The Brontës and Religion

By Marianne Thormählen | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 10
Clergymen in the Brontë novels

Clergy and churches appear a great deal in Victorian fiction and careful reading can establish an ambiguity in the usual authorial attitude towards them. The clergy are either like Mr Chadband from Bleak House, in which case their badness shows at once what is wrong and implies a remedy for it: Chadband should be replaced by a good minister who will be genuinely concerned for the plight of such as Jo the crossing-sweeper; or they are good in the way that Mr Hale in North and South or the eponymous Robert Elsmere are good, in which case they lose their faith. Treatment of the clergy is either totally secular, as in Trollope, or it is accompanied by a sense of strain. Churches tend to be either decaying or out of place or in some other way wrong. 1

While this is a factually erroneous statement geared to supporting the author's argument – the fiction of George Eliot and the Brontës alone easily supplies half a dozen charitable and consistently devout clergymen, and even the less admirable ones do not readily fit into either of Butler's categories – , it establishes an important point: there are a great many unappealing and/or unsuccessful churchmen in Victorian fiction. 2 The Brontë novels depict a succession of unsatisfactory men of the cloth: the worldly Mr Hatfield in Agnes Grey; the hypocritical tyrant Mr Brocklehurst in Jane Eyre; the self-important gourmand Mr Millward in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall; the pugnacious and unspiritual Mr Helstone and, of course, the vain and coarse curates Donne and Malone, all in Shirley. (St John Rivers in Jane Eyre, being a special case, is given a chapter to himself below. ) If, as this book argues, the fiction of the Brontësreflects a thorough-going, if sometimes reluctant, respect for the Church of England and a fundamental adherence to the values it attempted to uphold, why are so many of its representatives described in such unflattering terms?

In order to answer that question, and some others as well, the first

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The Brontës and Religion
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page *
  • Contents v
  • Acknowledgments vii
  • Abbreviations and Editions ix
  • Introduction 1
  • I - Denominations *
  • Chapter 1 - A Christian Home in Early Nineteenth-Century England: Evangelicalism, Dissent and the Brontë Family 13
  • Chapter 2 - Charlotte Brontë and the Church of Rome 24
  • Chapter 3 - An Undenominational Temper 39
  • II - Doctrines *
  • Chapter 4 - The Brontës in the Theological Landscape of Their Time 47
  • Chapter 5 - God and His Creation 53
  • Chapter 6 - Faith and Redemption 71
  • Chapter 7 - This Life and the Next 90
  • III - Ethics *
  • Chapter 8 - Forgiveness and Revenge 119
  • Chapter 9 - The Christian Life 144
  • IV - Clerics *
  • Chapter 10 - Clergymen in the Brontë Novels 173
  • Chapter 11 - The Enigma of St John Rivers 204
  • Notes 221
  • Select Bibliography 271
  • Index 278
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