Gifts for the Literature Lover

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In the spirit of reviving classic literature among the lay persons, I present Literary Book Gifts, a website that sells t-shirts and tote bags with classic literature graphics on them. Melissa from Literary Book Gifts has kindly offered a 20% discount on all merchandise to CVL readers with the discount code ChristianVictorianLiterature20, which has no expiry date. A Jane Austen or Emily Brontë shirt would make a great Christmas gift for the literature lover in your life (or your favourite literature blogger).

 

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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

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.

 

 

Introducing: “Aurora Leigh” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

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Every once in a while a book comes along that surprises us by spellbinding us, opening new worlds and speaking to us in ways books from our childhood used to do. These kinds of books remind of us of things we had forgotten about, resurrecting childhood wonderment about nature, the world and a God possibly lurking underneath it all. Aurora Leigh surprised me in this manner. The incredible poetry, astonishing metaphor and startling epiphanies make the book difficult to describe or summarize. Some will shrink from the idea of reading a poem as long as a book, but if you are looking for Christian Victorian literature, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh is it. Described as the “perfect poetical expression of the Age,” I can’t underscore enough that this book is the consummate find of my blog thus far.

Protagonist and orphan Aurora Leigh rejects her cousin’s offer of marriage and a wealthy inheritance to blaze her own path as a female writer. Aurora constantly ruminates on her faith in God, her function as an artist (especially a female one), the nature and purpose of art itself from a Christian perspective and her duty to her fellow suffering humans. Despite its heavy theological and philosophical bent, Aurora Leigh is entirely readable and contains all the usual conventions of a Victorian novel, such as the impossible romance, as well as some of the more gothic elements of the “Romantic” 19th century novel, i.e. Italian landscapes and raging fevers.  Don’t let theology in the form of a poem the length of a novel intimidate you, though; if you pass this one up you will be missing out on one of the reads of a lifetime.

 

 

Introducing “Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Brontë

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 “I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man.” – Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre (1847) is a novel that needs no introduction as a classic, that’s for certain. But why it is rarely regarded as a Christian novel appears a mystery to me, as the novel is surely one woman’s constant struggle to reconcile the desires of her heart with the will of God, with references to God in heaven as explicit in meaning and numerous in quantity as those in any modern Christian romance or amish fiction. And yet I have never seen it on any Bible bookstore shelf. The fact that it is gothic and disturbing in nature signifies little, considering other works of fiction that contain violence or horror, such as Frank Peretti novels or the multitude of spy and terrorist bestsellers (which unfortunately tend to be more of the drugstore paperback caliber), that span the shelves at Christian bookstores and libraries. The only conclusion I can arrive at is that, firstly, the book is simply too intellectual, and secondly, the church has long abandoned classic art (we rarely see Bach in the music section either, although we are seeing a revival in hymnody, at least).*

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Jane Eyre is often framed as a “beauty and the beast” narrative, but her romance with the unbecoming Mr Rochester occupies only half or more of the novel; in actuality, the story is about Jane and the choices she must make in defiance of those who would control her, as well as her reactions to the twists of providence that leave her with little choice at all. The Christian reading that I extract from the novel is that Jane only achieves happiness by acting in accordance with both the law of God and the Spirit of God – by walking in both obedience and love.  Jane loves Mr. Rochester desperately, but chooses not to marry him because such an adulterous action would be disobeying God’s law. She also refuses to marry St. John Rivers, even though he offers her lawful matrimony, because it would not be a covenant formed in love, and she believes God made marriage to be both lawful and loving; because neither Rochester nor Rivers offer her both, she must live a chaste and solitary life so as to be faithful to God’s will.

Both men’s offers are a source of temptation to Jane; Rochester’s adulterous affair entices her with the indulgence of her senses and emotions (“while he spoke my very conscience and reason turned traitors against me….They spoke almost as loud as Feeling: and that clamoured wildly. ‘Oh, comply!’ it said. ‘Think of his misery…soothe him; save him; love him; tell him you love him and will be his.'”), and Rivers lays before her religious security: “Religion called – Angels beckoned – God commanded – life rolled together like a scroll – death’s gates opening, showed eternity beyond: it seem, that for safety and bliss there, all here might be sarificed in a second.”  But Heaven cannot be gained here on Earth in defiance of God; neither can Heaven be won through human toil on Earth. Neither earthly pleasure nor toil can secure true happiness, Jane knows full well.  Jane knows the voice of the devil when it tempts her, and makes the better choice than Eve. For all Rochester’s arguments that she would not be a mistress, but his genuine wife, because his first marriage was a sham, Jane knows that to admit anything other than the truth is “sophistical – is false.” She clings to her faith, explaining to the reader the motive for her actions and perhaps the  definitive statement of her faith:

 “I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man…. Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation; they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be. If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would be their worth? They have a worth –  so I have always believed; and if I cannot believe it now, it is because I am insane – quite insane: with my veins running fire, and my heart beating faster than I can count its throbs. Preconceived opinions, foregone determinations, are all I have at this hour to stand by: there I plant my foot.'”

Here is where modern romances part ways with Jane Eyre; being in love, Bronte says, can be a kind of madness that affects one’s ability to think rationally and we should not allow it to become our slavemaster. Modern popular doctrine of the Eat, Pray, Love variety urges exactly the opposite: just follow your heart (consider, in contrast, Jeremiah 17:9 and how it applies to Jane Eyre). Certainly, “I need to follow my heart” is the refusal Jane gives Rivers (in much more eloquent wording) in answer to his proposal of marriage, but of course her heart is bound to God first and foremost and tempered by his law, and so even though her heart calls her after Rochester, she does not follow it but instead chooses to watch that dream float away. Her faithfulness to God is rewarded later in life when she is able to legally marry Rochester.

But there is more than just the specter of adultery that shocks Jane to her senses after her failed wedding. Jane also realizes that

“My future husband was becoming to me my whole world; and more than the world: almost my hope of heaven. He stood between me and every thought of religion, as an eclipse intervenes between man and the broad sun. I could not, in those days, see God for his creature: of whom I had made an idol.”

Contrary to film adaptations and academic readings of the book that stupidly, in the case of the former, turn a blind eye, and in the latter, subordinate it to a feminist narrative, Jane Eyre is about Jane’s working out of her faith. It is categorically a Christian novel, a story dealing with sin, salvation, redemption, the ten commandments, mercy, grace, the afterlife – the whole nine yards, much more than can be covered in one blog post. Surely we can start stocking it on the shelves of Christian bookstores now.

* Also it doesn’t help that the film industry completely erases most traces of Christianity in most film adaptations of classic literature. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is an excellent (read: terrible) example of this.

 

Read works by Charlotte’s sister Anne:

Introducing “Agnes Grey” by Anne Brontë

Fruits of the Spirit in “Agnes Grey” by Anne Brontë

Introducing the Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë

 

 

 

 

Introducing “The Bridge of History Over the Gulf of Time” by Thomas Cooper

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The enormous scope suggested by the Image result for bridge of history over the gulf of timestriking metaphorical title of Thomas Cooper’s non-fictional work The Bridge of History Over the Gulf of Time (1871) has always intrigued me, so I was excited to finally get my hands on a copy (the book is out of print). The work is actually an apologetic defence of the historicity of Christ, that he was a real person who died and rose again – a kind of nineteenth century Case for Christ, if you will. However, The Bridge of History’s approach is different, as Cooper seeks to trace the origin of Christianity backwards through time, century by century, showing how the faith could not have been invented or embellished in any era going all the way back to the first century A.D., bringing us to encounter Christ himself, a real historical figure – hence the metaphor in the title. The evidence from each century function as planks the reader walks across to bridge the gulf of time that stretches between Christ and himself. (Victorians reign supreme when it comes to metaphors, in my humble opinion.)

Like Lee Strobel after him, Cooper also tackles with lawyer-like tenacity the authority and reliability of the gospel writers and their claims. The book is written partly in response to a controversial work entitled Das Leben Jesu, kritisch bearbeitet (1835) (The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined) by German scholar David Friedrich Strauss, who denied Christ’s divinity by maintaining that his resurrection and miracles were merely mythical narratives created by the church, although he did probably exist. The translation of the text into English by Marian Evans (who went by the pen name “George Eliot” when writing novels) invoked contention in England as the original did in Germany. Unfortunately, Evans, one of the finest Victorian novelists, lost her Christian faith by studying Strauss and other German philosophers.

Thomas Cooper was born in Leicester and eventually became a journalist and poet with Chartist sympathies, for which he was jailed for two years. In 1855, he converted to Christianity and became a Baptist preacher. For thirty years Cooper lectured as a Christian apologist, defending the faith against Darwinian ideas. These lectures form the basis of The Bridge of History Over the Gulf of Time.

How to Acquire Rare and Out-of-Print Books

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Last month I received a Christmas present from an avid reader of Christian Victorian Literature: a couple dozen rare and out-of-print Christian Victorian novels. Thanks to this generous contribution, I will not be wanting for material for my blog for quite some time, that’s for certain.

I’ve been intending for a while to make a post about how to acquire rare or out-of-print classic literature (if you aren’t fortunate enough to have people sending you them for free in the mail!). Several options present themselves for those readers seeking novels…

…that are a little more intellectually stimulating and theologically complex than many Christian novels of today;

…that actually speak from a time in history, rather than try to imagine or recreate it;

…that present grand, meaningful narratives that impart truth and wisdom, rather than disparate snapshots of the “messiness” that we call modern life;

…and that demonstrate a general competency in the English language that astonishingly exceeds contemporary fiction writing (ironically many of these were written by women who supposedly received an inferior education to women today).

If those criteria seem attractive, then literature from another century might be for you.

Many great Victorian novels, unfortunately, are no longer printed, and many that are do not draw enough popular interest for your local Indigo to stock them. So how does one acquire and read rare or out-of-print books? The good news is that all Victorian novels are in the public domain, which means their copyright no longer stands, making them cheap and, in some instances, free to access.

Online Bookstores

Of course Amazon is a great source for finding a wide selection of books. The Book Depository, based in Britain, carries many European books and offers free shipping.

The Advanced Book Exchange

Abe.com is the go-to source for rare and out-of-print books. Used bookstores around the world list their titles here, making it possible to find just about any book imaginable, including very old editions from the early 1900s (maybe even some from the Victorian era itself). Pay attention to the rating of the book’s physical condition; I no longer buy anything described as less than “good.” Select from the dropdown menu to sort by “lowest total price.”

E-books

If you don’t mind reading off of a computer screen, you can read most any Victorian novel for free at Project Gutenberg. If you have an e-reader, Amazon offers entire collections of authors’ works for only a few dollars. The Bronte collection is only 80 cents.

Audiobooks

You can listen to Victorian novels read aloud for free at Librivox. Because the readers are volunteers, the quality varies, but some are equal to professional audio recordings.

Reprints

A word about reprints. On Amazon and Abe you will come across brand-new printings of out-of-print books by publishers from India or other unusual countries. They will have some disclaimer saying that the book is a direct copy of the original, and so any publishing mistakes are from the original and such. Typically the books have a generic picture on the front that has nothing to with the story, such as a tree. I generally don’t recommend these because they are so aesthetically displeasing. The book is oversized, the margins are large, the font microscopic and uneasy on the eyes, and the formatting looks like amateur Microsoft Word. You may chance upon a better edition than I’ve described, but that has been my experience. The books I received from a reader pictured above are reprints published through Lulu, and look like they will offer a more pleasurable reading experience.

What rare books have you read and where did you acquire them? Have you ever read an out-of-print book, or is there one on your list?

Christian School Catechism Includes Excerpt From Jane Eyre

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Classical schools emphasize, among many other subjects, the study of classic art and literature, and the use of memorization to retain and internalize knowledge. Interestingly, a teacher of a Modern European Humanities class at Veritas School, a classical Christian school in Virginia, has included a powerful excerpt from Jane Eyre as part of his daily catechism for his students to recite and commit to memory.  Charlotte Brontë herself would have been educated in the classical method (as was Jane), so I think she would approve.

The excerpt from Jane Eyre, which answers question 8 of the the catechism, follows.

I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, themore I will respect myself.  I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man.  I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad—as I am now.  Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be.  If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would be their worth?  They have a worth—so I have always believed; and if I cannot believe it now, it is because I am insane—quite insane: with my veins running fire, and my heart beating faster than I can count its throbs. Preconceived opinions, foregone determinations, are all I have at this hour to stand by: there I plant my foot.

Read about how Jane Eyre is a Christian novel. 

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Introducing “The Shopkeeper’s Daughter” by George MacDonald

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“God’s love is not founded upon any merit – it rests only upon being and need.” -George MacDonald

Image result for the shopkeeper's daughter george macdonaldThe Shopkeeper’s Daughter is another abridged work by George MacDonald, edited and republished by Elizabeth Guignard Hamilton. Like in The Fisherman’s Lady, MacDonald presents the reader with the ideal Christian, only this time in the form of a lady, Mary Marston.

Most of the other characters in The Shopkeeper’s Daughter hardly know how to understand or categorize Mary, a Christian woman devoted wholly to the will and work of the Lord, who submits cheerfully to the tasks of her low station as shopkeeper and lady’s maid and yet disregards the importance and value of class.  Her willingness to accept work without pay and to lend aid to anyone she can is viewed with suspicion by those who do not care about or believe in God. Most – excepting Jasper Joseph, another individual seeking humbly to follow Christ’s footsteps, who recognizes Mary’s Christly virtue immediately – assume her to have selfish motives, because they themselves cannot conceive of any other kind of life.

True, Mary’s character is not the most developed and her saintliness is perhaps too perfect, apart from a weak struggle with temper she overcomes early in the novel. The Shopkeeper’s Daughter does not achieve the depth and interest of The Fisherman’s Lady, but it offers a light, interesting read nonetheless. It is mostly worth reading for the sake of, firstly, tracing the origins of C. S. Lewis’ thoughts, and, secondly, for encountering beautiful expressions of truth such as follow below.

“But what is love and loss and even defilement, what are pains and hopes and disappointments, what sorrow and death and all the ills that our flesh is heir to, but means to this very end, to this waking of the soul to seek the home of our being – the life eternal?”

“On the contrary, He is the only Man who is no exception. We are the exceptions. Don’t you see? He is the very One we must all come to be like, or perish!

“She knew there is no bond so strong, so close or so lasting as the truth. In God alone, who is the truth, can creatures meet.

 

Read a review of George MacDonald’s Phantastes, a totally different kind of novel. 

Other books about the ideal Victorian lady:

 

Agnes Grey – Anne Brontë

Fruits of the Spirit in Agnes Grey

The Heir of Redclyffe by Charlotte M. Yonge

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

Prejudice and Suffering in North and South

Stepping Heavenward by Elizabeth E. Prentiss

Introducing “The Fisherman’s Lady” by George MacDonald

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“If God be light, then death itself must be full of splendor – a splendor probably too keen for our eyes to receive.” – George MacDonald

I typically avoid abridged books (condensed, edited or simplified versions of classic literature) because too much of what makes a classic enjoyable in the first place is removed – eloquent writing, beautiful imagery, profound metaphors. Plot alone does not make a classic; as every good writer knows, all the elements of literature – plot, character, setting, theme, figurative language – work together to produce a harmonizing work of art. Reading an abridged classic is akin to plunking out the melody of the Hallelujah chorus on the piano with one finger. The effect is just not the same.

Unfortunately, some classics contain archaic language, the unfamiliarity of which renders them more or less inaccessible to today’s reader. (As a side note, even university students rely on footnotes to understand Shakespeare.) Thus the reason why many Victorian novels have fallen into obscurity. I have even abandoned reading a couple myself for this blog. If a talented writer could carefully and respectfully edit an obscure classic, to make it comprehensible for today’s reader, while still maintaining the original style, charm, and richness, that would be ideal.

Michael Phillips has done this with The Fisherman’s Lady by George MacDonald, originally titled Malcolm and published in 1875. In the original text, the characters speak Scots, making much of the dialogue incomprehensible to modern-day readers (see an example here). Phillips desired to stay as true to MacDonald’s original work as possible, aiming to retain for the 20th century reader (The Fisherman’s Lady was published in 1982) the style, tone, themes and language which first drew him to MacDonald and inspired him to resurrect his works so that others could enjoy them too. The result is a suspenseful gothic tale set in the rustic countryside of Scotland, peopled with a range of noble and evil characters. Some scenes are quite humourous and memorable, and throughout the book you can see foreshadowing of C. S. Lewis’ thoughts in the dialogue and themes (C. S. Lewis said that he never wrote a book in which he did not quote George MacDonald).

Malcolm is the ideal Christian man in The Fisherman’s Lady, the Victorian exemplar of the noble gentleman, a man who strives to be the picture of Christ – always serving others, putting himself last, acting humbly, seeking to please God above all else, no matter the cost to his life or his reputation – in a word, chivalrous (a term that has unfortunately become soured). The Victorian theme of station and class pervades the novel, but it is juxtaposed with Biblical teachings such as wealth being an obstacle for salvation, the equality of the rich and poor in God’s eyes, and God’s prioritizing of the heart rather than the appearance. Pleasing God is Malcolm’s preeminent ambition, and so when he seeks advice from Miss Horn upon being wrongly accused of a wicked act and she says “Who wouldn’t rather be accused of all the sins of the Commandments than to be guilty of one of them?”, Malcolm immediately accedes the truth of this statement and bothers himself little more about the scandalous gossip.

Malcolm also takes the teaching about being obedient and submissive to one’s master very seriously, seeking to honour the Marquis, his employer, even though the Marquis himself does not always act honourably and honestly. Malcolm answers first and foremost to God.  And he shares the truth about Christ and his coming kingdom with others from a variety of places on their spiritual journeys, resulting in rich, interesting theological ideas and questions being parried about between the characters in their conversations. Malcolm is also quite witty and playful in his speech, and that delight combined with the mystery of his birth and the intrigue of the horrific “wizard’s chamber” make this tale a thoroughly enjoyable, unputdownable read, brimming with potential for a great Christian movie, if anyone’s listening.

 

Read a review of George MacDonald’s Phantastes, a totally different kind of novel. 

Other books about the ideal Victorian gentleman:

Lorna Doone – R. D. Blackmore

The Heir of Redclyffe – Charlotte M. Yonge