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Emily Sarah Holt's Lady Sybil's Choice: A Tale of the Crusades


Emily Sarah Holt's Lady Sybil's Choice: A Tale of the Crusades

Like the majority of authors considered in this bibliography, Emily Sarah Holt (1836-1893) was known in her day as an English novelist and writer of religious tracts.  In her own time, Holt was enormously prolific and also popular.  Both her novels and her tracts express her virulent anti-Catholic sentiments: in “Reinventing the Marian Persecutions in Victorian England,” Miriam Elizabeth Burstein writes:
[Holt] and her brother, the politician James Maden Holt, were active campaigners against Ritualism, the incorporation of Catholic liturgical practices (e.g., candles on the altar, mixing water and wine in the chalice) into Anglican worship. A tract writer for the anti-Ritualist Church Association, Holt does not flinch from casting herself as a hardboiled antitolerationist. (357)
Typically, Holt’s novel’s anchor these religious views through a focus on heroic, historical, particularly medieval, characters. Although this combination of moral and historical focus is far from unusual for proponents of Victorian medievalism, Holt’s focus on female characters is less typical; she employs the Protestant heroines of past times to inspire her predominantly young, female audience. The preface to Holt’s works indicates that “there are human analogies, which may throw some faint light on the dark quest [of the needs-be of suffering];” this framework suggests the utility of medievalism for Holt’s religious agenda (v). Virtuous suffering is a prominent theme throughout Holt’s novels and is a central tenet of her version of evangelical Protestantism.  Burstein argues that, unlike Holt’s Catholic characters, in her historical paradigm “the Protestant female martyr understands the distinction between suffering pursued for its own sake and suffering sent by the will of God” (353; emphasis original).  Her medievalist works may be compared to those of Charlotte Yonge, who, much earlier in the century, considered similar themes, addressed a similar audience, and employed similar rhetorical techniques.

Lady Sybil’s Choice follows the adventures of the fictitious Elaine, who joins her brother Guy de Lusignan in the Holy Land.  Alone among the nineteenth-century crusades romances considered in this study, Lady Sybil’s Choice boasts a first-person female narrator: the young Elaine, cast as the fictional sister of the historical Guy de Lusignan.  Like many of Holt’s works for young women, Lady Sybil’s Choice centers women’s power and influence within historical narrative.  Despite the novel’s considerable emphasis on submission to the will of God, Holt also advocates women’s power and authority as the chief means to achieving that end.  Elaine, responding to her brother Guy’s barb, offers a nineteenth-century feminist diatribe that resonates with Jane Eyre’s:
“Does it never occur to you that we should thank you a great deal more for a little genuine respect and consideration? We are not toys; we are not pet animals; we are not pretty pictures. We are human creatures with human feelings like yourselves.  We can put up with fewer compliments to our complexions, if you please, and a little more realisation of our separate consciences and intellects. (128)
Establishing women’s agency and intellectual capacity is crucial for the novel’s agenda, which ultimately places power in a woman’s hands.  After her son’s death, Holt asserts, “Lady Sybil was the Queen of the World, and might have to do battle for her glorious heritage.”  The “battle” that Lady Sybil conducts is moral rather than military, however; she loses the city of Jerusalem, but defends her right to the throne and her right to keep faith with her husband.  Through the voice of Elaine, Holt continually re-asserts Sybil’s ability to hold power in her own right: “Lady Sybil is no child, but a woman of full age.  There might (in a man’s eyes) be an excuse in putting her aside for her son, but there could be none for her sister or her daughter” (277-278).  Holt’s emphasis on women’s wisdom and moral authority prompts a continuous re-evaluation of the conventional assumptions of the nineteenth-century Crusades romance.

The novel touches at least briefly on the majority of the themes that characterize nineteenth-century crusades romances.  Even in the first few pages of the book, Holt introduces the traditional tension between the French and English as a central element of Elaine’s resentful speculations: “I cannot see why our King should pay homage to the King of France for his dominions on this side of the sea. . . [O]ur King is every bit as good as the King of France.” Nineteenth-century English writers, including Charlotte Brontë in Villette, associate the French people with a decadent, idolatrous Catholicism; therefore, establishing Elaine’s Englishness is essential to Holt’s attempt to shift her toward a proto-Protestant identity. Holt simultaneously uses this subject to establish the lines of authority which designate Elaine’s proper loyalties:
‘I won’t be called a Frenchwoman. . . I am a Poitevine, and a subject of the Lord Henry, King of England and Count of Poitou, to begin with: and under him, of his son the Lord Richard, who is now our young Count; and beneath him again, of Monseigneur, my own father, who has as much power in his own territory as the King himself.’ (10)
Ultimately, however, the novel erases these male lines of authority and replaces them with a network of female religious power that, as Lady Sybil ascends the throne of Jerusalem, translates into the secular realm.

Likewise, the novel erases the class barriers that frequently establish authority and power within the Crusades romance. Since the novel is begins in Brittany rather than in England proper, the traditional tension between Norman and Saxon populations is absent, but Holt nonetheless introduces considerable class tensions into the novel’s framework.  In the historical appendices, Holt writes that “Society was divided in the twelfth century into four ranks only,—nobles, clergy, bourgeoisie, and villeins.  Two of these, —nobles and villeins—were kept as distinct as caste ever kept classes in India, though of course with some differences of detail” (340). By comparing the medieval European class system to that of India, a tangible component of England’s colonial empire, Holt suggests a similar need for reform and re-education.  Elaine’s attitudes towards her class’s superiority are abundantly clear.  When her brother Guy is accused of being a harsh regent, Elaine defensively asserts that:
People must be governed and kept in their places.  Of course they must.  Why, if there were no order at all kept, the nobles and the villeins would be all mixed up with each other, and some of the more intelligent and ambitious of the villeins might even begin to fancy themselves on a par with the nobles. (165)

So phrased, this quotation reveals not only Elaine’s inbred beliefs, but also her knowledge of the uncertain foundation of her class’s assumed superiority. Thus, Elaine’s repeated dismissal of the religious principles advocated by her waiting-woman, Marguerite, because she is “only a villain” takes on an ironic undertone.   Her innocent assertion that “Why, I suppose I shall go to Heaven—why should I not? Don’t all nobles go there, except those who are very, very wicked?” becomes a sign of Elaine’s intense need for reform and redemption (74).  Although Elaine equates nobility and virtue, Marguerite eventually becomes the seat of all religious and moral authority in the novel.  Elaine’s path towards this realization is marked by her exclamation that “I suppose it is true that our Lord was reputed the son of a carpenter; and he must have wrought as such . . . But I always thought that it was to teach religious persons a lesson of humility and voluntary poverty. It could not be that He was poor!” (123).
The novel’s action centers on the historical relationship between Guy of Lusignan and Lady Sybil, daughter of King Baldwin, who, after being disinherited in favor of her son, becomes heir to the throne of Jerusalem.  Upon Baldwin’s death, the council of lords insists that Sybil can only take the throne if she divorces Guy and chooses a husband from among their number.  Holt employs this choice to center women and their decisions within the history of the crusade, an arena traditionally dominated by tales of men’s dramatic decisions and chivalric combats. Consequently, the novel introduces a significant reevaluation of the chivalric ethos.  Despite her great love of tales of sacrifice and honor, Elaine greatly resents her brother’s decision to take the cross:         
Was there no one in all the world but my Guy to fight for our Lord’s sepulchre? And does our Lord think so very much about it, that He does not care though a maiden’s heart be broken and her life desolate, if she give up her best beloved to defend it? . . . I suppose that the great tears that fell on that red cross while I was broidering it, were displeasing to the good God.  He ought to have the best.  Oh yes!  I see that, quite clearly.  And yet I wonder why He wanted my best, when He has all the saints and angels round Him, to do him homage.  And I had only Guy. I cannot understand it. (7-8)
Elaine’s religious faith as a whole is characterized by the conflict between Elaine’s somewhat lofty religious ideology and her personal aversion to self-denial and sacrifice. Her unwillingness to relinquish her brother to the crusade mirrors the domestic ideology of nineteenth-century crusades romances, which frequently favor the establishment of a stable domestic unity over the recapture of the Jerusalem.

Lady Sybil’s Choice’s most direct statement of Crusading ideology is almost a precise summary of the ideology espoused by novelists such as Paul Creswick or Sir Walter Scott.  Although this statement is never explicitly rejected by the novel’s text, in the broader context of the novel’s ideology, it takes on an ironic tone.  Elaine repeats the words of the priest to assert that:
For of course it is the bounden duty of all Christian men to rescue the Holy Land out of the hands of Paynims, Jews, and such horrible heretics, who all worship the Devil, and bow down to stocks and stones: since this land belonged to our Lord Jesus Christ, who was King of it by holy Mary His mother, and He died seised of the same.  For which reason all Christian men, who are the right heirs of our said Lord, ought to recover their inheritance in that land, and not leave it in the hands of wicked heretics, who have no right to it at all, since they are not the children and right heirs of Jesus Christ our Lord. (67)
This passage, accompanied as it is by Holt’s historical footnote stating that “this singular reasoning is borrowed from Sir John Mandeville” takes on a decidedly ironic tone (67).  Furthermore, the novel as a whole rejects the sort of self-righteous religious categorizations that characterize Elaine’s early statements.  When, along similar lines, she asserts that Jews have no place in the Holy City, Marguerite immediately questions her assumptions: “I cannot imagine how it was that the good God ever suffered the Holy City, even for an hour, to be in the hands of those wicked people.  Yet last night, in the tent, if Marguerite did not ask me whether Monseigneur Saint Paul was not a Jew! I was shocked” (97). 

Although the historical backdrop of the Crusade certainly takes second place to Elaine’s own spiritual transformation, the novel does contain the traditional allusions to Saladin and the threats that he poses to the Christian establishment in Jerusalem.  Late in the novel, for instance, Elaine exclaims that “Saladin has taken Neapolis!  Our scouts bring us word that he is ravaging and burning all the land as he marches, and he has turned towards the Holy city.  Almost any morning, we may be awoke from sleep with his dreadful magic engine sounding in our ears” (254).  A few paragraphs later, she remarks that “They say [Saladin] eats small children, and sometimes maidens, when the children run short” (255). When she asks Lady Judith, who belongs to a religious order, if she is afraid, however, the discussion immediately turns from external military concerns to faith and self-control.  Lady Judith asserts her faith in God, and Elaine responds by asking, “Then you think, holy Mother, that the Paynim will be driven back?” Lady Judith responds, “I think that the God who turned back Sennacherib is alive yet: and the Angel who smote the cap of the Assyrians can do it again if his Lord command him.  And if not—no real mischief, Helena,—no real harm—can happen to him or her who abideth under the shadow of God” (257).  The novel places so much emphasis on the importance of faith over works and a direct, immediate connection with God over the physical remains of the Holy City that Saladin’s eventual conquest of Jerusalem ultimately seems almost irrelevant.

The novel’s stance on the attempt to recapture Jerusalem remains ambiguous.  When Henry II refuses the rulership of the Holy Land, Guy reflects that “as a mere question of political wisdom, that is doubtless right; for, apart from the pleasure of God, it would be the ruin of England to have the Holy Land clinging round her neck like a mill-stone” (252). This pragmatic political assessment, which entirely dismisses Jerusalem’s religious and sentimental value, is neither supported nor dismissed by the overall schematics of the novel.  Instead, Lady Sybil’s Choice casts itself as a novel of personal transformation rather than of knightly valor: Elaine’s “crusade” results not in the liberation of Jerusalem, but instead in her religious enlightenment and release from the bounds of class prejudice and self-conceit.  Moreover, Elaine’s transformation occurs as a result of the fidelity and courage of Lady Sybil, who is forced to divorce Elaine’s brother in order to be crowned queen of Jerusalem.  Elaine is thus led toward religious revelation and understanding of her suffering through the agency of another woman. Addressing God, she says, “At every pang that rent my heart, Thine heart was touched too. Forgive me, for Sybil has done, and I have sinned more against Thee than against her.  Teach me in future to give up my will, and to wish only to do thine” (327).  If Lady Sybil’s Choice is indeed, as its subtitle proclaims, “A Tale of the Crusades,” the citadel that Holt is attempting to storm is spiritual rather than geographical, and women are the true Crusaders.

This focus on women’s power and women’s roles significantly alters the novel’s attitude towards crusading and chivalry.  The fictional Elaine and her brother Guy de Lusignan initially subscribe entirely to the chivalric ethic that pervades much of the novel.  She loves to hear of “deeds really noble,—of men that have saved their city or their country at the risk of their own lives; of a mother that has sacrificed herself for her child; of a lady who was ready to see her true knight die rather than stain his honour” (3).  The passage, quoted above, which explores the sacrifice demanded of Elaine begins to explore the purity of that ideal.  When Elaine questions the need for violence and conflict in order to maintain the chivalric standard, her brother Amaury responds that it is necessary for knights to be able to win their spurs.  Elaine’s reflections signal a radical shift in chivalric ideology:
But surely, the winning of Amaury’s spurs is not the only thing of any consequence in the world. Does the good God Himself take no account of widows’ tears and orphan’s wails, if only the knights win their spurs? Could not some other way be contrived for the spurs, which would leave people alive when it was finished? (217)
This passage questions the model of manhood traditionally established by nineteenth-century medievalism, which aimed to offer a more active masculinity to a largely desk-bound Victorian middle class. Whereas the conventional nineteenth-century crusades romance typically achieves social change and establishes a domestic idyll through military might, Yonge instead argues for a kind of domestic crusade that hinges on women’s faith.
Primary Source:

Holt, Emily Sarah. Lady Sybil’s Choice: A Tale of the Crusades.London : J. F. Shaw & Co., 1879.  Reprinted New York: Robert Carter and Brothers, 18--.

Secondary Sources:

Burstein, Miriam Elizabeth. “Reinventing the Marian Persecutions in Victorian England.” Partial Answers 8.2 (June 2010): 341-364.

Burstein, Miriam Elizabeth.“Reviving the Reformation: Victorian Women Writers and the Protestant Historical Novel.” Women’s Writing 12.1 (2005): 73–84.

Schnorrenberg, Barbara Brandon. “Holt, Emily Sarah (1836–1893).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2010.