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.

 

 

The 200th Birthday of Charlotte Brontë

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In honour of Charlotte Brontë’s 200th birthday today, Karen Swallow Prior at The Gospel Coalition illuminates this Victorian writer’s faith and explains why Jane Eyre (1847) is a deeply Christian novel in Jane Eyre and Our Age of Authenticity.

Here are some interesting facts about Charlotte Brontë’s life at CBC.ca and two previous posts about Anne, Charlotte’s sister.

Introducing “Agnes Grey” by Anne Brontë

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

 

 

Introducing “Lady Susan” by Jane Austen

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“The spell is removed. I see you as you are.” – Lady Susan

“‘People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.'” Samuel 16:7

Lady Susan (1871), one of Jane Austen’s lesser known writings, was one of only two works by Austen (along with The Watsons) to reach publication during Queen Victoria’s reign (1837-1901). These two novellas were published posthumously (Austen died in 1817), but were actually among her early writings. Lady Susan, excitingly, is being released as a major motion picture on May 13, 2016 in the United States under the title Love and Friendship (curiously this was actually the title of another early writing). Christianity Today has already bestowed a rave review upon the film. And yes, Jane Austen was a Christian (more on that below, along with an upcoming book giveaway).

Some readers might raise an eyebrow at finding the first page of this Austen book already rocking with scandal and impropriety in the person of Lady Susan, a flirtatious scheming widow (with a grown daughter, no less) who gets “thrills” out of seducing the attentions of even married men for her own amusement. But merely recall wicked Wickham of Pride and Prejudice; one might consider Lady Susan his female double. This time, though, we get to hear the story from the reprobate’s point of view.

Austen seems to delight in crafting deceptive characters and watching unsuspecting people fall for them (even her own heroes and heroines). But the greatest satisfactory pleasure Austen’s novels deliver, Lady Susan not excepting, is the unveiling of true character at the final curtain call, when all the masks come off and the pretenses disappear. In Austen’s literary worlds, dishonest, scheming and immoral behaviour is always brought to light, and the duped become enlightened (usually to their indignant horror). In Austen’s time, when following rigid codes of manners and behaviour could enable success in relationships and society, one could conceivably “play the game” – that is, affect good manners – and thereby “win” a spouse, or friend, or popularity. Austen detests players of this game, and her heroes and heroines are those who remain honest, trustworthy and ethical, even at the expense of reputation or popularity.

Lady Susan’s pretenses fail and her daughter Frederica’s innocent humility succeeds because of the higher moral order that Austen believes in, where bad is punished and good rewarded. Even though we know in real life that that is not always the case (and Austen wouldn’t make any such claim about reality), we know that is the way things ought to be, and the way we ought to think about things, for that is ultimately the divine order of things. God, the author of life, will see the just rewarded and the wicked punished in the end. It is God’s will that all secret deeds and thoughts be brought to light, and judgment.

Likewise, Austen lays out her characters’ actions for her readers’ judgment. But such an endeavour is only effective because she presumes that readers presuppose a timeless, objective standard of morality that transcends all societies. Her eternal popularity, despite superficial changes to societal behavioural “codes,” testifies to this. We still believe that deceiving and manipulating people for one’s own personal gain is wrong, and that people ought to be held accountable for such behaviour. We’ve heard this before; this is “mere Christianity,” and this is Jane Austen, an Anglican and intellectual kin to C. S. Lewis.

The scriptures say that “The Lord detests lying lips, but he delights in people who are trustworthy” (Proverbs 12:22). Austen seeks to evoke the same desires in her readers, to approve the honest and condemn the charade. It seems that Austen’s literary works are moralizing sermons after all, and it also seems to me, interestingly, that millions of readers have no problem with that, however consciously or unconsciously.

But what about her comic humour? Indeed, Austen’s works are primarily comedies. Fittingly, C. S. Lewis explains it best:

“Have I been treating the novels as though I had forgotten that they are, after all, comedies? I trust not. The hard core of morality and even of religion seems to me to be just what makes good comedy possible. ‘Principles’ or ‘seriousness’ are essential to Jane Austen’s art. Where there is no norm, nothing can be ridiculous…. Unless there is something about which the author is never ironical, there can be no true irony in the work. ‘Total irony’ – irony about everything – frustrates itself and becomes insipid.”

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Details on a Jane Austen Christian biography giveaway coming up soon!

5 More Classic Christian Novels You Won’t Find at Your Bible Bookstore

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Read the original “5 Classic Christian Novels You Won’t Find at Your Christian Bookstore” post here.

Below are five more classic Christian novels you may not have heard of, this time from a variety of genres, including fantasy, journal writing and poetry. All books from both lists were written during the Victorian era and are sure to intrigue any Austen or Bronte lover seeking overt or subtle explorations of God and Christianity.

1. Cranford (1853) by Elizabeth Gaskell –  It’s hard to go wrong with Elizabeth Gaskell. If you’ve seen the BBC miniseries, you’ll want to read Cranford the book by this minister’s wife. While the typical Victorian novel upholds romantic, marital love as the penultimate relationship, Cranford appreciates sisterly and neighbourly love as an expression of the body of Christ.

2. Phantastes (1858) by George MacDonald – C. S. Lewis credits Phantastes with first softening his heart to consider the possibility of the existence of God. What one might call a “fairy tale for grown ups,” Phantastes’ unearthly and yet strangely reminiscent atmosphere elicits a sense of nostalgia and longing in the reader.

3. Cricket (1886) by Silas K. Hocking – Industrial England, seen through the eyes not of middle class misses, but children living on the streets. Written by a minister, Cricket tells a simple but heart-warming tale of two impoverished youths, Caroline and Billy, on the streets of Liverpool whose shared trials draw them into a friendship with one another.

4. Roughing it in the Bush (1852) by Susanna Moodie – Have you ever wondered what it would be like if a middle class Victorian lady left her tea parties and English gardens for back-breaking farm labour in the wild Canadian backwoods? Susanna Moodie’s famous journal chronicles her personal experience of such an adventure as she forsakes her comfortable English life to live in a dilapidated shack in the middle of the forest and learn how to hoe potatoes, paddle a canoe, bake her own bread and milk a cow.

5. Aurora Leigh (1856) by Elizabeth Barrett Browning – A breathtaking magnum opus concerning art and theology with exquisitely crafted lines to mull over and savour. 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 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.

 

Should We Lament the Loss of Victorian Manners?

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In his article “A Reqiuem for Manners,” Stephen Klugewicz at The Imaginative Conservative laments the disappearance of 19th century manners in the Western world in the last century.

Mannerly behaviour and civil dress are not just about appearances, writes Klugewicz, but actually reflect one’s inner person and values. He quotes Emily Post, a name pretty much unheard of in today’s generation, who defined manners as “the outward manifestation of one’s innate character and attitude toward life.”

The article goes on to define a gentleman as someone “who displayed Christian virtue as embodied in the medieval code of chivalry, an elaborate system of proper behavior to others” exemplified by the Christian knight, who humbly served his master and lived to defend the poor and defenceless, at the risk to his own life.

Manners play a great part in Victorian literature, and evidently hold great appeal for the Victorian reader also. Surely the moment Elizabeth Bennet (and the reader) falls in love with Mr. Darcy is when she visits Pemberly and is amazed by his warm, sincere civility toward herself and her aunt and uncle. (In contrast, Mr. Collins’ awkward, overdone attempts at manners make him laughable and the revelation of Mr. Wickham’s false charade of manners is horrifying.) Consider also that in the end Mr. Darcy humbles himself to save the Bennets’ reputation at the risk of his own. Truly Darcy is a gentleman. Doesn’t every Austen fan wistfully long to live in that era of manners and civility (isn’t that why we have movies such as Austenland and Lost in Austen, every Austen fan’s fantasy come true?)? Manners must mean a lot.

Do you lament the loss of “the gentleman”? Do you agree with its Christian roots? Are you drawn to Victorian literature at least in part because of the way it upholds civility and manners?