Robert Elsmere

by Mary Augusta Arnold

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Robert Elsmere

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

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 ministry. Catherine’s beliefs in the religious tenets Elsmere abandons are so absolute that she can never fully accept her husband’s changed views, and as he dies she still hopes he will return to his old faith.

Rose Leyburn

Rose Leyburn, Catherine’s volatile younger sister. She sees the model of service to others Catherine holds up to her as dull and constricting. She succeeds in breaking away to study the violin, first in Manchester and eventually in Germany. Rose is troubled by an involvement with Edward Langham, but she eventually attributes it to her immature romanticism and agrees to marry Hugh Flaxman, who is both eminently eligible and sufficiently freethinking to seem a reasonable match for her.

Edward Langham

Edward Langham, Elsmere’s tutor at Oxford, a brilliant scholar and aesthete who in his twenties already has burned out and lapsed into a languid skepticism. His attachment to Elsmere is the strongest feeling he maintains, but even it weakens. Though for a while Rose’s beauty, vitality, and talent seem to rouse him, he is unable to commit himself to a relationship with her.

Henry Grey

Henry Grey, an Oxford don whose powerful effect on Elsmere contributes to his decision to become a clergyman. That Grey himself does not subscribe to Anglican orthodoxies but preaches as a layman foreshadows both Elsmere’s religious crisis and the nature of his work in London.

Squire Wendover

Squire Wendover, the chief landowner in Murewell, Elsmere’s Surrey parish, and a historian whose work challenges fundamentalist religious beliefs. Wendover and Elsmere clash over Wendover’s disregard for his tenants’ welfare, a disregard connected both to political conservatism and to his insistence that he not be bothered with the affairs of his estate so he can devote himself to scholarship. Elsmere’s friendship becomes crucial to Wendover, and Wendover is desolate when his own intellectual influence...

(This entire section contains 783 words.)

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results in Elsmere’s decision to resign from the church and move to London. Wendover dies emotionally isolated and fearing the madness that had overtaken his father.

Hugh Flaxman

Hugh Flaxman, a wealthy young widower who all his life has exasperated some members of his aristocratic family with his democratic sympathies. He meets the Elsmeres through his sister, Lady Helen Varley, a supporter of their work with the poor in Surrey, and his aunt, Lady Charlotte Wynnstay, a socialite who takes Rose Leyburn under her wing in London. Although he is not particularly religious, he shares Elsmere’s socialist sympathy with the working classes, and he becomes a major financial benefactor of the New Brotherhood of Christ. In love with Rose Leyburn, Flaxman has to keep himself on the sidelines while he watches the progress of her infatuation with Edward Langham. After giving her time to recover, he appears at the Leyburns’ house in Westmoreland, where Rose has retreated. By the time Elsmere dies, Rose and Flaxman are engaged.

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