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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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Chapter 1. Charlotte Brontë




The Way of Pilgrimage

“My Master,” he says, “has forewarned me. Daily He announces more distinctly, ‘Surely I come quickly!’ and hourly I more eagerly respond, ‘Amen; even so, come, Lord Jesus!’”1

These words of St John Rivers at the close of Jane Eyre have been described as “an uneasy coda in a key which distracts but does not resolve,” but, far from being this, they actually provide the key to Charlotte Brontë’s understanding of pilgrimage, which is, to my mind, the underlying theme of all her fiction.2 Echoing the penultimate verse of the Revelation of St John the Divine, they point to Brontë’s conviction that the divine descent initiates and consummates the human quest for reconciliation of the sacred and the secular. Rivers’ reference to his divine Master, to whom he has pledged complete allegiance, is not a mere coda but is integrally connected to the recurring master-pupil relationships in which Brontë’s protagonists struggle to discern the nature of their own devotion, whether to Creator or creature. Significantly, each of the novels concludes on a note of welcome or expectation. The Professor ends with Victor’s imperative, “Papa, come!”; Lucy’s repetition of “he is coming” in the final chapter of Villette signals an ambiguous hope of return, whereas←37 | 38→ the very last word, “Farewell,” connotes separation as well as continuance of a journey.3 The narrator of Shirley concludes the story by imagining...

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