Robert Elsmere, an eager young clergyman who combines strong intellectual interests, particularly in history, with a drive for social reform, particularly improvements in the conditions of the poor. He is swept away by Catherine Leyburn’s saintliness and purity and determinedly pursues her, although she has little tolerance for the wide-ranging thought that engages him. As part of his ministry in Surrey, Elsmere creates educational programs for his parishioners and confronts the region’s leading landowner, Squire Wendover, with the miserable state of the housing he provides his tenants. Not until Wendover witnesses children dying in a diphtheria epidemic does he agree to improve the tenants’ living conditions. Despite their political differences, Elsmere is grateful for the use of Wendover’s magnificent library for his historical studies, and their discussions of the cultural mechanisms that shaped Christian beliefs lead Elsmere to doubt some central tenets of Anglican faith and to resign his ministry, though this nearly destroys his marriage. Elsmere’s subsequent work in the London slums enables him to move beyond his religious crisis by developing a form of religious devotion and social service modeled on the life of Christ. The New Brotherhood of Christ, the religious community he founds, seems strong enough to flourish even after the strains of his work there cause his early death.
Catherine Leyburn, a young woman who longs for a sanctified life. At the beginning of the novel, she seems to have found it in selfless service to the people of her beautiful Westmoreland valley and hills. With marriage to Elsmere, partnership in his work as a clergyman, and the birth of a daughter, she hopes she has found a worthy equivalent of the Westmoreland life she gave up, but this hope is shattered by Elsmere’s resignation from the...
(The entire section is 783 words.)