Rooted in the tradition of Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield (1766), John Galt's Annals of the Parish (1821) and the ever-present parish priest in English novels from Fielding to Austen, the clerical novel offered new direction to religious novels of the early century. "This is what I am commissioned to say to you about the proposed series," wrote G.H. Lewes to publisher John Blackwood regarding George Eliot’s first venture into fiction:

It will consist of tales and sketches illustrative of the actual life of our country clergy about a quarter of a century ago; but solely in its human and not at all in its theological aspect; the object being to do what has never yet been done in our Literature, for we have had abundant religious stories polemical and doctrinal, but since the Vicar and Miss Austen, no stories representing the clergy like any other class with the humours, sorrows, and troubles of other men. [November, 1856; qtd. in Carroll, 49]

Importantly, both Eliot and Trollope felt they were dealing with untapped subject matter. An early review of Trollope's The Warden (1855) expressed pleasure at the "subject . . . so fresh and the representation . . . so vivid" (quoted in Glendinning, 232), and echoes Lewes's sense that Eliot was writing a new kind of novel. Along with Eliot's Scenes of Clerical Life (1856), Trollope's The Warden (1855) and Barchester Towers (1857) established a tradition in clerical fiction: Margaret Oliphant's Chronicles of Carlingford, published in the 1860s and 1870s, followed what had quickly become a trend. Trollope himself would include four clerical novels in his Barsetshire series as well as The Vicar of Bullhampton in 1870; George MacDonald, though known primarily now for his fantasy writing, wrote several novels in the clerical tradition, among them Annals of a Quiet Neighborhood (1867), Thomas Wingfold, Curate (1876), and Salted with Fire (1897). James Barrie's The Little Minister (1891), Mary Augusta Ward's Robert Elsmere (1888), and Butler's The Way of All Flesh (1901) all participate in this tradition as well.

Characteristics of the Clerical Novel: 1. focus on the ordinary lives of clergymen rather than their doctrinal agendas

George Eliot's "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists" had complained of the unreality of "oracular" novels which were designed to promote a particular ideology:

. . . as a general rule, the ability of a lady novelist to describe actual life and her fellow-men, is in inverse proportion to her confident eloquence about God and the other world, and the means by which she usually chooses to conduct you to true ideas of the invisible is a totally false picture of the visible. [310]

Authors of clerical novels, working deliberately within the realist tradition, insist that their protagonists occupy a visible world. Even when clerical novels do take on professional or theological questions, they are as likely to do so in the context of the cleric’s personal or family life as from the pulpit. Far from being models of Christian probity, the protagonists of clerical novels are laced with commonplace imperfections: they can be tempted and deceived; they can be proud; they can be dull; they can be narrow-minded. They suffer professional, financial, social, and personal difficulties. But if they are not saints, neither are they caricatures, as they had often been in earlier religious fiction; Anthony Trollope claimed at the end of The Last Chronicle of Barset that "no men affect more strongly by their own character, the society of those around them than do country clergymen" (890). Despite their flaws--or perhaps because these flaws render them fully human — clerical protagonists evoke both sympathy and admiration.

2. A country parish or cathedral town

Significantly, Eliot and Trollope both specify that their protagonists be, like the Vicar of Wakefield, "country clergy." In The City and The Country, Raymond Williams notes that "English attitudes to the country and to ideas of rural life, persisted with extraordinary power"(2). Brenda Colloms's Victorian Country Parsons suggests that this emotional commitment to the countryside is enhanced by the ongoing presence of the parish church, creating a perceived connection between country life and the Church of England (15). Clerical novels often assume this connection, arguing the validity of the Church simply via their setting. Further, the country parish provides a knowable community within which to see the life and influence of the clergyman at close range, testing the effectiveness of Christian action at both personal and community levels. By imaginatively privileging village or small town settings, clerical authors circumvent the anxiety and anonymity associated with growing urban centers. Clerical novels taking place in the city often show the failures of the cleric, the Church, or Christianity itself.

3. An attitude of nostalgia

Eliot's Scenes of Clerical Life were notably set "a quarter of a century ago" at their latest, and many other clerical novels are framed in the voices of old men reminiscing. In part, this trend confirms Williams's observation about persisting ideas of the country; historian Frances Knight, in The Nineteenth Century Church and English Society, extends this observation by pointing out that in the face of "anxiety about the displacement of the Church from its central role, and its vulnerability in a new and hostile environment . . . .[t]he apparently tranquil English village, with its ancient church . . . became invested with a new, somewhat nostalgic significance" (61). The combination of bygone days with country settings makes the clerical novel a fundamentally conservative form, affirming the longevity and value of the Church, and assuring the reader that whatever difficulties the narrative will encounter have been resolved.

4. Concern with Church reform

Although clerical novels insist that their heroes be human and fallible, they do not ignore the ecclesiastical issues faced by such men. The nineteenth-century century Church concerned itself with pay rates and taxes, with parish residency, with questions of authority and preferment, with falling attendance rates, with conversion, with patronage, with vocation and clerical character, with doubt and with the nature of the national church — all of which become subject matter for the clerical novelists who popularized such issues in their fiction.

5. National representation

England’s commitment to a national church ensured that the Anglican clergyman blended national representation with religious authority. Margaret Oliphant contended that in her fictional town of Carlingford, the clergy were the "administrators of the commonwealth" (The Perpetual Curate, 1). Parish records of birth, death, and marriage also functioned as civil records, blending social and religious function; in small parishes, clerics might also serve as teachers or magistrates. Coleridge’s On the Constitution of Church and State argued that one of the clergy’s primary functions was the cultivation of citizenry, calling them "agents and instruments in the great and indispensable work of perpetuating, promoting, and increasing the civilization of the nation" ("Paragraph the Second"). Similarly, Gerald Parsons, in Religion in Victorian Britain contends that clerical efforts toward conversion were accompanied by the obligation to "'civilize' and 'improve'" (I, 6). Creators of fictional clergymen dramatize a commitment to social ideals like education and duty alongside (and often conflated with) more overtly religious concerns. Their clerical protagonists often serve as social or political interpreters to their congregations, and the wholeness of the village community becomes as important in these novels as concerns about the individual soul.

References

Carroll, David. George Eliot: The Critical Tradition. NY: Barnes & Noble, 1971.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. On the Constitution of Church and State. 1830. Kindle Edition: Brouwer Press, 2011.

Colloms, Brenda. Victorian Country Parsons. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1977.

Eliot, George. "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists."Westminster Review. LXVI, October 1856. Reprinted.

Glendinning, Victoria. Anthony Trollope. NY: Penguin Books, 1992.

Knight, Frances. The Nineteenth-Century Church and English Society. NY: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Oliphant, Margaret. The Perpetual Curate. NY: Viking Penguin, 1987.

Parsons, Gerald. Religion in Victorian Britain. Volume 1: Traditions. NY: Manchester University Press, 1988.

Trollope, Anthony. The Last Chronicle of Barset. NY: Oxford University Press, 1981.

Williams, Raymond. The Country and the City. NY: Oxford University Press, 1973.


Victorian Web Overview Authors Margaret Oliphant

Last modified 9 June 2011