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Victorian Pilgrimage

Sacred-Secular Dualism in the Novels of Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell, and George Eliot

M. Joan Chard

Victorian Pilgrimage: Sacred-Secular Dualism in the Novels of Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell, and George Eliot argues that Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell, and George Eliot are foremost among nineteenth-century novelists to explore the pilgrimage motif, a major preoccupation of the Victorian imagination. Drawing upon their primary sources of the journey archetype—the King James Bible, The Pilgrim’s Progress, and popular hymns—they reveal in their work the significance of the religious impetus, which in their treatment is neither narrowly moralistic nor conformist. Recognizing the radicality of scripture free of its patriarchal bias, they bring a feminine sensibility to their delineation of gender ideologies in romantic and marital relationships as well as to their reformulation of the traditional fictional heroine. Their female protagonists are caught in the struggle between succumbing to the stereotypical ideal of womanhood and attaining authentic selfhood leading to both personal and social transformation. Sharing the conviction that the main dilemma of their times is the separation of sacred from secular, Brontë, Gaskell, and Eliot, each with a distinctive approach to the theme, open up fresh perceptual and relational pathways for pilgrimage.

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The pilgrimage motif is as ancient and as modern as the questing nature of humanity. This archetype is the universal and evolving story of Everyman and Everywoman engaged in the search for life’s meaning and in the eternal dialogue between the sacred and the secular. During the Victorian period the journey theme, deeply ingrained in the religious consciousness of writer and reader alike, assumed central significance in all forms of literary expression. The popularity of the spiritual autobiography and the Bildungsroman attests to the nineteenth-century preoccupation with a highly personalized, experiential mode of progress. Much critical attention has been given to Victorian religiosity, sectarianism, and the conflict between faith and doubt as well as to the forces of secularization held to be responsible for diminishing the pervasive power of Christian belief. In The Secular Pilgrims of Victorian Fiction Barry Qualls, for instance, examines the novel’s debt to both the introspective Puritan tradition and the concept of the God within espoused by Romanticism. His insightful tracing of the use of emblem and parable in the development of “secular scriptures” connects the pilgrimage motif with the secularization theses of later critics.1 Recent scholarship in the area of Victorian studies re-evaluates the diversity and complexity of a religious and literary culture confronted with the shaking of its scriptural foundations. Notable among scholars←1 | 2→ placing fresh emphasis upon creative reinterpretations of the Bible and its persistent significance as the source of metaphor and imagery in Victorian fiction are Emma Mason, Marianne...

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