February 09, 2007

Elisabeth Jay on Nineteenth Century Literature and the Bible

Writing about web page http://www.crhb.org/seminars/2006/michaelmas06.html

Elisabeth Jay began her talk by observing the worrying speed at which general Biblical knowledge has declined. That fact that undergraduates no longer begin university with a firm grasp of the Old and New Testaments, she argued, means that the approach to teaching Victorian literature must, by necessity, be modified. As Victorian literature’s ‘chief inter-text’ she recommended that tutors provide students with entire Biblical passages which relate to the specific chapters being studied in the seminars. Hence, she suggested, the students would be encouraged to make the links between the Bible and the literary text for themselves. Another solution to restoring Biblical knowledge to undergraduates is, as was suggested at the end of the talk, is the introduction of basic reference books such as Nineteenth-Century Religion and Literature: An Introduction Emma Mason and Mark Knight.

Emphasising the wide-spread knowledge of Biblical narratives in the nineteenth century, Jay quoted from Coleridge’s letters in which he proclaimed the ubiquity of the gospel. From domestic servants who were exposed to the Bible at times of family prayer, to authoritarian figures, Biblical knowledge was appropriated and interpreted everywhere in Victorian Britain. One of the most obvious places through which to evidence the assumption of the existence of a common biblical knowledge throughout the literature of the time is, of course, in the work of Charlotte Bronte. In the preface to the second edition of Jane Eyre, Bronte figures Thackeray as a modern day Micah when she claims:

There is a man in our own days whose words are not framed to tickle delicate ears: who, to my thinking, comes before the great ones of society, much as the son of Imlah came before the throned Kings of Judah and Israel; and who speaks truth as deep, with a power as prophet-like and as vital — a mien as dauntless and as daring. Is the satirist of “Vanity Fair” admired in high places? I cannot tell; but I think if some of those amongst whom he hurls the Greek fire of his sarcasm, and over whom he flashes the levin-brand of his denunciation, were to take his warnings in time — they or their seed might yet escape a fatal Rimoth-Gilead. Why have I alluded to this man? I have alluded to him, Reader, because I think I see in him an intellect profounder and more unique than his contemporaries have yet recognised; because I regard him as the first social regenerator of the day — as the very master of that working corps who would restore to rectitude the warped system of things; because I think no commentator on his writings has yet found the comparison that suits him, the terms which rightly characterise his talent. (The Author’s Preface to the Second Edition, 1847)

In attributing to Thackery the qualities of the Old Testament prophet, as well as drawing on a common point of reference, Bronte was to some extent, however accurately she rendered the original, reworking the scriptures in order to fit her own reading. Interestingly, throughout her paper, Jay introduced a Bakhtinian framework which speaks of our necessary exteriority and distance to the text. Considering the final chapters of his book, The Dialogic Imagination, she proposed to consider Bakhtin’s question about the point at which an author, in attempting to re-work a master text, actually subverts it. From the extreme Calvinist fears of Nancy in Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey to the limited readings of the Bible evidenced by some of the characters in Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, Jay spoke of the ways in which an author could interrogate or enter into dialogue with the possible meanings of a biblical story through his/her characters. As a means of emotionally abusing children in Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, she then explored the extent to which the Bible can be seen to function as a central adult ‘weapon’.

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