Victorian Conversion Narratives and Reading Communities.
Emily Walker Heady of Liberty University intersects literary criticism and conversion studies in her exploration of Victorian conversion narratives and their literary form. Heady asserts that the dual nature of conversion as both "internal change and rhetorical performance" (2) establishes an association between the private life of the convert and the public community to whom the convert tells her tale. In claiming this, Heady draws together two streams of thought in conversion studies. William James, in Varieties of Religious Experience (1901-1902), represents a stream that views conversion as a private experience, best studied through psychology. In contrast, Michael Ragussis in Figures of Conversion (1995) and Gauri Viswanathan in Outside the Fold (1998) represent a stream that highlights the public and political nature of conversion narratives, making sociology the proper field for its study. Heady's work integrates these two perspectives by focusing on the necessary communicative movement from private to public life through a convert s testimony. Since conversion narratives are commonplace in Victorian novels, they are a fitting resource for exploring her claim that the literary style of the convert's testimony is part of the conversion itself. In five chapters, Heady examines the conversion narratives of prominent Victorian authors: Dickens' Dombey and Son (1846), Brontes Villette (1853), Eliot's Daniel Deronda (1876), Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1899), and Wilde's autobiographical works, De Profundis (published posthumously in 1905) and "The Ballad of Reading Gaol" (1898).
In her first chapter on Dickens, Heady analyzes his narration of Paul Dombey's conversion from a money-absorbed capitalist to a man who cherishes his home life and finds spiritual value in the world of business. Unlike the sudden and supernatural conversion in A Christmas Carol (1843), Dickens uses a spiritually-integrated realism to tell the tale of Dombey's gradual and natural transformation (20). Heady claims that his use of realism betrays the Pelagian leanings of Dickens' later theology--conversion by human effort and spiritual education (21-23). Dickens also incorporates a New Testament parable into his account of Dombey's conversion: the Prodigal Son. Through his initially improper interpretation of the parable, Dombey betrays his problematic materialism (28-31). Dickens transitions from a private story about an individual to a public message for Victorian society, Heady claims, when he makes Dombey's amended interpretation of the parable both a means of and evidence for Dombey's conversion. She views Dombey and Son as Dickens' attempt to evangelize his reading community toward a proper integration of the sacred and the secular.
Heady uses her second chapter to explore Bronte's struggle to narrate inner change without revealing too much or, conversely, introducing too sudden of a transformation into the story (46). In Villette, she sought to rectify the overly-inward narration of her heroine that had exposed Jane Eyre (1847) to criticism. Her protagonist, Lucy Snowe, undergoes a secular conversion that nonetheless gives room for the workings of providence. Throughout the novel, Lucy experiments with various narrative forms as lenses through which to interpret her own progress through life. She unsuccessfully narrates herself through realism's self-improvement genre (conversion through will and optimism, 48-55), romanticism's Gothic genre represented by Lucy's brief foray into Roman Catholic practice (dramatic and public confessions, 55-61), and the theological genre of spiritual journey, best characterized in Pilgrims Progress (65-66). Through her character's failed attempts at self-narration, Bronte critiques the typical conversion genres of Victorian literature and lands on typology as the most effective framework for Lucy's narrative. Lucy comes to see herself as a type of the New Testament's good steward in the parable of the talents--she is neither responsible for her own change nor directly transformed by the hand of providence. Instead, she is dependent upon the investment of others but must responsibly put that investment to good use. This allows Bronte to integrate human responsibility with dependence upon providence--and to narrate Lucy's inner and outer change with English restraint (65-67). Heady claims that Bronte makes use of typology as a metanarrative structure that moves her message from the self to the community.
In her third chapter, Heady considers George Eliot's Daniel Deronda. Through the character of Daniel, Eliot reveals her skepticism that any one metanarrative can be true for all people (76-77) although she still seeks "a sort of belief that can be born of skepticism" (78-83). She questions if truth can have a communal impact or if it is confined to individual experiences (86). In the novel, Eliot contrasts the conversions of two characters: Daniel and Gwendolen. Daniel converts to the Jewish faith by his simple determination to make a change: he authors his own conversion. Gwendolen, however, is ruled by her emotions and her unwelcomed premonitions of the future. Her change comes through loss: her own self-importance diminishes and she learns to take the risk of accepting social responsibility. These two transformations are depicted as a willed "turn" (Daniel) and a risky "leap" (Gwendolen). In the end, Heady declares, Eliot determines that "conversion is a gamble: it provides no guarantees; readers too must gamble if they are to live as responsible social beings" (103). Yet according to Heady, Eliot does not direct her readers toward any particular inner change because she sees no single metanarrative that can transfer from an individual to a community.
Heady discusses Conrad's Heart of Darkness in her fourth chapter. Marlow converts from a flat utilitarian view of the world to a rich aesthetic view. His adoption of this worldview means that he learns to experience every scene of his life as it is rather than trying to interpret it as part of a whole (118). He takes life in without jumping to any interpretation. Because his perspective is so individualized, Marlow is unable to communicate it to others--there is no overarching system of belief that he can narrate. In the end, Marlow decides to communicate his change inaccurately via ineffective but available narrative forms. According to Heady, Conrad does this in order to separate conversion from testimony (105). He rejects typical narrative forms: realism's "self-realization through work" (107-10) and romanticism's "quest narrative" (112-13). Despite their inadequacies, Marlow (and thus Conrad) submits to using both realist and romantic genres for the sake of communication. Marlow defers to social convention for the sake of experiencing community (107). "Marlow's conversion narrative," Heady explains, "is not a statement of belief in some higher truth to which he alone has access, but rather it is an attempt to create belief when truth remains fragmentary, indecipherable, and removed" (113). Conrad views this dynamic of false but good-intentioned testimony as facilitating community (130).
In her final chapter, Heady explores two conversions in the life of Oscar Wilde after his imprisonment. The first led to a new view of his self in relation to others and the second brought him into the Roman Catholic Church. Upon imprisonment, Wilde reassessed his radical individualism and pondered how the self could meaningfully relate to the otherness that is external to it. In De Profundis, he sought to establish self by absorbing otherness, but ultimately found this approach unrealizable--others have a tricky way of resisting absorption. Heady then interprets Wilde's final work, "Reading Gaol," as his resolution to this tension. He posited a comprehensive symbolic framework, the sacramental and incarnational theology of the Roman Catholic Church, under which all people could draw their significance and attain corporate unity without loss to their individuality. Heady highlights his presentation of Christ's individuality as most apparent when Christ is willingly invaded by what is "other" (the Cross, suffering) without losing his self (142-45). Despite this, Wilde's conversion to faith remains hotly contested. In a sign of the power of social media, Heady reviews divergent opinions not only among published scholars but also among college students, recorded in an extensive conversation on Facebook. She notes that people often evaluate Wilde's conversion as either valid or false based more upon their own desire for an icon (either of Roman Catholicism or of homosexuality) rather than upon evidence. By examining this dynamic, Heady brings her book full circle: the meaning of one's conversion cannot be separated from the reaction of the reading community. "For conversion, in the end, involves not just undergoing a change, but telling the story; not just altering the self, but sending that self out to evangelize others" (132). Private change is subject to public interpretation as soon as it is narrated.
Heady's challenging foray into conversion narratives offers a wealth of resources for those looking to relate literature and theology, but a few questions remain. First, although Heady's purpose is to defend her definition of conversion as a communicative movement from the individual to the public sphere, the works of Eliot and Conrad may challenge her definition. Does Heady view these novels as mistaken attempts at narrating conversion since the authors reject the notion that a private conversion can have direct bearing on a community's moral or religious change (150)? Second, what distinction might there be between the fictional rhetorical relationship between the convert and their society and the actual relationship between the author and the reading community? Is it possible, for example, that Marlow can fail to accurately narrate his conversion to his community while Conrad can succeed at narrating the same conversion to his reading public? Finally, although Heady's stated thesis is the relationship between the self and community in Victorian conversion narratives, this focus is consistently lost amidst the many conceptual threads running through her chapters. Her introduction and conclusion bring a sense of unity to the project, but the chapters themselves have the feel of separate essays. Nonetheless, Victorian Conversions will appeal to a broad audience in that Heady masterfully integrates a blend of disciplinary fields--literary criticism, conversion studies, Victorian history, linguistic theory, and theology. Her substantial contribution to conversion studies is irrefutable. Any scholar who continues to address conversion as primarily private or public will now find their task difficult, if not implausible. Heady has made a formidable case for the rhetorical union of the self and the community in the study of conversion. Further, this work offers a rich resource of literary criticism for each novel Heady reviews. In every chapter, she demonstrates her thorough knowledge of the novel's history of criticism and posits her own unique interpretation based upon insights drawn from the various disciplines mentioned above. Scholars will find Heady's Victorian Conversions both refreshing and authoritative.
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|Publication:||Christianity and Literature|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2014|
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