When Mrs Humphry Ward first had the idea for her bestselling novel Robert Elsmere (1888), she wrote to her publisher that it was all planned and that she would take “five quiet months in the country to write it. It will be two volumes”. The gestation period of what she referred to as her “baby” was actually three years, and her patient publisher was appalled to receive a 1,358-page manuscript, containing nearly three quarters of a million words. Pruned to a more portable 800 pages, this story of religious doubt became a literary phenomenon, sparking controversy and selling by the truckload.
It’s hard to imagine now that a novel about a clergyman experiencing a crisis of faith should become a bestseller, but then it is easy to underestimate the centrality of religion during the Victorian period. While for some people developments in geological and evolutionary science had already weakened the authority of the Bible, it was the historicist approach to biblical criticism that seriously undermined its status. By studying the Bible in its historical context, its more controversial tenets could be dismissed as anachronisms, rather than accepted as timeless decrees. Furthermore, textual errors showed the Bible to be disappointingly fallible. This “enlightenment” was hugely disruptive to a profoundly Christian society, and many sought to explore the relevance of their faith in the modern world.
Robert Elsmere opens in the Lake District, with loving descriptions of the Westmoreland countryside. The serious-minded Catherine Leyburn prevaricates over whether she should accept the marriage proposal of young clergyman Robert Elsmere, or stay at home to care for her widowed mother. Love triumphs over duty, and the couple move to a new living in Surrey. Here Elsmere is given access to Squire Wendover’s library, containing a large collection of books on biblical criticism, and he engages in long debates with intellectuals intent on testing his faith. Rather than becoming an atheist, Elsmere pursues the philosophy of “constructive liberalism,” stressing the importance of social work among the poor and uneducated. He moves to slums of East London, where he establishes the New Brotherhood of Christ.
Elsmere’s tergiversations captivated the reading public, with the novel selling more than 1 million copies. Ward bagged around £4,000 in royalties, which today would put her in the millionaire author bracket. Her earnings would have been significantly higher if it weren’t for the absence of international copyright laws. Many cheap US editions were rushed to press to cash in on this runaway success; some were sold as loss leaders for just 4 cents, and other were given away free with every cake of Maine’s Balsam Fir Soap. Remarkably, a US playwright was desperate to adapt Robert Elsmere for the stage, but Ward refused. Not everyone appreciated Ward’s heterodoxy, and William Gladstone wrote a 10,000-word review, detailing his objections to the novel.
I discovered Robert Elsmere five years ago and was astonished that such an extraordinary novel was no longer in print. It seems that publishers were deterred by its size and complexity. However, thanks to the sterling editorship of Miriam Burstein, I’m pleased to say that the Victorian Secrets edition is now published. It was certainly a labour of love, and we it took us several years to get it to press (only slightly less time than Ward spent writing it). The marvel of modern technology means than it is reduced to “just” 624 pages, and those with bad backs can download the Kindle edition.
Robert Elsmere certainly isn’t a page-turner, but its importance to the Victorians means it remains a significant and interesting book.