Victorian Conversion Narratives and Reading Communities

By Calhoun, Susanne | Christianity and Literature, Spring 2014 | Go to article overview

Victorian Conversion Narratives and Reading Communities


Calhoun, Susanne, Christianity and Literature


Victorian Conversion Narratives and Reading Communities. By Emily Walker Heady. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2013. ISBN 978-1-40945377-2. Pp. 150. 60.00 [pounds sterling].

Emily Walker Heady of Liberty University intersects literary criticism and conversion studies in her exploration of Victorian conversion narratives and their literary form. Heady asserts that the dual nature of conversion as both "internal change and rhetorical performance" (2) establishes an association between the private life of the convert and the public community to whom the convert tells her tale. In claiming this, Heady draws together two streams of thought in conversion studies. William James, in Varieties of Religious Experience (1901-1902), represents a stream that views conversion as a private experience, best studied through psychology. In contrast, Michael Ragussis in Figures of Conversion (1995) and Gauri Viswanathan in Outside the Fold (1998) represent a stream that highlights the public and political nature of conversion narratives, making sociology the proper field for its study. Heady's work integrates these two perspectives by focusing on the necessary communicative movement from private to public life through a convert s testimony. Since conversion narratives are commonplace in Victorian novels, they are a fitting resource for exploring her claim that the literary style of the convert's testimony is part of the conversion itself. In five chapters, Heady examines the conversion narratives of prominent Victorian authors: Dickens' Dombey and Son (1846), Brontes Villette (1853), Eliot's Daniel Deronda (1876), Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1899), and Wilde's autobiographical works, De Profundis (published posthumously in 1905) and "The Ballad of Reading Gaol" (1898).

In her first chapter on Dickens, Heady analyzes his narration of Paul Dombey's conversion from a money-absorbed capitalist to a man who cherishes his home life and finds spiritual value in the world of business. Unlike the sudden and supernatural conversion in A Christmas Carol (1843), Dickens uses a spiritually-integrated realism to tell the tale of Dombey's gradual and natural transformation (20). Heady claims that his use of realism betrays the Pelagian leanings of Dickens' later theology--conversion by human effort and spiritual education (21-23). Dickens also incorporates a New Testament parable into his account of Dombey's conversion: the Prodigal Son. Through his initially improper interpretation of the parable, Dombey betrays his problematic materialism (28-31). Dickens transitions from a private story about an individual to a public message for Victorian society, Heady claims, when he makes Dombey's amended interpretation of the parable both a means of and evidence for Dombey's conversion. She views Dombey and Son as Dickens' attempt to evangelize his reading community toward a proper integration of the sacred and the secular.

Heady uses her second chapter to explore Bronte's struggle to narrate inner change without revealing too much or, conversely, introducing too sudden of a transformation into the story (46). In Villette, she sought to rectify the overly-inward narration of her heroine that had exposed Jane Eyre (1847) to criticism. Her protagonist, Lucy Snowe, undergoes a secular conversion that nonetheless gives room for the workings of providence. Throughout the novel, Lucy experiments with various narrative forms as lenses through which to interpret her own progress through life. She unsuccessfully narrates herself through realism's self-improvement genre (conversion through will and optimism, 48-55), romanticism's Gothic genre represented by Lucy's brief foray into Roman Catholic practice (dramatic and public confessions, 55-61), and the theological genre of spiritual journey, best characterized in Pilgrims Progress (65-66). Through her character's failed attempts at self-narration, Bronte critiques the typical conversion genres of Victorian literature and lands on typology as the most effective framework for Lucy's narrative. …

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