One person of mild and benevolent aspect even gave me a tract ornamented with a woodcut of a malevolent young man fitted up with a perfect sausage-shop of fetters, and entitled TO BE READ IN MY CELL. — Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

Pip is not the only character in Dickens or in nineteenth-century fiction to experience Evangelical religious tracts as an assault upon a child. Little Dorrit, for example, relates how such a tract terrified the young Arthur Clenham:

There was the dreary Sunday of his childhood, when he sat with his hands before him, seared out of his senses by a horrible tract which commenced business with the poor child by asking him in its title, why he was going to Perdition? — a piece of curiosity that he really in a frock and drawers was not in a condition to satisfy and which, for the further attraction of his infant mind, had a parenthesis in every other line with some such hiccupping reference as 2 Ep. Thess. c. iii. v. 6 & 7.... There was the interminable Sunday of his nonage; when his mother, stern of face and unrelenting of heart, would sit all day behind a bible — bound, like her own construction of it, in the hardest, barest, and straitest boards. [Quoted by James Kincaid]

A decade before Little Dorrit Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre had described herself “sitting on a low stool, a few yards from her [aunt's] arm-chair . . . In my hand I held the tract containing the sudden death of the Liar, to which narrative my attention had been pointed as to an appropriate warning.” Novelists, as these example suggest, often presented religious tracts as virtually a form of child abuse, emphasizing, as many did, the death of children as inevitable punishment for the slightest of childish errant thoughts or deeds.

Brontë, Dickens, and others attacked religious tracts for a number of reasons, several of which derived from the radically different conceptions of childhood, spirituality, and the nature of narrative held by tract writers and novelists. Whereas the writers of Evangelical tracts aimed at children granted them the spiritual status of adults, responsible within limits for their salvation or damnation, novelists tended to treat them in a romantic, pre-Freudian way as essentially innocent and in need of shielding from harsher realities. Novelists also scorned tracts as annoyingly crude forms of story-telling that crushed, rather than stimulated, a child's moral and spiritul imagination.

Another less disinterested reason for novelists' presenting religious tracts in the worst possible light lay in the fact that tracts not only competed with novels for audiences (and sales) but even belonged to that form of Protestantism — the Evangelicals within and without the Church of England — who condemned novel reading. When John Ruskin campaigned in The Seven Lamps of Architecture to convince Evangelical readers that the visual arts were essentially religious, he did so by citing standard typological readings of the Old Testament to show that architecture and other arts provided contemporary believers with the opportunity to make proper Evangelical religous sacrifices. The novelists took a very different tack, satirizing religious tracts, which contributed greatly to creating a reading audience who would purchase novels.

Not surprisingly, therefore, calling a novel a tract or "like a tract" is a Victorian and modern insult that labels a text as essentially nonliterary. Thus, Frank Delaney points out that “Unfairly castigated by critics — the Geroulds called it 'a tract ... rather than a novel' — The Landleaguers is a fascinating glimpse of the way in which the author's craft — and his political sensibilities — were still developing” (The Landleaguers: An Introduction) in “Charles Kingsley's Commitment to Social Reform” Andrzej Diniejko describes Yeast, published in Fraser’s Magazine in 1848 and in book form in 1851, [as] more of a tract than a novel, in which Kingsley described rural England in the time of Chartist agitation." For the same reason, to write in the amnner of a novel or fantasy rather than a tract marks an improvement in literary quality, such as the one Siobhan Lam suggests when she describes Kingsley's Waterbabies, a fantastic fiction that, like George MacDonald's At the Back of the North Wind, attempts to reassure and comfort children about death rather than terrify them with it. “Here, then, is a new kind of moral tale, one wrapped 'in seeming Tomfooleries.' Unlike his predecessors, Kingsley rejects the traditional evangelical tract and uses all the entertaining fantastical elements and light tone of fairy tales to convey his lesson to children” (Charles Kingsley's Waterbabies).

A few authors, to be sure, did move from writing tracts to writing novels — the High Church Elizabeth Missing Sewell and John Henry Newman and the Low Church Hannah More come to mind — but by and large writers of tracts and writers of novels looked upon one another not as admitted rivals but as producers of texts that were't worth reading and in a proper world wouldn't be.

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Last modified 24 June 2011