Blog Post

The Organic Unity of Robert Elsmere!

The subject of my inaugural Arcade post is another new project that I’m undertaking: a study of Victorian religious novels published in the 1880s.

I am particularly interested in a couple of novels that sold very well at the time, but that now seem to be largely off the radar of Victorianists: John Inglesant (1881), by J. H. Shorthouse, and Robert Elsmere (1888), by Mary Ward, who published under the name Mrs. Humphry Ward. The project is, at the moment, rather nebulously conceptualized, but is moving in the direction of reception history. To put it quite basically (perhaps even naively), I want to know why Victorians liked these books so much: what did they experience when they read them? Robert Elsmere, in particular, was a huge hit, both in Britain and the U.S.—by some accounts, it was the best-selling novel of the entire century.

But I had only begun to formulate these ideas last winter when the deadline for the North American Victorian Studies Association conference rolled around. So I sent in a proposal based not on Victorian readings of Robert Elsmere, but rather on my own. Ward’s novel is the story of a clergyman, the eponymous Robert, who loses his faith in the divinity of Jesus. One of the things that surprised me about the book when I read it for the first time was the prominence of a subplot involving Robert’s sister-in-law, Rose, a brilliant violinist and New Woman figure whose artistic career and love affairs take up an unexpectedly large number of pages. What is this plot doing? I wondered. Why does Ward give it so much attention, and what is its relation to Robert’s plot? Does the rather unsatisfying resolution that Ward gives Rose help us to understand the unresolved elements in Robert’s story?

Such were the questions that motivated the proposal that I sent into NAVSA last March. Since the conference itself isn’t until November, I put them aside and started researching how Victorians themselves responded to Robert Elsmere. One of the most illuminating responses I’ve found was that of Henry James, who wrote a long letter to Ward about the novel. He praises it at some length, but finds fault with the Rose plot: “with Rose—here I am much in the dark—and I don’t understand your full intention or quite see où vous vouliez en venir.” If she is “not to affirm the full artistic, aesthetic (I don’t know what to call it—untheological) view of life, I don’t exactly see why you gave her so much importance”; he also objects to the way that (spoilers!) Ward marries Rose off. That is, James’s criticisms of the Rose plot are fundamentally similar to the questions I had about it: what is its relation to the rest of the book, why does it get so much emphasis, what’s the deal with the way that Ward wraps it up?

So why is it illuminating that I’ve found a Victorian reader whose response more or less tallies with my own? Because it made me realize that this response is absent from all the other reviews of the book that I’ve read at this point (15 or so, published in periodicals now available via British Periodicals). Victorian reviewers frequently praised Rose and her plot: the ponderous Quarterly Review sounded a fairly typical note in commending the “singular skill and grace” with which Ward handled this part of the novel. It’s true that I’ve found a couple of reviewers who point to the Rose plot in complaining that the book is too long and that Ward has tried to include too much material. But this complaint doesn’t seem like quite the same problem that James and I saw in the book: that it’s hard to understand how the Rose plot fits into the novel as a whole.

The novel as a whole: that phrase encapsulates the difference between me and James on the one hand, and Victorian reviewers on the other. Henry James, the founding father of twentieth- and twenty-first-century novel criticism, grounds his critique of Robert Elsmere in the belief that novels should be unified wholes, with all the parts working towards the same end. The expectation that novels should work this way, or that novelists intend for them to work this way, still governs how Victorianists read fiction in 2011 (And not just those with primarily formalist allegiances: for Mary Poovey’s comments on the ideal of organic unity and New Historicism, see her interchapter “Textual Interpretation and Historical Description” in Genres of the Credit Economy).

I don’t mean that Victorian readers mistakenly thought that all of the parts of Robert Elsmere worked together. In fact, the usual mode in which reviewers dealt with the Rose plot was to mention it briefly before moving on to the real meat of the book—Robert’s loss of faith. That is, they register that the book has disparate parts. They just don’t seem to consider this a problem.

Realizing the discrepancy between my reading of Robert Elsmere and these Victorian readings of the novel was somewhat disconcerting. I still don’t quite know what I want to say about it, or how this observation might find its way into the paper that I’ll be presenting in November. Maybe, though, it does give me a glimpse of what it was like for a Victorian reader to read Robert Elsmere at a time when The Novel was not primarily seen as a unified whole, but as—something else.

I am lecturer in the Princeton Writing Program, where I teach a class on Darwin.  My research focuses on Victorian literature and culture, particular the novel and its manifold contexts.  I am currently finishing a book about novelistic responses to the changes in science's status during the nineteenth century, and I am starting a new project about best-selling religious novels in the 1880s.