BAVS Conference 2018: The Martyr in Victorian Literature

Marie S. Heneghan is a PhD candidate at the University of Southern Queensland, Australia. She is currently in the final year of her PhD, and her thesis is on idolatry in the Victorian novel, tracing it from the mid Victorian era, through to the fin-de-siècle, exploring idolatry from the Brontës through to Oscar Wilde. Her research investigates the rise of secularism in nineteenth century Britain as not a gradual decline of religion but a complex process that interprets religion and secularism as intermingled. Marie tweets @mariesheneghan

At the BAVS Conference 2018, “Victorian Patterns”, many panellists discussed echoes of the past, repeated in the form of ghosts and saints. Neo-Victorianism is emblematic of this continued influence of the past—of the Victorian influence in contemporary fiction. In the first Panel Session (A3), Kurain Therakath Peter highlighted the ways in which return is a constant theme in ghost writing, exploring a lost past. Neo-Victorianism, in his view, tends to reveal more about contemporary concerns, but he was interested in how the Victorians are both different and the same to us. At the conference, it was clear that the Victorians continue to influence, and form, our contemporary culture, as explored by Neo-Victorianism.

But how did Victorian literary culture explore the past? My post explores the uniquely Victorian fascination with the past in the form of the classical Christian martyrs. In Session E of the conference “Hagiographies and Religious Patterns”, Christian saints are a manifestation of the past in the form of saintly, or saint-like, figures in Victorian literature. Gavin Bridge described the fiction of Charlotte M. Young as containing characters that become saintly figures in the process of being strengthened by Anglo-Catholic ritual. Romola, in Brian Murray’s reading, contains the frustrated saint and ancient martyrs, which are reconfigured in a modern critical context, in Eliot’s engagement with J.A. Froude.

The parallels of this session in comparison with my research did not dawn on me until after the conference, and it revealed my research’s important relationship with the past. Christianity, with its roots in martyrdom, haunted Victorian literature, reflecting the uniquely Victorian preoccupation with intense suffering.


“The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer” by Jean-Lèon Gérôme (1863-1883)

Martyrdom, in this case, refers to the early classical Christian martyrs of the Roman Empire. In the 300 years after the death of Christ, public killings and tortures were carried out to eliminate what the Roman Empire perceived as a potential threat in the new sect. Accounts of these violent spectacles are still accessible today and their legitimacy, or reliability, has certainly been questioned; however, regardless of their reliability, the stories of Christian martyrs were embedded in Victorian culture and also helped to fuel the anti-Catholic sentiment of Protestant Britain, as we can see from publications such as John Foxe’s Book of the Martyrs, which tells the stories of Protestant martyrs under Catholic rule.

One example of this manifestation of the past comes from Wuthering Heights. When we think about Wuthering Heights, the haunting of the past seems overt, with the haunted moors of Yorkshire and the stagnant state of Heathcliff after Cathy’s death serving as central features of the story. The past, however, should also be considered in the suffering body of the haunted Heathcliff. In his idolatry of Catherine, Heathcliff experiences intense bodily suffering, becoming a secular martyr for his idol.

The secular martyr gains a spirituality in his or her bodily suffering as the early Christian martyrs did, who suffered bodily and, consequently, gained a spiritual experience of God; in the same way, Heathcliff becomes increasingly less attached to earthly concerns. He remains trapped in the past, fixated on Catherine; yet, in his fixation, he also looks forward to joining Catherine in the afterlife, telling Nelly, “I have nearly attained my heaven” (333). Living in a haunted state of the past, Heathcliff wishes for his inevitable future to draw near.

I argue that a framework called post-secularism can explain the Victorian return to the past in the form of the saint discussed in the session “Hagiographies and Religious Patterns”, as well as in the martyr. Post- secularism is all about a reassertion of spirituality, a returning of previous, metaphysical, orders that have been cast away to fit into the modern subtraction story of growing up.

This subtraction story, as Charles Taylor argues, perceives religion, and metaphysics, as declining, while society “grows up” into a secularised, more modern order. This, however, does not account for modernity’s complexities and Taylor offers the post-secular framework as a corrective. It is a framework that does not interpret secularism and religion as binaries, but intermingled in a complex duality—a religious secular pluralism. In the Victorian context, post-secularism can be located in the preoccupation with suffering, not as living in the past, but harking back to such times in order to find new articulations of faith in the modern context.

The modern subtraction account of growing up is prevalent, because it is embedded in our culture’s social imaginary. Taylor describes a social imaginary as the way in which ordinary people imagine their social surroundings, and this is carried in stories and legends—a common understanding that makes social practices common (171;172). In my reading, idolatry, as a trope in the Victorian novel, reveals how the stories of suffering martyrs were embedded in the Victorian social imaginary, in manifestations of the past.

The secular saint (who suffers for his or her idol) subverts the standard subtraction story, and is contradictory in its cross-influence: a spiritual experience of a “fake” god, not God. Heathcliff  attains a spiritual experience in his self-induced fast, a bodily suffering of hunger. Although Nelly is shocked by Heathcliff’s “godless indifference” (334), we cannot say for sure that Heathcliff’s spirituality is of the satanic kind. The key moment of his spirituality is his last night on earth—no one is near him. Nelly hears him “groaning, and murmuring to himself” all throughout the night (334). Emma Mason argues that Heathcliff’s death can be seen as a conversion experience, with his body bearing the signs of some type of change. Nelly finds Heathcliff’s body “washed with rain…the lattice flapping to and fro, had grazed one hand that rested on the sill” (335). His body is washed—as Mason points out—as if baptised (“Enthusiastic Tradition” 11).

Heathcliff’s baptism through suffering grounds his suffering even further in the early roots of Christianity. Martyrdom was often viewed as a second baptism, a new form of birth in the baptism of blood (Griffin 2). In their faithful witness, early Christian martyrs were seen as being faithful witnesses to their baptismal vows, a fulfilment of their promises to God when they were born again in the Holy Spirit (Griffin 22). Heathcliff’s washed body does not contain signs of starvation, and the physician is baffled by his cause of death, which suggests that his wishes to join Catherine are granted by unseen forces (335). Heathcliff has finally achieved his heaven. Faith, in this case, finds an unorthodox articulation in the un-saintlike Heathcliff.

What I am suggesting is a way to consider nineteenth century literature as displaying a preoccupation with the past in the form of martyrdom and intense suffering. The Victorian preoccupation with ailment still remains understudied, and is something that should be explored by Victorianists.

Works Cited

Brontë, Emily. Wuthering Heights. 1847, Penguin, 1995.

Foxe, John. Foxe’s Book of the Martyrs, edited by W. Grinton Berry, Revell, 1998.

Griffin, Mary Hope. “Martyrdom as a Second Baptism: Issues and Expectations for the Early Christian Martyrs.” Diss. U of California, 2002, ProQuest. doi: 3059598.

Mason, Emma. “Emily Brontë and the Enthusiastic Tradition.” Romanticism on the Net, vol. 25, 2002, pp. 1-19. Erudit,

Taylor, Charles. “Modern Social Imaginaries.” A Secular Age, The Belknap Press, pp. 159-211, 2007.


3 responses to “BAVS Conference 2018: The Martyr in Victorian Literature

  1. This is fascinating and overlaps with many of my concerns, as I’m researching the intense religious and emotional aspects of Victorian life, including the resurgence of interest in the early Christian martyrs. Surely the new discoveries and explorations of the catacombs in Rome were a contributing factor, as of course was Anglo-Catholicism. A small query—was Gavin Bridge speaking of the fiction of Charlotte M. YONGE?
    And a larger question—will any of the Conference proceedings be published?

    • Hi Christine, on your second question, I don’t think there are plans for the conference proceedings to be published but there are a few blog posts coming up soon (over November/December) adapted from PGRs’ conference papers so do come back!

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