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Chapter 8 focuses on a uniquely descriptive scene in Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (1749) where the heroine is depicted under arrest, kneeling in silent prayer, with her finger enclosed in a Bible to mark where she had been reading. This chapter also briefly discusses book scenes in Richardson’s Pamela (1740), where the heroine is compared to the Book of Common Prayer. This chapter shows how Richardson uses the authority associated with devotional reading to hallow our imaginative, psychological descent into his fictional characters.
Chapter 5 begins with a description of a median Bible from the period, a quarto printed in 1728, its suprising contents, and the layout of a typical page of text. The ideal reader called for by this Bible is compared to reading practices prescribed by the Book of Common Prayer, which was often bound in as a kind of preface to eighteenth-century Bibles; certain physical features of the Bible, such as cross-referenced verses and chronological years typically printed in the margins; and the reading practices prescribed by devotional works such as The Whole Duty of Man. The ideal Bible reader turns out to be intensely self-critical, purposefully withdrawn from the narrative movement of both scripture and ordinary time. In other words, the typical eighteenth-century Bible and its accompanying devotional practices teach readers to resist narrative, to keep the world at arm’s length, enabling them to step back from the flow of biblical narrative and, for the moment of reading, the flow of their own lives.
Chapter Three, “The Sonnets and the Messiah” shows how Victorian enthusiasts did with Shakespeare’s lyric expressions exactly as they had done with his plays. Charles Ellis’s astonishing collection, Shakespeare and the Bible: Fifty Sonnets, with their Scriptural Harmonies (1896) deliberately juxtaposes Shakespearean sonnets with passages from scripture so as to demonstrate their mutual accord. This chapter untangles the peculiar theological expectations implicit in Victorian reading to show how their conception of Shakespeare’s divinity served to ensure and to perpetuate unlikely interpretations of the sonnets.
Chapter Two, “The Harmonies and Beauties of the Substitute Bible,” takes up mid-Victorian devotional guidebooks that reprint lines of Shakespeare alongside or in conjunction with parallel quotations from the Bible: works like Frederic B. Watson’s Religious and Moral Sentences Culled from the Works of Shakespeare, compared with Sacred Passages drawn from Holy Writ (1843), J. B. [“Selkirk”] Brown’s Bible Truths with Shakespearean Parallels (1862), James Rees’s Shakespeare and the Bible (1875), and G. Q. Colton’s Shakspeare and the Bible: Parallel Passages and Passages Suggested by the Bible with the Religious Sentiments of Shakspeare (1888). Such nineteenth-century texts offer signal evidence of how the Victorians read Shakespeare as a religious expression in his own right, and in such a manner that lines from the plays fall parallel to, or serve as equivalents for, lines of scripture. Many of these texts in their original context would seem to have nothing to do with religion, but here they become reframed as unexpected expressions of the divine.
Chapter 3 considers the development of scholastic exegesis outside the universities, focusing on the Yorkshire hermit-mystic Richard Rolle (d. 1349). With only a limited university education, Rolle turned to scholastic commentary, especially on the Psalms, to create material for devotional reading, and he wove authoritative opinions quarried from major scholastic sources together with glosses that read different psalms as describing his distinctive mystical experiences. Rolle wrote two Psalter commentaries reflecting these priorities, first in Latin and then in English, with the later work representing a substantial revision of the earlier one. After assessing the development of his interpretive program across these texts, the influence of Rolle’s vernacular commentary is then charted, focusing on its revision in the last quarter of the century and the various works that imitate its form. Finally, by considering the citations of Rolle’s works by Oxford theologian Richard Ullerston, this chapter reveals the success of Rolle’s hermeneutic project, arguing that the hermit returned to the university with an authority that was at once scholastic and devotional.
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