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Author's School

Graduate School of Arts & Sciences

Author's Department/Program



Miriam Bailin, Richard Davis, David Hadas, William McKelvy, Joseph Schraibman, Daniel Shea


English (en)

Date of Award


Degree Type

Restricted Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


The Victorian preoccupation with religious matters is particularly focused in novels which take clergymen for their protagonists, reflecting contemporary ideals of clerical character and import. Victorian clerical novels both popularized and controlled controversies which beset the Victorian Church of England. Parish life assumed a familiar relationship with clergymen who interpreted the national faith; clerical novelists insistently created men of dimension and fallibility to explore the complicated relationships between the slowly-changing national church and the needs of a rapidly-changing society. This study identifies qualities which bind clerical novels together despite often differing theological positions, and looks closely at three clerical novels, all of which consider the national Church, and the ways that its challenges affected the traditional country parish life which had long been a paradigm of English identity. From The Vicar of Wakefield to late nineteenth-century novels of clerical doubt, these novels evince an ongoing concern with national representation. Published at mid-century, Margaret Oliphant's The Perpetual Curate offers insight into the financial and relational problems facing ordinary hardworking clergymen, and Oliphant manipulates ideals of national heroism in order to appropriate a high regard for dedicated parish clerics. George MacDonald's novel of clerical conversion, Thomas Wingfold, Curate suggests that real Church reform begins with the reinvigoration of the spiritual life of the parish priest. As a novel directly concerned with the spiritual aspect of clerical life, Wingfold answers the problem of intellectual doubt with imaginative texts designed to lead the doubter to a more immediate and experiential understanding of God. Mary (Mrs. Humphry) Ward's 1888 best-selling clerical novel Robert Elsmere advocates demythologized Christianity, arguing that because the Church cannot—or will not—adapt itself to new academic discovery or urban need, the truly dedicated cleric must leave the Church of England altogether in order to best serve the nation. Historical studies provide context for these novels, which mark a progression from assumed Christianity to doubt and redefined faith, and from country to city, as they reflect the myriad relationships between the Victorian Church and Victorian England.


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