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Robert Elsmere
Robert Elsmere
Mrs Humphry Ward
Victorian Secrets, 2013
626 pp., $25.00

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Timothy Larsen


Losing My Religion

Mrs. Humphry Ward’s “Robert Elsmere.”

The back cover of this critical edition of Mrs. Humphry Ward's Robert Elsmere (1888) makes the staggering suggestion that that it "was probably the biggest selling novel of the nineteenth century." Alas, the introduction by Miriam Elizabeth Burstein does not discuss the evidence for why a novel you have probably never heard of might have beat out Dickens, Sir Walter Scott, and the rest of the gang. One of the appendices, however, reprints a preface Ward wrote for an Edwardian edition in which the author claimed that the copies already in circulation were close to a million. At any rate, it is beyond dispute that it was a Victorian blockbuster. It was such a sensation that even the prime minister, W. E. Gladstone, decided to review it.

So why has it dropped out of sight? One banal, partial answer is its length. Victorian novels are notoriously bulky, and this one is almost twice the size of their already formidable average. The original version was spread over three volumes and this edition invites the reader to persevere through 600 pages.

Worse, it is a didactic novel crammed with theological debate. Robert Elsmere is a bright young Oxford graduate who is ordained and makes a promising start in a rural parish but then experiences a crisis of faith and leaves the Church of England. Ultimately—spoiler alert!—he establishes in a poor London neighborhood a Theistic congregation devoted to following the example of a purely human, demythologized Jesus. Let's just say that most modern readers are not sufficiently interested in the precise intellectual route Elsmere takes from orthodoxy to modernist Unitarianism to want to track its every bend across several hundred pages.

Being a novel, however, it is also a romance. Robert falls for Catherine, a woman who holds rigidly to the Puritan verities of a past generation (one character exclaims, "She is the Thirty-nine Articles in the flesh!"), and the principal drama revolves around ...

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