Friday, 14 February 2014

Happy Ending Does Not a Happy Reader Make

While Arthur is in Oxford, Evelyn and Miriam descend into penury as dress-makers; their rich customers stretch their credit and refuse to pay their bills. Arthur rescues them by lodging them with a kindly Mrs Bertram, a family friend. After Arthur is ordained, Miriam listens to his sermons, teaches at Sunday school and helps him to do good works among the poor (Miriam May, Chapter 15). Despite this, Arthur does not think of Miriam as a potential spouse: "it was never to me that love which sees in such a loveliness a wife."  (Ibid.) It is only when Miriam pleads with him after Arthur threatens to move away, that he decides to marry her instead of taking her along as a servant. As Arthur puts it: "And why not?" (Miriam May, Chapter 17). It is fortunate, that in every way Miriam demonstrates that she will make a worthy wife:

"Miriam, now that she had entered on what was to her so new a life, soon showed that she could well fulfil the position to which she would be called. Miriam was in the full bloom of her rich womanly beauty, nor did her little white hand show dairy work or needlework. Had Miriam been called at any time to swell the loveliness of any court, that call would not have been to her too much." (Miriam May, Chapter 18).

Arthur and Miriam are married by Arthur's older brother (who is also a priest and remains nameless throughout the novel). "It is a humble, small wedding" (Miriam May, Chapter 18), with only the Bertrams, Evelyn May and Dr Montaigne present. Out of the blue a stranger appears and steps up to give Miriam away. "Evelyn, my wife, my own!" He exclaims. This is Geoffrey May, Evelyn's husband, returned at this critical moment after an absence of twenty-four years. "Evelyn, is this our child?" He asks about Miriam. "Geoffrey, you have come; Miriam it is your father; ... Geoffrey, this is our child." After this reunion, the wedding ceremony continues, only: "it was seen by all, Evelyn May now wore a ring." (Ibid.).

At the end of the scene the narrator comments: "Geoffrey May had a good deal to explain, and I cannot know but that he should have at last a chapter to himself." (Ibid.) I should think so!

At the theatre, seeing Evelyn for the first time, Geoffrey "laid at her feet the promise of his rich inheritance of much gold." (Miriam May, Chapter 19). "She did not hate, nor did she love the man" (Ibid.). After a short courtship via letter-writing, they were "married privately in Italy." But, Sir Melville May wanted his son to marry "a blonde woman of no mean means." Sir Melville threatens to cut Geoffrey out of his will. In Geoffrey's own words: "So he will cut me off, so he will rob me, if he but hears that I have married this girl; be it so - to get his gold, I must cast her off - ... A beggar he'd make me. He would like to see me come to want, to rot, to starve. I am a devil, I know that - but so is he." (Ibid.) Geoffrey takes the wedding ring from sleeping Evelyn's finger, leaves behind a letter to explain it all (and proving that Evelyn is his lawful wife) and walks out. Again, conveniently, the very day after Sir Melville dies and Geoffrey has safely inherited his fortune of £2,000, he receives a letter from Mrs Bertram, who just happens to be a family friend to the Mays as well, telling him about Evelyn and Miriam May.

Evelyn is now Lady May, she takes her place in Glastonbury society, and Sir Geoffrey arranges for both Evelyn and Miriam, the girl born on the workhouse steps, to be presented at court (Miriam May, Chapter 20). There is a happy end, because, although Geoffrey may have been a 'devil' who abandoned his wife for fortune and stayed away for twenty-four years leaving her and their daughter to live in poverty and depend on others' charity, there was no birth out of wedlock.

Why is Miriam May such a badly-written novel?  I have already suggested several reasons, but let's finish by summing up.

First, there are issues with the plot. There are wonderfully melodramatic events, but they contribute little to the overall plot and seem to have no consequences. For example, the three incidents where Miriam 'saves' Arthur (the eye of the tutor, the burning of the will and the burning house) have much potential for providing sensational moments and plot twists, and demonstrating depth in the characters. But they do not lead anywhere. There are events that have absolutely no bearing on the plot or the development of the characters, for example the fight over Mrs Trevor's plate after her death (Miriam May, Chapter 11). On the other hand, there are sensational, dramatic events with a significant bearing on the plot which are narrated only in the form of a belated explanation. Geoffrey May's twenty-four-year absence due to his problematic relationship with his "Godless" father is both implausible and potential source of sensational tension. This plot line is more or less wasted in the end of the narrative (Miriam May, Chapter 19).  

There are also issues with the characters. They are flat and one-dimensional in the tradition of melodrama. Miriam is a stereotypical, thoroughly good heroine, despite eaves-dropping on her benefactors and burning a will. Evelyn, the fiery young woman who runs off to the stage at the beginning of the novel, loses much of her character in later chapters and fades into the background. Mr Slie, the opportunistic evangelical could be a much stronger villain. Arthur Trevor does not have much internal life, and there is no sense of his character developing, even if the novel describes his life from childhood to marriage. Melodramatic stereotypes are fine, but they should appear in a tightly woven melodramatic plot, where the plot provides sufficient interest for us, so that we do not seek to engage with the characters to any great extent. This is not the case in Miriam May.

Finally, there are issues with the style of writing. There is nothing wrong with the religious theme of the book, but it is not really embedded in the narrative. It appears as a floating commentary rather then being visible in the thoughts and actions of the characters. There is a strange mix in the tone and style in the novel. Extremely violent scenes are mixed with almost macabre comedy (the eye of the tutor and the death of the member of parliament are examples). Robins was clearly having fun writing Miriam May, you can almost hear him chuckle on some pages. The novel displays a specific kind of sense of humour, specific preoccupations. One might argue that the author has his hobby-horse(s) too much on display. If you cannot trust your readers to share your preoccupations, if you cannot be sure that you are preaching to the converted, you should be very careful about trotting out your hobby-horses when writing fiction.

I think the critical problem is that Robins (and here, I mean Robins the author reflected in Miriam May, not the chaplain I know very little about) is too self-conscious in his writing; instead of telling a story from the inside, imagining his characters and events as a logical universe; he is inventing a chain of incidents from a distant and slightly ironic stand-point. He does not believe in the reality of his story and characters; he is telling an amusing anecdote. This is further evident in the lack of descriptions in the novel. We do not even know what Arthur Trevor looks like. There is very little dialogue, too. The narrative is made up of Arthur Trevor's monologue, which often (and appropriately, as he is a clergyman) sounds very much like a sermon. It is therefore very difficult for the reader to engage with the characters in Miriam May, be convinced by the world they inhabit and be carried away by the events in the narrative.

Low Church versus High Church - Does Anyone in Miriam May Really Care?

Miriam May grabs an opportunity to criticize the state of the church when the bishop of St. Ambrose dies (he does not feature in the novel otherwise). Here the ecclesiastical theme of the novel is at its most explicit, and the narrative highlights the division between the Low Church and the High Church factions in the Church of England. The appointment of a bishop is a political matter:
"It is rumoured," said Mr. Harcourt, as he passed on, "that Slie will get it; he has great interest; his brother has not supported the administration for nothing. Lord Foxmore, too, is said to be anxious that Slie should have it; and Kantwell, who is notoriously the bishop-maker of the Cabinet, has written, I hear, to Mr. Slie." (Miriam May, Chapter 15)
Lord Kantwell's letter to Slie makes clear his hostility towards the High Church:
"I am determined to put down Puseyism; and any one whom I on behalf of Lord Fripon can recommend to the Queen, must very satisfactorily convince me that if, I may so say, he believes the Thirty-nine Articles might well be less in scope and number." (Ibid.)
As a 'job interview' for Mr Slie, Lord Kantwell list several questions that reflecting the division in the church:
"Do you believe, and to what extent in Apostolic succession? Do you believe in Baptismal Regeneration and in Absolution; and do you sanction in any way Confession? I do not desire to influence you in this matter, of course, but are you favourably disposed towards a moderate measure of liturgical revision? Would you sanction amongst your clergy the surplice in the pulpit? Are you friendly to daily services and weekly communions? What is the least and the most number of times in the year that you would urge your clergy to preach against the Virgin Mary? ... Should you be indisposed to look favourably on preaching in Exeter Hall? and I should take it kindly if you would let me know whether your sympathies are with the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, or the Church Missionary Society." (Ibid.)

Mr. Slie replies with his own lengthy letter, giving all these questions the correct, Low Church answers. For example, he considers "the exposition of the Gospel in Exeter Hall to be, of all things, a means for hurrying on the Kingdom of God." (Ibid.)  Exeter Hall on The Strand in London was a meeting place for several protestant organizations. And, writes Mr Slie, the strongly evangelical "Church Missionary Society has, of the two societies your lordship mentions, alone any place in my affections." (Ibid.)  More importantly, from a doctrinal point of view, Slie is in earnest "to put down Puseyism in its every form." (Ibid.) This was another name for the Oxford movement, after Edward Bouverie Pusey (1800-1882) who remained its leader after Newman converted to Catholicism. Pusey had a "long and almost unbroken career of controversy" (Catholic Encyclopedia  at; in 1843 his sermon on The Holy Eucharist got him banned from preaching for two years. ( ) He was also an excellent Arabic scholar.

All clergymen of the Church of England were obliged to subscribe to the Thirty-Nine Articles that are the foundation of faith in the Church of England. (See them all at Their significance was much debated in the church in the 1840s particularly, and the Oxford movement argued that they complied with the tenets of the Catholic Church. The narrative signals Slie's hypocrisy as a Church of England clergyman:  "his argument against the Articles — to which he thought it faithful to subscribe whilst he held certain of them to be a menace to the faith he professed." (Ibid.).  For more information on this whole matter, see Evangelicals in the Church of England 1734-1984 (1992) by Kenneth Hylson-Smith.

When Arthur's mother dies, he has to consider his own future. He is not sufficiently wealthy to lead the life of an independent gentleman. Mr Stoolman offers him a career in law. But Arthur does not want to be a "man of business," contributing only to himself, he wants to contribute to his country. He replies to Mr Stoolman: "I thought of going to Oxford for three years and then preparing myself for Parliament; as I feared the Church was out of the question." (Miriam May, Chapter 11)
Chapter 11 is entitled "Shying at the Collar." This could be a reference to Arthur's assumed general reluctance to get a job (the collar being the collar of a working harness), but it can equally be taken to refer to a priest's collar. This has High Church relevance: the Oxford movement popularized the dog-collar or the clerical collar. It is generally thought that this collar, which is little more than a normal 19th-century, detachable collar starched and turned back-to-front, was first 'invented' by Rev Dr Donald McLeod, as reported in the Glasgow Herald on December 6, 1894. It seems to me that Rev McLeod had his tongue firmly in cheek when he claimed the credit for it. The article in the Glasgow Herald reports a meeting of the Glasgow Presbytery where the matter of priests' vestments was discussed. It is in this context that Rev McLeod declared:
"Personally he had only one claim to immortality, and he was afraid it rested upon a fact known to no one but himself, and that was, he was the first to introduce what was known as the "dog collar." [Laughter.] In his youth, 39 years ago, he had introduced it." This is followed, according to the report, by more laughter.
(The article is available to view at, it is in the middle of the second page of the Glasgow Herald edition, under the headline 'Ecclesiastical')
A career in the church, then, is not Arthur's first choice. Instead, quite conveniently, on the third day after gaining his degree from Oxford, Arthur sees a piece in the Morning Post announcing that the member for Great Glastonbury "had been thrown many feet out of a tandem, and cast on to his head leaving whatever brains he had - for the first time brought to light - about the road." (Miriam May, Chapter 12) The paper has "an affectingly exact description of what amount of brains had been got together by some intelligent constable; any amount being on the side of the account that was new to Great Glastonbury." (Ibid.) The narrative combines gore and comedy in a disturbing way, but moves on quickly to describe how parliamentary elections are fought and won. Arthur stands at the elections against Lord Diskount and Mr Le Poer Bubb. Lord Diskount, with his wealth and the help of a "parliamentary agent" wins the seat. Arthur, in turn, loses a lot of money in fighting the campaign and he has to reconsider his options: "I had not the capital which would permit me to be honest, and yet enable me to be successful." (Miriam May, Chapter 13). Instead, he now "turned my thoughts towards the Church." (Ibid.) Arthur enters priesthood, it seems, not as a result of a religious calling, but because of convenience. There is no depiction of his spiritual life or his religious convictions in the narrative, beyond his fond memory of his dead mother teaching him his first prayer when he was a little boy. (Miriam May, Chapter 6).
As a priest, Arthur Trevor is High Church - his narrative should have made that clear by now. He soon establishes "daily services to the utter unstringing of Mrs. Dubbelfaise's Protestant nerves." (Miriam May, Chapter 15), he is friends with a High Church clergyman Mr Harcourt. Both of them are not happy about Slie's appointment as bishop:  "the Church may have too many of these men, why don't they keep to their chapels?" (Ibid.)  Although Arthur maintains that "Both Mr Harcourt and I had good cause to know that Mr Slie was no man to be a bishop" (Miriam May, Chapter 15), he accepts Slie as his superior - this respect for church hierarchy is another trait of High Church thinking (Miriam May, Chapter 18).

Miriam May gives its author scope to express views on the Church of England and its divisions. The portrayal of the Low Church preachers Slie and Wray and Slie's loyal congregation of the Glastonbury ladies, the lengthy sections on the idea of "faith without works" and Mr Slie's appointment as a bishop, the references to Puseyism and the Thirty-Nine articles all make up a commentary which disparages the Low Church and supports the High Church faction in the Church of England.

Matters of the church in Miriam May appear as both a source of comedy and (mildly) critical commentary. Crucially, they do not provide any significant contribution to the plot of the novel. The role of the church or religion in the individual characters' lives is not explored in any meaningful way. Arthur's choice to become a priest, and his religious convictions (or lack of them), are not analyzed. Mr Slie's apparently strongly held ecclesiastical views have no impact on the events of the story. His progression up in the church hierarchy is not of interest in the narrative.

H. L. Mansel identified the matter of High Church vs Low Church as the key theme of Miriam May. It is a theme that clearly runs through the novel, but what it adds to the novel is some degree of entertainment value rather than drama, depth or serious social commentary. The reason for this lack of impact is the fact that no one in Miriam May really seems to care about religious matters, despite the fact that both the narrator/hero Arthur and the character that comes closest to being the villain of the piece Mr Slie are priests in the Church of England. The place where the narrative should most explicitly pass judgment on this matter is the treatment of Evelyn May, the (possibly) un-wed mother and her (possibly) bastard daughter. In most simple terms, the Low Church congregation of Mr Slie refuses the two women charity, whereas the High Church Arthur Trevor support the women throughout. But this distinction is not attributable to the ecclesiastical leanings of the two sides, there are other motivations than religious ones. The ladies of Glastonbury are driven as much by ideas of middle-class respectability as evangelical principles. On the other side, as a gentleman, Arthur is obliged to help Evelyn and Miriam, after Miriam has 'saved' him and spent years as an 'adopted' sister in his household

Robins has sought to use the sensational, melodramatic plot of Evelyn and Miriam May's tribulations as a vehicle in which to insert comments on the theme of the church. This is why, first, you can read Miriam May and ignore the sections about the church, you will not miss anything in understanding the plot or the characters; and secondly, Miriam May is not a very good novel (there are other reasons, too, more about them later). The controversy between the Low Church and the High Church, which was a passionately fought issue that affected deeply those involved in it, is a powerful theme for a sensation novel. Religious convictions, fundamentalism and sectarianism are strong motives with sensational potential. Miriam May almost completely fails to take advantage of this.

Friday, 7 February 2014

High Church vs Low Church - Do We Need to Care?

Can we appreciate Miriam May fully without understanding the religious views embedded in the novel? How do these views affect or interact with the sensational narrative? As much as I would like to leave religion aside and lack interest in the internal politics of the Church of England, I feel that it is necessary to have at least a quick look at what exactly Miriam May says about the church. Is it simply the case, as H. L. Mansel suggests, that the novel preaches for the High Church by presenting Low Church men as villainous? Or is there more to it?
The terms High Church and Low Church have a long and varied history. By the time of Miriam May (1860), the factions of the Church of England were well established. Starting in the 1830s, the Oxford Movement associated with High Church, had voiced their views that the Church of England needed to be saved from encroaching laxity and freedom in religious matters and that it, really, was the third branch of the only true Christian church (together with the Orthodox and Roman Catholic branches). High Church leaned towards Rome and was also referred to as 'Anglo-Catholic,' the Low Church was also known as "evangelical protestants." Unlike in the High Church, Low Church services did not follow a prescribed order of complex rituals, and there was more room for spontaneity. Low Church aimed to return to the simplicity of worship assumed to be closer to the Biblical times. Outside of this division were the Dissenters, those who felt that no faction of the established church was right for them (groups like Puritans and Quakers). For the sake of completeness, we should also mention Broad Church - a nineteenth-century label for those members of the Church of England who agreed that a bit of variety and tolerance did not hurt. Today this view within the church would be called liberalism.
(For a more detailed, historical explanation of the differences between Low and High Church see, for example, an article by Dennis Bratcher at
From the start, "the Hon and Rev Calvin Slie" in Miriam May is presented as the villain of the piece. His fondness of Evelyn's golden hair and "elaborate blessings" (Miriam May, Chapter 2) introduce him. He is called away from Evelyn "to move a resolution against " Tractarian Innovations" and " Ritualistic Revivals" at the Town Hall." (Ibid.) If his Christian name is not strong enough a hint, his opposition to these High Church ideas establish Mr Slie firmly as a Low Church man.Later he is described in the newspaper as "a member of the Evangelical party in the Church ; and is favourably known as the author of many recondite controversial treatises in opposition to the more insidious of the " Tracts for the Times." (Miriam May, Chapter 15)

Mr Slie arranges for a sweatshop owner to exploit Evelyn (Miriam May, Chapter 3), he keeps the best wine to himself and serves lower quality to his guests (Chapter 18), he is fond of his own voice and values his own company: " Mr. Slie, by reason of his many opportunities, had long attained to that state of things when he could with difficulty persuade himself that he was not welcome everywhere." (Miriam May, Chapter 5). In short, Mr Slie is self-important, greedy and a hypocrite. He is also the spiritual leader for the righteous and comical ladies of Glastonbury (Mrs Dubbelfaise, Mrs Slim and Miss Todhunter): "They had not heard the Gospel for those many years from the lips of Mr. Slie for nothing. They had his assurance that in the matter of their salvation, their prospects were assuring and comfortable" (Miriam May, Chapter 4).
Mr Wray, Arthur's unhappy tutor recommended by Mr Slie, is a fellow Low Church man, who according to Slie "might see excellence in institutions other than the Church of England. He was a member of that great church that called all Christians brothers." (Miriam May, Chapter 7). He is also a liar, in debt and cowardly. "He was one of those measureless hypocrites whose successes in those households he infested, were in the main brought about by an appeal to that religion which he only professed that he might profane it." (Ibid.)
Every sensation novel needs a good villain, unfortunately Mr Slie and Mr Wray are not in the same league with Count Fosco. Mr Slie goes as far as to stroke Evelyn's golden hair, but no further. He may pray that "a great and withering curse might come upon the ministry of a clergyman of alleged " High Church" opinions" (Miriam May, Chapter 16), but that is as far as he goes. Miriam May portrays these Low Church men as cowardly and selfish, but not as evil. The narrative does not quite have the courage or the desire to make its villains truly villainous. Instead, the villains seem to subscribe to the principle of "faith without works" (more of that below). Mr Slie becomes the bishop of St Ambrose. Mr Wray disappears to pursue other business ventures. Neither man comes to an even slightly sticky end.
As H. L. Mansel observed in his review, Miriam May certainly portrays Low Church preachers in a negative light. But this is not the only way the narrative reflects religious views. There are two rather clumsy digressions into religious matters; the one concerning the tenet of "faith without works" has already been mentioned, there is also a long section on the appointments of bishops. Finally, there is Arthur Trevor's own career in the church to consider.
"Faith without works" is a quotation from the Bible (James 2:20): "Faith without works is dead," and "For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also." (James 2:26). Faith alone is not enough; it must be reflected in deeds and actions. This was a key message preached by the Oxford Movement. One of its founding fathers was John Henry Newman (1801-1890). In 1834, after a formative trip to Italy, he began writing Tracts for the Times Against Popery and Dissent. In these writings and in his Parochial and Plain Sermons (collected in 8 volumes, 1834-1843) he advocated "deeds, not words and wishes" (Sermon 13 entitled "Promising without Doing"). He called people to take action to protect the church from the increasing influence of the state and restore the church to its discipline, respect and position of power: "With the doctrinal and sacramental faith unfolding in him from his conversion, Newman desired to revive Christianity for a culture descending into unbelief." ( ).
Newman wrote 90 tracts, until the last one, Tract 90 in 1841, alarmed even the rest of the Oxford movement. It argued that the Thirty-Nine articles, which form the foundation of the faith in the Church of England, were in fact compatible with the Catholic faith (and thus undid Henry VIII's Reformation). Newman had gone as 'high church' as it was possible to go. In 1845 Newman joined the Catholic church. He was ordained as a Catholic priest in 1847 and became a cardinal in 1879. In 2010 he progressed to the state of Beatification (further miracles are required before he earns Canonization) ( Henry Newman

 In Miriam May, "faith without works" "in Glastonbury, was the one thing proclaimed. ...  To such a strength had it attained during the ministry of Mr. Slie, that amongst the more seriously disposed of the ladies, there came up, after a one night's deliberation, a very excellent movement, which soon had a name from its enemies as the " Faith without works faction;" and those who were in any way moved to become its members, were inhibited, under severe penalties, from believing anything that was not strictly a matter of unsupported faith." (Miriam May, Chapter 5)
Ms Dubbelfaise, the founding member and leader of "Faith without Works Faction" (and thereby a curious mirror-image of Newman), is in "ecclesiastical difficulties" (Ibid.):
"In her heart she was powerfully disaffected towards Evelyn; still she believed in her heart of hearts, that the persecuted girl might well stand side by side with any matron in all moral Glastonbury. So it will be seen that the difficulties of that lady's position were not by any means small. Did she enter on a great struggle with a painful thing, and speak not well of a girl whom she did not conceal from herself that she hated, the whole strength of the committee of the "charity club," and the " faith without works" faction, would find the very principles to which they appealed for existence disavowed by their founder." (Ibid.).
Evelyn Mervyn cannot be offered charity, for the very reason that Mrs Dubbelfaise has faith in her innocence, because works must not follow faith. When Mrs Dubbelfaise asks for Mr Slie's advice, he reassures her: "whatever we may believe — and in charity we are bound to believe the best — our exceeding faith must not be permitted in its fulness to carry us into that excessive clemency which would indeed be criminal." (Ibid.)
Miriam May turns a key tenet of High Church thinking on its head by leaving out its crucial conclusion: "faith without works is dead." It depicts silly Low Church characters who in their ignorance or misguided religious sensibility completely misunderstand this Biblical notion and apply it to a question of charity with perversely un-Christian results.