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The Cambridge Companion to Bunyan


Edited by Anne Dunan-Page


Cambridge: University Press, 2010

Paperback. 187 pp. ISBN 978-0-521-73308-3. £17.99


Reviewed by Sandrine Parageau

Université Paris-Ouest Nanterre


The Cambridge Companion to Bunyan, edited by Anne Dunan-Page, provides an accessible and extremely useful introduction to the life and works of one of the main figures of seventeenth-century English Puritan literature, John Bunyan (1628-88). The book shows that the author of The Pilgrim’s Progress (1667 & 1684), a work translated into hundreds of languages, does not easily fit the picture of the austere dissenting radical. It also sheds light on less widely known works by “the tinker of Bedford”, such as his literature for children (for instance, A Book for Boys and Girls, 1686).

The Companion to Bunyan contains an introduction, a chronology, an index and a bibliography. The twelve chapters make up three parts: the first section deals with the context of Bunyan’s writing, the second with his main works, each being allotted a chapter, and the third with the reception of his works. Dunan-Page’s introduction focuses on the evolution of the author’s reputation over time, showing that legends and prejudices accumulated over the centuries have blurred the picture of the “historical Bunyan”. He has been presented alternatively as a witch or a gypsy, a “champion of the oppressed” (Christopher Hill, 1988) or a puritanical minister. Dunan-Page also goes into Bunyan’s amazing fame in the nineteenth century, when a great number of enthusiasts and collectors celebrated his life and works.

The first chapter of this Cambridge Companion, “John Bunyan’s literary life”, by N.H. Keeble, usefully presents the political and cultural context of Bunyan’s life and writing. Keeble explains how “the most improbable of authors” [13], a man from an uneducated background in a rigidly hierarchical society, managed to publish successful works. Prominent among the factors enabling Bunyan to publish was the rise of print culture, which allowed men and women―in particular Puritans, who insisted on the unmediated access to the Scriptures―to write about their religious experience and publish their texts. The following chapter, “John Bunyan and Restoration literature”, is perhaps the only disappointing contribution in the volume. In the first section of the chapter, Nigel Smith purports to place Bunyan’s works in the context of the literature of the Restoration period, while the second part traces the evolution of Bunyan’s writing from his early pamphlets to his more famous works. The link between the two parts of this chapter is tenuous at best. Smith fails to show how Bunyan’s work can be inscribed (or not) in the literary traditions of the Restoration period, and in the second section of his chapter he seems to move away from the focus on Restoration literature to analyse Bunyan’s writing out of context.

In “John Bunyan and the Bible”, W.R. Owens helpfully sifts through the different editions of the Bible which appeared in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England, before examining how Bunyan finally overcame his difficulties in interpreting certain passages of the Scriptures. Owens shows that the Bible is omnipresent in The Pilgrim’s Progress, both as “a precedent for Bunyan’s use of allegory as a literary model” [47] and as a source for many examples Bunyan himself used. The last chapter on the context of Bunyan’s writing draws on the episode of the Bedford wives in the spiritual autobiography Grace Abounding (1666), in order to study the place of the feminine in Bunyan’s life and work. Despite numerous references to psychoanalytic studies, Vera J. Camden fails to show how psychoanalysis can lead to a new understanding of, for instance, Bunyan’s conversion. Her analysis would have benefited from a comparison with conversion narratives of the time, something that the reader expected to find in a section about the context (and which comes only in the following chapter). This contribution would have perhaps fitted better in the second part of the book, for it focuses on a specific aspect of Bunyan’s personality and life based on Grace Abounding, particularly his conception of women, which leads to some fascinating insights at the end of the chapter.

Each of the following five chapters is devoted to one of Bunyan’s major works. First, in a chapter by Michael Davies, Grace Abounding is studied in relation to other seventeenth-century conversion narratives, a comparison which would have fleshed out the argument of the preceding chapter. Davies also convincingly underscores the relevance, as well as the limits, of a comparison of Bunyan’s conversion with that of Saint Paul. In the following chapter on The Pilgrim’s Progress, Roger Pooley first points out that allegorical reading was fairly common in seventeenth-century England, and suggests that the Vanity Fair episode, for instance, can be interpreted as Bunyan’s protest against the excesses of the market economy and the persecution of Non-Conformists. He then intriguingly studies the second part of The Pilgrim’s Progress―which is about the pilgrimage of Christiana (Christian’s wife)―as “a distinctively feminine manner of pilgrimage” [90]. In the following chapter, Stuart Sim argues that The Life and Death of Mr Badman (1680), a dialogue between two Christians, in which one tells the story of Badman’s sinful life, can be read as an early novel. Focusing on realistic descriptions, character development, and social criticism, Sim convincingly shows that this book anticipates the novel form.

In his chapter on The Holy War (1682), David Walker demonstrates that the work, which is about the battle between the forces of good and evil for the town of Mansoul, reflects the immediate political and historical context. Indeed, for Walker, The Holy War must be “read against the politics of religious engagement” [108] in the years of the Exclusion Crisis (1678-81). Walker advances the claim that this allegorical epic can be interpreted as a criticism of Charles II’s lavish court. Finally, Shannon Murray sheds light on a less familiar aspect of Bunyan’s writing, his literature for children. A Book for Boys and Girls (1686) is a collection of rhymes, which are meant to illustrate God’s ways. Here again, the Puritans’ obsession with reading the Scriptures by themselves is obvious in the book’s prefatory pages, which give instruction in basic literacy. Murray also analyses the various kinds of poems in the book. Most interesting, however, is her study of how the original version of the text was altered in later editions so that Bunyan’s didactic method became less coherent, which is why The Pilgrim’s Progress was preferred to A Book for Boys and Girls in schools.

The last three chapters focus on the reception of Bunyan’s works. Anne Dunan-Page first studies the fluctuating image of the author, an outcast in his lifetime because of his social origins. The publication of the 1692 folio, of Bunyan’s theological texts, which led him to be read as a serious theologian, was a turning-point in the history of the reception of his works. The first folio also triggered the publication of several accounts of Bunyan’s life. Thanks to the Romantic revival, the “tinker of Bedford” became an icon of the nineteenth century, as Emma Mason argues in the following chapter. Numerous editions of The Pilgrim’s Progress were published at the time. The book appealed to all classes and could be interpreted as “a psychological study, a textbook to teach shorthand, a coffee-table book, and a historic classic” [152]. Mason shows that Bunyan’s allegorical work was both extensively quoted and recycled in many plot-lines. It became the second most read book (after the Bible) in the 1780s. The last chapter, by Isabel Hofmeyr, focuses on Bunyan’s “transnational presence”. The study of the circulation and translations of The Pilgrim’s Progress reveals how the text was read, taught and interpreted all over the world, particularly in Africa. However, the postcolonial approach to Bunyan’s work, offered in this chapter, is less convincing. Although some of the “new” approaches described by Hofmeyr may contribute to a better understanding of Bunyan’s work and reception, others may not bring much to Bunyan scholarship.

The Cambridge Companion to Bunyan presents a strong and accessible collection of essays drawing on the most recent research on John Bunyan. All the major aspects of Bunyan’s life and work are dealt with here, although more space could have been devoted to Bunyan’s religious beliefs in the context of seventeenth-century Non-Conformity. The book illuminates the extent of Bunyan’s impressive influence on English literature and cultural history from the end of the seventeenth century onwards. It is both a useful guide for students and an invaluable tool for scholars interested in seventeenth-century England.






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