|Margaret Deland 1857-1945|
Unlike Deland's uncle, Helen's uncle was an Episcopal priest who lived a comfortable life despite his lack of religious conviction. He was dismayed by Helen's choice of a husband, but, not being a man to make waves, he remained silent. By contrast, John Ward took his Presbyterian religion very seriously indeed and, despite being a gentle, loving man, didn't hesitate to make waves except when it came to Helen, who he was afraid to lose. To this end, he didn't allow her to hear him preach (they lived miles apart), and he avoided the subject of religion, telling himself that there would be plenty of time for that after they were married. Helen had hints that his views were abhorrent, but she also avoided the subject, telling herself that love alone was enough for a happy relationship, and that he would eventually come to respect her lack of religious conviction.
|William Campbell 1808-1890|
When Helen sought counsel from her priestly uncle regarding her doubts about religion, he was painfully reminded of his own non-belief, and told his daughter Lois, "I shall tell her to mend her husband's stockings, and not bother her little head with theological questions that are too big for her." Because of her outspokenness, the elders of John's church eventually learned that Helen didn't accept their church's belief about hell, and demanded that John turn her over to them "for discipline." John, worried that instead of winning her to God, the elders would push her away, undertook an all out effort to convert Helen to his views. When this failed, a despairing John imagined that God wanted him to expel Helen from their home so she would be forced to look to God for help, whereupon God would show her the reality of hell.
As did Deland, the more Helen thought about religion, the more she came to doubt that any of it was true, and through the intense loneliness of her struggle, I saw myself. Coming as I did from rural Mississippi, all I knew of religious doubt was what I learned in church where ignorant preachers described it as the product of modern universities, and claimed that it represented a renunciation of morality, tradition, and common sense. I knew that such words didn't apply to me, yet I didn't even meet another non-believer until I was 29, and I had to make a special trip to New Orleans to do so then. So it was that the loneliness and desperation of a fictional character in a 127-year old novel by a forgotten author came to seem more real to me than anything else I had ever read.
Houghton Mifflin had misgivings about publishing a book that was critical of religion, but since Deland's first book had done well, they finally put her under contract. When she wrote of the news to her family, "The result, in the domestic circle, was like the unexpected explosion of a firecracker." "Maggie...knows no more about hell than a kitten knows about a steam engine," her uncle raged, and it looked as if she might have to choose between telling the truth as she understood it and being disowned. Given that the heroine of John Ward Preacher, like the women in her later books, prized intellectual integrity above patriarchal acceptance, the answer might seem obvious, but it didn't come without a struggle, and it was followed by a heavy cost.
|Lorin Deland 1855-1917|
Deland's uncle finally proposed that she travel from Boston (where she moved when she married the famous Harvard football coach Lorin Deland) to New Jersey, to discuss the appropriateness of the book's publication with the spiritual patriarch of the clan, the Rev. Dr. William Howard Campbell (president of Rutgers) and abide by by his decision. She discussed the proposal, first with Lorin, and later with their friend, the renowned Episcopal clergyman and bishop, Phillips Brooks. She finally told her family that she would talk to her great uncle, but that she wouldn't be bound by his opinion. After a very long conversation, the Reverend Doctor gave Deland's book his approval. Her family's disappointment was such that a cousin suggested that the aged patriarch had become senile.
John Ward Preacher inspired plaudits and outrage. While walking her dog, Deland was accosted by a stranger who said that her book would "destroy Christianity." A friend of Deland's was castigated at a dinner party for keeping such low company. For a time, her family excluded her from gatherings. She was denounced from pulpits, and literary critics attacked her personally. The disapproval extended beyond the book's criticism of religion and into Deland's rejection of patriarchy, a rejection that also occurred in her later books. The following beliefs were commonplace in 19th century America:
|Rev. Phillips Brooks 1835-1893|
(1) Criticizing religion is wrong. (2) Women are the bulwarks of Godliness, so it is especially wrong for women to criticize religion. (3) Women lack the intelligence to address profound subjects. (4) "Ladies" don't write about hell. (5) Girls should adopt the faith of their fathers; women of their husbands.
I am glad that I possess things that Deland's hands touched, yet I rarely look at her letters, it being enough that I own them, if such things can be owned. While I regret the fact that I will never be able to talk with her, I have no reason to think that we would be friends because, whatever problems I bring to relationships, Deland admitted that she found it difficult to love. When she was still small, she overheard the aunt who adopted her say about another orphan, "No one can love a child as its own mother loves it." Deland was hurt to the core, but when she wrote of the experience decades later, she blamed herself for her loss of faith in her aunt's love: "As I think of that day in the back entry, and the smell of cinnamon and cloves, and the moving leaf shadows on the hall floor, and the tears in the sweet dark eyes, I am ashamed of Maggie. She seems to me a cold little monster..." Still speaking of her childhood self in the third person Deland wrote: "...she is selfish, cold-hearted, joyfully cruel, with no love in her, and not a particle of humor."
Perhaps as a result of losing trust in her adoptive aunt, Deland came to display two dominant characteristics. One was that, from a very young age, she was uncompromisingly independent, both in her intellectual integrity and in her desire for financial self-sufficiency. The other was that she concealed her intense nature behind a reserve that was generally mistaken for tranquility. Only Lorin was allowed to penetrate her core, and when he died in 1917, her very being and all that she had accomplished seemed empty. She dealt with the crisis by immersing herself in the misery of others as a canteen volunteer in war torn France. She also followed the lead of many others of the World War I generation, and turned to spiritualism. Her former belief that death was an eternal sleep became unbearable, and she, like Arthur Conan Doyle, came to believe that our earthly identities and relationships somehow survive the grave.
Yet, what was to her, as it is to me, the nearly unbearable tragedy of loving and being loved in a world that contains death had tormented Deland long before Lorin died. She had even debated all sides of the issue with herself through the mouths of the characters in her 1890 novel Sidney. As with religion, the inability to reconcile myself to the fact that death and love exist in the same world is another existential theme that Deland and I share, and that enables her words to enter my depths. If I should someday discover a writer with the power to affect me more profoundly than Deland--both for good and for ill--I don't know how I will bear it, because she so often moves me to tears.