To write [...] for the mere pastime of author and readers, without aiming to inculcate some regenerative principle, or to photograph some valuable phase of protean truth, was in her estimation ignoble; for her high standard demanded that all books should be to a certain extent didactic, wandering like evangels among the people, and making some man, woman, or child happier, or wiser, or better--more patient or more hopeful--by their utterances. Believing that every earnest author's mind should prove a mint, where all valuable ores are collected from the rich veins of a universe--are cautiously coined, and thence munificently circulated--she applied herself diligently to the task of gathering, from various sources the data required for her projected work: a vindication of the unity of mythologies.Edna's plan for her first novel is criticised by the influential Mr Manning, the editor of a magazine which has published a couple of Edna's essays:
" [...] Unless I totally misunderstand your views, you indulge in the rather extraordinary belief that all works of fiction should be eminently didactic, and inculcate not only sound morality but scientific theories. Herein, permit me to say, you entirely misapprehend the spirit of the age. People read novels merely to be amused, not educated; and they will not tolerate technicalities and abstract speculation in lieu of exciting plots and melodramatic denouements. Persons who desire to learn something of astronomy, geology, chemistry, philology, etc., never think of finding what they require in the pages of a novel, but apply at once to the text-books of the respective sciences, and would as soon hunt for a lover's sentimental dialogue in Newton's 'Principia,' or spicy small-talk in Kant's 'Critique,' as expect an epitome of modern science in a work of fiction."Edna's reply is, I suspect, one which Evans herself would have given since she integrated discussions about science, religion and the role of women into her novel. Edna's first novel is intended to 'tear the veil from oracles and sibyls, and show the world that the true, good and beautiful of all theogonies and cosmogonies, of every system of religion that had waxed and waned since the gray dawn of time, could be traced to Moses and to Jesus' and the analysis of world religions is mixed with fiction:
"But, sir, how many habitual novel readers do you suppose will educate themselves thoroughly from the text-books to which you refer?"
To avoid anachronisms, she endeavored to treat the religions of the world in their chronologic sequence, and resorted to the expedient of introducing pagan personages. A fair young priestess of the temple of Neith, in the sacred city of Sais--where people of all climes collected to witness the festival of lamps-- becoming skeptical of the miraculous attributes of the statues she had been trained to serve and worship, and impelled by an earnest love of truth to seek a faith that would satisfy her reason and purify her heart, is induced to question minutely the religious tenets of travellers who visited the temple, and thus familiarized herself with all existing creeds and hierarchies. The lore so carefully garnered is finally analyzed, classified, and inscribed on papyrus.Taking non-Christian texts and finding in them a prefiguring of Christian motifs and teachings is hardly a new endeavour on Edna's part. Very early in the history of Christianity typology emerged as a means by which to interpret the Old Testament and
Saint Augustine further enriched this complex and amazing system of thought by including non-sacred history. The history of Rome, the history of Greece, the history of Egypt, and the history of Persia, all these are also speeches by God. What is the spiritual meaning of these histories? That's right: the life and teachings of Christ. So: Coriolanus besieges Rome for three days. What's the spiritual meaning? Christ in the tomb for three days. (Hooker: 1996)In addition to studying history,
The Church Fathers emphasized the universal presence of the Logos, the Word, the principle of divine self-manifestation, in all religions and cultures. The Logos is present everywhere, like the seed on the land, and this presence is a preparation for the central appearance of the Logos in a historical person, the Christ. In the light of these ideas Augustine could say that the true religion had existed always and was called Christian only after the appearance of the Christ. (Tillich 1963: Chapter 2)and
People like Erasmus, the Christian humanist, or Zwingli, the Protestant Reformer, acknowledged the work of the Divine Spirit beyond the boundaries of the Christian Church. The Socinians, predecessors of the Unitarians and of much liberal Protestant theology, taught a universal revelation in all periods. The leaders of the Enlightenment, Locke, Hume, and Kant, measured Christianity by its reasonableness and judged all other religions by the same criterion. They wanted to remain Christians, but on a universalist, all-inclusive basis. These ideas inspired a large group of Protestant theologians in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. (Tillich 1963: Chapter 2)According to Wayne Jackson, 'this field of study [Biblical typology] has fallen into disrepute in recent years and this can probably be accounted for' partly because 'the extravagant speculations of earlier typologists have left a bad taste for the study in the minds of many; they feel it has been discredited'. Edna's scheme is more akin to Augustine's and while in her view the similarities between the various world religions suggests that they point towards Christianity, the revealed truth, her speculations could equally well be used to support very different arguments, such as (1) if religions which have been discredited shared some beliefs with Christianity, perhaps there is equally little truth in Christianity, for example 'Some critics of Christianity teach that the Christian religion was not based upon divine revelation but that it borrowed from pagan sources, Mithra being one of them' (Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry), or (2) it could be argued that the similarities between religions suggest that perhaps there is no single way to God, but rather that all religions share insights into the Truth. However neither Edna nor Evans seem to consider these possible alternative interpretations.
One of the tensions created in the novel by Evans' merging of the didactic and the entertaining results from the way in which the marriage plot is combined with a need to redeem the sinful St. Elmo. Edna is clearly extremely sexually attracted to him, and although their physical relationship never progresses in the course of the novel beyond passionate kisses and embraces which, in general, are forced on Edna by the passionate St. Elmo, there is a great deal of sexual tension. Perhaps other modern readers won't agree with me on that point, but it seems to me that it would certainly have been felt by contemporary readers of St. Elmo. Without it, Edna's continuing refusal to succumb to St. Elmo would have little merit, and it is, in fact, presented as a struggle of immense proportions. She turns down a number of other suitors with little difficulty but St. Elmo, with his 'mesmeric eyes' is a rather different matter and I am sure that Evans Wilson intended readers to sympathise with Edna's dilemma as she makes her agonising choice not to become St. Elmo's wife, even though he tempts both her physically and spiritually, as when he suggests that her goodness would save him:
[St. Elmo] If I am ever to be saved, you, you only can effect my redemption; for I trust, I reverence you. Edna, as you value my soul, my eternal welfare, give yourself to me! Give your pure, sinless life to purify mine." [...]Edna later explains a little more about the 'fascination' which he exerts: 'it is not love; for esteem, respect, confidence, belong to love. But I can not deny that he exerts a very singular, a wicked fascination over me.' Mr Hammond, the local minister, urges Edna to agree to a marriage, since then she will, as a good wife, have an immense influence over St. Elmo:
[Edna] "No! no! I am no vicegerent of an outraged and insulted God! I put no faith in any man whose conscience another keeps. From the species of fascination which you exert, I shrink with unconquerable dread and aversion, and would almost as soon entertain the thought of marrying Lucifer himself. Oh! your perverted nature shocks, repels, astonishes, grieves me. I can neither respect nor trust you. Mr. Murray, have mercy upon yourself! Go yonder to Jesus. He only can save and purify you." (my emphasis)
My dear little Edna, you are very lovely and winning, and I believe he would love you as he never loved any one else. Oh! I have hoped everything from your influence! Far, far beyond all computation is the good which a pious, consistent, Christian wife can accomplish in the heart of a husband who truly loves her. (my emphasis)Again, I think, rather obliquely, Mr Hammond is alluding to the fact that St. Elmo feels considerably more than a simple delight in Edna's spiritual purity. Fekete Trubey states that
Edna’s relationship with St. Elmo is driven by the [...] erotics of domination and submission [...]. It is when St. Elmo is at his most brutal and misogynistic, demanding complete submission to his cruel will, that Edna feels the greatest desire for him. She finds him ‘‘handsomer than she had ever seen him,’’ for example, when he claims women know no useful facts, only obscure trivia (SE, 113) (Fekete Trubey 2005: 130)And yet Edna resists her sensuality and even shuns the company of individuals whose use of language she deems indelicate:
Edna's abhorrence of double entendre and of the fashionable sans souci style of conversation [...] was not a secret to any one who read her writings or attended her receptions. [...]According to Hilary Hart, Edna becomes increasingly pure as she struggles against her physical attraction to St. Elmo: 'Her victories over her love for the Byronic St. Elmo seem to purify Edna, as evidenced by her increasing whiteness' (2004: 35).*
She saw that the growing tendency to free and easy manners and colloquial license was rapidly destroying all reverence for womanhood; was levelling the distinction between ladies' parlors and gentlemen's clubrooms; was placing the sexes on a platform of equality which was dangerous to feminine delicacy, that God-built bulwark of feminine purity and of national morality.
That time-honored maxim, "Honi soit qui mal y pense," she found had been distorted from its original and noble significance, and was now a mere convenient India-rubber cloak, stretched at will to cover and excuse allusions which no really modest woman could tolerate. Consequently, when she heard it flippantly pronounced in palliation of some gross offense against delicacy, she looked more searchingly into the characters of the indiscreet talkers, and quietly intimated to them that their presence was not desired at her receptions. Believing that modesty and purity were twin sisters, and that vulgarity and vice were rarely if ever divorced, Edna sternly refused to associate with those whose laxity of manners indexed, in her estimation, a corresponding laxity of morals.
Brenda Coulter has written of the inspirational romance sub-genre that
In addition to the usual ups and downs of falling in love, the hero and/or heroine must overcome a spiritual obstacle, whether that involves finding God's salvation, learning to lean on Him, letting go of the past, etc.It seems to me that novels such as St. Elmo are the precursors of the modern inspirational romance, for though the modern romances may not include such large, undiluted passages devoted to theology as Evans' novel does, they, like St. Elmo, tend to be love stories with a very strong spiritual element and in which there is little or no depiction of sexuality, although sexual tension may be present. In addition, as we see in Brenda's description of the sub-genre, both have a didactic nature: they are, of course intended to entertain, but there is also a strong desire on the part of the authors to promote particular spiritual values. Faith, Hope and Love, the 'inspirational outreach chapter' of the Romance Writers of America has in its bylaws the statement that: "The purpose of Faith, Hope & Love, Inc., is to promote excellence in romantic and women's fiction that glorifies God and promotes biblical principles' (my emphasis). Evans and Edna might, however, view edgy inspirationals with a bit more caution. These novels are also written for Christian readers, but ones
Christian women find inspirational romance novels satisfying because they promote strong family values, emphasizing admirable qualities such as duty, honor, and integrity, all while delivering the guilt-free entertainment of a chaste romance story.
who don’t necessarily want a conversion scene in every novel they read, yet who also don’t want to read about mainstream characters who live outside the reader’s value system. They are looking for a compelling, gritty novel about Christians who are flawed, tempted, imperfect and who willfully do things they know they aren’t suppose to do. Who have already accepted Christ and are wondering, "Then why the heck is my life so messed up?" They are looking for a character whose shoes they can slip on. Maybe even a novel that they can share with their non-Christian friend. (Deeanne Gist)----
- Fekete Trubey, Elizabeth, 2005. 'Emancipating the Lettered Slave: Sentiment and Slavery in Augusta Evans's St. Elmo', American Literature 77 (1): 123-150.
- Hart, Hilary, 2004. Sentimental Spectacles: the Sentimental Novel, Natural Language, and Early Film Performance, University of Oregon theses, Dept. of English, Ph.D. (can be downloaded as a pdf from here).
- Tillich, Paul, 1963. Christianity and the Encounter of the World Religions.