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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 2. Elizabeth Gaskell




New Directions for Pilgrimage

Although they both reflect in their writing a strong biblical heritage and the conviction that fundamental change is needed within the realm of the spirit before any other forms of change can take place, Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Gaskell portray vastly different worlds. In Brontë’s novels, with the exception of Shirley, there is little consciousness of circumstances beyond the immediate concern of the protagonists, whereas in Gaskell’s works external forces and events press in upon the characters and demand some kind of resolution which will integrate the self with society. If solitary struggle toward the ideal of a perfect love is the distinguishing mark of Brontë’s fiction, solidarity and interdependence, sought with a passion no less intense but with a more realistic awareness of changing social conditions, are the goals in Gaskell’s treatment of the pilgrimage motif. Pilgrims predominantly preoccupied with the romantic and marital journey are replaced by pilgrims whose personal lives are enacted on the stage of the wider human community. Eulogizing Gaskell’s breadth of subject matter, which “embraces the contemporary, the recently past and the historic; generations and individuals; the transcendent, the supernatural and the solidly real; the public and personal; sex and reli←69 | 70→gion,” Terence Wright claims that she “can make a Charlotte Brontë look monomaniacal.”1

Earlier banished from the accepted canon of English literature for her focus on domesticity and attention to the minutiae of...

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