Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Religion and the English Novel

by Anna Jones Buttimore

I did my degree in English Literature (ironically, at a Welsh university) aeons ago - I graduated in 1990 with a respectable 2.1. There was a bit of a "what next?" moment following graduation, during which I briefly considered doing a Masters. Instead, as befitted a woman of my educational achievement, I took a minimum wage job in the stockroom at Argos.

If I had decided to go ahead and do that Masters degree, however, I know what subject I would have chosen. "The Puritan Influence on the Development of the English Novel." It's a fascinating subject, and of particular interest, I think, to those of us who are both avid readers/writers of fiction, and of a religious bent.

Were it not for Christianity, you see, the idea of the novel--a piece of fiction written in prose--might never have been born.

If you've studied ancient literature you'll know that for a long time most of it, from Beowulf to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, takes the form of poetry. My theory (I would have been looking into it more deeply had I done that Masters) is that this is because storytelling evolved from singing. Before it was easy to write things down, people remembered long stories and legends by turning them into songs which might be performed by bards and storytellers, as well as being sung by mothers to their children. The rhyming verses and melody made these often very long stories easier to memorise so that they might be handed down accurately.

When they finally got to be written down, of course they lost their tunes, and so long, eloquent poems are all we have now. But for centuries, it seems, all fiction was in the form of poetry. The idea of using non-rhyming or metered prose to pass down a story just hadn't been conceived.

Maybe the first piece of prose which might be considered a precursor to the novel is the Prologue to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, as well as some of the tales themselves - although most are in verse.  There are several contenders to the title of the first English novel, but the two main ones are John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress (1678), and Robinson Crusoe (1719) by Daniel Defoe.

What do these books have in common? They are all about religion. Canterbury Tales is an assortment of stories about individuals in a motley bunch who are on a religious pilgrimage to Canterbury. Pilgrim's Progress is an allegory in which Christian, representing man, struggles to carry his burden (sin) to the celestial city (heaven). Robinson Crusoe, which many contemporary readers, used to their fiction being in the form of poems or songs, believed to be a true story due to its simple descriptive narrative style, focusses heavily on Crusoe's religious awakening and conversion, and contains many moral messages. Gulliver's Travels, first published in 1726, is a satire of human nature, and Pamela, the first epistolary novel, is subtitled Virtue Rewarded. Jumping forward in time, even such characters as Jane Austen and Charles Dickens used writing to make moral and ethical points about the societies they lived in. The Narnia books of C.S. Lewis are another example of religious metaphor.

The Puritans became a major political force in England from the mid-seventeenth century. They were unhappy with the reformation, and felt that the Church of England was still too similar to the Roman Catholic church. They advocated a purity of doctrine and practice, and were strident and evangelical about their beliefs. They battled the Bishops and clergy of the Church of England through hellfire sermons, pamphlets - and books. The great advantage to writing moralistic books was that they had great popular appeal and were widely read by the public, so the authors could disguise their preaching as entertainment.

Daniel Defoe was a Puritan moralist. John Bunyan identified himself primarily as a Christian but followed certain Puritan practices. Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver's Travels, was a Doctor of Theology and Dean of an Irish Cathedral, and his book might be viewed as political and anti-puritan, but again with a moral message for society. Samuel Richardson, author of Pamela, was a pious puritan who had hoped to be a clergyman by profession.

In modern times, there is still a thriving market for religious fiction. Five of my six novels were published by LDS publishers (the other was self-published) and five of the six have a religious aspect. My Haven trilogy (being republished over the coming year) tells of how the faith of one kind woman has a profound effect on those around her. Easterfield, my only historical novel, is about giving up everything to follow what is right. The Saved Saint is about how misunderstanding and opposition can have devastating effects, and Honeymoon Heist is... well, the couple in it happen to be LDS.

I think this blog post is almost as long as my thesis would have been, but it is fascinating to see how religion and the desire to impart ones beliefs to others has led not only to the development of the novel in the first place, but to many of our most beloved works of literature.


  1. Fascinating. I got my degree in Historic Preservation, so I found this really interesting. I did feel a red flag go up, as often happens with me when I examine the past, when I realized how far we’ve come away from the original intents of storytelling. It started with pure nonfiction with some folklore thrown in to carry on cultural traditions and give meaning to various aspects of life, then progressed to teaching a moral lesson and now we’re at 50 Shades of Gray. Dare I imagine what the next hundred years might bring?

    Personally, I still feel that all GOOD literature acts as a mirror to help us examine ourselves through the eyes of the experience of another and teach us something about life or human nature. I am hoping that the books I write will do that. Still working on it... :-)

  2. That really was interesting. I'd never thought about it the development of the novel that way. (And wow, my comment just sounded like one of those lame-o generic spam messages, but it really wasn't.) :)



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