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Kelsey L. Bennett's book, whose title approaches the length of the book itself, is a welcome addition to recent revisionist scholarship that demonstrates the great degree to which religion permeates Victorian literature. More than thirty years ago I published Victorian Types, Victorian Shadows and two other books that examined the pervasive role of typological interpretation upon nineteenth-century culture, and some years later other scholars, most notably Mary Carpenter, Linda H. Peterson, Herbert Sussman, Janet Larson, and G. B. Tennyson made important contributions to the study of the relations of Victorian religion and Victorian literature and culture. Even though a knowledge of contemporary religious attitudes and beliefs is crucial to understanding Victorian views of race, class, and gender, few scholars took notice of such matters, something hardly surprising at a time when only a tiny minority of those studying — or teaching — post-medieval literature have any acquaintance with Old or New Testaments. Fortunately, a number of recent books promise to go some ways toward curing this this cultural amnesia so damaging to the student of literature and the arts. Timothy Larsen’s A People of One Book: The Bible and the Victorians (2011) authoritatively demonstrates how deeply the scriptures affected virtually all Victorians ranging from those Evangelicals accused of bibliolatry to agnostics and even atheists, all of whom frequently resort to biblical proof-texts and allusions to the Bible, which served as shared intellectual currency. Other scholars, with varying degres of success, have recently examined the interrelations of nineteenth-century religion and literature: Charles LaPorte’s The Victorian Poets and the Changing Bible (2011) examines poetry while Keith A. Jenkins’s Brontë's Atypical Typology (2010) looks at the novel.

Bennett offers an interesting re-interpretation of the Anglo-American and European bildungsroman genre: in contrast to those literary historians who see the novel of self-development as entirely secular in origin and meaning, she argues that this genre cannot be understood without a knowledge of its roots in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Protestant theology, in particular an understanding of “the differences between the ways in which eighteenth-century English Arminianism (as associated with John Wesley) and American antinomianism (as associated with Jonathan Edwards) respectively inform the nineteenth-century bildungsromans of each nation. . . . By looking at self-formation first as a religious practice, and how this practice changes as it filters through time and the aesthetic medium of the novel, I hope to show that for both women and men, forming selfhood has as much to do with one's metaphysics as it does with one's relation to others in the world” (13).

The book begins with a chapter entitled “John Wesley's Formative ‘Spiritual Empiricism,’” next moves across the Atlantic in “The Paradox of Experience in Jonathan Edwards,” after which its first section closes with an examination of Goethe's enormously influential bildungsroman and the chief critical approaches to it — “Pietism and the ‘Free Movement’ of Self-Cultivation: Synthesis and Transformation in Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship.” The second part of Principle and Propensity applies Bennett’s thesis that a knowledge of its religious origins provides richer readings of this genre to four novels: Jane Eyre, David Copperfield, Pierre, and The Portrait of a Lady.

Bennett, who works comfortably in several discrete fields, including the history of theology, German literature and culture, and the novel in England and America, provides valuable contextual information, but at times her argument, interesting as it is, strikes me as surprisingly narrow. Yes, she has a firm grasp of the ways Protestants in three quite different cultures accept that salvation comes chiefly either by faith or by works, and she also applies her knowledge of this issue to readings of several novels. Nonetheless, her interest in the relation of religion to the novel of growth and development seems to end with that single issue, one effect of which is that her readings concern only plot, for she shows no interest in symbol and image, the aspects of literary form so heavily influenced by Protestant biblical interpretive modes, such as typology and prophecy. Bennett's narrow focus, so useful in a dissertation, is less so in a dissertation book. This too narrow focus also appears in her concentration on a single novels when reference to a few others would valuably enrich her discussion. The chapter on The Portrait of a Lady — “‘An impulse more tender and more purely expectant’: The Ardent Good Faith of Isabel Archer” — would certainly benefit from comparative discussions of The American, The Ambassadors, and The Wings of the Dove, and the chapter on Dickens and would also benefit from side glances, however brief, at his other novels in which characters grow and change.

Welcome as is her examination of key issues in protestant belief, she at times appears to take too narrow a view of the contexts in which such belief took form. For example, she follows John F. Wilson, who argues that the Enlightenment had

a decisive impact on the ways in which Edwards's legacy was received. Wilson indicates that Thomas Paine's Deism was significantly responsible for "literalizing" religious thought,” which led to “the suppression or dismissal of the poetic, symbolic, and mystical dimensions of religious experience. These are the very qualities of religious experience . . . that Edwards insists are indispensible to spiritual self-formation. [104]

Paine may well have had such an influence, but it's important to realize that the “the suppression or dismissal of the poetic, symbolic, and mystical” elements in religion and language goes back a century earlier to John Locke, who in his attempt (as he put it in Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 1690) “to prevail with the busy mind of man to be more cautious in meddling with things exceeding its comprehension” argued that words only have denotative meaning. He thus cast out metaphor and symbol because he believed one important cause of the English Civil War and the subsequent Interregnum lay in extravagant Puritan interpretations of the Bible's prophecies and metaphors. One result of Locke's approach to language appears in a dramatic change in conceptions of poetic imagination from an emphasis on perceiving unlikely similarities to careful discrimination between apparently similar things — the movement, in other words, from the poetry of Donne with its so-called metaphysical conceits (or “strong lines”) to that of Dryden and Pope with their neoclassical couplets. A second result of such changing attitudes to language and imagination comes in Lawrence Sterne’s Tristram Shady, with its parodies of Locke's thesis. My point that Bennett should expand her search for the forces that produced “the suppression or dismissal of the poetic, symbolic, and mystical” is here surely a minor criticism, but it does suggest that her next book — and I hope there will be a next book — should have a broader focus.

Another issue related to Principle and Propensity's narrow focus lies in a question of applicabilty and value. Although I have no doubt that Bennett has proved something of value when she demonstrates the religious roots of the bildungsroman, to what extent does this historical project actually illuminate the four novels she discusses? In other words, does this glance into the history of Anglo-American theology lead us to new, more interesting readings of the four novels, or does it (a) merely confirm older ones and (b) contribute chiefly to religious history? Take, for example, The Portrait of a Lady. Bennett tells us that her discussion

explores to what extent James develops this idea into a central ethical question of the novel: if one makes an error in judgment based upon the impulse of good faith, is it possible, finally, to be damaged by the consequences of that judgment? The question is itself antinomian: some of Isabel's noteworthy ancestors would likely have answered in the negative. Although neither Isabel nor James shares precisely their biblical sense of sin nor finds reconciliation in the atonement, the consequences remain pressing. To the extent that James emphasizes the value of Isabel's inner condition over any outward action she may commit or that others may commit against her, and to the extent that he maintains the central importance of self-examination to her self-formation, Isabel continues the rigorous tradition of antinomian inviolability, including its attendant paradoxes. These qualities, in turn, inform The Portrait of a Lady's status as an American bildungsroman. This is not to overlook the many readings that emphasize James's far-reaching sense of evil—indeed this constitutes a large portion of his inheritance from his father—but rather to try to attain a more substantial sense of his comparatively obscured idea of the good in relation to it. [128]

Bennett then concludes the chapter on the following note: “Isabel's long-held perception of inviolate personal exceptionalism is psychologically reminiscent of the perseverance of the saints. Her main act in the novel, if it may so be called, is purely internal and thereby antinomian in character: . . . Isabel Archer as the heroine of this bildungsroman succeeds by a particular kind of withholding” (140). I find little with which to disagree here, but I do find myself asking, has Bennett’s discussion illuminated the novel for the reader, or has it just done something quite different though still valuable — shown some of historical roots of James’s novel? When I first read The Portrait of a Lady some 50 years ago, existentialism was much in fashion, and I read this novel, like The Ambassadors, as the tale of a person who after making many mistakes of judgment and belief, at last fulfills her own image of herself — that is, creates and becomes herself — by an act of sacrifice. I read and still read the novel as an existential parable. As interesting as I find Bennett’s discussions of English Arminianism and American antinomianism, I'm not sure that it adds to my experience of the novel. Principle and Propensity, in other words, tells us more about the history of Anglo-American theology and its general influence upon fiction than about this particular novel of growth and development. Still, those are worthy accomplishments.

Related Material

Bibliography

Bennett, Kelsey L. Principle and Propensity: Experience and Religion in the Nineteenth-Century British and American Bildungsroman. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2014.

Jenkins, Keith A. Brontë's Atypical Typology. NY: Peter Lang: 2010. [Review by George P.Landow].

LaPorte, Charles. The Victorian Poets and the Changing Bible. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011. Pp. 284. [Review by George P. Landow].

Larsen, Timothy. A People of One Book: The Bible and the Victorians. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp. 326. [Review by George P. Landow].

"Shadows of Shadows: Biblical Typology and English Literature." Books by Paul J. Korshin, Herbert L. Sussman, and Leslie Tannenbaum [Review article by George P. Landow].


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Last modified 18 November 2014