- St. John and the Victorians by Michael Wheeler, and: Victorian Parables by Susan Colón, and: Dickens, His Parables, and His Reader by Linda M. Lewis
These three recent books all examine the influence of particular New Testament texts on Victorian culture, and all three assume that sympathetic engagement with Victorian religious beliefs is crucial to understanding Victorian culture, society, and literature.
Michael Wheeler’s book St John and the Victorians is a model of interdisciplinary research into religious ideas. He brings wide reading and deep learning to bear on the “cultural afterlife of the fourth gospel in Victorian Britain” (xiii). Drawing on primary sources including hymns, paintings, stained glass windows, etchings, sermons, and scriptural commentaries, as well as both canonical and non-canonical literature, Wheeler gives us a clear, eminently readable analysis that provides new insights at every turn.
Wheeler’s first two chapters discuss controversial aspects of the fourth Gospel. Traditionally represented as feminized and contemplative, John became a site of conflict: Victorian Anglo- and Roman Catholics embraced the standard portrayal, while muscular Christians tried to revise it, turning John into a model of “true manliness” (24). Questions about whether John [End Page 225] actually wrote the Gospel that bore his name created further theological controversy throughout the century. Finally, the book of John, with its narration of incidents not mentioned in the other Gospels, caused headaches for those wanting to harmonize accounts of Jesus’s life.
In his third chapter, Wheeler traces the influence of John’s unique images of the Incarnation—light and logos—on Victorian theology, poetry, and painting. Early in the nineteenth century, John’s image of Christ as light was taken up by Evangelicals, who wanted to carry the light of the Gospel into the world’s dark places, but, as Wheeler argues, it played an even more significant role in the incarnational turn in the second half of the century.
In the remaining chapters, Wheeler examines specific episodes narrated only in the Gospel of John, discussing their treatment in Victorian theology, literature, art, and music. Individual chapters treat the changing of water into wine, the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well, the encounters of Mary Magdalene and (doubting) Thomas with the resurrected Christ, the raising of Lazarus, and Mary and John at the foot of the cross. These chapters, with their multiplicity of sources, make a compelling case for the significance of the Gospel of John to Victorian culture and thought.
Susan E. Colón’s Victorian Parables similarly traces Victorian engagement with New Testament texts, here the parables of Jesus. Like Wheeler, Colón brings deep interdisciplinary research to her understanding of the parable as literature and to her discussion of its relationship to the Victorian realist novel.
She begins with a theoretical discussion of parable, the genre that “sits squarely at the intersection of religion, ethics and literature” (3). She argues that, far from reinscribing received doctrine, as fables and exemplary tales do, parables actively overturn ordinary notions of justice and order: the parable’s “vision of limit experience is confrontational and disorienting, particularly in that it exposes the reader’s complicity with the everyday conceptual scheme that the parable puts under critical scrutiny” (15–16). Moreover, while parables are often represented as antithetical to realism, Colón argues that, given a sufficiently nuanced theory of realism, realistic narrative can be parabolic, pointing to the limit-experience just as parables do, through narration of ordinary, non-supernatural events.
The remaining chapters of Colón’s book apply these ideas to the interpretation of three Victorian novels, each of which engages with a particular parable of Jesus. She reads Charlotte M. Yonge’s The Heir of Redclyffe (1853) as both “a retelling of the parable of the Pharisee and the publican” and as “a parable in its...