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michael davies and w. r. owens, ed., Oxford Handbook of John Bunyan

Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018 xxviii + 704 ISBN: 9780199581306
Tessa Whitehouse
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Michael Davies and W. R. Owens, ed. – Oxford Handbook of John Bunyan Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018 xxviii + 704 ISBN: 9780199581306

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1John Bunyan’s place in scholarship seems secure. As well as this handsome, substantial volume there is the Cambridge Companion to Bunyan (2010), the journal Bunyan Studies: A Journal of Reformation and Nonconformist Culture and the International John Bunyan Society, which hosts a triennial international conference and awards the Richard L. Greaves prize for studies in Anglophone Protestantism (which The Oxford Handbook of John Bunyan has just won). But how far beyond the relatively small circle of specialists in early modern English religion does interest extend? One aim of this Handbook is to interrogate “Bunyan’s supposed terminal decline as a cultural and literary force” (15). One way that the Introduction by Michael Davies does this is to remind us of Bunyan’s visibility in popular culture right into the present day: a giant reproduction the frontispiece to the 1678 edition of The Pilgrim’s Progress used to cover scaffolding at a London building site in 2015; a well-reviewed revival of Vaughn Williams’s opera The Pilgrim’s Progress in 2012; the interiors magazine entitled House Beautiful. The volume as whole, while acknowledging that the key to Bunyan’s enduring reputation has been his popular appeal, seeks to give “the Bunyan of the conventicler” as much attention as “the Bunyan of Parnassus” (16). On the whole it does achieve this, though Coleridge’s view of Bunyan – that Parnassus had the better of the conventicle – seems to be shared by many of the contributors; certainly Coleridge reappears in a large number of chapters.

2Part i, Contexts presents overviews of key aspects of Bunyan’s life, thought, community, and the religious and political circumstances of his era with clarity and authority. It covers theology, social attitudes, the book trade, the Bible and much else besides. Anyone seeking an overview of the legislation that made the Restoration settlement so uncongenial to puritans like Bunyan will benefit from reading John Coffey’s chapter, and readers who find it difficult to imagine life in a small gathered church in the seventeenth century will learn an enormous amount from Anne Dunan-Page’s overview of the Bedford church book. Bunyan’s beliefs and attitudes are not always, of course, easily accommodated into our modern worldview and one of the tasks of these contextualizing chapters is to bring Bunyan closer to us. This is most necessary in two areas: his off-puttingly strict Calvinism (though as Dewey D. Wallace, Jr. notes regarding Calvin, Bunyan “denied that he followed him or any other source besides Scripture” [70]) and his gender politics. As Margaret J. M. Ezell explains in her chapter on gender, “his insistence on gender difference based on biological sex and his rejection of a concept of humans as ever being free of gendered roles” (117) informed a stern ministry that sought to guide his flock beyond their biological limitations without ever, if the portrayal of lustful society in The Life and Death of Mr Badman are indicative of his views, fully believing that they could succeed. Considerations of Bunyan’s gender politics elsewhere come from Alison Searle who, in a chapter on the Bible, reflects on Bunyan’s largely pessimistic representations of marriage and Arlette Zinck, who finds a more positive aspect to Bunyan’s ministry in the claim that Bunyan wanted men and women to worship together and acknowledged that women had a “superior record for piety” (302). The overall picture is a carefully nuanced one. This is true of the portrayal of Bunyan’s theology also. Different chapters in Part I highlight different areas of scripture that were central to Bunyan’s vision of life, death and salvation.

3Part ii, Works runs in chronological order from the 1650s to the 16 works published after Bunyan’s death in 1688, most of them in a folio volume in 1692 (344). Having separate chapters devoted to such complex, prickly pieces as The Holy War and The Life and Death of Mr Badman gives writers the opportunity to detail the structures, sources, and allegorical patterns at work in texts which are harder to access than the more familiar Pilgrim’s Progress and Grace Abounding. Chapters on the 1670s (Ken Simpson), the 1680s (Arlette Zinck), and poetry (Elizabeth Clarke) all strike a good balance between being closely focused on Bunyan’s texts and presenting explanatory contexts in service of the works themselves, as does Nigel Smith’s chapter on Grace Abounding. Michael Davies’s chapter on The Pilgrim’s Progress is a tour de force of close reading designed to illuminate what it is about the work that makes it so “richly available” (242). This helpfully supports the other chapters in parts iii and iv (and it is the majority of them) that engage with the imagery, reception, theoretical horizons, and, most of all, the portability of Bunyan’s best-known book.

4Part iii, Directions in Criticism is firmly rooted in literary studies. Many of the chapters will illuminate future re-readings of Bunyan’s key works, particularly the twinned chapters on prose style (Mary Ann Lund) and language (Julie Coleman) which present precise analysis within complementary but distinct frameworks and which exemplify the strengths of an interdisciplinary collection such as this. Theoretically-engaged chapters on incarceration (Vera J. Camden), poststructuralism (Stuart Sim) and post-secular criticism (Lori Branch) model methods of reading Bunyan beyond the historicist approach surveyed by Tamsin Spargo. In a different tradition is Maxine Hancock’s chapter on materiality which, together with Kathleen Lynch’s chapter on ‘Bunyan’s Partner’s in Print’ in Part i and Cynthia Wall’s on “Bunyan and the Early Novel” in Part iv examines the physical appearance of Bunyan’s books to seek new evidence about the meaning and reception of his works. The status of the author and the effect of marginalia and format on reading experience are highlighted in these three chapters and ideas about audience are developed further in Nathalie Collé’s delightful and engaging account of visual representations of The Pilgrim’s Progress (in Part iv). The pictorial and visual traditions she surveys have the “capacity to tell Bunyan’s story extra-literarily […] beyond the need for or the presence of the text” (648). The remarkable journeys Bunyan’s characters, ideas and settings have taken beyond their original context attest to his ongoing cultural power.

5Indeed, Part iv, Journeys in some senses broadens our sense of Bunyan’s place in the world by bringing him out of his seventeenth century contexts and also by presenting a Bunyan beyond literary studies. In another sense, though, it narrows Bunyan down to The Pilgrim’s Progress because that was, as chapter after chapter notes, the work that travelled the globe, travelled through time, and became a transhistorical cultural touchpoint. Chapters on the Evangelical Revival, the Romantic era and the Victorians (by Isabel Rivers, Jonathon Shears and Vincent Newey) benefit from being read in conjunction because they all investigate how writers reworked The Pilgrim’s Progress in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries to suit their own purposes, paying less attention to how readers responded to these versions of Bunyan. The thematic and structural debt that Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women owes to The Pilgrim’s Progress is noted in chapters on America (Joel D.S. Rasmussen) and children (Sharon Murray), the former highlighting how Alcott’s novel provides a “thoroughgoing domestication of the concept of pilgrimage” (601) and the latter suggesting that The Pilgrim’s Progress became a ‘“little code” […] shaping the landscape of generations of young minds” (651). It is a striking example of how far Bunyan has travelled that, if Anglo-American children today know anything of the The Pilgrim’s Progress, it is probably through Little Women.

6This beautifully-produced volume is coherent, wide-ranging, and full of delights. It brings together a global roster of Bunyan experts from the United Kingdom, United States, Canada, France, Japan and Israel who write with confidence on topics that they have pursued throughout their careers. Contributors cite each other’s work frequently, creating a strong sense of respect for foregoing scholarship and creating a dynamic of long-running conversations being picked up and pursued. A volume could not contain more expertise that this.

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Tessa Whitehouse, « michael davies and w. r. owens, ed., Oxford Handbook of John Bunyan  »XVII-XVIII [En ligne], 76 | 2019, mis en ligne le 31 décembre 2019, consulté le 24 mars 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Tessa Whitehouse

Queen Mary University of London, School of English and Drama

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