Academic journal article Bunyan Studies

The Revolution in Tanner's Lane: The Honesty of Dissent in Politics, Religion and the Family

Academic journal article Bunyan Studies

The Revolution in Tanner's Lane: The Honesty of Dissent in Politics, Religion and the Family

Article excerpt

It is a melancholy sight, as I drive round my comer of North Staffordshire, to see the little Nonconformist chapels on the comers of lanes in various states of dereliction or conversion to houses. It is one of the virtues of Mark Rutherford that he can catch the melancholy of such churches further back from this, on the cusp of decline, and to catch the sharpness of that emotion in the true plain style of Nonconformity itself. It's a feature of a number of his novels, notably Mark Rutherford's Deliverance, but I want to concentrate on The Revolution in Tanner 's Lane in this essay, not just because it is, arguably, the greatest of his novels as a novel (though one could also make a good case for Clara Hopgood), but also because it carries the most interesting and complex set of baggage - emotional, political, aesthetic, and religious.

But why honesty as a mark of Dissent? The stereotypical clergyman of the nineteenth-century novel, Anglican or Nonconformist, is a hypocrite. Think of Mr. Brocklehurst in Jane Eyre, whose insistence on mortifying the flesh, not to mention the natural curls, of the girls in Lowood School is not extended to the women of his own family, 'splendidly attired in velvet, silk and furs'.1 Or many of the clergy of Trollope's Barsetshire novels, for example Archdeacon Grantly in The Warden, who sets out his sermon writing materials before locking his study door and sitting down to read the 'witty mischief of Rabelais instead.2 Rutherford is well aware of the particular pressures to be hypocritical that occur in a Free Church community, to pretend to a conversion experience in order to be admitted to membership, for example. But he is unwilling to condemn. The Reverend John Broad, the minister of Tanner's Lane Chapel in the second half of the novel, is not admired by the narrator, but Rutherford's portrayal steps back from the pleasures of irony. His portrait, and his verdict, is more subtle:

He was, however, not a hypocrite, that is to say, not an ordinary novel or stage hypocrite. There is no such thing as a human being simply hypocritical or simply sincere. It is a question simply of degree. Furthermore, there are degrees of natural capacity for sincerity, and Mr. Broad was probably as sincere as his build of soul and body allowed him to be.3

Rutherford constantly returns to the trajectory of decline and disappointment, whether in marriage, religion or politics. It is tempting to ascribe this to his creator's self-confessed melancholia, a temptation that has not always been resisted by critics. However, there is a distinction to be made and respected between White and 'Rutherford'. Lorraine Davies has argued that 'The distance between author and fictional self or persona in the Autobiography and Deliverance allows for both self-confession and self-analysis'; but, more importantly for our purposes here, that a 'distinct alteration occurs in the relationship of Mark Rutherford to William Hale White between the first novels and the last'.4 We can identify two major shifts: one between Deliverance (1885) and The Revolution (1887), where Mark Rutherford is reported to have died, and the editing of his friend 'Reuben Shapcott' is from posthumous papers, and again after The Revolution, where the three remaining novels centre on females. The melancholy remains, but it has more to do with history than with autobiography.

Early on in the book, three months into their marriage, Zachariah and Mrs. Coleman discover that they do not love each other, and so 'He was paralysed, dead in half of his soul' (p. 22). Coleman, Rutherford notes, is a particular fan of Milton and Bunyan, but he doesn't seem to have read Milton's divorce tracts - and the legalities, let alone the social stigma, of divorce in the nineteenth century for incompatibility, rendered it off limits anyway.5 For Milton, the crucial element of marriage is 'conversation', a word with a richer meaning than simply being able to talk with each other. …

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