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  • The Importance of Being Ezra:Canons and Conversions in The Moonstone
  • William R. Mckelvy

Much has been written about Ezra Jennings, the mysterious figure who makes a belated appearance in Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone. Scholars have had important things to say about his status as a colonial subject, his hybridities of race and gender, his use and administration of opium, his practice of medicine, and his relation to the developing fields of physiology, psychology, and criminology.1 But no one, at any length, has linked Jennings to his historical namesake, the priest and scribe Ezra who came from Babylon to Jerusalem in the fifth century BCE to restore the temple there.2 In this essay I trace the naming of Ezra Jennings to the historical criticism of biblical texts that commanded so much attention in the 1860s—the decade that saw, among other things, the publication of many editions of Essays and Reviews and the initial installments of Bishop Colenso's The Pentateuch and the Book of Joshua Critically Examined, works that incited a deluge of printed commentary and trials for heresy.3 In doing so my aim is to put two habitually segregated subfields of the larger history of reading in the nineteenth century—the reading of serialized sensation fiction and the reading of ancient scriptures—into conversation.4 But my goal is not simply to plead that The Moonstone needs to be read by the light of mid-Victorian debates about biblical authority. I want to show how our current understanding of those debates needs updating in the context of the novel's interests in religious difference experienced on global terms.

In what follows I also make the case that The Moonstone deserves recognition as a novel of conversion, one that features multiple conversionist agendas situated in an extended history of religious and cultural strife. As Margery Sabin has demonstrated, The Moonstone is animated by a self-aware understanding of the major transitions in the history of foreign rule over the native Hindu majority in the Indian subcontinent. This history begins in the tenth century with the invasions of various Muslims who are gradually succeeded by the British starting in the second half of the eighteenth century. The novel then goes on to contrast a period of "eighteenth-century profiteering" (represented [End Page 495] by Uncle John Herncastle) with a later, reformed rationale for rule as Britons increasingly claimed to be in India in order to bring good governance to imperial subjects.5 What is missing in this account is another stage that became legible in the 1860s when many Britons came to see themselves as members of an imperial polity in which non-Christian subjects—most prominently among them Hindus like the three Brahmin priests in The Moonstone—constituted a demographic majority that was proving to be relatively impervious to Christian missionary efforts.6 In place of an optimistically envisioned future that would include numerous Hindu converts to Christianity, the novel speaks from a historical perspective skeptical of the success of missions to India and records a state of confusion in which representatives of different faiths struggle with mixed success in their evangelizing efforts. So-called heathens are to be found throughout the novel and may be of any race or religious background. Most innovatively of all, The Moonstone contemplates a time when the British presence in India will mobilize Asian missionaries to the West—figures like Ezra Jennings, who ultimately exhibits an Anglo-Indian version of eclectic religiosity that is ripe for recovery in our post-secular critical moment.

Before turning to a detailed discussion of the novel's conversion narratives in the second section of this essay, the first section argues that The Moonstone more generally must be recognized as a response to the vitality of two antagonistic histories of the canonization of inspired writings that became clarified in the Bible debates of the 1860s. To reckon with the novel's conversion stories, we need first to recall these vigorous canon wars.


At the core of my own critical narrative is a culturally productive friction between the adherents of a triumphalist narrative of bibliocentric Protestantism and the promoters of a newer, expanded canon...