Wednesday, 20 November 2013

The Reverend Arthur Robins and the Sensation Novel

You would not expect Queen Victoria's own chaplain to write a sensation novel about an unwed mother giving birth in a workhouse.

Reverend Arthur Robins (1834-1899) was known as 'The Soldiers' Bishop' for his association with the Queen's troops. He was a chaplain in Windsor and had a career in royal service. The South Australian Register (Adelaide, SA. Source: reported on Monday 4 Nov,1878 that  

"The Queen has appointed the Rev. Arthur Robins, Rector of Holy Trinity Church, Windsor, and Chaplain to Her Majesty's household troops at Windsor, to be one of the Honorary Chaplains to her Majesty." 

Later, Robins had a further promotion from an Honorary Chaplain (who had no specified duties whatsoever), to a chaplain-in-ordinary, which meant that he had an actual job in the royal household. On 29 August 1896 The Spectator published a short article (Source:

"The Rev. Arthur Robins, chaplain - in - ordinary to the Queen, and chaplain to the Prince of Wales and to the household troops, preached on Sunday last his five-thousandth sermon in Windsor ; and his parishioners, in celebration of the occasion, presented him with a complete set of clerical robes. (This first paragraph appeared on 5 November 1896 in The Advertiser in Adelaide, SA, which may give you an idea how long it took for news to travel to Australia. Source:

Rev. Arthur Robins 23 Dec 1897. Entitled The Soliders' Bishop. For Vanity Fair by Spy.

The Rev,. Arthur Robins was a well-known churchman, as the honour of being caricatured in Vanity Fair demonstrates. He was also interviewed in magazines. You can find him in Windsor surrounded by the military in "Tommy Atkins and his 'Bishop': a Chat with the Rev. Arthur Robins" in The Sketch, April 12, 1893. There is another interview by James Milne in The Windsor Magazine (Vol 4, 1896, p.423).

The Spectator article commemorating the Reverend's 5000th sermon, continued with a slightly ominous tone:

"... Think of the saying, that for every idle word you utter, you shall be accountable at the day- of judgment, and consider how many idle and ill-considered words there must generally be in five thousand sermons. It must be a pathetic if not a terrible retrospect. But we may hope that for the great majority of preachers, the penance will at least be very lenient. We hope so, or we journalists should probably be left in an even worse predicament than the preachers."

In the light of this warning that you will be accountable for every word you utter until judgment day, what should we think about the two novels published anonymously, but assigned to the Rev. Arthur Robins: Miriam May (1860) and Crispin Ken (1861). They are both included in H. L. Mansel's well-known review of sensation fiction in Quarterly Review, in April 1863.

In this blog we have encountered women who supported their children, their husbands and occasionally their lovers by writing sensational fiction. Wilkie Collins was a man in an even more demanding situation, with two households to support. We have also come across professional hacks who churned out dramatic stories of detection to suit the tastes of the periodical-devouring masses. Sensation fiction was produced primarily for financial gain. So why would a man of the church with a secure career in the royal household resort to penning pot-boilers?

Sensation fiction also made a good vehicle for preaching. A racy story got your message to a wide audience, reaching exactly those parts of society (lower and lower-middle classes, clerks and maids and, of course, wives and daughters) who undoubtedly needed their morals bolstered from time to time. We've seen how Collins in The New Magdalen (1873) spelled out a message about redeeming fallen women. So maybe it is not so strange after all that the Rev. Arthur Robins should resort to the format of a popular genre to voice his views, not just about unwed mothers and sanctity of marriage, but also about charity, parliamentary elections, the appointment of bishops and church politics in general. And all this in just one single-volume novel packed with romance,  melodrama and (at least attempts at) comedy.

Miriam May: a Romance of Real Life was published in 1860. It went through several editions (3rd edition in 1860, 'new edition' in 1861, according to the National Library of Scotland catalogue). We can assume it was reasonably popular when first published.

H. L. Mansel's verdict on Robins's fiction was somewhat scathing:

"A very brief notice will be sufficient to dispose of some of the smaller fry on our multifarious list.
"'Miriam May,' 'Crispin Ken,' and 'Philip Paternoster' are specimens of the theological novel, which employs the nerves as a vehicle of preaching in the literal sense of the term. The object of these tales is to inculcate certain doctrines, or rather a hatred of certain opposite doctrines, by painting offensive portraits of persons professing the obnoxious opinions. The two former preach on the High Church side, by exhibiting villainous specimens of Low-Churchmen and Dissenters; ..." (Mansel, p.504)

Right Reverend Mansel (1820-1871) became the dean of St Paul's Cathedral (in 1868) after a career at Oxford first as a professor of metaphysics and then of ecclesiastical history. Mansel would have been exceptionally sensitive to Robins's views on theology and the church as they are expressed in Miriam May. However, if we are not versed in the 19th-century disputes between High Church and Low Church Anglicanism, is Miriam May at all worth reading? Will it still entertain? There is, of course, only one way to find out.