Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: B. H. Roberts on the social problem novel

180px-BrighamHenryRobertsOne of the genres of the novel that is largely absent from Mormon literature is the social novel or social problem novel, which addresses a prevailing social problem, dramatizing its effect on the novel’s characters. This genre first became popular in the mid 19th century with the publication of works like Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) and Dickens’ Hard Times (1854). But while Mormon writers didn’t chose to write in this genre, at least one Mormon writer, B. H. Roberts, did discuss them in an article not long after the beginning of the Home Literature movement.

In this article, Roberts reacts to a survey of “English literature from the latter years of Queen Victoria’s reign” by Justin McCarthy which suggested that this genre began with the works of Charles Reade (best known for the 1861 novel The Cloister and the Hearth). Roberts disagreed, suggesting that novels and literature have addressed social issues since antiquity, and citing the historian Xenophon’s Cyropaedia (aka The Education of Cyrus or The Life of Cyrus) as an example. On the way to approving of these novels and distinguishing them from the “sensational” novels that Church leaders had lambasted for decades, Roberts also discussed Mrs. Humphrey Ward’s novel Robert Elsmere and Lew Wallace’s Ben Hur.


Legitimate Fiction

by Horatio (B. H. Roberts)


It cannot be denied, however, that fiction has enlarged its field of late, until it has brought within its sphere all manner of subjects, social, political, religious and almost philosophical; as well as history–the affairs of the heart, “the trials of honest poverty,” and the “struggle for ascendancy in fashionable circles.” Indeed we may say, in common parlance, it has become quite the rage, now, if a new idea is to be presented to the world, or an old idea maintained, to write a novel, in which the aforesaid ideas are developed, either favorably or otherwise. Of this character is the latest English novel of Mrs. Humphrey Ward.  It is becoming quite fashionable with what the world are pleased to call the advanced school of thinkers to doubt the Christian facts, the facts on which the Christian religion is based. They regard Christ’s heavenly parentage–as to his Father, his miracles–healing the sick, making the blind to see, the lame to walk, the deaf to hear–his atonement, his resurrection, his glorious ascension into heaven, as all myths invented by designing men, who practiced on the credulity of the ignorant masses. To illustrate these ideas and make them triumphant, Mrs. Ward wrote Robert Elsmere. To work out her thought she calls into existence a young Church of England minister–Robert Elsmere–a graduate of Oxford, though not firmly settled in his theological opinions; an infidel, of a strong intellectual type; a fanatical clergyman, who is for believing all the nonsense of orthodox theology, even against the stomach of his sense, and the manifest absurdities of its creeds; a low churchman of liberal ideas, yet unwilling to break with the established church and add to the religious confusion of the times, who seeks to reform within the church; an agnostic, “a fellow”–to use a definition of the term by the late Henry Ward Beecher–“a fellow that don’t know,” and in this case one who don’t know his own mind even in so small a matter as to whether he wants a certain young lady to be his wife or not, and jilts her twice; a woman of a puritan type of character–the wife of Elsmere–chaste, as snow is white; but unfortunately as cold as ice, that is, unsympathetic in her nature, with scarcely a thought in common with her husband, contracted in her views, as such people generally are; completing the principals with a younger sister of Mrs. Elsmere’s–a half-hoiden, one who loves art, especially music, and the world, and really the only warm-hearted, lovable female character in the book. These characters, and a few other minor ones, are brought into such situations that the orthodox faith of Robert Elsmere is torn into shreds by the heavy artillery of the infidel; the agnostic and the fanatical orthodox minister are made to bear about equal portions of sarcasm and ridicule; the low churchman dies in honor; the infidel barely escapes committing suicide, only to die insane, and Elsmere is permitted to gather up sufficient from the wreck of his former faith to organize a new Christian (?) brotherhood, in accordance with the ideas of the advanced (?) Christian thinkers; but before it is fairly established he dies of consumption; but on every hand the author seeks to leave her dear idea, viz: that all that is worthy of surviving in Christianity–its morality and unselfishness, and restraining powers, can exist without a belief that Jesus was a God, without regarding him as a redeemer, or believing in the resurrection. However much we may dissent from the conclusion of Mrs. Ward, her work is an admirable example of the novel and novel-writing that is now becoming the “rage.”

On the other hand, and on this side of the Atlantic, General Lew Wallace has given us a novel–“Ben Hur”–the main object of which is to establish the verity of the Christian facts; and on the whole, I think, he will be more successful in his effort than Mrs. Ward will be in hers.

But what in the main I wish to call attention to is the fact that it is becoming generally recognized that the medium of fiction is the most effectual means of attracting the attention of the general public and instructing them. The dry facts of a theory respecting social reform must be made to live in persons and work out the results desired. The essayist is a character of the past, the novelist of a certain type is taking his place.


It matters not much to us whether the foregoing [story about Cyrus from the Cyropaedia] actually occurred or not. There stands a glorious lesson on intemperance; more impressive than a lengthy homily from the church on the subject; more effective than any mere scientific treatment of the subject, with its learned terms and cold moral precepts could be; at the same time it pleases the fancy with its dramatic force and beautiful simplicity.

I can see no harm in such fiction as this; on the contrary, I recognize an effective and pleasing method of teaching doctrine, illustrating principle, exhibiting various phases of character, and making the facts of history at once well known, and giving them an application to human conduct. This class of fiction, indeed, is working its way into our own literature; and stories illustrating the evils overtaking young women, who marry those not of our faith, have appeared both in the Juvenile Instructor and the CONTRIBUTOR. Nor do I think any one reading those stories can doubt their effectiveness; and I am of the opinion that this style of teaching can be employed successfully in other directions.

I hope these remarks will not be construed into a defense of those inflammatory, sensational novels,

Which, kindling a combustion of desire
With some cold moral think to quench the fire–
Though all their engineering proves in vain,
The dribbling stream ne’er puts it out again.

Such works of fiction cannot be too much condemned, nor too severely barred entrance into the household, especially the households of the Saints; and with Cowper I could wish:

A verse had power and could command,
Far, far away these flesh flies from the land;
Who fasten without mercy on the fair,
And suck and leave a craving maggot there!

For with him I agree that–

Such writers and such readers owe the gust
And relish of their pleasure all to lust.

But while the class of fiction which snivels and drivels folly without end, and is composed of “sentimental frippery and dream,” and which mars what it would mend–is to be condemned; it by no means follows that the great works of Scott, Lytton, Thackeray, Dickens, Browning, George Elliot and Victor Hugo are also to be condemned. To bar such works as these from our homes or libraries would be to deny ourselves access to the richest treasures of English literature.

The Contributor, v10 n4, February 1889


Since it was largely off topic for this post, I left out Roberts’ quotations from Xenophon and introductory quotations of Justin McCarthy. I hope that what remains is still fairly clear.

Particularly fascinating is how well read Roberts seems to be, or at least how familiar he is with current English literature, even if he hasn’t read everything. I’ve learned a bit about 19th century literature just from researching what he discusses.

Roberts attitude toward Robert Elsemere is perhaps predictable, but really quite tolerant, given that he doesn’t reject all other novels as a result, as Church leaders had often done in previous decades. While I’m not very familiar with the novel, Wikipedia claims that it deals with the “religious crises of early Victorian clergymen,” which makes me wonder how it might compare to the “crises of faith” described by many Mormons today on sites like Mormon Stories. I suspect there will be many similarities.

The approval of Ben Hur is also interesting. The Wikipedia article on Elsemere actually connects the two books, claiming that prior to the publication of Ben Hur “the presence of Jesus Christ in any but serious scholarly and devotional books was taboo,” and suggesting that breaking this taboo made the publication of Robert Elsemere easier.

Given all this it appears to me that in this article Roberts demonstrates an important step in the evolution of Mormon thought about literature and the novel–a change that would eventually make reading most novels much more acceptable.

3 thoughts on “Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: B. H. Roberts on the social problem novel”

  1. This is a fascinating observation:

    “The dry facts of a theory respecting social reform must be made to live in persons and work out the results desired. The essayist is a character of the past, the novelist of a certain type is taking his place.”

    The social novel bloomed in the 19th century, but didn’t make it through high modernism. I’d say that some of the work of the social novel has been replaced by documentaries (facts can become less dry when depicted visually and arranged into a narrative) and and by science fiction.

  2. So all of Jack Weyland’s novels aren’t “social problem” novels? Huh. What do call them, then? (Besides didactic and poorly written?)

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