Introducing “Sonnets From the Portuguese” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

“God’s gifts put man’s best dreams to shame.” – Sonnet XXVI

Image result for sonnets from the portugueseIt should come as no suprise that poets, who tend to feel passionately and think intensely, should fall passionately and intensely in love. “First time he kissed me, he but only kissed / The fingers of this hand wherewith I write,” swooned Elizabeth Barrett Browning in her love poems to her husband, Robert Browning, in Sonnets From the Portuguese (1850), and went on to describe how that kiss affected her hand so that her hand almost takes on a life of its own, as does the imprint of the kiss itself. Barrett’s gaze of love imbues inanimate objects with life, as if love enables one to see the very atoms and molecules of the universe dancing.

The adoration E. B. Browning declares for her husband in Sonnets is so passionate that it might come across to modern Christian readers (who are typically unfamiliar with not only classic poetry in general but sonnets in particular – the classic love poem which sets the beloved as an object of worship and admiration) as idol worship, but I would humbly suggest such a reaction might indicate how little we adore God himself, as our veneration for him ought to be even greater (and our love for our spouses greater as well).  But E. B. Browning writes in Sonnets that “God’s gifts put man’s best dreams to shame,” revealing how the greatest gift of her life, her husband, who is a more wonderful gift than she could ever have dreamed of, proves God’s superior goodness and worthiness.  “Atheists are…dull, who cannot guess God’s presence out of sight,” she scoffs in Sonnet XX; gifts must come from a giver, and a good gift comes from an even greater giver. Image result for the barretts of wimpole street

Browning’s life story was dramatic. Robert Browning became enraptured with her poetry, and arranged to meet the poet on her sickbed, whereupon he fell deeply in love with her. However, to elude Elizabeth’s tyrannical father, who refused to consent to any of his children marrying, Elizabeth and Robert married secretly and fled to Italy, where she recovered her health and they lived happily. The Browning’s romance was dramatized in a 1930’s film titled The Barretts of Wimpole Street, which was nominated for two Oscars.

The title for E. B. Brownings Sonnets From the Portuguese arises from Robert Browning affectionately calling her “my little Portuguese,” because of her dark hair and complexion. One of the most famous poems from the collection, “Sonnet XLIII: How Do I Love Thee?”, follows.

 

How Do I Love Thee? 

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

Read more about Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s novel Aurora Leigh on CVL:

Introducing “Aurora Leigh” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Faith vs. Works in “Aurora Leigh” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Introducing “The Heir of Redclyffe” by Charlotte M. Yonge

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“His eyes filled with tears,
[and] the most subduing and healing of all thoughts – that of the great Example – became present to him; the foe was driven back.” – The Heir of Redclyffe

Although you may have never heard of it before, The Heir of Redclyffe (1853) was one of the most popular novels of the Victorian Era. It was Charlotte M. Yonge’s first novel and proved immediately successful. The Heir of Redclyffe, though perhaps a little difficult to get into in the beginning because of its somewhat obscure conversational banter, rewards perseverance with its plot surprises, original characters, and, as with a multitude of Victorian novels, profoundly intelligent narration of human experiences.

The EdmonstoneImage result for the heir of redclyffes, a devout Christian family, take under their wing a young, recently orphaned distant relative, Sir Guy Morville. Reared only by a reclusive grandfather with an unscrupulous past, Guy looks to the loving guidance of the Edmonstones, and Mrs. Edmonstone in particular, as they seek to gently direct his spiritual maturation by teaching him self-discipline, particularly of his passionate temper. Romances ensue, drawing lines of loyalty between certain family members, and when suspicious evidence concerning Guy appears and accusations arise against him, the family becomes divided about his innocence and trustworthiness.

The Heir of Redclyffe is a study in sanctification, which is the striving after Christ-likeness this side of heaven. Of course, there are two sides to Christ-likeness: aiming to follow Christ’s example (good deeds), and recognizing where we fail to do so (repentance), and we see both of these elements of Christian sanctification in the novel. The true Christian must reach a state of repentance for his or her sins. With such a theme completely dominating novel, it is not hard to see why the book has fallen out of print and has never been adapted to film, unlike many popular Victorian dramas. Additionally, in the introduction to the Wordsworth Classics edition, the editor herself states that The Heir, with its affirmation of the patriarchal family and the submissive role of women, is definitely not a feminist work. The Heir of Redclyffe probably holds little value for today’s secular reader.

Charlotte M. Yonge was an Anglican, and viewed herself as ‘a sort of instrument for popularising church views.’  She never married, wrote over a hundred works and edited a women’s church magazine for forty years.

 

 

Shorter Christian Victorian Novels

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Although the Victorian era is famous (or notorious, depending on how heavy you like your books) for its thousand-page tomes such as Charles Dickens’ Dombey and Son, William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair or George Eliot’s Middlemarch, 19th century literature does include some lighter fare, still worth the sampling.

 

1. Agnes Grey (1847) by Anne Bronte
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 In Agnes’ lonely and friendless life appears a conscientious and principled young rector, stirring the governess’s heart to flame with hope for a future of Godly companionship.  (102 pages) Read more here and here.

 

 

 

2. Cricket: A Tale of Humble Life (1886) by Silas K. Hocking 

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Cricket tells a simple but heart-warming tale of two impoverished youths living in Liverpool whose trials draw them into a friendship with one another. Billy, who has been homeless from a young age and never entered a church in his life, learns first of Jesus Christ from Caroline (Cricket), and her life becomes a living testimony of the truth of the gospel in a way that the mystifying Sunday sermons in the local chapel cannot. (248 pages) Read more here.

 

3. Lady Susan (1871) by Jane Austen 

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Lady Susan, a flirtatious scheming widow (with a grown daughter, no less) gets “thrills” out of seducing the attentions of even married men for her own amusement. One might consider Lady Susan to be George Wickham’s female double. This time, though, we get to hear the story from the reprobate’s point of view. (94 pages) Read more here.

 

 

4. Cranford (1853) by Elizabeth Gaskell

While typical Victorian novels uphold romantic, marital love as the penultimate relationship, Cranford appreciates sisterly and neighbourly love. Christians, too, often idolize the love between husband and wife as the sublime picture of Christ and his bride (the church), forgetting the other picture of humble submission and kindness – love between brothers and sisters within the body of Christ. (192 pages) Read more here

Prejudice and Suffering in “North and South”

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Contrasts and Reconciliation

“I know you despise me; allow me to say, it is because you don’t understand me.”  –North and South

North and South begins as a novel of contrasts, as its title portends. The North is the new, progressive industrial sector of society, while the South is the old, aristocratic, land-based gentry. The North is urban, bustling, grimy and noisy with the grinding of machinery, while the South is rural, slow-paced, cultured, pristine and quiet. John Thornton, a successful factory owner in the busy manufacturing town of Milton, represents the North, and Margaret Hale, a parson’s daughter from the naturally beautiful village of Helston, symbolizes the cultured, intellectual South. Other characters fall on either side of this North and South divide, and some straddle the middle. Each side has its pathetic and shallow characters (Fanny from the North and Esther from the South) and its noble ones (Higgins from the North and Mr. Bell from the South), Thornton and Margaret being the most admirable of all, as the hero and heroine. The divisions arise from many factors (economic, social, technological) which would take a proper history lesson to explain, but suffice it to say that England’s societal fabric at this time was changing and Gaskell was seeking to dramatize and perhaps reconcile the above hostile segments of society in her novel.

The hope of the classes reconciling, in North and South, depends on the hero and heroine’s ability to resolve their differences and fall in love, and to fall in love Thornton and Margaret need to overcome their prejudice and learn to understand each other – likewise with the clashing classes, North and South and master and hand. If only they really understood each other, if only they took the time to get to know each other, the rift could turn into a bridgeable gap.

Thornton and Margaret’s acquaintance begins by completely misunderstanding each other, only able to view each other through preconceived notions of the other “class” of people. When Thornton begins to see and understand the sympathy for the working class behind Margaret’s proud scorn of the masters, and Margaret learns the sense and intelligence behind why Thornton makes the decisions he does, and how they have led him to his current success and capacity to employ – and thus feed and clothe – the many workers that he does, only then do they see each other for who they really are. Thornton and Higgins reconcile in a similar way; Thornton visits Higgins’ home and sees the orphans he cares for, and gives Higgins the opportunity to speak to him face to face. Elsewhere, upon meeting Thornton and actually hearing what he has to say, many from the South (such as Henry lennox) change their minds about him. The final picture of Thornton and Margaret’s reconciliation is when she offers to collaborate with him financially in order to save his mill. At this point Thornton realizes Margaret has come to understand him and returns his affections.

However, Gaskell is a masterful, intelligent writer and a closer reflection on the novel reveals that Thornton and Margaret’s characters are not fully or neatly explained by “North” and “South.” For, we get the sense that Margaret is somewhat atypical of the South, and Thornton likewise of the North, in that they are exceptionally noble people, who represent the best of their worlds. Additionally, by the end of the novel, neither Helstone (the South) nor Milton (the North) themselves seem the same. The former has gained some vices and the latter has lost some. The novel North and South reflects the complicated reality of life, where issues are never simple; there is both good and bad in the mill workers and the mill owners, and there is suffering in both the North and the South. The contrast between the North and the South, then, blurs and erodes as the protagonist lives new experiences and grows and matures in her thinking.

Faith and Suffering

“I wish I could tell you how lonely I am. How cold and harsh it is here. Everywhere there is conflict and unkindness. I think God has forsaken this place. I believe I have seen hell and it’s white, it’s snow-white.” -North and South

The narrative of North and South contains many scenes of disappointment or grief. Very little positive or uplifting happens to Margaret, except her friendship with the Higgins and the sense of community it provides. Even the dreamlike entrance of Frederick is cut very short. He never returns, never overturns his death sentence, and four close family members or friends of Margaret die.

Sometimes it can be tempting to think that “back then” people dealt with tragedy and grief better because death occurred more often, but Gaskell’s characters still experience significant despair and depression upon the loss of a love one. Gaskell’s novel shows, contrary to the timeworn sentiment that faith is a kind of “crutch” to cope with hard times, that Christians can feel the farthest from God in the midst of suffering. Even so-called “applicable” scriptural comforts can seem trite at this time of mental numbness. Consider Mr. Hale a few days after his wife’s death. A former parson whose strong religious convictions compelled him to give up his career and home, he finds little solace in his faith upon the death of his wife, with what faith he yet clings to, as he admits God’s will in this matter appears entirely obscure to him. His daughter mechanically repeats Bible verses to comfort him, and in the familiar repetition he finds only a modicum of comfort. Mr. Hale knows God exists, but in this time of loss he staggers under the weight of his emotions and grief, and, like any child undergoing discipline, has difficulty feeling the love of his heavenly Father. For Mr. Hale, God’s will has become as hazy, obscure and impenetrable as the masters’, from the viewpoint of the hands. Again, this is not a moment of atheism for Hale. Rather, he is experiencing the natural and “right” effects of death. We would not long for that place where there are no more tears or suffering if such experiences were not awful. These periods of weakness prove the Hales’ faith to be all the more authentic and believable, firstly, because they are relatable, and secondly, because they are natural and true.

As humans we can’t help being subject to our emotions, to a degree, to feel despair in our suffering (not to be confused with despairing of salvation itself). Jesus himself felt the real agonies of suffering, forsakenness, loneliness and depression on (and preceding) the cross, crying out to his Father and questioning his will. To suffer is to feel forsaken, because we cannot see the face of God at that moment; not that he is not working (and working at his best – again I think of the cross) but perhaps his work at this time is so profound and holy so that we cannot look upon it with earthly comprehension. As for Margaret, although she walks through the valley of the shadow of death, the deep imprint of God’s law on her heart keeps her faith anchored.  Her greatest mental anguish arises from not only regretting lying to the police inspector about having been on the train platform the night Leonards dies, but from discovering that Thornton knows about her lying, which fills her with shame. Even though God’s will may at times be obscure, his laws (the part of his will that he has revealed to us) prove his goodness, Margaret knows full well, and it is right for people to obey them. For Thornton to think that she had abandoned her faith is more than Margaret can bear, and it is at this point that she realizes her love for him.

 

Introducing “North and South” by Elizabeth Gaskell

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North and South begins as a novel of clear, seemingly deep contrasts that eventually begin to dim and complexify as the protagonist grows in knowledge and understanding of the world and realizes her own prejudices. These juxtapositions of alien classes of people (North and South, factory owner and employee), with all their antithetical philosophies, customs, manners, fashions, landscapes, architecture, types of labour, leisure activities and more, are crocheted by the narrator in exquisitely fine detail for the reader to ponder, as exquisite as the lace fabric some of the characters wear. The Victorian novelist is inarguably the master of detail, and Gaskell is one of the best. I believe North and South to be her most excellent novel, and her discriminating, profound and often poignant descriptions of people, places, thoughts and emotions make this a book for the soul (the beautiful romance helps, too).

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I appreciate the photo of the protagonist,
Margaret Hale, from the most recent film adaptation of the book (on the right). The actress’s fully absorbed, introspective look betokens the intellectual nature of the novel; there is just so much to think about, in North and South, for both the protagonist herself, whose world is dramatically upended by change and sorrow, and the reader, who shadows her through Gaskell’s lifelike, transporting description. Unfortunately, the film all but erases the Christian faith that is Margaret’s guiding light and sure foundation, and which anchors her soul amidst upheaval and grief.

Elizabeth Gaskell was the wife of a Unitarian minister, and often wrote about the problems of industrialization, especially for the poor. Her desire in North and South, as well as in Mary Barton, was to see the factory owners and workers come together in the spirit of Christ in order to overcome their differences.

Further reading about Elizabeth Gaskell on Christian Victorian Literature :

Introducing Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell

The Body of Christ in Mary Barton

Introducing Ruth by Elizabeth Gaskell

The Great Victorian Sin in Ruth

The Fall of Women in Victorian Novels

Introducing Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

Thank Queen Victoria for the Christmas Tree

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File:Godey'streeDec1850.GIFThe origin of the Christmas tree is a complicated and sometimes uncomfortable history for Christians as we all recognize, to some degree, that it is pagan. Whatever your opinion on the appropriation and conversion of pagan customs by Christians, fans of the Victorian Era and its beloved monarch will be pleased to learn that historians credit Queen Victoria and Prince Albert for starting the domestic Christmas tree tradition in the West by setting up an elaborate one in Windsor Castle for their children. This was apparently the first Christmas tree in England. (Prince Albert brought over this custom from his native Germany.)

Read more here.

Christian Victorian Readings for Advent

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Christina Rosetti was a devout Christian born in London in 1830 to an extraordinarily talented family and continues to be remembered as one of the great Victorian poets. She began writing poetry at an early age, despite struggling with depression in her teenage years. During her life she turned down three offers of marriage – two of them on matters of faith – choosing a life of celibacy and singleness over marriages that could compromise her strong Christian beliefs (and one of these suitors she was apparently very much in love with). For ten years Rosetti served in a women’s shelter for unwed mothers and former prostitutes, called St. Mary Magdalene’s, before she succumbed to a serious autoimmune disease which caused her to become more reclusive until she died of cancer in 1894.

Rosetti has left the church with a beautiful, artistic legacy of poems and hymns (which I hope to do a later post on), including many which help Christians prepare their hearts and minds during advent for the coming of the King at Christmas.

 

Advent

This Advent moon shines cold and clear,
These Advent nights are long;
Our lamps have burned year after year
And still their flame is strong.
‘Watchman, what of the night?’ we cry,
Heart-sick with hope deferred:
‘No speaking signs are in the sky,’
Is still the watchman’s word.

The Porter watches at the gate,
The servants watch within;
The watch is long betimes and late,
The prize is slow to win.
‘Watchman, what of the night?’ But still
His answer sounds the same:
‘No daybreak tops the utmost hill,
Nor pale our lamps of flame.’

One to another hear them speak
The patient virgins wise:
‘Surely He is not far to seek’ –
‘All night we watch and rise.’
‘The days are evil looking back,
The coming days are dim;
Yet count we not His promise slack,
But watch and wait for Him.’

One with another, soul with soul,
They kindle fire from fire:
‘Friends watch us who have touched the goal.’
‘They urge us, come up higher.’
‘With them shall rest our waysore feet,
With them is built our home,
With Christ.’ – ‘They sweet, but He most sweet,
Sweeter than honeycomb.’

There no more parting, no more pain,
The distant ones brought near,
The lost so long are found again,
Long lost but longer dear:
Eye hath not seen, ear hath not heard,
Nor heart conceived that rest,
With them our good things long deferred,
With Jesus Christ our Best.

We weep because the night is long,
We laugh for day shall rise,
We sing a slow contented song
And knock at Paradise.
Weeping we hold Him fast Who wept
For us, we hold Him fast;
And will not let Him go except
He bless us first or last.

Weeping we hold Him fast to-night;
We will not let Him go
Till daybreak smite our wearied sight
And summer smite the snow:
Then figs shall bud, and dove with dove
Shall coo the livelong day;
Then He shall say, ‘Arise, My love,
My fair one, come away.’

by Christina Rosetti

Introducing “Hints on Child Training” by H. Clay Trumbull

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Hints on Child Training (1890) presents a gentle, loving and holistic approach to rearing children. Henry Clay Trumbull, a minister of an American Congregationalist church, head of the Sunday School Movement and grandfather, believed that children are whole persons and, accordingly, parents must train their children’s bodies, emotions and minds. “Teaching” involves imparting knowledge; “training,” on the other hand, concerns “the shaping, the developing, and the controlling of [a child’s] personal faculties and powers.”

Drawing on his own experience as a father, grandparent and teacher, Trumbull wrote in Child Training that a parent’s best tools for disciplining their child into obedience are caring, sympathy, gentleness, attention and respect. Parents should not try to force their children to comply, but rather should encourage the desire in their children to obey.  Always humbly turning to scripture as a guide, Trumbull explains that God, our preeminent parenting model, desires us to obey happily, not out of fear or force. God does not break his children’s will, but rather leaves them to the unhappy consequences of their own choices as punishment.

Hints on Child Training also counsels parents to establish good habits in every aspect of their child’s life, from their appetite and manners to their choices  in reading, companions and more. Most importantly, Trumbull admonishes parents to present their children with an authentic faith, not a wish-genie god or some other such superficial belief that crumbles when trials come.  This “hint,” among other child-training advice, makes Trumbull’s book as relevant and helpful today as it was over one hundred years ago.

Introducing “Stepping Heavenward” by Elizabeth E. Prentiss

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It is delightful to discover a Victorian hymn writer who was also a novelist! Elizabeth E. Prentiss, who penned the well-known hymn “More Love to Thee,” published several works of fiction, including Stepping Heavenward: One Woman’s Journey to Godliness (1869). In this coming of age story, the protagonist Katharine journals her pilgrimage through the summits and valleys of sanctification, the process by which God uses blessings and trials to shape and refine us into people after his own heart. Although Prentiss was American, her works were widely read throughout the British Commonwealth and translated into other languages; Prentiss was even included in a German anthology entitled A Collection of British Authors.

From beginning to end Stepping Heavenward is infused with the truths of the Christian faith, but three overarching themes govern them all, and all derive from scripture. Firstly, every trial is sent from God to test and refine us, and the choice we make regarding each one – to accept with humility or reject in anger – will either draw us closer to or push us away from God. Secondly, the key to Christian joy is contentment in all circumstances (especially in unfavourable circumstances).  And lastly, everything should be done for the glory of God, by doing it in the spirit of Christ – and not just when praying or visiting the poor. Even when working, shopping or pursuing a hobby we should not act as though a secular/sacred divide separates our lives. All is God’s, and we can choose to bring glory to him every moment.

For another example of Christian literature that aims to inspire readers to act virtuously see Agnes Grey (introduction and analysis).

 

 

 

A Christian Jane Austen Biography

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“Teach us to understand the sinfulness of our own Hearts, and bring to our knowledge every fault of Temper and every evil Habit in which we have indulged to the discomfort of our fellow-creatures, and the danger of our own Souls.” – excerpt from a prayer by Jane Austen

Christians and non-Christians alike sometimes have difficulty believing Jane Austen really was a Christian because matters of faith are so understated in her works. Evangelical Christians today are accustomed to Christian novels in which character, plot and basically everything else of aesthetic value function merely as a platform for bold gospel declarations, and assume Austen must be a nominal Christian only because her faith is not similarly brazen in her fiction. Secular academics and biographers, on the other hand, are eager to place Austen within a feminist tradition because of her success and influence. They easily disregard subtle elements of faith in her novels, downplaying her beliefs as the inevitable product of growing up with a 19th century Anglican clergyman father.

Peter Leithart’s biography Jane Austen, an installment in the biographical series “Christian Encounters,” vindicates Austen’s Christian faith by bringing to light excerpts from Austen’s letters and other personal writings that testify to its authenticity. Leithart also explains that while Christianity may appear, to modern day readers especially, subdued in Austen’s works, it nonetheless serves as the foundational premise of her convictions on social behaviour. For Austen, manners and Christian morals are intertwined, as exemplified in the above quote, and causing “the discomfort of our fellow-creatures” is an “evil” and a “sin,” in her own words. Humans are not solitary creatures for whom the pursuit of personal freedom and choice are the ultimate right or moral good; rather, good and evil manifest themselves in our treatment of others, and our moral duty is to make others as “comfortable” as possible (see Luke 6:31, Mark 12:31, Romans 12:18).

For Austen, “loving thy neighbour” means good manners – friendliness, politeness, cheerfulness, helpfulness, putting others before one’s self (this is the defining trait of a gentleman in Austen’s books), and “good sense” (Austen’s favourite). In Austen’s world, those characters who exhibit embarrassing or deplorable manners are vain, conceited, selfish, stupid and irrational. How could such traits describe a Christian? The Bible clearly states how people ought to behave, from proverbs about the importance of cheerfulness to New Testament descriptions of how disciples of Christ must live peaceably with one another. This is no trifling matter; we mistreat others to “the danger of our own souls,” Austen believed, echoing the warning of James 2:17: “faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” Our salvation is indeed bound up in our manners. When viewed in such a light, it is hard to perceive Austen’s novels as anything but Christian.

Read about Lady Susan, one of only two of Austen’s works to be published during the Victorian Era.