Table of Contents

The Victorian Marriage Plot Today

Bleak Visions of the Future

Shoveling Snow?

The New Woman of the Novel

God as a Character in the Novel

Essay: Concerns for Christian Writers

The Victorian Marriage Plot

S. L. Cheek

The Victorian marriage plot is a literary term for a certain type of plot that flourished during the Victorian era. I am using it a bit more broadly than usual. Basically, every story had to end with the good characters married, and living happily ever after, and the bad characters punished. If a character happened to repent, then they would be allowed to die most edifyingly, but they were never reinstated back into the society.

Not that that was by any means the way in which Victorian authors wrote. Most of the classics break the rules in some way or another. It's hard to think of one offhand that does not. Anthony Trollope presents a serious moral point, but often offsets it with comic characters, who play heroines without being heroic, play villains without being wicked. Many of the dying prostitutes seem to be killed off unfairly, even reluctantly. Marriage seem to be unsuitable and contrived. It is weak and helpless Laura, not the stalwart Marion, who gets the guy in Collin's A Woman In White . While such vigorous women might not be encouraged to marry, there is no question that the author wanted us to be fonder of her than was popular. In No Name , Norah Vanstone, the 'good' sister, seems to be more of a parasite who regains the family fortune only after her 'wicked' sister has suffered agonizing pangs of repentence for using criminal means to get them both their rights 1 .

Even when the characters seem to be following the rules, there is a bite to the authors' speech that makes nothing so simple. Elizabeth Gaskell and Charlotte Yonge, two moral writers, do not present simple everyday morals. We have to raise our eyebrows at the overly violent moral struggles of characters like Ruth or Jem of Mary Barton , or wonder at the death of Guy in Charlotte Yonge's The Heir of Redclyffe , which leaves his wife Amy amazingly content. Even the omniscient narrators add to the confusion - Gaskell's throws her omniscience aside to sympathize with her characters and bring up incidents from her own past. Trollope teases the reader with predictions of what the reader would be thinking. There is nothing simple - or at all analogous - to this easy little plot which begins it all!

Yet the plot survived, battered, a bit dazed, but still recognizable to itself. Some of the most ardent supporters of a moral message in the books seem to abuse those straightforward moral plots the most.

The Victorian Marriage Plot Today

What's the point of going into this review of Victorian literature?

We Christian writers have a marriage plot, so to speak, of our own. Good guys still live happily ever after, bad guys are usually forgiven or killed off instead of punished. Everyone gets converted to Christianity. Everyone finds a matched mate. And I am sorry to say that a lot of Christian books are really, really lousy.

What is the difference? The Victorian writers were constantly comparing the plots to life. We make the mistake of thinking that our plots are life.

One example which horrifies and nauseates me is when the plot is manipulated to give Christians what they want. What happens when a Christian couple starts to raise a child, but a non-Christian father who loves the child shows up? Because it is unthinkable for a non-Christian and a past sinner to raise the child 'God has given them' - he is all but run out of town by the very unsympathetic pair. I've even seen a version of 'The girl was asking for it, so it is okay that she was raped' scenario in one book. And it certainly doesn't help when the writer starts confusing literary conventions with 'God's plan'. Is this really what God wants - no, usually, it's what will get us to the end of a book with a dollop of religion thrown on top!

The biggest problem to me is our tradition of making the Christian heroes and heroines completely and absolutely right. While we are talking about truth, it is not a human truth. No human can possess or understand all of it - it is God's grace, not his knowledge that we are given. People fail, people are wrong, people have quirks and do not look at everything the same. We think that we are writing for everyone - guess what? We are not. There are no 'everyman' characters - our own personality gets into each and every one of them. And, no, everything we think our characters should demand from life is not the only choice that a Christian can make - we should beware of confusing our characters' wants with needs!

Worse yet, we often fail to use God correctly as a character in our novels; we use bland, over-used phrases from tracts, rather than speaking of God as we have seen Him in our life, rather than the ways He can be experienced, the shocks and surprises He gives us, the events in our relationship with God that make the gospel more than just a ritual saying! When we create the lives of these people, and give them a God who blandly pours out gifts and turns them into parrots repeating identical phrases to the other, then we are denying the richness of what God offers us, perhaps even putting a dream-life up as better than what God offers!

I am not saying anything against happy endings. We should expect it to end well, if we have faith - though I think we brush over the sorrows that must come into every life too quickly in many Christian romances. If we have faith, we can confront them even in our private imaginations, not write as though we are hiding under the bedcovers from them.

Yet at the same time happy endings are one more plot element that we have to use carefully. Christian life is exactly that - a life. An event in our life may have an ending, but our life does not end at the same time. There is something onward and past that. We should recognize at least one ridiculous aspect of our own writing - the temerity with which we dare to try to echo a divine plan - often in three hundred pages or less!

Study the classics - and literary criticism, and then use the plot as a tool to show a religious truth, not as a vessel to shape religion!

1 Farmer, Steve John. 1989. Wilkie Collins' Nonfictional Contributions to Mid-Victorian Weekly Periodicals: The Roots of an Unconventional Morality Apparent in the Major Novels. UMI Dissertation Services, 1989. University of Kansas. Available at TWU library.

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Created on 12/28/04

Prepared by S. L. Cheek



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