Emeritus Bookshelf

The Secular Pilgrims of Victorian Fiction: The Novel as Book of Life

Barry V. Qualls

The Secular Pilgrims of Victorian Fiction: The Novel as Book of Life

Cambridge, 1982

altThis book examines the attempts of four great Victorians to write what amounted to latter-day "Pilgrim's Progresses." Writing in and for and age whose spiritual needs and assumptions differed utterly from those of Bunyan, they produced very different kinds of books from his - but books which still owed as much to the puritan tradition of Pilgrim's Progress and Quarles' Emblems, of sp ritual biography and the typological reading of scripture, as to the secular redefinition of that tradition in the early nineteenth century.

Carlyle's Sartor Resartus represents the closest convergence-point of these two sources. In its effort to combine traditional religious language and later Romantic ideas within the doctrine of "natural supernaturalism," it may be seen as the prototypical Victorian novel - a Pilgrim's Progress whose hero must write his own guidebook, his own book of life. Professor Qualls uses Carlyle as a context for studying the thematic concerns and narrative activities of Charlotte Bronte, Charles Dickens, and George Eliot. To focus their preoccupations, he selects emblems from the religious tradition which the Romantics also found essential - the mirror, the prison, the labyrinth, the dunghill, the rescue of the shipwrecked pilgrim, the conception of life as an embattled progress - and he charts the responses of the novelists to the issues these emblems raise about the self and about language in a secular world. He shows the Victorians' determination to write "secular scriptures," to affirm that biblical romance did still exist in reality, that the supernatural was part of the natural. He gives particular attention to the beginning and end of the authors' careers in order to chart how they dealt with the increasing secularization of their world and the increasing despiritualization of language.