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In his analysis of British fiction from Austen to Lawrence (with a post script on Virginia Woolf and Samuel Beckett), Robert Polhemus discovers a thread of continuity in what he calls "erotic faith." His definition of that faith alters according to the context as he moves through the novelists of the period, from the decorous romances of Austen to the boldness of Lawrence's lovers. Flatly stated, Polhemus's thesis is that in this period of declining religious faith a substitute had to be found. Happily the substitute already existed—in the [End Page 299] "natural" love between men and women and also, and very decisively, in some "unnatural" attachments, as in the relationship of character such as Pip and Miss Havisham, for whom Estella in Great Expectations is a sort of substitute, and in the brother-sister relationship that interferes with Maggie Tulliver's pursuit of permitted sex in The Mill on the Floss. In these novels and in all of the others discussed, however respectable and "Victorian" (for example, in Trollope's novels about Phineas Finn), we find heroes and heroines who are stumbling, often blind and unknowing, into patterns of salvation and redemption that have no names, at least no explicit names, until we reach D. H. Lawrence.
In support of his thesis, Polhemus draws upon Freud and post-Freudian psychology and on pictorial art, great paintings from the Italian Renaissance and the Dutch masters. It is often the selected picture that gives Polhemus the initial clue to the transformation of the basic amorous faith contained in a certain novel, but this kind of evidence is more ingenious than telling. Polhemus's most persuasive strategy is his use of the language and concepts of religious faith. In fact, the very religious faith that was being displaced in the nineteenth century supplies the means for recasting the erotic experience depicted in these novels, such as bodies transcending themselves in sexual acts. In many a novel, as Polhemus shows, the whole Christian drama of salvation is being played in a different key, and we can see a shift from key to key as he moves us from Austen through many writers and finally arrives at Lawrence. But a performance in a new key is usually understood by a reference to that antiquated performance, the Christian drama of salvation that was being abandoned. Thus, in Polhemus' account, the drama that is being described is new. But language for its description is drawn from an old source (Christian teaching) as well as from Freud and the picture galleries of Europe.