- The Historical Jesus and the Literary Imagination, 1860–1920 by Jennifer Stevens
“The Historical Jesus” ranks among the more elusive figures of the nineteenth century, one related to the old familiar Jesus of divinity, profanity, and prayer yet never interchangeable with him. He makes a full-blown appearance as early as David Friedrich Strauss’s Das Leben Jesu (1835), a work that establishes the practical impossibility of getting to know its subject. Nothing daunted, British Victorian writers produced an endless number of further reconstructions, lives of Jesus that proved popular both at home and abroad. Jennifer Stevens’s fine study, The Historical Jesus and the Literary Imagination (2010), takes up both this popular genre and its underlying scholarship in order to discuss their implications for literature of the fin de siècle and early twentieth century. [End Page 223]
The intersection of religion and literature can be a daunting topic. Stevens handles its unwieldy scope by structuring her argument closely around the emergence—or, given his elusiveness, non-emergence—of the historical Jesus in the mid-nineteenth century. This approach nicely circumvents a number of related theological controversies. With it, Stevens can testify to the dissemination of modern Biblical criticism and its immense importance for Victorian culture. And she connects nineteenth-century imaginative recreations of the life of Jesus to fin-de-siècle novels about the Gospel events, to De Profundis (1897) and the faux evangels of Oscar Wilde, and to George Moore’s The Apostle (1911) and The Brook Kerith (1916).
Stevens does a wonderful job of exposing the messy, non-linear aspects of religious culture. The Victorian era popularizes the conclusions of modern Biblical criticism, but never as a cumulative succession of universally embraced discoveries—nor even as a negative accumulation of discredited ones. Strauss, for instance, discredits the Enlightenment-era hypothesis that Jesus merely swooned on the cross, but Stevens shows how Samuel Butler makes this hypothesis the central epiphany of The Fair Haven (1873) and how Frank Harris makes it the central vehicle for his short story “The Miracle of the Stigmata” (1910). So it is with literary epiphanies as well: Wilde’s iconoclastic idea of a Christ resurrected only at the Second Coming (missing altogether his initial and better-known resurrection) becomes reworked for the more conventional believer in the fin-de-siècle fiction of Coulson Kernahan and Cyril Ranger Gull. Stevens also provides a superlative discussion of Ernest Renan, whose Vie de Jésus (1863) exercised an outsized influence in Victorian culture and whose achievements explain a great deal about the scholarly orientation of Matthew Arnold, F.W. Farrar, J.R. Seeley, and others. George Eliot, who had translated Das Leben Jesu, would purse her lips at the thought of “an English public which suppose[d] that [Renan was] finding out new heresies” (Haight 105), but Stevens rightly suggests that Renan’s belatedness does nothing to diminish his importance to Victorian culture.
Stevens might have been clearer about her principles of selection and organization, however. Her expressed aim is to “focus on the novel and short story” (4), but the book’s most significant chapters may be those on Wilde’s prose poems, essays, and apocryphal tales (the latter recorded for posterity by Léon Guillot de Saix). Even returning to fiction proper, it is hard to see why Stevens should address the influence of Eliot’s Daniel Deronda (1876) upon Joseph Jacobs but not Strauss’s influence upon Daniel Deronda. And George Moore gets two chapters: one for a stillborn closet drama, another for a novel that Stevens herself describes as “only partially successful” (286). Perhaps Jacobs and Moore receive more space than Eliot because they directly rewrite the character of Jesus. But moving away from strict reimaginings of Jesus would invite discussion of Walter Pater’s Marius the Epicurean (1885) or the novels of Thomas Hardy, W.H. Mallock, or Mary Augusta Ward. And it would also raise the stakes of readings given here: Stevens unpacks the conservative theology behind Marie Corelli’s Barabbas [End...