I recently posted about The Damnation Of Theron Ware, a classic example of a book that was hugely popular and influential for some decades, but is now largely forgotten. Actually, literary history is littered with such cases, and their oblivion is often unfortunate, as some of these texts – like Theron Ware itself – are really excellent pieces in their own right, beyond their value for historians. Probably the greatest example of this type of book is an English work from 1888, a book that in its day was perhaps the world’s best-known novel, and it also deals centrally with contemporary Christianity. I refer of course to – what else? – Robert Elsmere, by Mrs. Humphrey Ward.
If, by this point, you are saying “Never heard of it!” you would not be alone. I have met academics who specialize in Victorian literature who have never heard of the book, and even the ones who have haven’t actually read it. In its day, though, and for some decades afterwards, this was a megahit on both sides of the Atlantic, to the point that other novelists will have their own characters say, without further explanation, “Have you been reading Robert?” Prime Minster William Gladstone reviewed and rebutted it at length. The book sold a million copies, at a time when that kind of volume was unimaginable. And do recall, this was at a time when the reputation of other Victorian writers who we do remember today was at rock bottom. If a novelist in the late 19th/early 20th century wanted to indicate that a character was a semi-literate fool, he indicated the fact by showing him reading Dickens. Today, though, Robert Elsmere is very difficult to get hold of in a worthwhile edition – although you can download it easily enough.
Modern readers are unlikely to find Robert Elsmere too approachable. It’s long, repetitious, and wordy: characters argue over the latest ideas at inordinate length. The book is also slow to arrive at its central themes – but those themes really do repay the effort. The book is about the Victorian crisis of faith, a phenomenon that had a particular relevance to the author, who was at the heart of England’s intellectual elites. Mrs. Ward was born Mary Augusta Arnold in 1851, to the famous family that produced Matthew Arnold (her uncle). Mary’s sister married into the Huxley clan, and became the mother of Aldous Huxley. Mary herself grew up in a world wrestling with the new insights of Biblical criticism, the impact of Darwin’s Origin of Species, and the discoveries in the realms of geology and astronomy. It was an exciting time intellectually, but also one that posed real problems for traditional orthodoxy.
Robert Elsmere offers a case study of one man who has to confront and absorb these various influences, and it offers a wide range of the ideas and intellectual currents of the time. Robert himself is an Anglican clergyman whose faith simply cannot stand up under these repeated blows, especially the impact of Biblical criticism and German philosophy. Reluctantly, he comes to share the ideas of those skeptics who refer to “The fairy-tale of Christianity … the origins of Christian Mythology.” His crisis of faith also estranges him from his wife. Yet instead of succumbing to atheism or seeking refuge in stricter forms of orthodoxy, he cuts a new path in activist social gospel ministry.
This is obviously a lean summary of a large book, which is a goldmine of information for late nineteenth century culture and religious thought. In my next post, I’ll suggest some of the areas in which the book looks strikingly modern.