An Interview with author Jessica Ann Hughes

By | April 12, 2022

How would you describe your book in one sentence?

Beginning with conversion narratives and ending with the high realism of the late nineteenth-century, Jesus in the Victorian Novel: Reimagining Christ argues that the genre of the realist novel and its way of depicting characters altered both formal theology and popular thinking about who Jesus is and why his life matters.

What drew to you writing about this subject?

One morning Mark Noll asked me what the Victorians thought about Jesus. For all the scholarly work on church history and politics, changing religious practice, and various typological engagements with “Christ” in nineteenth century literature, I realized I’d seen surprisingly little work on how Victorian literature engages Jesus as a real person in history. Realizing this, I also remember a line from Kingsley’s Alton Locke about how Jesus’s name was bandied about as a “watchword of exclusiveness.” And so I started wondering about how novelists though about Jesus or wrote about Jesus as a character or personality rather than an idea.

How long have you been researching it? How did you come to study it?

Mark Noll asked me the question in May of 2012, but the real work began in 2013.

What does your book focus on that hasn’t been explored elsewhere?

(continuing from the second question above). In my reading, I started noticing all sorts of strange encounters with Jesus in popular Victorian fiction. Some, especially in religiously driven novels, were biographical sketches of Jesus’s life. But in other novels like Alton Locke or Hypatia or even Robert Elsmere, it seemed authors were experimenting with how to realistically and (somewhat?) objectively narrate religious experience. Adam Bede also seemed to be wrestling with Jesus as both a historical figure and a transcendent idea. In the end, I realized that these attempts to somehow make Jesus a novel character were worth consider, especially since no one else had!

What initially drew you to studying literature?

I read Eliot’s “Prufrock” in high school English. I remember being mesmerized by the sound of the language and clarity of the images while having absolutely no idea what was going on in the poem. I decided in that moment to study literature just so I could understand Eliot.

Have you read any Bloomsbury Literary Studies books? Which are your favorites, and why?

The New Directions in Religion and Literature series has been wonderful. Susan Colón’s work on Victorian Parables is insightful in its attention to the rhetoric of Victorian parables as well as its attention to how scholars imagine the sacred and secular. In Biblical Sterne, Ryan Stark’s careful attention to Sterne’s theology in and through his bawdry humor is enlightening but also deeply entertaining to read. I’ve found Stark’s work useful in my own research but also in the classroom.

Jessica Ann Hughes is Assistant Professor of English at George Fox University, USA.

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