Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Faith Without Works, or; the Nature of Charity

Harvey Montaigne visits Evelyn Mervyn and her baby in the workhouse. The scene is gloriously melodramatic. He "saw the beautiful mother with the sleeping child strained closely to her breast." Evelyn is the very picture of gentle and gracious motherhood. And she pleads for her innocence: "Tell me, oh, do tell me, dear, dear sir! do you think me guilty of this shame? ... Can you look me here - here, in the face - and see the wife without looking at that mocking finger - this finger, which hurls my witness back with scorn?" Of course, Doctor Montaigne cannot resist such an emotional appeal. "Smoothing her golden hair, with none of the attractively religious action of Mr Slie, but with a real fondness" Montaigne declares: "I do believe you pure - pure as you ever were."  He believes that "she was the lawful wife of Geoffrey May." (Miriam May, Chapter 4)

The whole moral universe, as well as the plot of the novel, pivots on "that mocking finger." No matter what misfortunes - or crimes or immoralities - have brought Evelyn Mervyn to the workhouse, as long as she is married, she is "pure," if she has borne a child out of wedlock, she is a soiled dove and damned.

"As there was no ring, and there was no believing that it had been pawned" (Ibid.), Evelyn is deemed not deserving of charity. A storm of condemnation begins to brew amongst the "virgins of Glastonbury." Mrs Dubbelfaise (no points for guessing that lady's character), Mrs Slim and Miss Todhunter are introduced as the voice of Glastonbury society. The task of these ladies in the narrative is to represent the surrounding small-town morality with their prejudices, as well as to provide the main source of comic relief in the novel with the misguided nature of these prejudices and with their general silliness.

When the three ladies learn that Evelyn is to move to Glastonbury Grange to be a wet nurse for Mrs Trevor's new-born baby (that is our narrator Arthur), they hold an "indignation meeting" with Mrs Dubbelfaise in the lead: "What can Mrs Trevor hope will be the future of her child, when she fills its great ugly mouth with the milk of this impudent hussey?" And there is a further threat, as she points out: "... but recollect Mrs Slim, that the girl may insinuate herself into your home, and tempt your husband, your husband - she is just the wicked thing to do it."  Evelyn is condemned as morally corrupting and dangerous. Miss Todhunter suggests to Mrs Dubbelfaise: "Do cast the first stone, Tilda, you will do it so well." (Miriam May, Chapter 4).

The juxtaposition of the two views of Evelyn Mervyn as a deserving and "pure" abandoned wife and an "impudent hussey" out to take advantage of the respectable people, gives the narrator free rein to air his views on charity. He writes at length and with some obtuseness about "faith without works," (Miriam May, Chapter 5).
"Faith without works" comes from the Bible (James 2: 14-17, 26), which states
What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?  If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. ... For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead."  

The narrator makes a general pronouncement of his view of charity at the opening of Chapter 4: "If there be one moral prominence of an age that talks of nothing but its belief in self-denial, and does nothing but make money, more remarkable than any other, it is emphatically to be found in its airy forms of varied charity." (Miriam May, Chapter 4). This is a general criticism of "faith without works;" charity must be in actual deeds and works, charitable sentiments are not sufficient

The idea of "faith without works" is partly demonstrated later in Mrs Dubbelfaise's conclusion that "I cannot disbelieve that that girl is a wife, but I have very excellent grounds ... for acknowledging in public no such belief." (Miriam May, Chapter 4). Evelyn is probably deserving of charity and innocent of sin, but as long as there is no ring, no public evidence of her innocence, she should not be granted the protection and aid of charity. "Mrs Slim also believed ... that this charity in that town often did cover and conceal an amazing multitude of sins."  (Miriam May, Chapter 4).

How do these sentiments of the characters relate to the general principle of "faith without works"? Mrs Dubbelfaise has some charitable sentiments for Evelyn, but she refuses to take action as long as there is not actual proof that Evelyn is deserving of charity. This is slightly different from the accusation that charitable sentiments are worthless without charitable deeds. Mrs Dubbelfaise seems to just require proof of Evelyn's moral nature, before she is willing to engage in acts of charity. Mrs Slim's opinion seems to suggest that because of "faith without works" many sins are allowed to fester because no charitable action is taken.

Mrs Dubbelfaise's and her friends' decision to "cast the first stone" and deny Evelyn charity because of her lack of wedding ring is condemned as misguided and morally wrong because their scene is presented as comical. Doctor Montaigne's trust in Evelyn's own words is morally right because the relevant scene is beautifully romantic and melodramatic. In this way, the style of writing appears to make a moral comment about the content of writing.

It is Dr Montaigne's belief in Evelyn's innocence which carries the day and the plot of the novel. He demonstrates his faith with works, as opposed to the three ladies Glastonbury. Dr Montaigne arranges for Evelyn and her baby to move to Glastonbury Grange. Evelyn takes over the running of the dairy (Miriam May, Chapter 6). Her daughter Miriam and the narrator "were soon inseparable." The love-interest is revived when Arthur says to Miriam: "When I am a grown-up man Miriam, I will marry you, and then you shall come up stairs." (Miriam May, Chapter 6)

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