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Chapter 4. "Robert Elsmere" 


[55] THOSE who, in this bustling age, turn to fiction not merely for a little passing amusement, but for profit, for the higher sort of pleasure, will do well, we think (after a conscientious perusal on our own part) to bestow careful reading on Robert Elsmere. A chef d'oeuvre of that kind of quiet evolution of character through circumstance, introduced into English literature by Miss Austen, and carried to perfection in France by George Sand (who is more to the point, because, like Mrs. Ward, she was not afraid to challenge novel-readers to an interest in religious questions), it abounds in sympathy with people as we find them, in aspiration towards something better--towards a certain ideal--in a refreshing sense of second thoughts everywhere. The author clearly has developed a remarkable natural aptitude for literature by liberal reading and most patient care [56] in composition--composition in that narrower sense which is concerned with the building of a good sentence; as also in that wider sense, which ensures, in a work like this, with so many joints, so many currents of interest, a final unity of impression an the part of the reader, and easy transition by him from one to the other. Well- used to works of fiction which tell all they have to tell in one thin volume, we have read Mrs. Ward's three volumes with unflagging readiness.

For, in truth, that quiet method of evolution, which she pursues undismayed to the end, requires a certain lengthiness; and the reader's reward will be in a secure sense that he has been in intercourse with no mere flighty remnants, but with typical forms, of character, firmly and fully conceived. We are persuaded that the author might have written a novel which should have been all shrewd impressions of society, or all humorous impressions of country life, or all quiet fun and genial caricature. Actually she has chosen to combine something of each of these with a very sincerely felt religious interest; and who will deny that to trace the influence of religion upon human character is one of the [57] legitimate functions of the novel? In truth, the modern "novel of character" needs some such interest, to lift it sufficiently above the humdrum of life; as men's horizons are enlarged by religion, of whatever type it may be-- and we may say at once that the religious type which is dear to Mrs. Ward, though avowedly "broad," is not really the broadest. Having conceived her work thus, she has brought a rare instinct for probability and nature to the difficult task of combining this religious motive and all the learned thought it involves, with a very genuine interest in many varieties of average mundane life.

We should say that the author's special ethical gift lay in a delicately intuitive sympathy, not, perhaps, with all phases of character, but certainly with the very varied class of persons represented in these volumes. It may be congruous with this, perhaps, that her success should be more assured in dealing with the characters of women than with those of men. The men who pass before us in her pages, though real and tangible and effective enough, seem, nevertheless, from time to time to reveal their joinings. They are composite of many different men we seem to have [58] known, and fancy we could detach again from the ensemble and from each other. And their goodness, when they are good, is--well! a little conventional; the kind of goodness that men themselves discount rather largely in their estimates of each other. Robert himself is certainly worth knowing--a really attractive union of manliness and saintliness, of shrewd sense and unworldly aims, and withal with that kindness and pity the absence of which so often abates the actual value of those other gifts. Mrs. Ward's literary power is sometimes seen at its best (it is a proof of her high cultivation of this power that so it should be) in the analysis of minor characters, both male and female. Richard Leyburn, deceased before the story begins, but warm in the memory of the few who had known him, above all of his great-souled daughter Catherine, strikes us, with his religious mysticism, as being in this way one of the best things in the book:--

"Poor Richard Leyburn! Yet where had the defeat lain?

"'Was he happy in his school life?' Robert asked gently. 'Was teaching what he liked?'

[59] "'Oh! yes, only--' and then added hurriedly, as though drawn on in spite of herself by the grave sympathy of his look, 'I never knew anybody so good who thought himself of so little account. He always believed that he had missed everything, wasted everything, and that anybody else would have made infinitely more out of his life. He vas always blaming, scourging himself. And all the time he was the noblest, purest, most devoted--'

"She stopped. Her voice had passed beyond her control. Elsmere was startled by the feeling she showed. Evidently he had touched one of the few sore places in this pure heart. It was as though her memory of her father had in it elements of almost intolerable pathos, as though the child's brooding love and loyalty were in perpetual protest even now after this lapse of years against the verdict which an over-scrupulous, despondent soul had pronounced upon itself. Did she feel that he had gone uncomforted out of life--even by her--even by religion? Was that the sting?"

A little later she gives the record of his last hours:--

[60] "'Catherine! Life is harder, the narrower way narrower than ever. I die--and memory caught still the piteous long-drawn breath by which the voice was broken--'in much--much perplexity about many things. You have a clear soul, an iron will. Strengthen the others. Bring them safe to the day of account.'"

And then the smaller--some of them, ethically, very small--women; Lady Wynnstay, Mrs. Fleming, Mrs. Thornburgh; above all, Robert's delightful Irish mother, and Mrs. Darcy; how excellent they are! Mrs. Darcy we seem to have known, yet cannot have enough of, rejoiced to catch sight of her capital letter on the page, as we read on. In truth, if a high and ideal purpose, really learned in the school of Wordsworth and among the Westmorland hills which Mrs. Ward describes so sympathetically, with fitting dignity and truth of style, has accompanied the author throughout; no less plain, perhaps more pleasing to some readers, is the quiet humour which never fails her, and tests, while it relieves, the sincerity of her more serious thinking:--

"At last Mrs. Darcy fluttered off, only, however, to come hurrying back with little, short, [61] scudding steps, to implore them all to come to tea with her as soon as possible in the garden that was her special hobby, and in her last new summer-house.

"'I build two or three every summer,' she said; 'now there are twenty-one! Roger laughs at me,' and there was a momentary bitterness in the little eerie face; 'but how can one live without hobbies? That's one--then I've two more. My album--oh, you will all write in my album, won't you? When I was young--when I was Maid of Honour'--and she drew herself up slightly--'everybody had albums. Even the dear Queen herself! I remember how she made M. Guizot write in it; something quite stupid, after all. Those hobbies--the garden and the album--are quite harmless, aren't they? They hurt nobody, do they?' Her voice dropped a little, with a pathetic expostulating intonation in it, as of one accustomed to be rebuked."

Mrs. Ward's women, as we have said, are more organic, sympathetic, and really creative, than her men, and make their vitality evident by becoming, quite naturally, the centres of very [62] life-like and dramatic groups of people, family or social; while her men are the very genii of isolation and division. It is depressing to see so really noble a character as Catherine soured, as we feel, and lowered, as time goes on, from the happy resignation of the first volume (in which solemn, beautiful, and entire, and so very real, she is like a poem of Wordsworth) down to the mere passivity of the third volume, and the closing scene of Robert Elsmere's days, very exquisitely as this episode of unbelieving yet saintly biography has been conceived and executed. Catherine certainly, for one, has no profit in the development of Robert's improved gospel. The "stray sheep," we think, has by no means always the best of the argument, and her story is really a sadder, more testing one than his. Though both alike, we admit it cordially, have a genuine sense of the eternal moral charm of "renunciation," something even of the thirst for martyrdom, for those wonderful, inaccessible, cold heights of the Imitation, eternal also in their aesthetic charm.

These characters and situations, pleasant or profoundly interesting, which it is good to have [63] come across, are worked out, not in rapid sketches, nor by hazardous epigram, but more securely by patient analysis; and though we have said that Mrs. Ward is most successful in female portraiture, her own mind and culture have an unmistakable virility and grasp and scientific firmness. This indispensable intellectual process, which will be relished by admirers of George Eliot, is relieved constantly by the sense of a charming landscape background, for the most part English. Mrs. Ward has been a true disciple in the school of Wordsworth, and really undergone its influence. Her Westmorland scenery is more than a mere background; its spiritual and, as it were, personal hold on persons, as understood by the great poet of the Lakes, is seen actually at work, in the formation, in the refining, of character. It has been a stormy day:--

"Before him the great hollow of High Fell was just coming out from the white mists surging round it. A shaft of sunlight lay across its upper end, and he caught a marvellous apparition of a sunlit valley hung in air, a pale strip of blue above it, a white thread of stream wavering [64] through it, and all around it and below it the rolling rain-clouds."

There is surely something of "natural magic" in that! The wilder capacity of the mountains is brought out especially in a weird story of a haunted girl, an episode well illustrating the writer's more imaginative psychological power; for, in spite of its quiet general tenour, the book has its adroitly managed elements of sensation-- witness the ghost, in which the average human susceptibility to supernatural terrors takes revenge on the sceptical Mr. Wendover, and the love-scene with Madame de Netteville, which, like those other exciting passages, really furthers the development of the proper ethical interests of the book. The Oxford episodes strike us as being not the author's strongest work, as being comparatively conventional, coming, as they do, in a book whose predominant note is reality. Yet her sympathetic command over, her power of evoking, the genius of places, is clearly shown in the touches by which she brings out the so well-known grey and green of college and garden--touches which bring the real Oxford to the mind's eye better than any elaborate description [65] --for the beauty of the place itself resides also in delicate touches. The book passes indeed, successively, through distinct, broadly conceived phases of scenery, which, becoming veritable parts of its texture, take hold on the reader, as if in an actual sojourn in the places described. Surrey-- its genuine though almost suburban wildness, with the vicarage and the wonderful abode, above all, the ancient library of Mr. Wendover, all is admirably done, the landscape naturally counting for a good deal in the development of the profoundly meditative, country-loving souls of Mrs. Ward's favourite characters.

Well! Mrs. Ward has chosen to use all these varied gifts and accomplishments for a certain purpose. Briefly, Robert Elsmere, a priest of the Anglican Church, marries a very religious woman; there is the perfection of "mutual love"; at length he has doubts about "historic Christianity"; he gives up his orders; carries his learning, his fine intellect, his goodness, nay, his saintliness, into a kind of Unitarianism; the wife becomes more intolerant than ever; there is a long and faithful effort on both sides, eventually successful, on the part of these mentally [66] divided people, to hold together; ending with the hero's death, the genuine piety and resignation of which is the crowning touch in the author's able, learned, and thoroughly sincere apology for Robert Elsmere's position.

For good or evil, the sort of doubts which troubled Robert Elsmere are no novelty in literature, and we think the main issue of the "religious question" is not precisely where Mrs. Ward supposes--that it has advanced, in more senses than one, beyond the point raised by Renan's Vie de Jesus. Of course, a man such as Robert Elsmere came to be ought not to be a clergyman of the Anglican Church. The priest is still, and will, we think, remain, one of the necessary types of humanity; and he is untrue to his type, unless, with whatever inevitable doubts in this doubting age, he feels, on the whole, the preponderance in it of those influences which make for faith. It is his triumph to achieve as much faith as possible in an age of negation. Doubtless, it is part of the ideal of the Anglican Church that, under certain safeguards, it should find room for latitudinarians even among its clergy. Still, with these, as [67] with all other genuine priests, it is the positive not the negative result that justifies the position. We have little patience with those liberal clergy who dwell on nothing else than the difficulties of faith and the propriety of concession to the opposite force. Yes! Robert Elsmere was certainly right in ceasing to be a clergyman. But it strikes us as a blot on his philosophical pretensions that he should have been both so late in perceiving the difficulty, and then so sudden and trenchant in dealing with so great and complex a question. Had he possessed a perfectly philosophic or scientific temper he would have hesitated. This is not the place to discuss in detail the theological position very ably and seriously argued by Mrs. Ward. All we can say is that, one by one, Elsmere's objections may be met by considerations of the same genus, and not less equal weight, relatively to a world so obscure, in its origin and issues, as that in which we live.

Robert Elsmere was a type of a large class of minds which cannot be sure that the sacred story is true. It is philosophical, doubtless, and a duty to the intellect to recognize our doubts, [68] to locate them, perhaps to give them practical effect. It may be also a moral duty to do this. But then there is also a large class of minds which cannot be sure it is false--minds of very various degrees of conscientiousness and intellectual power, up to the highest. They will think those who are quite sure it is false unphilosophical through lack of doubt. For their part, they make allowance in their scheme of life for a great possibility, and with some of them that bare concession of possibility (the subject of it being what it is) becomes the most important fact in the world.

The recognition of it straightway opens wide the door to hope and love; and such persons are, as we fancy they always will be, the nucleus of a Church. Their particular phase of doubt, of philosophic uncertainty, has been the secret of millions of good Christians, multitudes of worthy priests. They knit themselves to believers, in various degrees, of all ages. As against the purely negative action of the scientific spirit, the high-pitched Grey, the theistic Elsmere, the "ritualistic priest," the quaint Methodist Fleming, both so admirably sketched, present [69] perhaps no unconquerable differences. The question of the day is not between one and another of these, but in another sort of opposition, well defined by Mrs. Ward herself, between--

"Two estimates of life--the estimate which is the offspring of the scientific spirit, and which is for ever making the visible world fairer and more desirable in mortal eyes; and the estimate of Saint Augustine."

To us, the belief in God, in goodness at all, in the story of Bethlehem, does not rest on evidence so diverse in character and force as Mrs. Ward supposes. At his death Elsmere has started what to us would be a most unattractive place of worship, where he preaches an admirable sermon on the purely human aspect of the life of Christ. But we think there would be very few such sermons in the new church or chapel, for the interest of that life could hardly be very varied, when all such sayings as that "though He was rich, for our sakes He became poor" have ceased to be applicable to it. It is the infinite nature of Christ which has led to such diversities of genius in preaching as St. Francis, and Taylor, and Wesley.

[70] And after all we fear we have been unjust to Mrs. Ward's work. If so, we should read once more, and advise our readers to read, the profoundly thought and delicately felt chapter--chapter forty-three in her third volume--in which she describes the final spiritual reunion, on a basis of honestly diverse opinion, of the husband and wife. Her view, we think, could hardly have been presented more attractively. For ourselves we can only thank her for pleasure and profit in the reading of her book, which has refreshed actually the first and deepest springs of feeling, while it has charmed the literary sense.

28th March 1888

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