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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 3. George Eliot




Religion of Humanity

Deemed a “Victorian Sage” by John Holloway and given canonical status within “The Great Tradition” by F.R. Leavis, George Eliot is acclaimed by contemporary critics such as Norman Vance for “her socially progressive reimagining of the narrative of salvation history as the growing good of the world,” through which “she provided a model for her own century and for ours.”1 Disregarded for several decades following her death for the didactic and moralistic cadences of her authorial voice and for her reluctance to allow her gifted heroines the same degree of intellectual and vocational opportunity as she enjoyed, she is now appreciated, pre-eminently by Barbara Hardy, for her narrative voice and delineation of the feminine aspect of sympathy. George Levine, acknowledging that Eliot espouses no radical feminism in either theory or practice, asserts that, although her focus is usually on strictures against individual women, “she can describe with remarkable acuity the cruelties, injustices, and banalities of the world that imposes those limits.”2 Intensely aware of the values worth conserving from past ages, she was also alert to those ideas and traditions which no longer directly impinge upon the demands of the present or offer guidance for the future. Like Brontë and Gaskell,←107 | 108→ she gives the dichotomy between sacred and secular, between expectation and experience, central importance in her work. Whereas Brontë retains her faith in God and in Christ as the earthly embodiment of the...

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