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?

Introducing “Cricket” by Silas K. Hocking

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“He knew of no one to whom he might look for help, nor realised in his loneliness and pain that God was near.” – Cricket

 Cricket: A Tale of Humble Life (1886) is a delightful example of Christian Victorian literature. Written by a non-conformist (non-Anglican, such as Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, etc.) minister, Cricket tells a simple but heart-warming tale of two impoverished youths, Cricket (Caroline) and Billy, on the streets of Liverpool whose trials draw them into a friendship with one another. Billy, who has lived on the streets from a young age and never entered a church in his life, learns first of Jesus Christ from 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; they were “not for him. No word of it touched his need or came home to his heart. The high-sounding phrases were for the rich and learned; the ignorant and poor listened in vain.” (74)

Many are the Bible verses that stress the Christian’s duty to help the poor and orphaned. The Victorians, for whom the extreme poor were an everyday reality, understood living out the gospel as ministering to these unfortunates of society who begged on the streets and filled the workhouses. Hocking himself lived out his teaching; he served as a circuit preacher in the poorest district in Liverpool, where he found “joy” in “helping the down and out.” His aim in writing novels was to portray street children not as hopeless troublemakers but as helpless sufferers who desperately needed a Christian to come along and and not only share but embody the saving message of the gospel. Hocking believed “There but for God could be each one of us.” He gave the profits from his writing to charities.

Introducing “Life in the Clearings Versus the Bush” by Susanna Moodie

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“May the blessing of God rest upon the land! and her people ever prosper under a religious, liberal, and free government!” – Life in the Clearings

Susanna Moodie continues chronicling her experience of mid-19th century Canadian life in Life in the Clearings Versus the Bush, the sequel to Roughing it in the Bush. After her husband obtains a job as a sheriff in Belleville, a small Ontario town, the family leaves behind their backwoods homestead north of Peterborough, where they battled the harsh elements of unforgiving nature but also felt the blessings of a providential and caring Creator God, with mixed feelings.

In Life in the Clearings, Moodie turns from personal matters to sketch little vignettes of Canadian society and culture in the towns, although “vignettes” perhaps suggest a more impartial tone than Moodie projects. Rather, her discussions of Canadian customs and traditions are usually either hypercritical or gushingly enthusiastic. It’s helpful to consider who her audience is: middle class readers in Victorian England, where her book was published. This is why she spends so much time analyzing the advantages and disadvantages of class structure in Canada and how it differs from her native shores, England.

The British expat’s story is framed by a trip to the great Niagara Falls, a wonder of nature Moodie has longed to see her whole life and is sure her British readers will be curious about too. Her awestruck wonder at the mighty, thunderous waterfall and the subsequent adoration and veneration she pays to her even mightier Creator cast her visit to the natural wonder almost like a pilgrimage to an altar of worship to God. I have seen Niagara Falls a hundred times myself but I know I will never look at them the same after Moodie’s rightful praise of them and their Maker:

“You feel a thrilling, triumphant joy, whilst contemplating this master-piece of nature – this sublime idea of the Eternal – this wonderful symbol of the power and strength of the divine Architect of the universe….

The human being who could stand unmoved before the great cataract, and feel no quickening of the pulse, no silent adoration of the heart towards the Creator of this wondrous scene, would remain as indifferent and uninspired before the throne of God!”

Introducing “Roughing it in the Bush” by Susanna Moodie

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“God has been very good to us, and I hope that we shall never learn to regard with indifference the many benefits which we have received at His hands.” – Roughing it in the Bush

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 Roughing it in the Bush (1852) chronicles her personal experience of such an adventure (or misadventure, as she has few kind things to say about Canada for much of the book), 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 (although she never quite masters the latter).

The trials the Moodie family experience while living in the bush are severe. One extremely poor harvest forces them to eat rotten potatoes and wheat and trap squirrels for food. Not surprisingly, serious illnesses visit their little homestead frequently. The appalling poverty, grueling physical labour and extremely isolating environment and climate of living in the backwoods of Canada would be enough to drive many to the brink of insanity. Indeed, the madness that the sheer, incomprehensible vastness of the Canadian wilderness often overwhelms people with has been a common theme in Canadian literature – but count not Susanna Moodie among the unhinged. Although she definitely endures periods of depression and sadness, gazing upon the Canadian landscape compels Moodie to reflect upon and praise the awesomeness of its Creator. How else does one survive the wilderness? From Moses to Isaiah to John the Baptist, God again and again reveals Himself as a living stream of water in the desert to those who thirst after Him. To live in the wilderness without God is to wander, lost, forever; to know God is to meet Him and experience His faithful mercies in that desert place, as Moodie’s journal testifies to.

 

Introducing “Perlycross” by R.D. Blackmore

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“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” Romans 8:28

“But the clergyman, with a godly joy, and immortal faith, and heavenly hope, knelt at the foot, and lifted hands and eyes to the God of heaven. ‘Behold, He hath not forsaken us! His mercy is over all His works. And his goodness is upon the children of men.'” – Perlycross

This R. D. Blackmore novel unfolds in a small country village in Devonshire. Whereas Blackmore’s more famous novel, Lorna Doone, takes place on the haunting, wild moors (with a forbidden romance to match) Perlycross presents ordinary civilization – the everyday lives of townspeople in a country parish, and, more specifically, how ordinary people are affected by extraordinary events. Blackmore’s portrayal of small-town life is somewhat typical: gossip, rumours, the token idiosyncratic small-town characters, the endearing provincialism of country folk. Cranford fans will enjoy Perlycross; it offers more of the same.

And yet a gothic thread does weave through Perlycross. People living ordinary lives become immediately fascinating when the scandalously macabre descends upon them, upending the little knitting clubs, choir practices, butter churning and other commonplace activities characteristic to 19th century country living. The Christian themes the novel concerns itself with include, firstly, how characters hold on to (or lose) their faith in times of calamity and doubt and secondly, the way they treat their fellow brethren in the midst of suspicion and superstition. The curate of Perlycross, Reverend Penniloe, the only noble Christian of the novel, chooses to persist in believing that all these trials are for their benefit, and that all things will work out for the good for those who trust in God. His quiet, meek faith in times of seemingly meaningless tribulations and endlessly frustrating obstacles Blackmore extols for our example.

Perlycross reminds us that God loves a faith that waits for salvation even unto the eleventh hour, when circumstances appear bleak and hopeless. Biblically we know this to be true. Consider Moses and the Isrealites caught between the Red Sea and an Egyptian army with no way out, Joseph locked up in a jail cell and believed dead, the Saviour dying on a cross at the apparent end of his ministry. While the Perlycross church literally crumbles further and further into disrepair, no one holds out any hope of its restoration except for the humble Penniloe, who clings to his faith, however meekly, no matter the outlook. The church today might take a lesson from Blackmore’s protagonist and his “eleventh-hour faith.”

Blackmore largely drew on his childhood for Perlycross (the place he grew up) and it is also his favourite novel, despite the eclipsing success of Lorna Doone. This book is also out of print, so curious readers will only be able to find used copies (try The Advanced Book Exchange) or ebooks.

 

 

 

 

Is the Novel Inherently Protestant?

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What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? – Matthew 16:26

Joseph Bottum argues in his article “The Novel as Protestant Art” in Books & Culture: A Christian Review that the novel is and has always been an art form that is quintessentially Protestant. The genre of the novel never existed before the Protestant Reformation because prior to it, Christian salvation, according to Bottum, had never been understood as an individual responsibility. Instead, the church – its teachings, sacraments, indulgences and penances – acted as the agent of salvation. Only after the Five Solas of the Reformation (by scripture alone, by faith alone, by grace alone, in Christ alone, and glory to God alone) could a writer pen a character’s conversion to Christ on an island all alone solely by reading the Bible, thus fulfilling all of the Five Solas. This scene occurred in what many consider to be the first English novel, Robinson Crusoe:

[When] we reach the central moment of the novel, Robinson Crusoe finally reads the Bible he has brought from the wrecked ship, and – without a church community or a teacher to aid him, sheerly from the power of the divine text itself on an individual conscience – he writes, “I threw down the Book, and with my Heart as well as my Hands lifted up to Heaven, in a kind of Extasy of Joy, I cry’d aloud, Jesus, thou Son of David, Jesus, thou exalted Prince and Saviour, give me Repentance!”

Like no other art form, the novel presents the greatest in-depth study of the psyche and the consciousness – in other words, the soul – ever. No previous genre delved so deeply into such self-awareness or focused so entirely on the soul on its journey of salvation. Unified narrative elements, such as plot, character and theme achieve this. And the novel as a genre reaches its height of unified soul-searching in the Victorian Era. Consider Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton, a social problem novel that values individual reformation – a change of heart – above economic and political reform. Such an approach defines her book as inescapably Protesant. Bottum comments:

However powerfully our society controls us, it is an epiphenomenon created by the metaphysical drama of the soul. However completely our culture shapes us, it is, on the cosmic scale, only the prismatic spray tossed up by individuals acting out their individual salvation plays. Where, except in the reformation of many separate selves, could we find a solid basis for change in their society and culture?…. Only the soul has true metaphysical weight and consequence, and the novel is the story of a soul’s journey.

Novels imply the existence of an all-powerful Creator-God guiding the destinies of the characters in his stories. And the destination of every true soul-searcher is God-likeness – sanctification. The heroine learns lessons, swallows her pride (or prejudice), comes out the other end wiser, older, maturer, a better person – more sanctified. None of this would be possible without an ordered, meaningful universe where individual lives themselves contain meaning, just waiting to be discovered. Bottum says, “The journey of the self is the deepest, truest thing in the universe, and the individual soul’s salvation is the great metaphysical drama played out on the world’s stage.”

In university, I was devastated to hear the novel (Pride and Prejudice given as an the penultimate example) more or less written off as a symbol of the bourgeoisie, functioning to reinforce class division. So I am somewhat pleased to read Bottum’s take; I agree that considering the religious beliefs of a writer should come before whatever social analysis (Marxist, feminist, postcolonialist, etc) but are often never given the time of day because Marxism etc. hold religion to be merely a function of class. However, Bottum is Catholic, and I get the sense that his article is critical of the novel’s Protestant stranglehold. He says he wishes he could go back and “start over, pretending the march of modernity and the parallel histories of the novel and the self hadn’t happened.” What do you think? Do you perceive the novel as the journey of the soul? Leave your thoughts below.

 

 

Introducing “A Child’s Garden of Verses” by Robert L. Stevenson

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In addition to literature for grown-ups, the Victorians bequeathed us wonderful stories and poems for children. Alice in Wonderland and Peter Rabbit are two such Victorian classics no child should grow up without reading. The poems of Robert Louis Stevenson (best known for Treasure Island) in A Child’s Garden of Verses (1885) are no different. Some more well-known titles from this poetry collection include “My Shadow,” “Land of Nod” and “The Swing.”

The Victorians possessed a marvelous talent for capturing the glorious wonder and fantasy of childhood. Somehow, writers like Stevenson, though grown-up themselves, retained the eyes and mind of a child. In A Child’s Garden of Verses the reader can relive with an uncanny vividness young delights such as soaring through the air on a swing or making forts out of furniture, and, most significantly, perceiving nature as a portal to fairyland. And yet Stevenson frames the wonder and wild adventure of youth with the comforting and constant structures of daily domestic routines such as mealtimes and bedtime, the cycles of the sun and moon and the changing of the seasons in soothing, rhythmic rhyme. Stevenson gives children strange and fantastical spaces to explore and familiar, safe spaces to retreat.

A Child’s Garden of Verses is an excellent introduction to classic literature for children of any age (my three-year-old daughter wants me to read it to her every day). It’s also much more interesting for the parent to read than the typical picture book! Many illustrated editions of this poetry collection exist, but two that stand out are Gyo Fujikawa’s and Tasha Tudor’s. The text is the same; only the illustrations are different.

But there’s a caveat. Stevenson was actually an atheist. Look for an upcoming post that explains why I still consider A Child’s Garden of Verses Christian Victorian literature.

Introducing “The Real Charlotte” by E. OE. Somerville and Martin Ross

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I endorse this novel on my blog with hesitation because my research has led me to believe only one of the authors may be a Christian. One difficulty for a blog that seeks to unearth obscure authors is that sometimes, unfortunately, available biographical information is sparse.

The Real Charlotte was written by a female cousin duo, Martin Ross and Edith Somerville, and while Martin Ross came from a protestant family and is described in The Stanford Companion to Victorian Fiction as a “keen church-goer,” Somerville involved herself heavily in the occult, consulting mediums and spiritualists and utilizing a bizarre spiritualist writing technique called “automatic writing.” She even continued to write novels “with” Ross after the latter’s death by holding séances. No evidence suggests Ross engaged in such activity, strictly forbidden in the Bible, but other than her eager inclination to attend church, not much recorded evidence of her faith exists.

All that said, The Real Charlotte is a beautiful novel that reminds me why I keep coming back to 19th century literature and has helped me put my finger on what I personally find lacking in modern and contemporary literature (maybe more on that in another post). So the reader can decide if she wants to pick up this book or not.

Written by Irish authors in 1894, The Real Charlotte is actually considered one of Ireland’s great novels. Ross and Somerville are exceedingly talented writers, and they present an utter mastery of characterization in this novel. The characters are imbued with such finite detail that it is almost as if the narrator conjures them to life, and reading the book is like looking through a window at real people. This is also the first book I have ever read where the protagonist and the antagonist completely switched places in my esteem before the story was through, so that I began to doubt which one was the heroine.  Although the first third of the novel was slow going, the second half rewarded perseverance. Rivalry, romance, class and the growth of evil in the human heart interweave to bring this story of two desperate cousins searching for love to a surprising climax, and the lifelike characters will have the reader arguing and pleading with the narrator over their destinies.

Of interesting note, The Guardian included The Real Charlotte in its list of The 10 Best Neglected Literary Classics.