W. E. Gladstone (essay date 1888)
[Gladstone was a prominent English statesman and author who served four times as Prime Minister and wrote numerous learned essays on such diverse subjects as politics, theology, classical history, and literature. In his literary criticism, Gladstone often uses criteria based on his deep commitments to Christian religious and moral beliefs to judge the plausibility of characters or actions. In the following excerpt from his influential, favorable review of Robert Elsmere, Gladstone challenges theological issues presented in the novel.]
Human nature, when aggrieved, is apt and quick in devising compensations. The increasing seriousness and strain of our present life may have had the effect of bringing about the large preference, which I understand to be exhibited in local public libraries, for works of fiction. This is the first expedient of revenge. But it is only a link in a chain. The next step is, that the writers of what might be grave books, in esse or in posse, have endeavoured with some success to circumvent the multitude. Those who have systems or hypotheses to recommend in philosophy, conduct, or religion induct them into the costume of romance. Such was the second expedient of nature, the counterstroke of her revenge. When this was done in Télémaque, Rasselas, or Coelebs, it was not without literary effect. Even the last of these three appears to have been successful with its own generation. It would now be deemed intolerably dull. But a dull book is easily renounced. The more didactic fictions of the present day, so far as I know them, are not dull. We take them up, however, and we find that, when we meant to go to play, we have gone to school. The romance is a gospel of some philosophy, or of some religion; and requires sustained thought on many or some of the deepest subjects, as the only rational alternative to placing ourselves at the mercy of our author. We find that he has put upon us what is not indeed a treatise, but more formidable than if it were. For a treatise must nowhere beg the question it seeks to decide, but must carry its reader onwards by reasoning patiently from step to step. But the writer of the romance, under the convenient necessity which his form imposes, skips in thought, over undefined distances, from stage to stage, as a bee from flower to flower. A creed may (as here) be accepted in a sentence, and then abandoned in a page. But we the common herd of readers, if we are to deal with the consequences, to accept or repel the influence of the book, must, as in a problem of mathematics, supply the missing steps. Thus, in perusing as we ought a propagandist romance, we must terribly increase the pace; and it is the pace that kills.
Among the works to which the preceding remarks might apply, the most remarkable within my knowledge is Robert Elsmere. It is indeed remarkable in many respects. It is a novel of nearly twice the length, and much more than twice the matter, of ordinary novels. It dispenses almost entirely, in the construction of what must still be called its plot, with the aid of incident in the ordinary sense. We have indeed near the close a solitary individual crushed by a waggon, but this catastrophe has no relation to the plot, and its only purpose is to exhibit a good deathbed in illustration of the great missionary idea of the piece. The nexus of the structure is to be found wholly in the workings of character. The assumption and the surrender of a Rectory are the most salient events, and they are simple results of what the actor has thought right. And yet the great, nay, paramount function of character-drawing, the projection upon the canvas of human beings endowed with the true forces of nature and vitality, does not appear to be by any means the master-gift of the authoress. In the mass of matter which she has prodigally expended there might obviously be retrenchment; for there are certain laws of dimension which apply to a novel, and which separate it from an epic. In the extraordinary number of personages brought upon the stage in one portion or other of the book, there are some which are elaborated with greater pains and more detail, than their relative importance seems to warrant. Robert Elsmere is hard reading, and requires toil and effort. Yet, if it be difficult to persist, it is impossible to stop. The prisoner on the treadmill must work severely to perform his task: but if he stops he at once receives a blow which brings him to his senses. Here, as there, it is human infirmity which shrinks; but here, as not there, the propelling motive is within. Deliberate judgment and deep interest alike rebuke a fainting reader. The strength of the book, overbearing every obstacle, seems to lie in an extraordinary wealth of diction, never separated from thought; in a close and searching faculty of social observation; in generous appreciation of what is morally good, impartially exhibited in all directions: above all in the sense of mission with which the writer is evidently possessed, and in the earnestness and persistency of purpose with which through every page and line it is pursued. The book is eminently an offspring of the time, and will probably make a deep or at least a very sensible impression; not, however, among mere novel-readers, but among those who share, in whatever sense, the deeper thought of the period.
The action begins in a Westmoreland valley, where the three young daughters of a pious clergyman are grouped around a mother infirm in health and without force of mind. All responsibility devolves accordingly upon Catherine, the eldest of the three; a noble character, living only for duty and affection. When the ear heard her, then it blessed her; and when the eye saw her, it gave witness to her. Here comes upon the scene Robert Elsmere, the eponymist and hero of the book, and the ideal, almost the idol, of the authoress.
He had been brought up at Oxford, in years when the wholesale discomfiture of the great religious movement in the University, which followed upon the secession of Cardinal Newman, had been in its turn succeeded by a new religious reaction. The youth had been open to the personal influences of a tutor, who is in the highest degree beautiful, classical, and indifferentist; and of a noble-minded rationalising teacher, whose name, Mr. Grey, is the thin disguise of another name, and whose lofty character, together with his gifts, and with the tendencies of the time, had made him a power in Oxford. But, in its action on a nature of devout susceptibilities as well as active talents, the place is stronger than the man, and Robert casts in his lot with the ministry of the Church. Let us stop at this point to notice the terms used. At St. Mary's 'the sight and the experience touched his inmost feeling, and satisfied all the poetical and dramatic instincts of a passionate nature.' He 'carried his religious passion … into the service of the great positive tradition around him.' This great, and commonly life-governing decision, is taken under the influence of forces wholly emotional. It is first after the step taken that we have an inkling of any reason for it. This is not an isolated phenomenon. It is a key to the entire action. The work may be summed up in this way: it represents a battle between intellect and emotion. Of right, intellect wins; and, having won, enlists emotion in its service.
Elsmere breaks upon us in Westmoreland, prepared to make the great commission the business of his life, and to spend and be spent in it to the uttermost. He is at once attracted by Catherine; attention forthwith ripens into love; and love finds expression in a proposal. But, with a less educated intelligence, the girl has a purpose of life not less determined than the youth. She believes herself to have an outdoor vocation in the glen, and above all an indoor vocation in her family, of which she is the single prop. A long battle of love ensues, fought out with not less ability, and with even greater tenacity, than the remarkable conflict of intellects, carried on by correspondence, which ended in the marriage between Mr. and Mrs. Carlyle. The resolute tension of the two minds has many phases; and a double crisis, first of refusal, secondly of acceptance. This part of the narrative, wrought out in detail with singular skill, will probably be deemed the most successful, the most normal, of the whole. It is thoroughly noble on both sides. The final surrender of Catherine is in truth an opening of the eyes to a wider view of the evolution of the individual, and of the great vocation of life; and it involves no disparagement. The garrison evacuates the citadel, but its arms have not been laid down, and its colours are flying still.
So the pair settle themselves in a family living, full of the enthusiasm of humanity, which is developed with high energy in every practical detail, and based upon the following of the Incarnate Saviour. Equipped thus far with all that renders life desirable, their union is blessed by the birth of a daughter, and everything thrives around them for the formation of an ideal parish.
But the parish is adorned by a noble old English mansion, and the mansion inhabited by a wealthy Squire, who knows little of duty, but is devoted to incessant study. As an impersonated intellect, he is abreast of all modern inquiry, and, a 'Tractarian' in his youth, he has long abandoned all belief. At the outset, he resents profoundly the Rector's obtrusive concern for his neglected tenantry. But the courage of the clergyman is not to be damped by isolation, and in the case of a scandalously insanitary hamlet, after an adequate number of deaths, Mr. Wendover puts aside the screen called his agent, and rebuilds with an ample generosity. This sudden and complete surrender seems to be introduced to glorify the hero of the work, for it does not indicate any permanent change in the social ideas of Mr. Wendover, but only in his relations to his clergyman.
There is, however, made ready for him a superlative revenge. Robert has enjoyed the use of his rich library, and the two hold literary communications, but with a compact of silence on matters of belief. This treaty is honourably observed by the Squire. But the clergyman invites his fate. Mr. Wendover makes known to him a great design for a 'History of Testimony,' worked out through many centuries. The book speaks indeed of 'the long wrestle' of the two men, and the like. But of Elsmere's wrestling there is no other trace or sign. What weapons the Rector wielded for his faith, what strokes he struck, has not even in a single line been recorded. The discourse of the Squire points out that theologians are men who decline to examine evidence, that miracles are the invention of credulous ages, that the preconceptions sufficiently explain the results. He wins in a canter. There cannot surely be a more curious contrast than that between the real battle, fought in a hundred rounds, between Elsmere and Catherine on marriage, and the fictitious battle between Elsmere and the Squire on the subject of religion, where the one side is a paean, and the other a blank. A great creed, with the testimony of eighteen centuries at its back, cannot find an articulate word to say in its defence, and the downfall of the scheme of belief shatters also, and of right, the highly ordered scheme of life that had nestled in the Rectory of Murewell, as it still does in thousands of other English parsonages.
It is notable that Elsmere seeks, in this conflict with the Squire, no aid or counsel whatever. He encounters indeed by chance Mr. Newcome, a Ritualistic clergyman, whom the generous sympathies of the authoress place upon the roll of his friends. But the language of Mr. Newcome offers no help to his understanding. It is this:—
Trample on yourself. Pray down the demon, fast, scourge, kill the body, that the soul may live. What are we miserable worms, that we should defy the Most High, that we should set our wretched faculties against His Omnipotence?
Mr. Newcome appears everywhere as not only a respectable but a remarkable character. But as to what he says here, how much does it amount to? Considered as a medicine for a mind diseased, for an unsettled, dislocated soul, is it less or more than pure nonsense? In the work of an insidious non-believer, it would be set down as part of his fraud. Mrs. Ward evidently gives it in absolute good faith. It is one in a series of indications, by which this gifted authoress conveys to us what appears to be her thoroughly genuine belief that historical Christianity has, indeed, broad grounds and deep roots in emotion, but in reason none whatever.
The revelation to the wife is terrible; but Catherine clings to her religion on a basis essentially akin to that of Newcome; and the faith of these eighteen centuries, and of the prime countries of the world,
Bella, immortal, benefica
Fede, ai trionfi avvezza,
[Manzoni, Cinque Maggio.]
is dismissed without a hearing.
For my own part, I humbly retort on Robert Elsmere. Considered intellectually, his proceedings in regard to belief appear to me, from the beginning as well as in the downward process, to present dismal gaps. But the emotional part of his character is complete, nay redundant. There is no moral weakness or hesitation. There rises up before him the noble maxim, assigned to the so-called Mr. Grey (with whom he has a consultation of foregone conclusions), 'Conviction is the conscience of the mind.'
He renounces his parish and his orders. He still believes in God, and accepts the historical Christ as a wonderful man, good among the good, but a primus inter pares. Passing through a variety of stages, he devotes himself to the religion of humanity; reconciles to the new gospel, by shoals, skilled artisans of London who had been totally inaccessible to the old one; and nobly kills himself with overwork, passing away in a final flood of light. He founds and leaves behind him the 'New Christian Brotherhood' of Elgood Street; and we are at the close apprised, with enthusiastic sincerity, that this is the true effort of the race, and
Others I doubt not, if not we,
The issue of our toils shall see.
Who can grudge to this absolutely pure-minded and very distinguished writer the comfort of having at last found the true specific for the evils and miseries of the world? None surely who bear in mind that the Salvation Army has been known to proclaim itself the Church of the future, or who happen to know that Bunsen, when in 1841 he had procured the foundation of the bishopric of Jerusalem, suggested in private correspondence his hope that this might be the Church which would meet the glorified Redeemer at His coming.
It is necessary here to revert to the Squire. Himself the μoιρα πεπ ρωμενη the supreme arbiter of destinies in the book, he is somewhat unkindly treated; his mind at length gives way, and a darkling veil is drawn over the close. Here seems to be a little literary intolerance, something even savouring of a religious test. Robert Elsmere stopped in the downward slide at theism, and it calms and glorifies his deathbed. But the Squire had not stopped there. He had said to Elsmere, 'You are playing into the hands of the Blacks. All this theistic philosophy of yours only means...
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