|Margaret Deland 1857-1945|
Unlike Deland's uncle, Helen's uncle was an Episcopal priest who lived a comfortable life despite his shaky religious belief. 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 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 come to respect her lack of religious conviction after they were married.
|William Campbell 1808-1890|
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 said that it represented a complete 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 in my upper twenties, 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 than anything else I had ever read.
Houghton Mifflin had misgivings about a book that was critical of religion, but since Deland's previous two books had done well, they 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 and being disowned. Given that the heroine of John Ward Preacher, like the women in her later books, prized intellectual integrity above anyone's acceptance, the answer seems obvious, but it didn't come without a struggle, and it was followed by a heavy cost.
|Lorin Deland 1855-1917|
Deland's uncle proposed that she travel from Boston (where she moved when she married Lorin Deland, who later became a famous Harvard football coach) 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 with Lorin and 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 would not be bound by his opinion. After a very long conversation, the Reverend Doctor gave Deland's book his approval. Her family reacted with horror, one of them hinting 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 common in the America of 1888:
|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 are incapable of addressing 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 have things that Deland's hands touched, although 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 might bring to a friendship, 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 looked back on the experience decades later, she only felt self-hatred. Speaking of herself in the third person: "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..." Why? Because she never regained the trust that those dreadful words took from her. Still speaking of childhood self in the third person: "...she is selfish, cold-hearted, joyfully cruel, with no love in her, and not a particle of humor." I could never talk to Deland about the feelings she inspires in me because I could never trust that such a child could grow into a proper reservoir for vulnerability.
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--and to the considerable outrage and embarrassment of her uncle--she was uncompromisingly independent, both in her intellectual integrity and in her desire to for financial sufficiency. The other was that she concealed her considerable intensity behind a reserve that was generally mistaken for tranquility. Only Lorin was allowed to penetrate to 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 hospital volunteer in war torn France. She also, as did many others of the World War I generation, 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 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 very deep theme that Deland and I share, and that enables her words to enter my depths. If I should someday discover a writer who had the power to affect me more profoundly than Deland--both for good and for ill--I don't know how I could bear it.