nearly perverted heroine was left seemed too strait to the child, or rather the grandchild, of non-conformity, who proceeded to take forcible possession of Miss Sewell’s Margaret, transport her to America, and convert her once for all to liberal Christianity, Sunday picnics, and the worship of God in the fields. The liberty taken with another author’s creation, and a living author’s, was most extraordinary; but the would-be sequel bore no comparison, in point of literary merit, with the tale it presumed to continue, and I hope it will not be held a mark of unseemly levity if I confess that I find something delightfully humorous in the idea of Miss Sewell’s own probable consternation, first at the kidnapping ease itself, and the destiny assigned to her so carefully guarded heroine, and afterwards at the fact that Margaret Percival in America has been quite lately catalogued among the writings of Elizabeth Sewell, by the indefatigable, but by no means infallible, compiler of The Women of the Day.

After all, however, the real force of the novels proper (most proper), no less than that of the nursery tales, lies where Matthew Arnold finds that of the Old Testament itself, from which their inspiration is so largely drawn, — in their bearing upon the conduct of life, their thorough researches into the mixed motives which guide our ordinary actions, their revelation of the less creditable secrets of ostensibly innocent lives, their treatment of every-day cases of conscience. It may be urged that these cases themselves are, many of them, rather childish ; unlikely, under any circumstances, greatly to agitate the dwellers in the great average world ; curiously within the limits of conventional virtue and outward respectability, and remote from the region of fierce temptation, overmastering passion, and positive crime. Whether a pious and charitably disposed lady, who had intended to build a church with her superfluous money, ought or ought not to employ it instead in relieving her brother, who is in pecuniary difficulties. Whether the said brother, having lived for a given number of years far beyond his income, ought to incur the expense of a reëlection to Parliament, or throw up his seat, rent his big house, go abroad and economize. (It really seems as though there were no positive need of a ghostly counselor to tell him that.) Whether a “ Christian maiden ” ought to expose herself to the fascinations of Goethe’s Egmont, for fear of being moved by the poet’s genius to sympathize with Clärchcn’s suicide. There is something almost pathetic, by the way, in the quixotic ardor displayed by our ladies in withstanding what they call German infidelity, or more conveniently still, Germanism,” when one comes to reflect what a comparatively innocuous little spectre it was beside the mighty shade of that later spiritual foe, which may fairly be termed English infidelity.

Yet the story of Gertrude, from which two of these examples are drawn, is really a noble and an able one. A very fine discrimination is made between the characters of the two sisters, Gertrude and Edith, both so conscientious and high-minded, the latter making goodness obnoxious by her austerity and hauteur, and a certain selfish absorption in the matter of her own soul’s safety, and the former winning her way with people of all kinds by a spirit of unfailing sympathy, suavity, and tact, which, nevertheless, involves no sacrifice of principle. In Gertrude, also, are first apparent a considerable power of social satire, and a capacity for detecting and exposing specious hypocrisies, and for analyzing commonplace, foolish, and more or less unlovely types of character. If she had been gifted with more humor, Miss Sewell might have been a great satirist, and a little of Miss Austen’s play of intellect would have rendered The Experience of Life a classic. As it is, it remains the masterpiece of its author, written in her most lucid and vigorous style, full of shrewd observation and photographic portraiture, compact with common sense. The force of realism, greatly as its function has, of late, been exalted, can hardly go further than in the picture here given of the utterly arid and sordid conditions of middle-class life in a small English country town. The themes of Middlemarch and of Janet’s Repentance are equally unflattering to the fancy, nor is the difference immeasurable, either in native power or singleness of moral purpose, between George Eliot and the author under discussion. But Middlemarch did at least admit a gleam of the ideal in the aspirations and devotions of Dorothea, the unselfish ambition of Lydgate, and the almost romantic rectitude of Caleb Garth. In Middlemarch, also, room was found for the passion of love, which never receives any marked attention from Miss Sewell, as a factor in life, and is excluded from The Experience of Life so rigidly that it would perhaps be more exact to qualify the title a little, and call it The Experience of a Life. The result is something quite conventual in the atmosphere of the book, — not sentimentally conventual, but unconsciously and severely so ; and it is a curious fact that in this one instance even the inevitable pope of the tale, the ultimate and infallible spiritual authority, is a very admirable old woman. Mrs. Poyser herself is not more terse and original, and hardly more picturesque in her comments on the affairs of this world, than “Aunt Sarah” in the quaint reflections and illustrations, which embrace the conditions of the next, as well. Her death-bed homily is perhaps a little too long, extending as it does over several chapters, but it is really one of the most striking manuals I have ever met of an alert, self-collected, practical piety.

In The Experience of Life Miss Sewell took formal and final leave of her own sober youth, and a long leave also of her youthful readers ; and the principles of true Anglicanism would have been left to languish in New England, at least, had not a younger champion of the same opportunely arisen, more buoyant and enthusiastic than the first, equally well furnished with church lore and panoplied in church loyalty, and, if less masculine in the grasp of her intellect, considerably more versatile, brilliant, and fascinating. This one — I mean Miss Yonge, of course — was just as keen an observer of English life as her elder, but a far more sympathizing and lenient critic. She was a born colorist, also, and her instincts and preferences were romantic and chivalric in the highest degree. It is all very well to scoff at the heir of Redclyffe as a nursery hero. He was that, undoubtedly, and happy the nursery where such an ideal is enshrined; but he was also much more. He restored, for a time, to the rather starved imagination of nineteenth-century childhood — and not of childhood only — the gracious and affecting image of the beardless Christian knight, sans peur et sans reproche ; adorned with many earthly gifts and graces, but radiant above all with the singular rapture reserved for those who seek the Creator of their souls early, — Sir Galahad, St. George, St. Stanislaus. The influence of De la Motte Fouqué in shaping this fair conception was evident, and, indeed, freely acknowledged. All the infinite picturesque of mediæval piety, rediscovered by the Oxford Movement for the delight of souls at once artistic and devout, glowed on the pages of Miss Yonge’s most popular tale, no less than on the maiden canvases of Rossetti and Millais. Manzoni, too, had his influence there, and that a peculiarly wholesome one, by virtue of his charming humor, the like of which was also among Miss Yonge’s manifold gifts, and saved her effectually, in those early days at least, from anything like an absurd anti-climax. Altogether, the type of goodness which she presented for imitation to her young readers was far more joyous and winning, more supple and, so to speak, possible, than the saintly fastidiousness of Lady Blanche Evelyn, or the painful precision and difficult resignation of the namesake of the renowned Aunt Sarah. Never afterward did Miss Yonge attain to depicting anything quite equal, for novel and tearful charm, to this one highly idealized figure, — the spirited self-devotion and impassioned sanctity of Guy Morville, his marvelously rapid victory over the world, the flesh, and the devil, and the smiling serenity of his untimely death, — while not once, even when most moved, is the reader allowed to forget to what sole tradition of doctrine, what instruments, and what sacraments this dazzling early blossom of chivalrous piety is to be ascribed.

In the force and ingenuity, however, with which the arguments are pressed home on which these articles of faith repose, the varieties of character and destiny which are compelled to illustrate them, and the firmness and brightness of her delineation of a certain small and exclusive but by no means unimportant section of English life, Miss Yonge did certainly advance from strength to strength, until, like her predecessor, she arrived at the culmination both of her analytic and constructive power in a perfectly unpretending narrative of middle-class English town life. The Daisy Chain is a story for young people, with a rather foolish title, and of seemingly inordinate length, but the ability lavished upon it is simply marvelous, and its charm is perennial. I am not ashamed to confess that I am always glad of an excuse for reopening the book, and never, I think, while eyesight lasts, shall I become incapable of losing myself for an hour in that masterly representation of a simple yet singularly vivid family life. Nowhere else that I know is the tale so truly and feelingly told of the jests, the tiffs and the truces, the emportements and the escapades, the brief anger and the lasting love, the glad meetings and the reluctant partings (each bringing for one sharp instant a foretaste of the last), the common joy, the indivisible anguish, the occasional perfect unison of prayer, — the whole sum of solemn and tender associations involved in that sacred idea of the home, which has been handed down intact, in our branch of the Aryan family, from those far-away forbears whose altar was literally the hearth, and their chief piety the worship of their own dead kindred. Miss Yonge must pardon the involuntary paganism of this panegyric. It is her fault for having been able to invest the story of eleven brothers and sisters, with their curious points both of likeness and unlikeness, no one of whom is conducted beyond the threshold of responsible grown-up life, with so profound and universal an interest. Every one of these eleven is alive in every word and gesture. It is a positive miracle of truthful and delicate characterization.

I really cannot help turning aside, at this point, however, to remark with complacency how disinterested we Americans are in admiring or adhering to Miss Yonge at all. The bugbear that our unkempt republic presents to her lady-like imagination ! One would think that she would avert her eyes altogether from the horrid spectacle ; but no, she seems possessed to point her ready moral at our remote expense. There is a perfectly virginal and altogether engaging innocence of fact about the idea of America which abides in the breast of this brightest and sweetest of British Philistines; and I cannot help thinking that she would herself be moved to laughter, could she see a certain annotated copy of the sequel to The Daisy Chain which once came under my notice. The book must have been written some time during our civil war ; for, after sending one of her heroines to contract malarial fever on the banks of a far Western river (which, by the way, she might, if necessary, have done nearer home), Miss Yonge sets her to watch the march to the front of a Michigan regiment, and makes her muse with a sort of mournful disdain on the “ misguided enthusiasm which has shed so much blood in the break-up of the great republic.” Against this bit of slightly premature vaticination, some small but irrepressible Yankee had briefly penciled, in the large Gothic characters of ten, “ Oh HO ! ”

But Miss Yonge is, I fear, joined to the idols of her condescending fancy. In one of her quite recent tales, The Pillars of the House, she evolves the conception of a little waif, of mixed American and Spanish parentage, who, after playfully setting fire to the village inn, and looking on with admirable sangfroid while his negro servant perishes in the flames, is rescued from his own too certain doom, and converted to Christianity and the Church Catechism in the vicarage nursery. He had a dreadful fight, even after his baptism, with his depraved American tendencies, but the dignity and gravity inherent in his “ few drops of hidalgo blood ” eventually cooperated with divine grace to save and make a man of him. It is in the same book, I believe, that the little son of the black sheep of the Underwood family (who had been shipped to America, where all the black sheep only too surely go) is found, after his father’s violent death, to be on his way to England, to the very natural apprehensiveness of his gentle and civilized relatives in the old country. They are partially relieved, on his arrival, however, for he proves but a puny boy; and when politely asked whether he feels knocked up by his journey, replies plaintively that he feels " used up.” “ Now,” says Miss Yonge, “ though the phrase was American, the tone was English and refined ” !

This, however, is a frivolous digression. Miss Yonge’s later work in fiction comprises the charming Clever Woman of the Family, in which the more pretentious and fallacious aspect of the so-called higher education of women is exposed with very pleasant satire, and a few careful historical studies. One of these last, Unknown to History, is a work of considerable merit; a little marred in its effect, perhaps, by the somewhat too labored and conspicuous effort to make all the characters invariably talk in sixteenth-century English. It is the story of a supposititious daughter of Mary, Queen of Scots, and Bothwell, who was sent away from Lochleven by night under the care of a faithful nurse, when only a few weeks old. The vessel in which she was to have been conveyed to a convent in France and the custody of an abbess of royal blood was wrecked on the Irish coast, but the child was picked up alive, taken on board the ship of one of Queen Elizabeth’s sturdy mariners, adopted by him, and educated as a Protestant. Great pains are bestowed on the portrait of the unhappy queen, who presently becomes an actor in the drama, and there is a visible attempt on the part of the romantic author to resist her own instinctive and inevitable partiality for the Stuart race, and analyze dispassionately the strangely conflicting elements in the character of the great enchantress. Miss Yonge makes no pretension to having solved this eternal enigma, but her stately conception is an entirely credible and a tolerably self-consistent one.

The Pillars of the House, before mentioned, essays once more to delineate the interaction of a dozen, more or less, of clever brothers and sisters, and the evolution of their various fates. It is not quite as successful as The Daisy Chain, and is drawn out to a yet more extravagant length ; no other modern novel that I remember, except La Guerre et la Paix reaching anything like the same dimensions. Yet, wonderful to say, it is nowhere unreadable, and it deserves to be noted as embodying with evident intent a full confession of the final phase of Miss Yonge’s religious belief. She is now what is called a Ritualist of the most advanced type, resting with rapturous content among the purple vapors which enshroud “ the topmost height before the spirits fade away ” from the English into the elder church. Many characters whom we have learned to love in former books reappear in this ; the young widows, and the men and maids who have been disappointed in love, all presenting themselves in conventual dress, as members of Anglican sisterhoods or brotherhoods. If we feel with regret that the simplicity of Miss Yonge’s earlier manner is a little impaired by that somewhat scenic parade of the accessories of goodness, that elaborate and triumphant “doing so with their enchantments,” which appears to be inseparable from the present High Church fashion, we find her ideals of character as pure and sound as ever, and underneath what it would perhaps be unkind to call the flummery of her later piety the old finely knit frame-work of exquisite good sense. This is the point where she and Miss Sewell still agree, widely as they have diverged in some of their ecclesiastical theories, since the days when they consecrated themselves to a common work. Miss Sewell, indeed, though steadfastly loyal to her church, has become, if not “ low,” at least what is technically termed “evangelical.” She published only a few years ago a volume of religious meditations, in the course of which she more than once distinctly deprecates the tendencies which have driven herself and her early coadjutor almost as wide apart as is possible within the limits of the same communion. As for instance : —

“ There is another record, less sad than that of the majority of the world’s followers, but equally disappointing. It is to be found in the lives of those who, earnest but fearful, have turned aside from the ways of the world and followed some self-chosen path, in the hope of crushing by self-discipline the natural likings, which, because they too often lead to sin, are thought to be in themselves sinful. How weary that conflict is, how unceasing and for the most part vain, we may gather from the confessions which from time to time have reached us from their own lips, and which are confirmed by the painful inconsistencies of character that meet us in the record of their lives. The man who rejects with scorn the offer of worldly ambition can yet take delight in the homage offered to spiritual excellence. The woman who would shrink from mere worldly pomp, as from the most hateful temptation, can yet be led away by the follies of religious dissipation and the love of religious display.”

Yet even Miss Sewell is compelled, by the scrupulous fairness of her own spirit, to add, a few pages later on, with remarkable point and force of expression, “ Much is said by earnest-minded persons of the danger of forms, and they are dangerous ; no one can have watched his own heart without perceiving it. But there is a far greater danger in living without forms. Form without spirit is for the time dead ; yet while it remains with us, it is the ever-present witness to the existence of the spirit which once inhabited and may still return to it. But spirit without form may die, and none be aware of its departure.”

Both our ladies have spoken seriously and wisely, both categorically and in parables, on the lately so vexed question of the education of girls. Each, either by accident or agreement, has embodied some of her educational theories in the tale of a stepmother’s difficult and often ungrateful influence: Miss Sewell in Home Life and its sequel, After-Life; Miss Yonge in The Young Stepmother, a Chronicle of Mistakes. Each endows her second wife with much personal distinction and the most admirable intentions ; but the two tales involve a curious commentary on their authors’ contrasted tones of mind, and possibly on the spirit fostered by the different religious parties with which they are now severally identified. For Miss Yonge makes her heroine succeed, through her own frank humility and hearty desire to atone for all manner of follies of misplaced sympathy and erroneous judgment, in winning the unaffected love and confidence of the children committed to her charge ; while Miss Sewell claims a sort of inherent infallibility for hers, and the reader will probably venture to think that he sees in the lady’s bland self-righteousness and immovable severity of requirement, abundant reason for her comparative failure.

The strictly practical counsels of this entirely sincere and single-minded pair of moralists are still for the most part signally wise, and, for the most part also, essentially harmonious. I shall close this very imperfect survey of their nobly intended and often most effectual work by referring to a single point of social ethics on which both appear to have reflected a good deal, and, having come independently to the same rather novel conclusion, to have resolved pointedly to illustrate it in their tales.

When Miss Sewell makes her Katherine Ashton frankly accept the position and the wages of a lady’s-maid to the defenseless friend with whom, as a child, she had lived on terms of entire equality, because only so can she help and serve her essentially; and when Miss Yonge makes the heir of a line old county name, and the heir at law of a considerable county property, bind himself apprentice to a small printer and book-seller, and go to live in the chambers above his shop, that he may supply the immediate needs of his younger brothers and sisters, they commit a ruthless outrage upon one of the more snobbish forms of natural and, as it is sometimes called, proper sentiment. Moreover, they depict a sacrifice more acutely painful, and so of course more truly heroic, than any one not personally familiar with the conditions of English rural life would readily believe. It is not a pleasant thing to be déclassé anywhere, but to be déclassé in England must needs involve that from which a sensitive soul would shrink with positively heart-sickening aversion. Something of the æsthetic shock which Mr. Ruskin experiences when a new railway is run rough a fair suburban district, and a train of hideous tenement-houses follows in its wake, would be added to the sum of petty mortifications, discomforts, and disheartenments which one called to such a trial would inevitably have to undergo. The old order, with all its abuses, has been so kindly, comely, and reverend a one, to its privileged members naturally, but also to a goodly number of the great remainder, who in the good old times, at least, were well enough content to be humble. But “ the old order changeth.” Indications multiply on every side, in the England of to-day, that the peculiar form of self-mortification in question, the sad and distasteful business of coming down in the world, may erelong be required of many who might once have been thought securely defended by the very conditions of their birth from all possibility of sordid occupation, mean surroundings, and vulgar contact. Is it their quiet foresight of a time of great social change and trouble at hand which has led these two preachers of practical Christianity so earnestly to deprecate all false and unworthy pride; striving by every device to nerve their still growing readers for the more sordid and weariful as well as the grander and more tragic possibilities of impending domestic revolution ? If so, the fact gives them one more claim on our sympathy and respect.

Harriet Waters Preston.