"The Brontë novels are effectively rooted in the eighteenth- century Evangelical Revival" — Valentine Cunningham, 113
Wesleyan ideas of spiritual self-formation inflect the status of Jane Eyre as an English bildungsroman. . . . [One must] distinguish briefly between Wesleyan Methodism in Wesley's time (as a part of the Church of England) and in Brontë's own time (mostly Dissenters but with some Low Church sympathizers). Owen Chadwick distinguishes between conservative Methodists—or those sympathetic with Anglican decorum—and radical Methodists, groups who objected vigorously to the concept of a state-sponsored church (Victorian v. 371). Like many Dissenters, Methodists tended to be working-class. Those with more conservative views sought to distance themselves from the yet lower social orders of Primitive Methodists or "Ranters" (386-87). Primitives typically held camp meetings, some of them disorderly, and preached and sang in the streets.
From this small segment of the complex state of Dissent, it is not surprising that, as Emily Griesinger points out, by 1851 English Methodists had already splintered into six or seven distinct sects (34). Further the overlap between Methodism and Church of England Evangelicalism during the first half of the nineteenth century was significant enough that many critics discuss them in conjunction. Accounts of evangelicalism at the time range from rigid legalism to enthusiastic supernaturalism. Perhaps most significant, between Wesley's and Brontë's time, evangelical piety underwent a "hardening" and experienced "a gradual shift from 'vital religion' to a kind of legalism that today we might call 'fundamentalism'" (Griesinger, "Charlotte" 44). This "hardening" within the religious power structure of England was in part due to conservative reaction to the French and American revolutions. Susan VanZanten Gallagher argues that many English in the nineteenth century gravitated toward the mainstream Church of England Evangelicalism as a counter to Methodism's "threatening anti-authoritarian, leveling philosophy" ("Jane" 62) Methodism's long-standing association with enthusiasm (a problem that harassed Wesley virtually from the beginning) probably intensified these views as did the issue of supernaturalism [68-69]
Bennett, Kelsey L. Principle and Propensity: Experience and Religion in the Nineteenth-Century British and American Bildungsroman. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2014. [Review]
Cunningham, Valentine. Everywhere Spoken Against: Dissent in the Victorian Novel. Oxford: Clarendon, 1975.
Gallagher, Susan VanZanten. “Jane Eyre and Christianity.” In Approaches to Teaching “Jane Eyre.” Ed. Diane Long Hoeveler and Beth Lau. New York: MLA, 1993.
Griesinger, Emily. “Charlotte Brontë’s Religion: Faith, Femnism, and Jane Eyre.”Christianity and Literature 58 (2008): 29-59.
Last modified 18 November 2014