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A Handful of Stars: 17: Janet Dempster's Text

By Frank W. Boreham


      I

      Sitting here in my pleasaunce on the lawn, surrounded by a riot of hollyhocks, foxgloves, roses, geraniums, and other English flowers that she described so vividly, and loved so well, I find myself celebrating in my own way the hundredth anniversary of the birth of George Eliot. Lying open beside me on the garden-seat is a very well-worn copy of Janet's Repentance. It has been read many times, and must be read again to-day. For even those who cannot go as far as Dr. Marcus Dods in pronouncing it 'one of the greatest religious books ever written' will at least agree that in religious feeling, spiritual insight and evangelical intensity, it is among the most noble and most notable of our English classics. The pity of it is that, long before the book was written, its brilliant authoress had drifted away from that simple and majestic faith which she so tenderly portrays. Indeed, I have sometimes fancied that she wrote of Janet with a great wistfulness in her heart. She seems to have felt that if, in the straits of her soul, she had found her storm-tossed spirit in communion with personalities like those by whom Janet was surrounded in the day of her distress, her spiritual pilgrimage might have been a sunnier one. But she drifted. No other word will describe the process. Some powerful but sensitive minds, like that of Goethe--with whose works she was so familiar--have been driven or torn from their anchorage by some sudden and desolating calamity; but with George Eliot it was quite otherwise. She was a gentle English girl, born on a farm, and passionately attached to the quiet beauty of the countryside. She delighted in the village green, the rectory garden, the fields waving with golden buttercups, and the shady woods in which the primroses twinkled. She loved to watch the poppies tossing in the corn, the wind sweeping over the red sea of clover, and the hyacinths nodding on the banks of the silvery stream. The smell of the hay and the song of the birds and the life of the fields were her ceaseless satisfaction and refreshment. Perhaps, as she wandered about those winding lanes and lonely bridle-paths, she became too contemplative, too introspective, too much addicted to the analysis of frames and feelings. Perhaps, dwelling so exclusively on the abstract and the ideal, her fresh young spirit became unfitted for its rude impact with the actual and the real. Perhaps, too, she was unfortunate in respect of the particular specimens of the evangelical faith that came under her notice. Perhaps! At any rate, she came at length into daily contact with men and women, and her girlish faith reeled under the shock. It is one of the most grievous tragedies of the spiritual realm that conscience often finds the sunny climate of an ardent evangelism singularly enervating. The emotional side of one's nature luxuriates in an atmosphere in which the ethical side becomes languid and relaxed. A man must be very careful, as Mr. Gladstone once incisively observed, to prevent his religion from damaging his morality. The simpleminded people with whom this sharp-witted and fresh-spirited young Englishwoman met had not fortified themselves against that insidious peril. One woman told a lie and the offense was sheeted home to her. 'Ah, well,' she replied, in a nonchalant and easy way, 'I do not feel that I have grieved the Spirit much!' George Eliot was horrified. She saw, to her disgust, that strong religious feeling could consist with flagrant dishonor. Her finely poised and sensitive soul experienced a revolt and a rebound. She changed none of her opinions, yet she changed the entire attitude of her mind; and, with the passage of time, the new attitude produced new ideas. She had not quarreled with the faith of her childhood; she simply lost her love for it. Her anchor relinquished its hold, and, almost imperceptibly, she drifted. 'She glided out of the faith,' as Principal Fairbairn so expressively puts it, 'as easily and as softly as if she had been a ship obeying wind and tide, and her faith a sea that opened silently before and closed noiselessly behind her.'

      Wherefore let all those who name the name of Christ depart from iniquity! For if, through any glaring inconsistency between my faith and my behavior, I offend one of these little ones that believe in Him, it were better, so the Master Himself declared, that a millstone were hanged about my neck and that I were cast into the depths of the sea.

      II

      Now, in the story that lies open on the garden-seat beside me, all the characters are very religious people. Yet they are divided sharply into two classes. There are the very religious people who are all the worse for their religion, and there are the very religious people who are all the better for it. Mr. Dempster is a very religious man. In the opening sentence of the story, the first sentence in the book, he acknowledges his indebtedness to his Creator. He is a very religious man--and a drunkard! Mr. Budd is also a very religious man. Indeed, he is warden at the Parish Church. 'He is a small, sleek-headed bachelor of five and forty, whose scandalous life has long furnished his more moral neighbors with an afterdinner joke.' But a very religious man is Mr. Budd! Mrs. Linnett is a very religious woman. She dotes on religious biography. 'On taking up the biography of a celebrated preacher, she immediately turns to the end to see what he died of,' and she likes the book all the better if a sinister element enters into its composition. Mrs. Linnett is a very religious woman--and a gossip! We are introduced to a whole group of such characters--men and women who are very religious, but who are none the better for their religion.

      And, side by side with these unamiable figures, are a set of people, equally religious, whose characters are immeasurably sweetened and strengthened by their religion. It is not that they profess another faith, attend another church, or spend lives remote from the affairs with which the others have to do. As George Eliot herself pointed out, when the publisher hesitated to commit himself to this manuscript, it was not a case of one religion against another, or of one creed against another, or of one church against another, or even of one minister against another. The members of this second group move in the same environment as do the members of the first; Sunday by Sunday they make their way to the self-same sanctuaries; yet every day they grow in gentleness, in thoughtfulness, in kindness, and in all those graces of behavior that constitute the charm of lovable and helpful lives. In this attractive group we find Mr. Jerome, Mr. Tryan, and little Mrs. Pettifer.

      It is, of course, an old story, vividly and startlingly retold. The same cause will produce diametrically opposite effects. The sun that softens the wax hardens the clay. The benefit that I derive from my religion, and the enjoyment that it affords me, must depend upon the response that I make to it. The rays of light that fade my coat add a warmer blush to the petals of the rose. Why? My coat does not want the light and makes no response to it; the rose cannot bloom without the light and drinks in the soft rays as the source of all its beauty. Under the influence of the sunshine, the violets in the vase droop and become noisome; the living lilies under my window unfold and assume an even statelier grace. It is all a matter of response. Religion was always beating upon the lives of Mr. Dempster and Mr. Budd and Mrs. Linnett, as the sunlight beats upon the coat and the cut-flowers. They did not open their hearts to it; they made no eager response to it; it was a thing that shone upon the surface, and that was all. Their lives consequently wilted and shriveled and grew less beautiful. They were like violets made vile by the very light that was designed to make them lovely. Mr. Tryan, Mr. Jerome and Mrs. Pettifer, on the other hand, opened their hearts to the love of God as the rose opens its petals to the light of the sun. Their religion was a revelry to them. So far from its merely beating upon the surface, as the sunlight beats upon the surface of the coat, it saturated the very depths of their being. They were like the lilies under my window; the rays that withered the violets in the vase only make them more graceful and more fair.

      III

      Here, then, are the two groups; and the central scene of the story is the transfer of the principal character from the one group to the other. Janet Dempster, the wife of Robert Dempster, is, like her husband, very religious, but, like him, she is none the better for her religion. But matters at home hurry to a climax. Dempster drinks more and more, and, drinking, goes from bad to worse. He treats his wife, first with coldness, and then with cruelty. At length comes the dreadful and dramatic scene that readers of the story will never erase from their memories. In a fit of drunken savagery he burst into her room at midnight. He drags her from her bed; pushes her down the stairs and along the hall; and then, opening the front door, he hurls her by sheer brute force out into the street. Here is George Eliot's picture: 'The stony street; the bitter north-east wind and darkness; and in the midst of them a tender woman thrust out from her husband's home in her thin nightdress, the harsh wind cutting her naked feet and driving her long hair away from her half-clad bosom, where the poor heart is crushed with anguish and despair.' It is in these desperate straits that religion presents itself to her view in an entirely fresh guise.

      In her extremity, poor Janet thinks of little Mrs. Pettifer--a member of that other group, the group that resembles the lilies under my window, the group of kindly souls whose lives have been irradiated and beautified by their faith. She taps at the cottage window; Mrs. Pettifer hastens to the door; and, as soon as that frightened little body can recover from the first shock of her astonishment, she draws Janet into the room and then into the warm bed. Having composed and soothed her, she slips out of bed again, lights the fire and makes a cup of tea. In this guise, religion presents itself to Janet!

      But she needs more! A roof to shelter her, a fire to warm her and a friend to caress and mother her--these are very welcome; but her heart is crying out with a yet deeper hunger. She feels that she, a poor weak woman, is standing against a world that is too hard and too strong and too terrible for her. What can she do? Where can she go? Little Mrs. Pettifer urges her to open her heart to Mr. Tryan, the minister; and to Mr. Tryan she accordingly goes. And in Mr. Tryan she finds ready helpfulness, warm sympathy, and a perfect understanding of her inmost need. Her life, she feels, is but a tangled skein. To convince her that he is no stranger to such conditions, Mr. Tryan tells her of his own struggles and distresses. He has not stood aloof from the battle, looking on; he has been in the thick of the fight--and has been wounded. She feels for him, and, in feeling for him, becomes conscious that the healing of her own hurt has already begun. In this guise, religion presents itself to Janet Dempster!

      In the person of Mrs. Pettifer and in the person of Mr. Tryan, religion became incarnate under the eyes of poor Janet. In the person of Mrs. Pettifer and in the person of Mr. Tryan, 'the word became flesh.'

      But Janet still needs more! Mrs. Pettifer shelters and soothes her body; Mr. Tryan comforts and strengthens her mind; but her soul, her very self, what is she to do with that? She feels that she cannot trust herself with herself. Is there no still greater incarnation of the faith?

      Mrs. Pettifer is the Incarnation Motherly.

      Mr. Tryan is the Incarnation Ministerial.

      But, in her heart of hearts, there is still a deep and bitter cry. Mrs. Pettifer can comfort; she cannot keep through all the days to come! Mr. Tryan can counsel; he cannot guard from future sins and sorrows! To whom can she commit herself? It is from Mr. Tryan's lips that the answer comes. The words fall upon her broken spirit, as she herself tells us, like rain upon the mown grass:

      'COME UNTO ME, ALL YE THAT LABOR AND ARE HEAVY-LADEN, AND I WILL GIVE YOU REST!'

      And once more the solution is an incarnation! When Janet's storm-beaten body needed fire and food and shelter, religion became incarnate in the person of Mrs. Pettifer. When Janet's distracted mind needed counsel and guidance, religion became incarnate in the person of Mr. Tryan. But when Janet's sin-laden soul cried out for a Saviour Who could deliver her from the stains of the past, and keep her amidst the perils of the future, religion became incarnate in the Person of the Son of God!

      The Incarnation Motherly!

      The Incarnation Ministerial!

      The Incarnation Mediatorial!

      'Come unto Me!' the Saviour said. And Janet came! She was a changed woman! 'A delicious hope,' George Eliot tells us, 'the hope of purification and inward peace, had entered into Janet's soul, and made it spring-time there as well as in the outer world!' 'She felt,' we are told again, 'like a little child whose hand is firmly grasped by its father, as its frail limbs make their way over the rough ground: if it should stumble, the father will not let it go.' She had opened her heart to the living Lord as the living flowers open their petals to the glad sunlight; and He had become the strength of her life and her portion for ever. Temptation came, fierce and sudden and terrible; but He was always there and always able to deliver.

      IV

      In the correspondence with her publisher as to whether or not the manuscript should be printed, George Eliot assures him that the characters are drawn from life. And, in the closing paragraph of the story, she tells us that Janet--an old woman whose once-black hair is now quite gray--is living still. But Mr. Tryan, she says, is dead; and she describes the simple gravestone in Milby churchyard. 'But,' she adds, 'there is another memorial of Edgar Tryan, which bears a fuller record; it is Janet Dempster, rescued from self-despair, strengthened with Divine hopes, and now looking back on years of purity and helpful labor. The man who has left such a memorial behind him must have been one whose heart beat with true compassion and whose lips were moved by fervent faith.' It is the last sentence in the book; and every minister, as he closes the covers and lays it aside, will covet for himself some such incarnate monument. Only as a preacher's preaching is 'made flesh' in that way, will it be understood and appreciated by the generations following.

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See Also:
   Introduction
   1: William Penn's Text
   2: Robinson Crusoe's Text
   3: James Chalmers' Text
   4: Sydney Carton's Text
   5: Ebenezer Erskine's Text
   6: Doctor Davidson's Text
   7: Henry Martyn's Text
   8: Michael Trevanion's Text
   9: Hudson Taylor's Text
   10: Rodney Steele's Text
   11: Thomas Huxley's Text
   12: Walter Petherick's Text
   13: Doctor Blund's Text
   14: Hedley Vicars' Text
   15: Silas Wright's Text
   16: Michael Faraday's Text
   17: Janet Dempster's Text
   18: Catherine Booth's Text
   19: Uncle Tom's Text
   20: Andrew Bonar's Text
   21: Francis D'assisi's Text
   22: Everybody's Text

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