Academic journal article Bunyan Studies

Introduction: William Hale White, Nonconformist and Novelist

Academic journal article Bunyan Studies

Introduction: William Hale White, Nonconformist and Novelist

Article excerpt

William Hale White was bom in Bedford on the twenty-second of December 1831, and died in Groombridge in Kent on the fourteenth of March 1913. This special number of Bunyan Studies marks the centenary of the death of a writer who deserves to be much better known. It is appropriate that he is being commemorated in this journal, because his parents were prominent members of Bunyan Meeting and White himself attended it every week up until he was about seventeen. Among the last things he wrote was a book-length study of Bunyan, published in 1905. He explained to a friend that the publisher had approached him to write it on the grounds that Hale White 'was Bedford bom and bred' and because 'through my Puritan ancestors I was in sympathy with Bunyan'. Although White felt himself unfitted for the task, he confessed that he had enjoyed writing about Bunyan, 'all the more', he said, 'because Elstow and the Ouse and in a measure the temper of the man are in my blood'.1 Hale White is now generally regarded as the most important novelist of the nineteenth century to have emerged from a Nonconformist background and to have taken Nonconformist life and experience as his main subject. His readership has never been large, but his work has been admired by many distinguished writers, including Arnold Bennett, Edmund Gosse, Joseph Conrad, D. H. Lawrence, John Middleton Murry, André Gide, Edward Upward and George Orwell.

The essays that have been collected here cover a wide variety of topics. Some of them originated as papers delivered at events organized during 2013 to mark the centenary. Three essays deal with White as novelist. Valentine Cunningham discusses his relationship to earlier Dissenting writers, particularly in their shared engagement with the English Bible; Roger Pooley focuses on his historical novel, The Revolution in Tanner's Lane; and Max Saunders explores the early novels as examples of 'autobiografiction'. Two essays take as their subject White as a literary critic. Catherine Harland provides an overview of his range and interests as a critic, while Vincent Newey considers the significance of John Bunyan in relation to three major nineteenth-century studies of Bunyan. The question of White's religious thinking is taken up by Jean-Michel Yvard, who argues that it may best be described as 'religious agnosticism'. Early scholarship on White is discussed by Nicholas Jacobs, who draws attention to two European studies, and by Michael Brealey, who writes about the first PhD thesis on White in English. The collection of essays ends with a reflection by Mark Crees on what White's life and work mean to him, prompted by a visit to his grave.

Because the details of Hale White's life and work are not widely known, I have thought it helpful to provide a brief outline in this Introduction.2 I will focus particularly on White as a Nonconformist, and how one of the central Nonconformist values is given literary expression in his final novel, Clara Hopgood.

Hale White was brought up in Bedford within a strongly Nonconformist community. His father, William White, was a lay preacher and superintendent of the Sunday school at Bunyan Meeting, and was well-known in Bedford as a printer and bookseller with a shop on the High Street. The family had a long tradition of activity in radical Whig politics, and once, during a closely contested election in 1832 when Hale White was only a year old the windows in his father's house were smashed by a Tory mob.

One of the main sources for the early part of his life, up to his marriage at the age of twenty-five, is a brief set of 'Autobiographical Notes' that he wrote at the request of his children when he was about seventy-eight, and which were published soon after his death.3 These 'Notes' include a vivid account of his memories of attending Bunyan Meeting as a boy in the 1830s and early 1840s. The minister at the time he was bom was the Reverend Samuel Hillyard, who had been in post for over forty years. …

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