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).

 

 

 

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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?

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.